What does war do to a man? What does it mean to kill for country while watching friends die for the same pursuit, and then go home and live a “normal” life among those who have no idea what any of that feels like?
This is the question at the center of Sand + Bone, a quick standalone (so far) story from the mind of J.T. Krul, who has written for Michael Turner’s Fathom series and some odd issues of books like Green Arrow and Teen Titans. There’s nary a superhero to be found here, though the supernatural does work its way in from the margins by the end. That element is almost an afterthought, however, as the meat of the story rests with a veteran named Sean Hitcher, who’s trying to find his place in a world he barely recognizes.
Krul does a good job of not patronizing his readers here. While there’s a little bit of explicit exposition as Hitcher tells the story of his time in Iraq to an old flame, he spends a lot of time alone with his thoughts; while we do read some of those thoughts, there are plenty of blanks left to the reader to fill in. We find out that his life even before the war was marked with personal tragedy, we find out that his ex quickly found someone else who turned out to be a mistake. We find out a lot about Hitcher and the lives of those around him, largely through gazes, thoughts, and guided inference.
This would not be possible, of course, without the art of Andrea Mutti, the somewhat blocky style which is perfect for the chiseled face of Hitcher, not to mention the jackets and jeans that everyone in Hitcher’s hometown seems to wear. Mutti draws personality beautifully, and when the action heats up and the chaos begins, Mutti’s style goes so far as to imitate charcoal a bit. The dark shades and harsh lines add to the sense of confusion that appears when Sean’s life starts to spiral out of control, which happens a surprising number of times for such a brief graphic novel.
The brevity of the book is both a strength and a weakness. It passes quickly and without any real resolution; it feels like the setup for another book, though it’s not clear one will actually ever happen. While the supernatural does work its way into the story, there’s an ambiguity here; the supernatural element is never referenced by anyone other than Hitcher himself, and even those references are couched in vague language and art. While it’s clear, for example, that there is literal killing happening in the book — at least one character references news reports — it’s unclear whether the transformation that leads to the violence is literal or metaphorical.
A longer book would be forced to confront one or the other, but the ambiguity here is what makes the device succeed. We don’t get the answers we want, but in a book that’s largely about a problem that goes undiagnosed and too-often ignored, it’s an approach that makes sense.
Unfortunately, for such a short book, it also feels as though there’s more filler than necessary, mostly disguised as characterization. Hitcher’s fling with a local is jarring and passes largely without adding anything new to the equation; yes, he’s a man in a downward spiral, and this is what men in a downward spiral do. Commenting on the ability (or lack thereof) of his old flame’s son at soccer is probably supposed to come off as humorous and darkly endearing, but it feels tonally awkward and ill-natured. These little tonal oddities are sprinkled throughout the book, and they take the reader out of the story rather than bringing them closer to its characters.
That said, most of Sand + Bone takes on a very human story in a surprisingly sensitive and understated way. It doesn’t take a position so much as it illustrates a problem, so while it might come up a little short of being an “important” book, it’s certainly a worthy one. Spend a half-hour with it. Chances are, it’ll stick with you.