Tuesday, October 29, 2013

The Great War by Joe Sacco

The graphic novels of Joe Sacco (Palestine, Safe Area Gorazde, Footnotes in Gaza) have always shown considerable commitment by him as an author and journalist, but The Great War – July 1, 1916: The First Day of the Battle of the Somme is his most ambitious work as an artist to date. As the title suggests, the book depicts the events of just a single day during the First World War. But if its subject matter seems to be so narrow, how can it be ambitious then? Well, Sacco does not use the traditional form of a graphic novel here. What he does is tell the story in one panel. One epic 54-page, 24-foot long foldout panel.

the accordion-style foldout
So how does it work? The Great War shows the British frontlines at the river Somme in France, where one of the most notorious and bloodiest battles not only during the First World War, but in all wars before or since took place. Around 1,000,000 men were killed or wounded during the four months it lasted, with around 60,000 casualties on the British side alone during the first day. Of course such a “great” battle needs considerable planning, with which Sacco begins his story. The massive build-up to the British attack, orchestrated by General Douglas Haig, is seen in the early parts of the panorama (the German frontlines were constantly bombarded by artillery for almost a week, with over 2 million shells, the sound and impact of which could at times be heard and felt as far away as London). The depiction then moves on to the actual attack, when the British soldiers have to leave their trenches to face the presumably annihilated German defences and where they are basically just slaughtered (staying in the trenches or fleeing was not an option, since there were officers who specifically had to prevent soldiers from doing so). The last parts of the panorama then deal with another look “behind the scenes”, this time the British lines behind the trenches after the initial attack: the masses of wounded and dead are dealt with while fresh troops arrive.

Although The Great War is one long panorama and does not include any words, the term “story” still fits, because Sacco shows events that chronologically followed each other by going from left to right in the depiction of events. That it is not a single moment in time is made clear to the reader in the very first part of the panorama where General Haig can be seen three times.

the "three General Haigs"
It is also a story because as realistic as the depicted events are, Sacco has a message. Already by giving his graphic novel the title “The Great War” (terminology that is still used for example in Great Britain today) instead of “First World War”, Sacco shows the futility of this battle and the war in general. That it was a “Great War” is clearly undermined by the contents shown in the book. Men are sent like cattle towards the German frontlines, which due to mistakes in planning and overconfidence by the military leadership are largely intact. Since admitting a mistake and stopping a planned attack is unacceptable to people like Haig, the generals send hundreds of thousands of men into their deaths. If soldiers die, the last part in the panorama suggests, there will always be more.

behind the lines during and after the attack
In all this the attention to detail in the artwork is astonishing and rivals that of Geof Darrow. One can spend several hours looking at all the (historically correct) minutiae Sacco has included. It easily conveys the horrors and the futility of the battle that the soldiers must have felt in the trenches and the battlefield.

The book comes in a sturdy slipcase and is accompanied by the booklet On The Great War which includes an essay on the preparations and the first day of the battle by historian Adam Hochschild, as well as annotations that help to decipher the individual elements and events of the actual panorama. 

annotations from the booklet
If you are a history buff like me or just want to marvel at the incredibly detailed artwork, Joe Sacco's masterful The Great War is for you.

The Great War is published by Jonathan Cape in the UK (£20.00/ISBN 13: 978-0224097710) and by W. W. Norton & Company in the US ($35.00/ISBN 13: 978-0393088809)

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