Samizdat Blog on Otherness and Empathy: Harvey Kurtzman’s War Comics
One story, “Air Burst!” is told from the point of view of Chinese soldiers in a dangerous retreat after a failed offensive, and they are treated with exactly the same level of sympathy one sees in Kurtzman’s stories about American G.I.s. ... Here, we've moved beyond the sympathetic to the empathetic, in that we don't just feel for the Chinese soldiers, we feel through them, are asked to see through their eyes and feel what they feel. We become them, to the degree that we become Jane Eyre or Huck Finn or any other protagonist with whose plight a story asks us to identify.
Or almost. There's one major stumbling block to our identification with Kurtzman's Chinese soldiers: the way he represents their speech. Kurtzman's American G.I.s speak as realistically as he could make them, given the anti-profanity restrictions placed on publications by the Comics Code Authority. But his Chinese soldiers, for all their humanity, speak a stilted, formalized version of English. "Let us pause a moment" one will say, "Why do you stop, Lee?" another will ask ... you get the idea: no slang, no contractions, the kind of thing the writers of Star Trek did when writing for Spock or Data. The idea seems to be to present the Chinese characters as exotic, and this interferes with the attempt to give us their experience and their point of view, since they are exotic only to us, not to themselves. If they come across as exotic, we are taken out of their lived experience, and reminded of their otherness. We are no longer fully experiencing their point of view.