The GeeksverseREVIEW | Nanjing: The Burning City (Dark Horse Books)

REVIEW | Nanjing: The Burning City (Dark Horse Books)
Published on Friday, September 16, 2016 by

Ethan Young’s haunting Nanjing: The Burning City makes for a frequently upsetting read—as the vicarious experience of war should be.

Publication details:

  • nanjingHardcover/black & white/$24.99 (US)
  • Due in stores 19 August 2015
  • Story & art: Ethan Young
  • “After the bombs fall, the Imperial Japanese Army seized the Chinese capital of Nanjing. Now screams echo off the rubble as two abandoned Chinese soldiers—trapped and desperately outnumbered inside the walled city—try to escape. What they’ll encounter will haunt them. But in the face of horror, they’ll learn that resistance and bravery cannot be destroyed.”

Ethan Young’s Nanjing: The Burning City is a fictionalized-but-nonetheless-historical account of the massacre of the Chinese city of Nanjing by Imperial Japanese Army soldiers during the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937–1945). Told primarily from the perspective of a Kuomintang army captain trying to make his way out of the besieged city, the graphic novel’s narrative largely serves to recount the war crimes committed by the invading Japanese troops during their December 1937 takeover of Nanjing, atrocities that should be familiar to just about anyone schooled in the history of the regional conflicts that led to (and were concurrent with) World War II.

Familiarity with the real-world details of the Nanjing massacre does little to mitigate the emotional impact of the graphic novel’s storytelling, though. Young’s use of stylized black & white rendering actually makes the whole affair that much more affecting in a way somewhat reminiscent of Shigeru Mizuki’s work on the autobiographical Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths and the Jacque Tardi masterwork It Was the War of the Trenches. Young prudently avoids explicit depictions of gore and sexual violence, relying mostly on partially obscured visuals and rightly trusting that the reader’s imagination can conjure up much more disturbing visions: even those intent on perusing the graphic novel at an academic remove will no doubt flinch at the portrayals of the myriad cruelties visited by the invaders on the local civilian populace.

While there is no question as to the story’s reading of history, Young nonetheless leaves some room for his characters to exhibit moral ambiguity. The captain makes difficult, if not outright impossible, life-or-death choices throughout the course of his journey, and so do his comrades-in-arms and the civilians he meets along the way. It is also apparent that some of the Japanese soldiers do have compassion for the Chinese, or at least earnestly believe in the benevolence of their mission to bring China (and eventually, the rest of Greater East Asia) under the influence of the Japanese Empire. Young makes mention, too, of the Kuomintang leadership’s failure to effectively evacuate the city of its civilians and its seeming lack of a coherent strategy to counter the threat posed by Imperial Japan’s expansionist ambitions.

All that said, Nanjing: The Burning City is a tale with clear-cut “good guys” and “bad guys” but it is to Young’s ultimate credit that he avoids romanticizing the conflict or glorying in its tragedy. Nanjing: The Burning City brings the reader face-to-face with the sickening reality of war and the terrible human cost of militant, territorial expansionism.

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