I read an interesting graphic novel this week. It’s called “Alan’s War” by Emmanuel Guibert. It’s a French comic that was first printed in France in 2000 and then translated and printed in the U.S. back in 2008. It’s the story of an American G.I. Named Alan Cope who became friends with the younger Guibert and told him stories about his life. Guibert, being a cartoonist, decided to turn those stories into comics. This is not a review of the comic itself (which I liked a lot so go read it) but a look at a couple of ideas that the comic brought to my mind.

The first is what I think is at the heart of this book. It’s basic concept. Well into the book, on page 280, Cope tells us about a boring post-war job he has. He’s an American in Germany working as courier which basically means driving a truck/van from place to place day after day. It was neither a fun nor exciting job. To combat his unhappiness he decided to “Think on my past and make some sense out of it. Because I’ve had a strange life”. That is what I think this book is really about. Living an examined life.

Most of the book took place during World War Two but it’s not a typical soldier’s story. Cope spent two years in the army in the States before making it over to Europe for the last half year of the war. He was certainly under stress, in danger, and saw some bad things but he was never in any big battles as is usual in soldiers’ stories. His story is not about the day to day life of a soldier in combat. His stories were more about small incidents and friendships that shaped his life and the path it took. He’s remembering the good times and some of the regrets. The regrets mostly had to do with friendships lost. It’s the story of an examined life and that’s a fairly rare thing. Guibert also says in his introduction the Cope is an excellent storyteller. I think that’s partly because he tells stories that have a point. At least they have a point in Cope’s life. I found that to be interesting stuff made more interesting when I got to page 280, read that passage, and could see Cope’s intentions even more clearly than before.

The second idea that came to mind while reading this comic wasn’t really an idea in the comic but a concept that came to my mind as I read. It had to do with Cope’s friendships that he lost. It happened over and over again in this book. Cope was born in California but at the age of eighteen was drafted. He didn’t make it over to Europe until he was twenty so he had plenty of time in the army around the US. After the war he spent some time in Europe as a civilian worker but eventually went back to the States to settle down. But he never settled down. A few years later he went back to Europe to live for good. He eventually settled down there.

Being in the army in World War Two was kind of like going off to college in that you’re thrown together with a bunch of people from all over the US. Cope met and became friends with people from all over the States. He also met plenty of people in Europe. He befriended Germans, French, Poles, and any other people who crossed his path. He was a friendly guy, who though a little shy, liked people. He also didn’t like the army’s rules and often snuck out to do things and see the sights.

Eventually he either left where he was stationed or moved onto another job or opportunity. So how did a person maintain a friendship in the mid to late 1940s when the other person lived far away? The answer is letter writing. I’ve done a bit of letter writing myself. All the way up to the mid 1980’s long distance phone calls were not cheap (especially if you were a poor college student). Letter writing was the only way to maintain a friendship. The problem is that every one of Cope’s long distance friendships ended the same way. He and his friend wrote a few letters to each other but then stopped. That seemed to always be the way. It reminded me of my own letter writing days.

It seems odd now but back in 1945 if a friend or acquaintance moved away you generally never heard from them again. They disappeared from your life forever. That’s the way it was. That’s what a lot of Cope’s regrets had to do with. Never seeing people again. And during the war he didn’t even know if that person lived or died. When he was older and living a more examined life he tried to track a bunch of them down with varying degrees of success. He did it, of course, by letter writing. He’d send a bunch of letters to locations or people who he though knew where the person he was looking for was. Sometimes it would work and sometimes not. Sometimes if he found someone they’d exchange a couple of letters and then trail off again. Other times they stayed in touch. On occasion he found out the person he was looking for died years ago. That’s how it worked. Someone who was in your thoughts for years but you hadn’t talked to in a decade died and you had no idea.

I lived through the tail end of that world. The internet and social media has changed all that. More then the telephone ever did. As easy as it is to call someone people still don’t do it. It’s just plain easier not to no mater how good your intentions. Of course with today’s social media it’s no longer the norm to have no idea what happened to someone who moves away. Now I’m in touch with friends, acquaintances, and even people I only have met on-line. Even if I’m not actively communicating with them I have some idea of where they are and how they’re doing. That’s a huge change. Nowadays if you move away you’re still easily in touch. It would take a conscious decision to cut ties with your past and pay no attention to anyone from it. It would be thought of as weird too. The world has changed in that way. Now there is no reason to not know what happened to so-and-so. It’s easier than a phone call ever was.

I felt for Cope’s regrets in regards to friendships lost. It was a day and age where if you or someone else moved far away communication was difficult. But now that age is gone. Until I read this book I didn’t really even notice it.