Shiny Shelf

Arrowsmith #4

By Mark Clapham on 10 November 2003

Alternate histories are the cheap stuff of fantasy, sci-fi and comic books. Too many stories rely on a few meaningless twists on real history or established fiction: Batman becomes Green Lantern; Luke turns to the dark side; JFK survives; Mr Pringle buys Kettle Chips instead of Doritos; et cetera et cetera blah blah blah. To work, an alternate needs to be a valid story in its own right, doing more than retelling the original with a few twists.

‘Arrowsmith’ is a rare success in the field, bringing the essence of a real historical period to life through some clever fictitious, fantasy twists. It’s history as metaphor, addressing the horrors of the First World War through a fantasy storyline full of magic and mayhem. Think ‘Charley’s War’ meets ‘Lord of the Rings’ and you won’t be far off. Fletcher Arrowsmith is a young lad from the United States of Columbia who signs up to become an airman in the Great War in Europe, but instead of flying planes, these airmen use dragons and magic, engaging in airborne sword fights with the enemy. Down on the ground, zombifying magic is used against the enemy instead of mustard gas. The immigrants fleeing from the war in Europe include trolls and other fantasy creatures, while sorcerers sit aside generals to lead the war effort.

Like so many young men during the conflict, lead character Fletcher Arrowsmith started his journey with patriotic enthusiasm, but has soon found that enthusiasm waning when faced with the horrors of the war. #3 saw Jonathan, the best friend who enlisted beside Fletcher, killed in battle, and #4 sees Fletcher trying to cope with the loss. He meets up with some old friends, and sees a new form of warfare developing.

Kurt Busiek’s script cleverly renders history accessible through fantasy trappings, and never goes too far away from the truth behind the fiction, even when there are dragons and trolls littered throughout the plot. Carlos Pacheco’s art is probably his best ever, full of subtle historical details and delicate character touches. If Busiek’s script brings the two elements of history and fantasy together, it’s Pacheco that binds them, creating an internally consistent reality.

Busiek and Pacheco have had high profile gigs on big Marvel books, but I was never terribly convinced by their work on that kind of title. In ‘Arrowsmith’ they’ve found a suitable vehicle for their talents.

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By Mark Clapham

Mark Clapham is a Devon-based writer and editor. You can find out more about him at the egotistically named

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