Battle Lines

WAR HAS consistently sparked cartoonists to do the most inspired work in their medium. By 1939, when newspaper comics were still primarily known as “the funnies,” Milton Caniff used his Terry and the Pirates kids’ adventure strip to depict the Japanese invasion of Manchuria with unprecedented—and not at all funny—savagery. Caniff reached his creative-peak period during the ensuing World War II years. In 1941, the comics also created one of that conflict’s more enduring propaganda figures—Captain America. From war and its aftermath we have Maus, Palestine, Safe Area Goražde, Bill Mauldin’s Willie and Joe, EC Archives’ Frontline Combat, and Carol Tyler’s ongoing You’ll Never Know.

Now, for the centenary of the First World War, a pair of graphic war books, Jacques Tardi’s Goddamn This War! and Joe Sacco’s The Great War, focus on the first truly global conflict of the modern age. Goddamn This War! follows Tardi’s initial volume of World War I stories, It Was the War of the Trenches (2010), and has been translated, like its predecessor, by the late Kim Thompson. Born in 1946, in Valence, Drôme, Tardi won wide recognition in France for his comics about fictional detective Adèle Blanc-Sec, an early-twentieth-century sleuth who finds herself involved in crime, occult, and horror mysteries. Over here, Fantagraphics has published his crime work (e.g., West Coast Blues and Like a Sniper Lining Up His Shot) in addition to his World War I comics.

Goddamn This War! is not a sequel to It Was the War of the Trenches but a separate, and superior, fictional narrative. A never-named Parisian lathe operator–turned-soldier relates his entire tour of duty to us from the war’s earliest days to the armistice. As its title indicates, Goddamn This War! is an evisceration of the war and its leaders in the spirit of Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory or Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms. Tardi’s narrator sees the worst—the trenches, diseases, chemical weapons, and grotesque violence. The carnage all occurs under the aegis of an arrogant retinue of war planners.

Tardi’s chronological account breaks the war down year by year, opening in 1914 with French soldiers in bold red-and-blue uniforms marching toward their German counterparts over lush green fields against wide-open skies. “People should’ve considered the inevitable hardships ahead of time,” says Tardi’s narrator. “I mean, I’d thought of them, and it’s not as if I was any smarter than anyone else.”

By 1915, those hardships arrive. Here Tardi drains his pages of color, leaving us with grays, whites, blacks, muddy washes—a monochrome palette relieved only by sprays of red from gunfire, blood, and ironically vibrant flags. Occasionally, an officer arrives in full-blown color again, a reminder of the officer class’s idealistic remove from the fighting. Tardi tells his story, for the most part, using three rectangular panels per page that resemble wide-screen movie frames. But he never stoops to cinematic imitation. This is pure cartooning, using words and imagery to create one perfect moment after the next.

A particularly powerful example is Tardi’s rendition of the trial of François Paulet. Like many of the French infantry, after the fighting at Craonne, Paulet sings the subversive “Song of Craonne.” Written in 1917, it’s a bitterly fatalistic soldiers’ song. Its chorus begins, “Farewell to life, farewell to love!” Making an example of Paulet, officers charge him with mutiny. Broken by the fighting, he is put on trial for refusing to return to the front, for failing to turn in the comrade who taught him the “Craonne,” and for openly condemning his commanders. “His ‘judges’ told him: ‘You’re not worthy of being French!’ . . . As if that even mattered!” says Tardi’s narrator. Put before a firing squad, Paulet refuses a blindfold, forcing his killers to look him in the eye. Once he’s dead, his comrades march by his body, singing the “Craonne” under their breath.

Joe Sacco, The Great War: July 1, 1916: The First Day of the Battle of the Somme (detail from plate 11), 2013.
Joe Sacco, The Great War: July 1, 1916: The First Day of the Battle of the Somme (detail from plate 11), 2013.

Unlike today’s high-tech combat, this war was largely conducted via hand-to-hand fighting. It’s fitting, then, that Tardi leaves us with a potent reminder of the Great War’s lifelong legacy—a series of portraits of horribly disfigured “victors.”

Tardi’s powerful evocation of the war’s ravages and disappointments relies on the research of the French military historian Jean-Pierre Verney. After Tardi’s final panel, Verney supplies a detailed summary of France’s role in the war. Some readers might want a break from Tardi’s viscerally powerful imagery before plunging into Verney’s drier recitation of the war’s chronology. While the text addendum is informative, the rapid falloff in narrative momentum is a bit jarring, and Tardi’s book hardly requires a battery of names and dates to reinforce the central point conveyed in its title.

For those familiar with Joe Sacco’s Safe Area Goražde (2000) and Palestine (2001), The Great War is surprisingly light. Unlike these earlier first-person dispatches, which Sacco wrote and drew after he’d lived in those trouble spots, The Great War is a historical panorama, begun at the behest of his publisher for the centenary. It’s a beautiful tableau, and Sacco has cleverly designed it to unfold page by page to reveal the grinding first day of the Battle of the Somme. It can also be viewed at its full twenty-four-foot length as a single narrative image. The Great War is “silent,” which in comics means no dialogue and no captions, although Sacco has annotated it, and historian Adam Hochschild provided a companion essay.

The Great War opens on British general Douglas Haig during morning prayer at Scottish Churches’ Hut at Montreuil-sur-Mer. Sacco then gradually reveals the hundreds of thousands of combatants massing for Haig’s attack on July 1, 1916, and his miscalculation that Britain’s bombardment would crush Germany’s machine guns. The guns were hardly scratched; Haig’s forces charged right into them and incurred thirty thousand casualties within the attack’s first hour. Twenty-one thousand of Haig’s soldiers eventually died from wounds suffered on that first day alone.

The battle would last until November 13, 1916. Each image moves the attack forward. But even while he captures the frenzy of the battlefield, Sacco also lets the reader’s eye linger over a vast number of individual soldiers’ lives and comprehend at somewhat closer remove the awful violence they endured. It’s the most accomplished and emotionally engaging drawing of his career. The Great War closes on a battlefield cemetery and its crosses, an ironic final answer to Haig at Scottish Churches’ Hut. “The First World War still clouds my vision of humanity,” Sacco writes in the author’s note about his eventual decision to do this piece. “Drawing the war might give me some months to reflect on its meaning, if any.”

In the resulting work, Sacco delivers a somber memorial rather than a historical chronicle. He researched his book’s images at the Imperial War Museum, and the attention to detail shows, but even the museum’s website raises more questions about the Somme than The Great War does. Was it Haig’s epic mistake or, after the fashion of modern revisionists, a tragic yet indispensable stepping-stone to the eventual Allied victory? Haig remains a bitterly controversial figure. Here, he’s only an obscured figurehead. For all its complexity of execution and packaging, The Great War ultimately rings hollow. Even Hochschild’s accompanying essay, “July 1, 1916,” which draws upon his 2011 chronicle of antiwar dissent, To End All Wars, adopts an oddly neutral tone. The Great War is about sacrifice, à la Saving Private Ryan or War Horse, but not the why of it. “It’s not so much lest we forget, as lest we remember,” Alan Bennett wrote of the silencing effect of war memorials in The History Boys. “There’s no better way of forgetting something than by commemorating it.”

Ben Schwartz is an Emmy-nominated comedy writer, and is currently working on a history of American humor between the world wars.