The Hot Breath of War
Perhaps it speaks strongly about our own habits as readers, but these days we seem to expect comics to fall squarely into one of two categories, the cohesive linear narrative and the non-story centric art books, the graphic equivalent to literature’s sometimes arbitrary distinction between prose and poesy. And while in comics too the dividing line is fairly artificial, it’s regularly enforced by the artists themselves (or, perhaps more arguably, those who publish their work), drawing concrete lines between what ought be regarded as a graphic novel and what should be considered an art book.
This distinction almost certainly plays a key role in what, at least initially, makes The Hot Breath of War such a baffling read, a matter only compounded by the lack of description on the book’s back cover and an introduction that is little more than Thomas Pain quote echoing the book’s ominous title by condemning those who lead nations into battle. After a few short pages, however, the reader largely abandons any reasonable hopes for the book’s place as a long, cohesive narrative exploring the horrors of warfare. In its place comes another familiar question, attempting to establish Alixopulos’s book as either a high-concept work or one that opts to eschew such concepts altogether.
The truth of the matter seems to lie somewhere in between. While on its surface the book seems a deliberate puzzle demanding its readers to connect its pieces toward some larger truth, a closer look reveals a book seemingly content to follow its own journey of free disassociation which takes a series of seemingly unconnected stories on and off battlefields, both literal and figurative, flitting between tales involving war orphans and ones tackling guys at bars trying really hard to get laid.
Alixopulos’s oft-rough rendering of ink and paper and seemingly complete disdain for panels lend themselves well to the book’s dreamlike state, painting it as, for lack of a more apt description, a sketchbook come to life. And while it is of course impossible to gleam from the stories how much time the author put into the book, there’s certainly a sense here that he largely felt satisfied with the first thing he committed to paper. In true sketchbook fashion, Alixipolus makes variations on his own drawing style, story after story, some larger than others, his wars stories ranging from Beetle Bailey-like characters to more life like drawings that might have been traced directly from the pages of a history book.
Given our training as readers, the book is a challenge at first read, divorcing itself from many strongly imposed notions of narrative, instead owing more to the product of those days, some four decades ago, when comics needed be little more than a trip, in every sense of the word. To some degree, this manner of storytelling safeguards the work from notions of it as a “good” or “bad” read, instead insisting that, as long as it convinced you to come along on its ride for a reasonable amount of time, its effectively done its job.
By that standard, The Hot Breath of War is certainly a success, demanding its readers visit its pages again and again, in search of some lost connection. The jury is still out on whether it was even there to begin with. Such intent is unimportant, however, because for all of its flaws, The Hot Breath of War is a book that demands to be experienced, and by the second or third read, its certainly achieved that, whether or not its more lofty goals have been met.