Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Book-A-Day 2010 # 363 (2/1) -- It Was the War of the Trenches by Jacques Tardi

The Great War is the one that's big enough for any metaphor: it's the hole that history fell into, the death of the aristocratic world, the end of European innocence, the reaper of a generation. For those of us living nearly a hundred years later, though, it's sliding more and more into history, as barely anyone is left alive who remembers it directly. The American Civil War was once the bloodiest, nastiest conflict in human memory; now it's just an excuse for rednecks to put historically inaccurate flags on their pick-up trucks and pretend that their ancestors weren't willing to kill to keep slavery. And World War One is suffering the same fate -- there's very little about it that could be directly romanticized, luckily, but its lessons have been so thoroughly learned that they're forgotten once again, in light of the new lessons from newer wars.

Jacques Tardi was born in 1946, in the shadow of the second World War, in a time when the first was still clearly remembered. His grandfather was a survivor of the Great War, and Tardi grew up in France, a land where only the scars of WWII overlaid the scars of WWI. So when he came to write a major graphic novel about the Great War, in his thirties and forties, it was as a close observer, only slightly removed from the reality and squalor of the war as it happened. It Was the War of the Trenches finally came to the USA last year, nearly twenty years after it was completed (after more than a decade) in France and more than ninety years after the war it memorializes. But there's something like a first-hand survivor's voice here, courtesy of Tardi's grandfather and the numberless French dead who weren't as lucky as he was.

It Was the War of the Trenches has no plot, no through-line, no hero -- just like the war itself. Tardi ranges over the years of the war, backwards and forwards, in stories that range from two pages to about a dozen, without titles or separations. Characters appear, struggle, and mostly die or disappear, because the Great War was a four-year meat-grinder with an insatiable appetite. Every panel is a precise tableau, drowning in black ink, carefully researched and rendered to keep the horrors always just on this side of bearable. Every few pages, more young Frenchmen appear, in 1916 or '17 or '14, slogging through the trenches or being forced into No Man's Land or trying to find shelter in a ruined village. Some are killed by the enemy, a few are shot by their own side -- in an accident, or to encourage the others, or for petty offenses called desertion -- and a handful aren't quite dead when the narrative passes on from their stories.

Like WWI itself, it's difficult to summarize It Was the War of the Trenches -- each moment and story is precise and poignant and devastating, and they add up to far more than the sum of their parts, but they add up as a mosaic does, with each shard forming a point of color that only makes sense from a distant perspective. But WWI was uniquely horrible, in ways that need to be remembered, and It Was the War of the Trenches is one of the great signposts to those horrors -- the better, perhaps, for those of us in the 21st Century, because it speaks in our language and to our time in ways that the immediate reactions to the war don't (great as Dalton Trumbo and Wilfred Owen and Erich Maria Remarque may be). Tardi is one of the giants of world comics, and this is one of his strongest works, a rare combination of ability, ambition, and subject.

And, possibly more importantly, for a book that I'm making sound like spinach, It Was the War of the Trenches is immediate and moving and deeply involving from page to page, showing once again the power that comics has to both illuminate dark corners of the world and to turn them into a compelling narrative accessible to nearly everyone.

Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index

No comments:

Post a Comment