- GUTTERFAGS -
Quarterly reviews of sequential art about
dude-on-dude lust and love
The Desert Peach #20 ("Fever Dream")
by Donna Barr
reviewed by Bruce Asbury for Gutterfags
With few exceptions, I try to avoid doing any research on a comic I’m reviewing prior to reading it. This policy has worked well for me; it’s so much easier to give an honest critique when I’m judging the book for what it is, not what I expected it to be. It also seems more fair to my readers; most people start reading a comic book with no more information than a cover and maybe a blurb, so why should I be any different? That said, there are times when learning the context of a book totally changes my perception of it, and reviewing this issue of The Desert Peach is such a time.
Plotwise, the story actually needs little context, as it’s mostly an extended flashback. This issue tells the story about how the protagonist, Pfirsich Rommel, met his lover, Rosen Kavalier, and friend/orderly, Udo Schmidt. Despite being the 20th issue, the story is crafted so that a new reader doesn’t need any backstory to understand what’s going on: the story is simple, and it explains the characters in a way that doesn’t feel expository. I really do have to commend writer/artist Donna Barr for writing an issue that gives long-time readers of the series a backstory on the characters, but also serves as an entry point for new readers.
So if the story doesn’t require any context, what does? Basically, it’s the setting, or rather, the characters’ role in the setting. While the characters themselves are fine, their occupation in the story left me cold upon my first reading.
This story is about German Soldiers in World War II.
This may not be a surprise to you -- either because you are familiar with the series, or the main character’s last name tipped you off (Pfirsich is Erwin “The Desert Fox” Rommel’s fictitious brother) -- but since I went into this review blind, I was quite shocked to see the protagonist standing in front of a row of Swastika flags. This initial shock colored my reading of the book, and I found it very hard to care about what was going to happen to what I presumed to be a bunch of Nazis.
After reading the book, and getting over my initial shock, I asked myself if my distaste was unfair. After all, not every soldier in the German army was a Nazi or believed in their ideals, and Barr makes it clear that these characters are not Hitler fans. I asked myself if it’s possible to write a love story about German soldiers in Nazi Germany if the soldiers in questions are against what the Nazis stand for.
Complicating my feelings about the story was the fact that in this issue Barr doesn’t really address the issue that while these characters are not supporters of the Nazi cause, they are still part of the mechanization that helped the Germans invade other countries. They may have felt bad about it but they were still helping spread Naziism throughout the old world. Still, a story about a German soldier duty-bound to serve a fatherland that despises who he is could be very interesting and I’ve never been afraid of moral ambiguity. Perhaps I wasn’t giving this story a fair shake? With access to only one issue, and not enough time to get more before my deadline, I knew a little research was in order.
Digging further into the series, I found that Barr does address the more problematic aspects (to put it very, very lightly) of Germany in World War II, and Pfirsich uses his position to save people from concentration camps and feels extreme guilt over not being able to save more. So I decided to reread the issue again, judge it based solely on it’s own merits and not from its missing context.
As I’ve stated before, the story is a simple one, told in flashback. Pfirsich is sick, and his unit fears it may be fatal. Unable to help him, Rosen and Udo sit together and reminisce about how they met their dear friend. Rosen met him in the streets of Paris, just after Germany’s occupation of France. Stricken by Pfirsich’s beauty, Rosen wins the older man over with his cocky charm, eventually convincing Pfirsich to follow him to a seedy motel where they make love. After a brief interlude where Udo makes fun of Rosen’s real name (Melvin Gonville Ramsbottom), Udo recounts meeting Pfirsich. Udo’s first impression of Pfirsich was less favorable, seeing as Udo’s views on gay men were in line with the Nazis. At first, Udo is afraid of Pfirsich and Rosen, but seeing as he has to follow Pfirsich’s orders, he tries to make the most of it. His animosity slowly turns to respect, as Pfirsich proves to be a good boss, and before long, Udo begins to view the man as a friend.
Once their ruminations are at an end, Udo and Rosen resign themselves to the fact that Pfirsich may very well die, and decide to stay by his side until the end. Fortunately, Pfirsich begins to recover, and upon stumbling out of bed, he trips over his friends, who rush out to tell the company that their commander is still alive. The story ends with Pfirsich voicing his gratitude for having such good friends.
Whenever you read a story that focuses on relationships, you’re prepared to read about misunderstandings, betrayals, and plot twists. Fortunately, there’s none of that here; this is as straightforward as a story can get. Pfirsich is sick, he gets better. Rosen sees Pfirsich, becomes smitten, seduces him, they become an item. Udo meets Pfirsich, is freaked out by him, learns to see Pfirsich for who he really is, they become friends. The story is nothing but an unimpeded progression towards love and friendship and it’s utterly charming. One would think that a romance story without the standard “drama” would be boring, but to me it’s more like Barr is saving us from redundancy. We know these people care about each other so it makes sense to skip the drama and watch Rosen and Pfirsich fuck or see Udo begin to respect his commander.
Barr’s art matches her story in charm. Her style is somewhat cartoony but she puts a lot of detail into her characters and backgrounds. This detail is most apparent in the body language and movement of the characters, as Barr gives them all distinct postures. Pfirsich is drawn in graceful, often statuesque poses, while Rosen is often drawn in angular positions with his arms akimbo; Udo is the least distinctive, and often appears slumped over. Barr does a great job using art to inform her characters and makes this black and white comic seem all the more colorful.
While I enjoyed this issue, it still has some flaws outside of the unfortunate implications of having German Soldier protagonists. While I appreciate Barr’s attention to detail, she seems intent on putting so much in a rather small panels that the composition is crowded. Not helping matters is the fact that almost every panel has a word balloon in it, giving her less space to draw an already crowded composition. While I don’t mind a word-heavy comic, I wish that Barr had put more emphasis on the visual side of her comic and ditched the word balloons so her art could do the talking. I was also annoyed at how the story acknowledges that this is not a safe world for queers and yet none of the characters seem to act with any secrecy. Rosen immediately tells his straight friend about his lust for Pfirsich even though he knows that Nazis persecute gay men. Then again, maybe they don’t, because everyone in the army knows that Pfirsich is gay and yet they act as if this isn’t a big deal. I can definitely suspend my disbelief when it comes to romance comics but this is too much of a stretch.
Would I recommend this comic? Yes. It’s not a great comic, but it’s an enjoyable one, and I do want to read more of the series. As for my method of going into my comic reviews blind? I’m still going to keep that policy, but I have learned that, before I pass judgement, I’m going to delve a little deeper and see if understanding the context of the comic will help me enjoy it more.
- About the reviewer -
Bruce Asbury is just another Creative Writing major who isn’t using his degree. After graduating from Pittsburg State University, he wandered around Kansas, Missouri, and Oklahoma before succumbing to the siren song of the Chicago winter. When he isn’t reading or writing about comics, you can find him practice kissing on his mirror while he dances to Grace Jones.