Joe Sacco's 'The Great War' Is Powerful Evocation of an Awful, Awful Day

In this Bayeux Tapestry-like method of storytelling, images segue from one to the next with imperceptible but inevitable shifts of perspective and events, much like war itself.

The Great War: July 1, 1916: The First Day of the Battle of the Somme

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Length: 54 pages
Author: Joe Sacco
Price: $35.00
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2013-11
“You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.”

– Leon Trotsky

Joe Sacco is a comics artist who doesn’t shy away from harsh realities; if anything, he seeks them out. In previous books like Palestine, Footnotes in Gaza and Safe Area Gorazde, Sacco has used the comics medium to explore the atrocities of war and occupation in Palestine and the former Yugoslavia. In his comic-journalistic works, he often places himself as a character, standing in for, or at least alongside, the reader. The result is an unnerving immediacy to his dispatches from some of the hottest spots in recent history.

The Great War continues the trends in Sacco’s past work while simultaneously usurping them. In some ways, this latest subject is entirely appropriate, for what could be a hotter hotspot, a more senseless expression of 20th-century violence, than the First World War? Yet, this event occurred further in the past than any of his other subjects, and is a much less controversial topic than, say, Yugoslav atrocities or an Israeli massacre of Palestinian civilians. In some ways, despite the war’s being a standout case of humanity’s industrial-scale stupidity, it's also a surprisingly tame topic for Sacco’s compassionate but divisive reportage.

Except that Sacco being Sacco, there's more to this project than a simple “war is hell” narrative. In fact there’s no narrative at all, at least none involving words. The Great War focuses on a single day, 1 July 1916, which marked the start of the Battle of the Somme. This battle was to involve 120,000 British troops; before the day’s end, half of them would be dead, wounded or missing. German casualties, though considerably lower, were nonetheless staggering, involving thousands of dead and wounded. In some ways it’s the perfect representation of the futility of the entire conflict.

Sacco has chosen to represent this day in a single, accordion-style foldout. Comprised of 24 black and white panels, this artwork reveals the day’s events step by step, Bayeux Tapestry-style, from the evening before the battle through the day itself to its final, tragic conclusion. Sacco's trademark style is in evidence, with countless tiny strokes of the pen lending a huge amount of detail and movement to each scene in succession.

The accordion-foldout sounds like a gimmick, and maybe it is; but what the hell, it’s a great gimmick. Images segue from one to the next with imperceptible but inevitable shifts of perspective and event, much like the war itself, which seemed to grow out of one minor, scarcely-noticeable event toppling into the next. The perspective here is from the British side, but it’s reasonable to assume that the other trenches, occupied as they were by German troops, experienced something very similar.

With 24 panels to pore over, each packed with hundreds of figures and thousands of miniscule details, there is much to absorb. To say that the book – is it a book? Hell if I know – rewards repeated viewings is a massive understatement. This is the kind of work that demands to be sipped slowly and mulled over. Far too much effort went into its construction for a cursory review to do it any justice.

Singling out any one particular panel is something of a fool’s errand, akin to choosing a ten-second clip from a movie and saying: “This bit’s really good!” That said, though, Plates 15 and 16 do stand out. They represent the thick of the battle, the artillery barrage that crushed the advancing British, and their composition is sobering if not breathtaking. Dozens of figures – possibly hundreds – litter the scene, as explosions thunder up from the earth and smoke chokes the air.

Each of those tiny figures is individual, each contains his own story, whether marching resolutely forward, or ducking an explosion, or lying broken on the ground. One broken man grasps at the ankle of an unwounded comrade; another lies legless and dying; still another hunkers in a trench, head bent, awaiting the order to proceed. On man stands bewildered, alone in the middle of the explosions, glancing about as if wondering why he isn’t dead yet.

Plates 23 and 24, the final two pages, are quieter on the surface, yet their layout reveals the same careful eye for composition that has been in evidence throughout the book. To the left of the panel, ranks of soldiers and leafy trees form rows of vertical lines, which segue into masses of dead and wounded soldiers lying on stretchers that advance diagonally across the page, from the lower left to upper right; another mass of vertical trees interrupts this line.

To the right of the trees, the last image in the book is that of the burial detail, men in overalls filling in the mass graves filled with British dead. These trenches run diagonally as well, from upper left to lower right, trailing off the page, the men as silent as the crude wooden crosses that mark their final resting place.

Besides the foldout itself, Sacco has provided some supporting materials to help the reader piece together what’s going on. These include a short booklet detailing Sacco’s fascination with the war, and containing a brief essay by Adam Hochschild about the battle itself. Most valuable of all are Sacco’s own annotations to the panels. Certainly the foldout can stand up on its own as an illustration of a particularly horrible day in human history, but the wealth of detail crammed into each panel benefits from Sacco’s illumination.

Readers who are interested in the war, but perhaps not expert about it, will be grateful for the artist’s brief but illuminating captions. If anything, I would have liked to see more detail here, but perhaps Sacco felt that the illustration should speak for itself.

This is powerful stuff, and anyone interested in history, or in comics, or in war, is likely to be moved by Sacco’s unsentimental, straightforward approach. It’s a unique treatment, but an appropriate one. Indeed, it’s fitting that there is no dialogue here. The dead don’t speak, after all.


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