A few years ago, I was wandering around the New York Comic Con show floor when the image of a chimpanzee holding a machine gun caught my eye. I walked up to the artist, watched him draw a few doodles of monkeys wearing fatigues and decided to buy the first two volumes of Guerillas. Based on the art, I assumed it would be fun, maybe a little absurd. Instead, writer and artist Brahm Revel delivered a stunning black and white allegory about war, violence, racism and the meaning of America.
Guerillas tells the story of a unit of highly-intelligent chimps trained to fight in Vietnam. Our entry point into the series is human soldier, John Francis Clayton, a gentle, frightened young man who’s taken in by the chimps when he’s separated from his all-human unit. The group’s leader is Goliath, a mean bastard with a scar on his face who hurls insults as often as he gives orders. The chimps can talk, by the way, though they don’t do much of that in this volume. When last we left the characters, they had just watched one of their friends die and this volume is largely about dealing with that grief by reflecting on the past.
It’s been a few years since Revel played in this world, but what’s happened since then–particularly the police brutality that led to the Black Lives Matter movement–has only given his work more meaning. The monkey soldiers were always the victims of those in power—animals as soldiers and soldiers as animals who were manipulated and abused into becoming the expendable agents of their government’s will abroad. They’re still that here, but now they also represent when a government uses violence to oppress its own people.
Perhaps what’s most impressive about Revel’s storytelling is that he conveys that point almost entirely through his art. There’s a famous filmmaking experiment in which Lev Kuleshov cut together a shot of a man’s face with various images. Though man’s expression was neutral, viewers read emotions into it depending on the image it was paired with—sad for a funeral, hunger for a bowl of soup, etc. Revel does something similar here. He doesn’t explicitly tell the reader what he’s trying to say, he lets the arrangement of panels and the interplay of what they show to get across his meaning. There’s a 12-panel page in the second half that mixes sex, violence, Americana, death and evil that is one of the most astonishing things I’ve ever seen in a comic.
That said, the montage doesn’t always work. Revel is switching between so many timelines and storylines that it’s difficult to tell what’s real and imagined or what exactly he’s trying to do. One second, the chimps are coded as good guys and the next they represent fear, sometimes to problematic degrees when it comes to race. That lack of exactness can extend to Revel’s artistic style as well. There’s a certain roughness to his lines that could read as simplistic. His faces tend to blur and become minimalist the farther away they are. However, what his style lacks in sharpness, it makes up for in movement. Every panel is so full of movement, so cinematic.
Revel originally touted this volume as the final installment in the Guerillas story, but recently revealed that there will be a fourth to finish it out. And that feels right for Volume 3. The story needed a break from the action to explore its characters and their motivations, to force the reader to look past the talking monkey soldiers to the deeper meaning. This volume may not be for everyone and it may feel like a bit of a dirty trick that it’s not the ending Revel promised. But considering what he does with the story here and how much he’s grown as an artist, I’m even more excited for the ending than ever.