Alan Cope became part of the U.S. Army in 1944, aged eighteen. A young man of little experience, he underwent tank and radio operator training at Fort Knox and arrived in Europe shortly before the end of World War II. Fifty years later, in 1994, Alan Cope, now living permanently in France, met cartoonist Emmanuel Guibert and a strong friendship formed.
Alan’s War: The Memories of G.I. Alan Cope is Guibert’s biography of a remarkable man, blessed with both an eventful life and a powerful and unsparing, yet still humorous, perspective on the highs and lows of his existence. Beginning with his drafting into the military and following through to his retirement, Alan’s War is a powerful telling of a man’s personal and spiritual evolution. Though Alan Cope died nearly a decade ago, Guibert’s catalog of taped conversations have provided the voice for one of the most compelling and engaging comic biography in recent years.
Guibert answered our questions about Alan’s War: The Memories of G.I. Alan Cope, which ships this month from First Second, and the process of re-creating his friend’s memories.
Newsarama: How long have you worked on Alan’s War?
Emmanuel Guibert: The whole project ran over thirteen years, but with a lot of interruptions, especially between the second and the third part. (I’ve done, in the meantime, another biography called The Photographer).
NRAMA: Are the words on the page literally Alan's throughout the book?
EG: I’ve always tried to be as literal as possible.
NRAMA: Is the drawing of the pubic lice, where Alan said that they look "kind of like this," actually Alan's drawing?
EG: No, it’s mine. And I have drawn an actual crab, to make it funnier. Alan drew me some things to describe a place or a situation. Someday, I’ll publish some of these drawings, along with some of the letters we exchanged, I guess.
NRAMA: That would be amazing. I love the ink wash that you used. It seems to add a certain haze of memory to the words; was that a specific stylistic choice to represent Alan’s memories in that way?
EG: Yes. Almost every time I tell a new story, I use new tools.
NRAMA: Alan isn’t afraid to say that he’s made mistakes. Being his friend, was it strange to show him, to use the most extreme example, looting a home during the war?
EG: What I expected from him was the truth, and he was a very frank person. I think I’ve said in the preface that it’s the truth contained in his anecdotes, combined with his talents as a storyteller that appealed to me the most. As he said, almost everybody was looting during the war. The way he presents himself, as an innocent boy forcing himself to loot, sounded very realistic.
A man who can afford to be sincere at the end of his life is always interesting. I wouldn’t have worked with someone trying to build a glamorous statue of himself.
NRAMA: What about Alan did you admire the most, and how were you able to depict that in the book?
EG: He took life very seriously (with a lot of humor, but seriously), and gave a lot of importance to a lot of aspects of life that most people generally look at as commonplace. That gave a special relief to our conversations and the moments that we shared. He was intense. I have tried to make my job in that state of mind.
NRAMA: Knowing Alan as you did, which of his stories most surprised you?
EG: It was the first time in my life – and it may remain the only one – that someone of this age has opened so broadly the book of his existence, for me to read in it. I guess the main surprise, which lasted five years but is still operative today, is in that incredible way he poured his life into mine.
NRAMA: You thank several of Alan’s friends for their hospitality in the afterword. How many of the locations in the book were you able to visit, and how accurate were you able to make the locales?
EG: I’ve been to some places he has lived in or traveled across in USA, France, Germany, Great Britain and Italy. While he was still alive, my mission was to send postcards, and bring back a pebble or a chestnut. I’ve stopped sending postcards since his death, but carry on with the pebble and the chestnut. In most of those places, I have found documents or met persons that allowed me to see things as they were sixty years ago.
NRAMA: How much of the book did Alan get to see before he passed?
EG: Three-quarters of the first part of Alan’s War. In the very beginning, between ’94 and ’96, I’d started with pages about his youth, and that’s what he saw first. He told me stories and looked at drawings until the very end.
NRAMA: You’re planning another book about Alan Cope, Alan’s Youth. How is progress on that story going?
EG: A few pages, maybe 20 or 30, have been done long ago, as said above. But time has passed, and I’ll have to re-draw everything. You may consider that I haven’t started yet, although I’ve been living for years with this project, and have of course thought a lot about it.
Alan’s War: The Memories of G.I. Alan Cope ships Oct. 28 from First Second.