I suppose it’s only fitting that, on the brink of a new war, we’re gifted a book that reminds of the turmoil soldiers and their families must endure. Nevertheless, here we are, the lessons of our past seemingly forgotten. Somehow, after learning of the horrors that accompany war from those who served their country and faced it head on, we’ve found a way to romanticize it again. Some may argue that’s what A Letter to Jo is doing, but that really couldn’t be further from the truth. A Letter to Jo, published through IDW from Top Shelf Productions, may be beautiful, but it is a tragic reminder of the violence, suffering, and loss so many of us must endure through times of war. A deeply personal account from writer Joseph Sieracki, artist Kelly Williams, and letterer Taylor Esposito, A Letter to Jo serves as a touching tribute to those affected by war, and small glimpse for those who are lucky enough to never experience it.
A Letter to Jo is part war comic part memoir. It’s not entirely autobiographical, but is rather an artistic rendering of a letter Sieracki’s grandfather Leonard wrote home to his wife Josephine. At its core, the book is about the one thing or person who keeps you going above all else. Even in the worst of times, where death is all around you, having that one special person to fight for brings the light in. Sieracki keeps things personal, never getting into the larger, obtuse politics or sides about the U.S. getting involved in World War II, instead only telling his grandfather’s story — what he saw, felt, lived through, and lost. It’s not necessarily meant to be relatable, though it could be, not intended to be romantic, though it still has its moments, and not intended for an audience other than Josephine, though it’s a story everyone can appreciate. A Letter to Jo is a letter, meant to inform and convey feeling, transformed into a graphic novel. If 99 percent of graphic novels are meant to entertain, A Letter to Jo is the exception, and there’s a quiet beauty to that.
A Letter to Jo is extremely simple in its intent, but extraordinarily complex in its execution. Narratively, Sieracki has to balance staying faithful to his grandfather’s letter and exercising creative liberties when filling in the gaps. Most of the letter is included through epistolary captions supported by dialogue created by Joseph Sieracki. Sieracki’s own comments on his grandfather’s life bookend the work through first person narrative captions as well as a valuable preface and epilogue. Visually, Kelly Williams uses incredibly detailed line work mixed with some of the best watercolors I’ve ever seen in a comic to add texture and definition. As Leonard moves from a simple life with simple priorities to the battlefield, the pages continue to get more and more complex.
Something I immediately noticed about A Letter to Jo was the extremely personal and childish nature to every panel. This is not meant to be an insult, rather a remark about the book’s beauty. It feels like this is a book that could be used to teach a growing child about the complexities of war. It certainly contains mature content, but presents it with the artistry of a handcrafted children’s book. At face value, the panels and characters do a great job conveying a singular emotion. They can be scary, silly, sad, loving, and violent at face value while conveying the nuanced humanity underneath.
Most of the narrative is propelled through the long-distance relationship between Leonard and Josephine. Despite being thousands of miles apart for an extended period of time, they were always on each other’s minds. Their love is the driving force of A Letter to Jo, and we see that through how often Leonard and Josephine think of each other. Josephine is on Leonard’s mind before and after every instance of combat, and Leonard is always on Josephine’s mind, to the point where you can see how physically painful it is to read Leonard’s letter and do anything other than think of him. It’s borderline unhealthy.
It’s also the book’s biggest, really only, point of weakness. I wish Sieracki would have included a bit more of his grandmother’s story, because the book makes her seem helpless without Leonard, but just the ability to keep going while a loved one is on the front lines is an incredible feat of strength that isn’t depicted very well. Josephine cleans and prepares the house for Leonard and is shown to be thinking of Leonard even when her friends take her out for dinner. Perhaps it’s the truth, but it is shown in a way that doesn’t portray the strength I know she must have had. The nuance of longing and maybe even depression doesn’t come through as well in these scenes.
A lot of A Letter to Jo deals with using hope and love to get through the tumultuous present. There are brutal depictions of violence, thanks largely to Esposito’s SFX that rip through the panels. Despite having a very painted look, the art alternates between calm, pale blues, grays, and tans and violent, darker blacks, reds, and muddy browns. It focuses on the moments of cautious peace between the stormy battles. Every now and then, we get a gasp, sigh, or tear from Josephine as we transition into battle, but overall, A Letter to Jo is about desperately hanging on while riding the stormy seas of war.
Really, I think the biggest strengths of A Letter to Jo relate to its ability to make you feel for something you might never experience. Most of us will never know what it’s like to long for someone at war or to long for someone while in war, but the sadness and affection permeate through the pages so clearly that this feels like as close as we’re going to get. There’s a lot of violence, injustice, anxiety, and fear throughout this book, but more than any of that is love. We should cherish that love, never let it go, and say no to future wars.