By Chris Schweizer
216 pages, black and white
Published by Oni Press
One of my favorite graphic novels of 2008 was Chris Schweizer’s Crogan’s Vengeance, the first in a proposed series of stories about various ancestors of the Crogan family tree over the years. Schweizer’s story of pirates and high-seas adventure hit all the right notes for me, and since then I’ve been looking forward to seeing if he could capture that lightning in the bottle a second time with Crogan’s March. What I found was a book that takes everything I liked about the earlier volume, and then improves on it. Now that’s something you don’t see every day.
Crogan’s March takes place in 1912, letting us meet Peter Crogan, member of the French Foreign Legion stationed in North Africa. At first it seems like a standard story with this kind of setting; Crogan has just a short time left on his five-year tour of duty, the troop is full of all sorts of characters, they’re generally disliked by the locals. And honestly, if that was all that Crogan’s March brought to the table, I’m sure that I would have enjoyed the end result if perhaps forgotten about it a few months later. The thing is, though, Crogan’s March early on begins to take a different route than I was expecting. The book opens with a member of the troop going missing in action after a horrific two-day sandstorm, and things never really improve from that point on for Crogan and company. This isn’t a story where everyone stops and realizes how great each other is and starts giving out big hugs; instead, this is a grim setting with some admittedly entertaining characters who are going to be lucky to make it out alive.
The end result is a curious mix of fun and deadly serious. We can get a bit of story where the soldiers sell their undergarments to make money to buy booze (only to realize the next morning that it might not have been the wisest of decisions thanks to scratchy pants), and then switch over to a raid that has the cheerful local boy kidnapped and hauled away to presumably a life of hardship and slavery. It’s a deliberate storytelling device on the part of Schweizer, letting us see how the members of the legion try to combat the nature of where they are, as well as giving the darker and more dramatic moments of the story additional heft. Even then, though, the book takes a huge turn at the halfway point, and I was startled enough at that point to momentarily put the book down and deliberately take myself out of the reading process to fully digest what had just happened.
Schweizer’s art helps carry the punch of this story; just like the script, on some page it’s cartoonish and funny, while others show off Schweizer’s skills in a more violent, tougher manner. Like Crogan’s Vengeance, I found the big fight scenes easy to follow, or at least when that was supposed to be the case. There are some moments in Crogan’s March where chaos breaks out and it’s drawn to be deliberately confusing, mirroring what Crogan and company are going through. It’s that use of perspective that keeps cropping up throughout the book; we "see" what’s happening through a focus on Crogan, so moments in a cave are handled by the use of sound effects moving across black panels, and shadows shift and move across the pages excellently. The one thing that did take me by surprise was his depiction of the North African cityscapes, which are beautiful; it felt like a big leap forward for Schweizer, and it makes me that much more eager to see the next book.
Crogan’s March, with its grimmer and more complex plot, stood out for me as something stronger than its predecessor. While I’d have been satisfied with all the Crogan books being primarily light-hearted and fun, knowing that Schweizer can stretch his legs to hit all different sorts of moods and styles makes me that much more interested in what is still to come. Published in an inexpensive but beautifully designed hardcover, Crogan’s March is an irresistible book. After Crogan’s Vengeance, I was looking forward to Crogan’s March. Now that I’ve read Crogan’s March, I’m dying to see 2011′s Crogan’s Loyalty. This is a series that I’m going to be enjoying for a very, very long time.