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Familiarizing war

David Collier’s Chimo shows the new function of military art

Last December, the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa presented David Collier’s Chimo at its “Brush with War” exhibit. Released by Conundrum Press, Chimo is an autobiographical graphic novel which is the product of Collier’s participation in the Canadian Forces Artists Program (CFAP). The Canadian military is an indelible part of Collier’s life – having been trained for three years as a combat engineer, he left the army in 1990 to pursue his dream of cartooning. His portrayal of the military is at once playfully familiar and deeply respectful.

“I was interested in the Canadian Forces Artists Program as an art form when I first contacted them, ten years ago,” Collier wrote by email. “The only support material I sent in when I applied to the CFAP was a three-part comic book series published by Dark Horse Comics, called Unsung Hero. Harvey Pekar wrote this story for me, based on my military experience.” The book is a biographical account of the experiences of a former Black Panther and Vietnam War vet named Robert McNeill.

Canada’s military art initiative has a history that reaches back to the First World War. At the time, news blackouts at the frontlines of combat were par for the course. “Journalists were often barred from the front. Instead, official and often false communiques were issued,” Collier narrates in Chimo. “The Artists Program was one of the few things to come out of the First World War that wasn’t horrible or destructive.”

A new kind of struggle

Whereas Unsung Hero dealt with the nightmarish reality of the Vietnam War, Chimo is significantly more mundane in setting. Afghanistan, for Chimo’s Collier, is a distant and elusive dream. Much more concrete are Collier’s daily struggles: with his aging and deteriorating body, the conflict between military and family life, and the gritty reality of the Canadian urban landscape.  “The book is a very personal work. More about mortality and aging than anything else,” commented Andy Brown, Collier’s publisher, by email.

The novel opens with Collier having recently been accepted to the CFAP. He hopes to re-enlist in the army in order to maximize his chances of going to Afghanistan – in the comic, John MacFarlane, CFAP manager, points out that the problem with sending civilian artists into war zones is that these civilians are not covered by Canadian Forces insurance. But in lieu of the active combat Collier anticipates, he’s instead given the opportunity to spend two weeks at sea on an active vessel.

On Collier’s desire to re-enlist, MacFarlane’s disembodied voice says on the telephone: “But remember, if you do take this step; do it for yourself not for the program.” At the age of 42, Collier begins the Canadian army’s basic training for the second time in his life.

Military art

Collier’s character cites A.Y. Jackson and Frederick Varley as early war artists who became pillars of Canadian art when they went on to found the Group of Seven. Collier notes that, following the conclusion of the Second World War, the Royal Academy in London hosted a wildly successful exhibition of Canadian war art which helped the country define its worth on the international stage at a crucial time in its history. It seems obvious what Collier is trying to say – military art has played an undeniable role in forging Canada’s national identity.

The Canadian military art initiative stopped after the First World War, but ran again twice: first during the Second World War (in 1942), and then in a push for civilian artist recruitment through the Civilian Artists Program from 1968 to 1995. The program’s current incarnation was restarted by the Chief of Defence Staff, General Maurice Baril in 2001, now called the Canadian Forces Artists Program. The program’s website states the CFAP’s raison d’être as being to “capture the daily operations, personnel and spirit of the Canadian Forces.” The artists are unpaid volunteers chosen by the committee from a pool of applicants – including not only painters but all types of artists, running the gamut from sculptors to writers and poets. Collier, as a comic artist, is living proof of CFAP’s mandate to widen its spectrum of artistic media and human perspectives.

When probed on the degree of influence the Canadian Forces had on Chimo, Collier wrote by email: “I was grateful for the suggestions made by the Canadian Forces Artists Program, as they actually made my work more entertaining. Focus less on equipment, they said and more on the human story.”

A personal narrative

As propaganda, Chimo is arguably a poor recruitment aid. Collier’s depiction of life in the army, while respectful, is not particularly glorifying. The disjointed, meandering narrative of the book is a little hard to puzzle out.  It’s not an easy read, full as it is of tangential personal anecdotes and stories about the history of Canada and the Canadian military. The line between past and present is blurred, events sliced from the chronological timeline and pasted in what seems to be a slapdash manner. The book is very much coloured by Collier’s personal experience, and as an autobiography it is intensely insular and self-reflective.

“It’s a way of telling a story that more closely follows the jagged curve of real life, rather than the slick smoothness of a conventional narrative,” wrote journalist Jeet Heer, who has reviewed much of Collier’s work, by email.

Though one of Collier’s characters opines that joining the army is a way to perfect his physical condition, Collier himself suffers a variety of nauseating physical injuries after enlisting. After fracturing his tibia a few days into basic training, he runs on it for a while before seeing a doctor: “A month earlier, the distance would’ve been nothing for me, but now, because of my leg, it was a killer. The pain was almost too much. I held off crying until I got to the shower. The water covered up my tears.”

The fragility and breakdown of Collier’s body is mirrored in his artwork: linework is rough, the drawings generally dark in a literal sense, weighed down with heavy inks. It’s almost morbid, with Collier’s writhing cross-hatching sometimes bordering on the grotesque. The hand-written text and its uneven, clumsy lines adds to the eclectic feeling of the work.

Despite the essayistic and self-reflective nature of Collier’s storytelling, he seems to put surprisingly light emphasis on the impact his re-enlistment and military participation has on his young family. His drawings of his wife, Jen, and his young son James are careful and complimentary. And yet on the tradition of husbands leaving their families behind to pursue dangerous and far-flung careers in the military, Collier has this to say: “You listen to the older guys – also with beautiful families at home – and you find that they are here because they want to be.” He ruminates, “Even if I joined the Navy and was away a lot, Jen, James and me would still have together-time capital in the bank, so close together we’ve been.”

But recurrently throughout the book, such concerns about his family are worryingly played off with jokes or glib changes in subject. In one surprisingly lucid stab at dark humour, Collier likens his desire to go to Afghanistan to a scene in the comic strip The Gumps, where the husband is stopped by his wife from trying to jump over a deep chasm.

“There’s nothing dangerous about all this? I mean, he’s the only husband I’ve got,” his wife asks at one point. “You could be safer staying in bed, I guess,” her friend responds.

From function to expression

While honest in presenting himself, throughout the book Collier appears unwilling to deal with the topic of how his involvement in the military will affect his family.  The comic medium allows a non-conventional narrative, the strip style suited to the individual anecdotes he relates.  As Brown commented, “David is extremely respectful of the military and the war artists program.”  This respect prevents him from openly criticizing the military itself, and what remains is only the implicit consequence that it takes him away from his family.

In its current state, the CFAP doesn’t really deal with war.  Few artists who join the program are able to go into areas of active combat.  Furthermore, war itself has changed, necessitating a change in the function of the program: from a way to navigate the information blackouts of the First and Second World War, to a means of capturing what contemporary photojournalism cannot. Rather than focussing concern on conveying information, it seeks to help individuals come to terms with the effects of war through artistic expression. For Collier, this encompasses his training and its effect on his home life. While lacking both exploration of and a concluding judgment on the military as an institution, Chimo still offers valuable insight into the personal effects a role in the Forces can have – even if one’s role doesn’t involve active combat.