The Hero Book: An Illustrated Memoir
Ironically titled, it is a relentless depiction of a young soldier’s abjection. Emotional scarring incurred by Waters’ own three-year adolescent stint in military training is rendered frighteningly clear in a combination of postcard-style prose and visual art. Images of young men with assault weapons, beer bottles, and bruises repeat scenes of such violence as is celebrated by the military. Waters’ autobiography unfolds through such imagery, representing his own induction into the armed forces at a young age.
The text is a collage of narrative prose pieces, fragments of theory, and aphorisms. Visual art – mostly paintings – always accompanies the text (Waters is a professional artist with an MFA from York University), and the two media are enriched when considered together. Although there are many elaborate narrative chunks, the book does not read like a novel. The text is fragmentary. On one page, it is a succinct two lines:
Callout: What makes the grass grow?
Return: Blood makes the grass grow!
The image accompanying these lines is of a man portrayed in striking realistic detail aiming a rifle which is a red silhouette dripping like blood from the thumb that supports it. This contrast between detailed realism and the silhouette can be found in many of The Hero Book‘s images.
In a fascinating metaphor, knots in the paintings’ plywood backdrops show through soldiers’ skins like wounds. On one page the painted image of a young soldier is inseparable from a plywood backdrop. Fetishized, he appears for a moment individual. His mouth is opened, positioned to bite into a ragged-edged piece of plywood that he holds quite delicately in his hands. On the facing page the reader finds this explication: “…Our section commander, Master Corporal Tuttle, was an ageing skid and a huge fan of Black Sabbath, so as a tribute to Ozzy, we were ordered to bite the heads off the live birds…” The body, the flesh – the corps, as it were – becomes a flat, meaningless surface as this facing text invests the image with meaning, the ragged piece of plywood in the man’s hands taking on the outline of a live bird.
The Hero Book confronts not simply the military but larger issues of masculinity and all-male utopias. The artwork features men, and only men. In uniform, undressed, or in briefs, they are more often than not engaged in acts of degradation and violence: fighting amongst themselves, urinating on each other, defecating, and drinking beer.
The cycle of abuse and misanthropy that characterizes Waters’ life in the military, the self-inflicted abuse of alcoholism, the abuse visited upon these young men by trainers, the abuse these young men are supposed to enjoy, is rendered shockingly clear by The Hero Book. Waters’ rekindling fury at the military has made this a provocative and disturbing book, sure to sway casual considerations of joining the army. mRb