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The Great War In Comics

The Somme. The frontlines in Peronne, France. The battlefields where more than twenty nations came to fight during the First World War. There could not be a more fitting location to construct an extraordinary museum, encased in part by a castle still standing there from the Middle Ages. The Museum of the Great War opened in 1992 and last Wednesday, September 18th, unveiled General Mobilisation! 1914-1918 In The Comics. This is the next temporary bi-lingual exhibition in its whole year-long season devoted to the representations of World War I in comics. It follows a major show earlier this year devoted to French bande dessinée master Jacques Tardi. His powerful indictment It Was The War of the Trenches, partially translated in Raw and Drawn & Quarterly, will be the third of his graphic novels to be translated in full next spring in the new series of hardback editions from Fantagraphics.

It Was The War Of The Trenches
by Jacques Tardi

Last year, Tardi returned to this historic subject in his latest series, Putain de Guerre!, a collaboration with historian Jean-Pierre Verney. Together they chronicle the Great War through the eyes of an ordinary French soldier, told year-by-year from 1914-1919 with rigourously researched realism. Casterman are publishing this first in six tabloid-sized, 20-page “newspapers”, one for each year, presenting 16 pages of colour comics, three widescreen panels per page, backed up by 4 pages of documentary material, texts and photos and a chilling “accounting for the year” recording the deaths and disappearances on all sides. The first three years have now been compiled into a regular-sized hardback album.

Putain de Guerre
by Jacques Tardi

General Mobilisation! 1914-1918 In The Comics, on till December 13th 2009, shows works by nearly fifty French and international creators, past and present. These are broken down into three main timelines: 1914-1974 and patriotic propaganda and heroic adventures; 1974-1994 and anti-war representations; and 1994 to today and the renewed and varied approaches to showing the Great War. There is also an accompanying book, in French only, La Grande Guerre dans la Bande Dessinée, de 1914 à aujourd’hui (Historial/Five Continents Editions), containing seven essays. There is an examination of patriotic propaganda in the comics published at the time of the conflict, including examples from popular series Bécassine and Les Pieds Nickelés.


Vincent Marie rightly devotes one entire essay to Tardi’s explorations of this War, while another considers Morvan and Kordey’s trilogy Le Coeur des Batailles. Michael Hein turns to the “embarrassing silence” of German comics addressing the War, unearthing publications from the period such as Karl Arnold in Kriegsflugblätter and Walter Trier in Buntes Kriegbilderbogen. In the final chapter on American and British portrayals, essayist Joël Mak dit Mack writes about a key cartoon icon in Britain at the time, Old Bill. This symbol of the long-suffering tommy appeared in the most famous cartoon, on the cover of The Bystander’s Fragments From France by Captain Bruce Bairnsfather, which shows him sheltering from exploding shells and saying to another soldier, “Well, if you knows of a better ‘ole, Go to it.”

Mack goes on to spotlight several other English-language treatments. In American comic books these span from Robert Kanigher and Joe Kubert’s Enemy Ace to the First World War story arc of Todd McFarlane’s Spawn. Two British series also get pride of place. First, comparing it to Enemy Ace, Mack praises Pat Mills and Joe Colqhoun’s Charley’s War for “trying to give another, much less militaristic perspective.” He comments:

“If Enemy Ace presents a disillusioned viewpoint, Charley’s War goes much further in rejecting combat. The main character, Charley Bourne, aged 16 when he enlists in the British army in 1916, is sent immediately to the battlefields of the Somme. The drawings, extremely rich and meticulous, strive to reconstitute life in the trenches down to the smallest detail, while the story presents the evolution of the character and other protagonists as the conflict worsens. The traditional archetypes of soldiers’ heroism and courage are turned upside down, to emphasise the absurdity of what happens in war.”

The second British example selected for inclusion in this exhibition is White Death, published in both French and English in 1998. Below is my review written upon publication in 1998 for Comics Forum magazine of this powerful one-volume graphic novel.

Money can make dreams real. Look at Todd McFarlane, and Simon Bisley, and Alex Ross "The Boss" (but maybe not Rob Liefeld). American comic book sales may be nosediving these days, but there’s still plenty of money to be made by those chosen few with this season’s hot style or hot property. This elite has the potential for the sort of earnings, royalties, merchandising, residuals and lifestyle, that Siegel and Shuster, who split a measly $10 a page all in for their first Superman story back in 1938, could only dream of, get fired and lose court battles over. But after you’ve bought your sixteenth classic Harley Davidson or Ferrari, your fifth holiday home, your own, your parents’ and your mates’ every material comfort, what do you do with the rest of it?

If you’re exceptional, passionate about the potential of the comics medium, and a little bit crazy, you might plough some of it back into a pet publishing project, the sort of book where you are in control, where no short-sighted publisher can meddle. You need the money, but you also need the dream. I understand that British artist Charlie Adlard is not one of those stratospheric high-rollers, but he’s an artist who has done quite nicely thank you from the cult success of the X-Files, but he yearned to work on something more meaningful, something of substance, something of his own. White Death is his dream made real.

No more drawing TV star portraits, no more keeping every line crisp, clean and open for those computerised colours. Stylistically, White Death started life as a complete break, fulfilling Charlie’s desire to explore the expressive monochrome range of charcoal and chalk on textured paper,  light streaks of chalk for a biting blizzard, the softest cloud for a frozen breath, billowing masses for the crushing force of an avalanche. His varying depths of charcoal greys conjure up gas attacks, shadows, explosions, the grime and carnage of combat. This is also his chance to tap into his love of European comics illustration, noticeably France’s Enki Bilal and Jacques Tardi, while his semi-caricatured, stubbled faces also reminded me of Carlos Ezquerra‘s war heroes for the British weekly Battle.

From the recorded accounts of the conflicts in the winter of 1916 over the shifting mountain frontlines between Italy and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, writer Robbie Morrison has avoided crafting some textbook history of dates and casualties. Instead, he makes history tangibly real and totally involving by personalising it through the humble soldier’s experience. Here Morrison is building on the approach of two other moving First World War comics series, the diary of an under-age Cockney recruit in Pat Mills and Joe Colquhoun‘s Charley’s War from Battle (reprinted in collections by Titan Books) and Jacques Tardi’s short stories of French soldiers, collectively titled It Was The War Of The Trenches (four of which were translated in Raw #5 and Drawn & Quarterly #1, 2 and 3). Tardi explained, "What interested me is the individual, whatever his colour or nationality, the individual who is disposed of, the individual whose life is without value in the hands of his masters." We forget too easily that wars, all wars, are not fought out by the generals and commanders, but by ordinary people.

In White Death, Morrison and Adlard bring to life three Italian friends, Piero, Alberto and Francesco, privates, or "fresh meat", newly posted to the battalion of glory-hungry Orisini, and make us care about their struggles to hold on to their morality, their humanity and ultimately their lives. It is the casual dehumanising details that horrify: fortifying trenches with dead bodies and dousing a cloth with your own piss to cover your mouth from a chlorine gas attack. Then there is young Francesco’s chilling transformation from good-natured naif and joker into a revenge-driven killer. As the main protagonist, Piero emerges as the most realised character, pressured into prostituing his dead father’s mountain wisdom to set off avalanches that bring "White Death" to the enemy. For one brief moment, Piero halts the killing when he recognises his friend Franz, fighting for the other side. In a telling conversation, Piero asks him, "What are we doing to ourselves? How can we keep blaming them, Franz? It’s us who are out here…" The two men embrace, but the respite is soon over and the war claims them back. Piero is also the only one to openly challenge Orsini’s grand-standing, but in the tragic denouement he too falls victim to his commander’s callous quest for macho glory.

Together Morrison and Adlard use the full range of verbal and visual combinations of comics, from texts extracted from a diary or military report to resonant wordless sequences, such as the balancing nine-panel prologue and epilogue of death emerging and returing to the snow. Beautifully crafted, designed and produced, White Death easily compares to the very best of contemporary Francophone bande dessinée albums for adults. In fact, uniquely this album has been published in two editions, one English, one French, with help from the Centre National du Livre, the French state’s literary fund that supports comics creators and publishers.

Posted: September 20, 2009


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General Mobilisation!
1914-1918 In The Comics

18 Sept to 13 Dec, 2009
Museum Of The Great War
Peronne, France


Charley’s War
White Death
Enemy Ace
Capt. Bruce Bairnsfather

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Featured Books

La Grande Guerre
dans la Bande Dessinée

C’était la guerre
des tranchées

(It Was The War
Of The Trenches
by Jacques Tardi

Putain de Guerre
by Jacques Tardi
& Jean-Pierre Verney

Charley’s War
by Pat Mills
& Joe Colquhoun

White Death
by Robbie Morrison
& Charlie Adlard

Fragments From France
by Capt. Bruce Bairnsfather