Toth's Inner Eye
Essay on Alex Toth/Robert Kanigher's
"White Devil... Yellow Devil!"
DC Comics 1972
From Star Spangled War Stories #164
Artists are praised for their facility at embellishment. Many comic book artists gather fans because of the slickness of their art, and the power of their composition to grab attention and to dominate the page with powerful images. Less has been said about the intelligence used by an artist to simply tell the story, to embellish the narrative and the dialogue in ways that go beyond mere pictures and words. Alex Toth has done this admirably in "White Devil...Yellow Devil!"
In Kanigher's story, Toshiro is a Japanese soldier of World War II, a sniper who wants to see three things: the end of the war, his family, and the "white devil" (an American soldier), up close. When asked by his fellow Japanese soldiers "How did it go today, Toshiro?" "Did you meet the enemy?" He can only reply, "Never close... only through my telescopic sights..."
Toth shows Toshiro as a contemplative man. When this 8 page comic opens, a U.S. marine crawling through the jungle underbrush of an unnamed Pacific isle is shot by Toshiro. A tight grid of eight panels wordlessly tells of the American’s death, leading to a broad bottom page panel close-up of Toshiro’s face. He is shrouded and framed by shadows from the jungle vegetation, one end of the sniper rifles telescope held near a tense right eye, smoke from the shot swirling above his helmet. The eyes are slit and are hopelessly trying to see beyond and over the telescope, unable to examine the fallen target. Toshiro isn’t smiling at his successful shot, nor is he sad or indifferent, he is instead obviously thinking. That Toth can communicate that a character is having an internal thought process is a demonstration of his exceptional and nearly transparent storytelling skill.
But Toth continues this feat throughout the story. On the second page, while the Japanese commander lectures his assembled troops with "Soldiers of Nippon, remember... The white devil is your enemy... [he] does not kill like a warrior with any code...! He kills for souvenirs... for samurai swords and banners...! ...For our gold teeth!" With those last two words, "gold teeth," Toth shows the deeply shadowed face of Toshiro again, only the bottom of his visage lit, his tongue twisting around his front teeth, his narrowed eyes again looking beyond what is actually around him, but into an internal mental image of what a gold-tooth hunting American might look like.
Sent back out into the thick jungle to patrol, Toshiro is happened upon in the underbrush by a U.S. marine, who, in a silent series of panels showing hand-to-hand combat, overpowers Toshiro and is about to kill him when the marine has a revelation by looking into Toshiro’s eyes: "Why you’re just a-a-kid!" The marine says "Get up! - Don't worry none - I ain't going't' hurt you!" The U.S. soldier is instead intent upon applying some quick first aid to Toshiro, then to take him in as a prisoner. This action confuses Toshiro, who thinks to himself, "W-why should he not kill me - if he is a white devil?"
But before the marine can lead Toshiro back to the American lines (and before Toshiro can answer his own question to himself), one of Toshiro’s officers captures them both, and orders Toshiro to dispose of the now helpless marine by bayoneting. Toshiro pauses, looking at the muzzle of the pistol the officer has pressed against the Americans neck, seized in thought. The officer continues, "You heard my command!" and Toshiro complies, Toth providing a distant view of the figures on a small hill, the marine crumpling, the two Japanese leaving, Toshiro peering over his shoulder at the fallen American.
But now that Toshiro has seen a "white devil" up close, the image won’t leave him. Back at camp, late at night trying to sleep, a shirtless Toshiro sits cross-legged, the marine’s corpse fixed in his mind’s eye. With a shovel in hand, still shirtless, Toshiro slips from the camp with his rifle and helmet, intent upon burying the dead man. "I cannot leave you there to the mercy of the jungles beasts. I can never sleep again...unless I bury you!" When he has completed the deed, he sits with the shovel gripped in his hands like he holds his rifle, peering wordlessly into the soft mound of dirt. He is shirtless, and this nakedness visually projects the intimacy Toshiro shares, if only in his mind, with the marine that he killed. Wanting to mark the grave, he sees some white flowers near where lay his helmet and rifle, and reaching for them (in an almost identical motion as the first marine we saw at the opening of the tale, who was reaching for a flower when Toshiro shot him) a rifle fires and Toshiro crumples over the grave of his dead marine, the white flowers strewn across his body. The 8-page story ends with us seeing four small panels close together, each panel describing the rifle of a hidden U.S. marine sniper, the final panel showing his shadowed face and helmet, and the marine saying: "Yellow devil!"
Toth's artwork shows the jungle as a quiet, moonlit world of half-shadows. The snipers, patrolling soldiers and patches of flowers and vegetation all dwell together in a pantomime of elegant beauty but brutal danger. The cinematic qualities of Toth’s artwork is evident in the brief panel series that he uses to denote time passage, or in forcing the reader to examine a visual image in staged moments, e.g., as in the rifle of the stories final moment, where the length of the gun is broken into four panels.
Kanigher’s story seems to use a motif swiped from (the book or film) "All Quiet on the Western Front," in which the German soldier Paul Braumer reaches for a small flower in the mud and desolation of a WWI trench, and is shot by an offscreen sniper. The imagery is a simple object lesson in ironic contrasts: war/ugly versus flower/beauty. That trying to reach across the boundaries from one to the other can get a soldier killed is shown twice in Kanigher’s tale: the opening set of eight panels when Toshiro shoots the first U.S.marine, and then at the end, when Toshiro is shot when attempting to decorate the grave he has dug for the bayoneted American. The imagery also suggests that with war, amid beauty is the also threat of death.
A second ironic message Kanigher uses is the title itself, "White Devil, Yellow Devil." As the Japanese officer lectures Toshiro, "The Americans are white devils come to steal your gold teeth," we keep that in mind as Toshiro is later confronted by the humanity of the merciful marine who intends to only take Toshiro prisoner, to neither slay him nor take his gold tooth. This in turn is balanced against the ending of the tale, when the final U.S. marine we see is a sniper who kills Toshiro, and intones "Yellow devil." That Toshiro was being kind to the dead bayoneted American is known only to the reader, that Toshiro was hardly just a "yellow devil."
ETHICS OF WAR
That Kanigher’s story ends on this point demonstrates a number of points. First, it implies strongly that in a war zone, showing human kindness renders a person mortally vulnerable, i.e., the bayoneted marine would not have been captured (then killed) if he had simply slain Toshiro when he had his chance. Second, if Toshiro had refused to show mercy on the dead marines corpse, had instead left it to rot in the jungle instead of burying it, he would not have been killed by the American sniper. Mercy means risk. Kanigher seems to say that the "rules" of war (at least within the confines of this nameless Pacific area of world war two) brutally punishes infractions of the behavior expected of soldiers.
But it is the imposition of this "rule" directing behavior that produces the strongest irony. Toshiro is taught (or actually, commanded), to see the Americans as "white devils," nonetheless, Toshiro wants to see the Americans with his own eyes. At first, we take this to mean only the benign curiosity of seeing the physical exoticness of a U.S. marine. This benign desire leads to discovering that a "white devil" is actually quite human, even potentially harmless. Likewise, the Marine saw past the helmet and clothing of Toshiro to discover that he is in fact only "a kid," and not therefore a "yellow devil," to be slaughtered. Both revelations of the humanity of the foe lead to the death of the holder.
Kanigher's tale is relatively simple, though with a much more developed implication. The tale goes beyond the clichè that "the enemy is human, too" and instead says that dwelling on that humanity can get you killed. That war operates on a level where the label of "white devil, yellow devil" is a protection, and though it is a lie, it limits risk. The latter implication is that if soldiers, and further, the people who send soldiers to fight, were to chose between the lie and the truth and settle upon truth - - perhaps they would not war at all.
Essay by ©2004 Erik Weems