Tuesday, March 04, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #62: Goddamn This War! by Tardi

Once upon a time, a French graphic novelist named Jacques Tardi spent a decade working on a book about the Great War: based on his grandfather's recollections and his own studies, It Was the War of the Trenches was a searing, harrowing experience, a thematically connected book of vignettes and scenes and moments ranging across that entire war. It was a monumental achievement for an already legendary creator, not so much cementing his reputation as again proving that he was a master.

A decade later, Tardi went back to the same well -- another big book about WW I, told mostly in pages with three wide horizontal panels -- this time with an unnamed everyman hero providing a through-line to tell again the story of the whole trench war from beginning to end. And if Goddamn This War! is not as original and immediate as War of the Trenches was -- if it feels too much constructed from photographs and references and too constricted by that one viewpoint -- that's somewhat to be expected; we have seen Tardi do this before, and he's less formally inventive this time out than in War of the Trenches.

Goddamn This War! is powerful, with images and dialogue that will live in the mind for a long time. But it's shackled to one man, and that everyman is not all that interesting in himself: we do get glimpses of his life before the trenches to give his actions color and his life poignancy, but only in his own head. And the focus on him keeps Tardi from ranging further: the reader can see his imagination leaping, with this quick scene of the sea battle of Jutland and that account of fighting in the mountains of Italy and Austria, but it's all told through that one voice, and it always comes back to him, in his trenches in the north of France.

The younger Tardi was more bloodthirsty and ruthless; a majority of the viewpoint characters in War of the Trenches didn't survive the war -- which is closer to historical accuracy than Goddamn This War!'s remarkably lucky survivor of four years of concentrated trench warfare. Both books shine a light on the war that did not end war and which is more and more forgotten as everyone who witnessed it quietly died out. If you intend to read both of them, start here: Goddamn This War! is more conventional, and gives the reader an easier way into the story. After that, War of the Trenches will be waiting: thorny, bloody, frightening and rewarding in equal measure.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

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