09 February 2016

Book Review: 'Terminal Lance: The White Donkey'

Review: "Terminal Lance: The White Donkey" by Maximilian Uriarte

As mil-humor enthusiasts and web comic fans can attest, Maximilian Uriarte's graphic novel "Terminal Lance: The White Donkey" has been a long time coming. And it has been worth the wait.

The Iraq War veteran and former Marine successfully funded his magnum opus in August 2013. The 284-page book released on Feb. 1, 2016, and quickly sold out. The creator has hinted at making arrangements for another print run.

The White Donkey tells the story of Abe and Garcia, two fictional characters who have previously appeared Uriarte's "Terminal Lance" three-panel comic, which publishes twice weekly on-line, and weekly in the Marine Corps Times print edition.

The titular white donkey is a beast of Uriarte's own memory and experience—an animal that he once encountered in Iraq. The donkey is real. Uriarte writes:
We had five fully armored vehicles, 23 Marines loaded to the teeth with rifles, grenades, crew-served weapons, and all the might and power of the United States Armed Forces. All of it was brought to a screeching halt by the most benign of animals.

A lone White Donkey made us all look like asses.
The donkey is also metaphorical. The white donkey could be Abe's version of Ahab's white whale. It could be his white buffalo. It might symbolize Iraq, or the Middle East. It might even be God.

Nested within such rich ambiguity, Uriarte has created a smart-bomb of a literary device: A graphic novel that's graphic enough to portray the necessary bits about war being an ugly thing; sweet enough to depict the boot camp bromance of battle buddies on the road to war and back again; and downright beautiful enough to be regarded as mother-effin' literature.

It's an asymmetrical weapon designed to breach the civil-military divide. A Trojan Horse, potentially getting veterans and civilians to open up about their respective wartime experiences. Yes, there are jokes. Yes, it is entertaining. Yes, it is a "comic." It is also an important book.

As Brian Castner, Iraq War veteran and writer of "The Long Walk" and the upcoming "All the Ways We Kill and Die" tweeted earlier this month: "Every non-writer vet I know, the guys who don't professionally talk abt books, is talking about this @TLCplMax book."

That's because Uriarte is a skilled observer of the human condition, as well as Marine life. He's an effective writer—direct, to the point, no B.S.—and a fantastic visual storyteller.

Artistically, the book is a tour de force: Freed from the black-and-white tyranny of the newspaper page, Uriate's confidently executed linework is now augmented with a full-spectrum of mono-colored, ink-washed effects.

He varies his color palettes, spread by 2-page spread: Greens for boot camp scenes. Khakis and dusky rose for 29 Palms and Iraq. Blues and grays for home in Portland, Ore. Purple for dream sequences.

Occasionally, Uriarte punches a single object into reader awareness by depicting it in fuller color: An Iraqi flag. A U.S. shoulder patch. A bottle of Gatorade.

Uriarte also experiments with splash pages—scenes that cover a whole page or spread—and occasionally fades to white during transitions. In a few climactic scenes, he boldly keeps his readers' gaze on hard-to-stomach realities, creating slow-motion sequences, splash page after splash page.

This story could not be told as effectively in any other way—screenplay or novel—without diminishing the magic.

In short, "The White Donkey" turns out to be a unicorn. A bright, shiny, mythical ride. A beast capable of inspiring, informing, and enlightening. Do not look away. Do not frighten it. Follow it, if you can.

You might find what you're looking for.

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