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The Red Badge of Courage was published in 1895, when its author, an impoverished writer living a bohemian life in New York, was only twenty-three. It immediately became a bestseller, and Stephen Crane became famous. Crane set out to create 'a psychological portrayal of fear.' Henry Fleming, a Union Army volunteer in the Civil War, thinks 'that perhaps in a battle he might run. . . . As far as war was concerned he knew nothing of himself.' And he does run in his first battle, full of fear and then remorse. He encounters a grotesquely rotting corpse propped against a tree, and a column of wounded men, one of whom is a friend who dies horribly in front of him. Fleming receives his own 'red badge' when a fellow soldier hits him in the head with a gun. 'The idea of falling like heroes on ceremonial battlefields,' Ford Madox Ford remarked later, 'was gone forever.'
This 1895 tale of young soldier Henry Fleming's initial experiences in combat during the Civil War still startles. Artist Vansant captures Fleming's uncertainty and fear quite well, sometimes through effectively understated facial expressions. Yet this adaptation oversimplifies Crane's portrayal of Fleming, ignoring or de-emphasizing the character's other failings: his egotism, his talent for self-justification and the "wild battle madness" underlying much of his later heroism. In Crane's book, Fleming is haunted by his desertion of the dying "tattered man"; in Vansant's version, Fleming forgets him. Though Crane's book is a landmark in realism, the author's symbolic writing turned Fleming's battlefield into a mythic realm. Vansant's conventionally realistic artwork, on the other hand, is more prosaic than Crane's brilliantly descriptive captions. This adaptation faithfully introduces the plot, characters and primary themes of Red Badge to readers unfamiliar with the original book without penetrating the full depths of Crane's masterwork.