Monday, April 21, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #110: The Great War by Joe Sacco

Joe Sacco is one of the great explainers of our day -- one of the top two or three working in comics today, and up there with the best TV talking heads and pure-prose nonfiction writers. So it's surprising to see him turn to a project that doesn't give him any scope for explanation: one that sees him present images, starkly, without dialogue or other details.

Previously, Sacco was best known for going to places -- generally war-torn, full of people vociferously arguing with each other using words as well as bullets -- and trying to get to the truth of some specific situation, sometimes taking years to distill his researches into comics. That method produced his books Palestine, Safe Area Gorazde, The Fixer, Footnotes in Gaza, and the shorter pieces collected in Journalism.

But now Sacco has done something completely different: a single, twenty-four-foot long image, without words or panel borders or any of the usual accouterments of comics, telling the story of one day entirely in images run together. That thing is not quite a book, but you'll probably find it considered a book for most purposes, and it's called The Great War: July 1, 1916: The First Day of the Battle of the Somme. The package also comes with a booklet that includes some annotations of the panorama by Sacco and an essay about the Somme by historian Adam Hochschild.

But the center of gravity of the package is Sacco's single long picture, presenting a god's eye view of that first day of the Somme, from somewhere above and behind the British lines. Only the commander, General Haig, is identifiable: otherwise Sacco depicts the British army as a mass of interchangeable parts, a horde of men driven to the same task and indistinguishable from each other. That gives Great War a scope and sweep that Sacco hasn't aimed for in the past, though at the cost of eliminating any individuals or specific events -- this is a book about a historical moment, not the people caught up in it. Sacco's short introduction explains some of his techniques here -- he's broken the usual laws of proportion and perspective to jam his images together more strongly, in a style inspired by the Bayeaux Tapestry and similar medieval works.

Great War is detailed and fascinating, like a violent Where's Waldo? for history buffs. But, even with all of the explosions and bodies in the second half, it feels bloodless, because of the distance and detached perspective. We don't even see the Germans, on their side of no-man's land, because the shots and shells and barbed wire are in the way. But that makes this less of a battle and more of a machine for death -- perhaps that's exactly what Sacco wanted, but it all becomes cold and mechanical and fatalistic.

So this a lovely and fascinating artifact, but I don't know that it tells us anything about the Great War that we didn't already know, or gives us a usefully different perspective on that war. I found myself wondering if the style and matter wouldn't have been better served as an art project -- perhaps making the panels five times as high and wide, so they could be installed in a museum, snaking around and around to display all of the art. Sacco's art could stand that kind of magnification, I think, and that would let the viewer enter into the art and the battle in a way this book-sized version doesn't.

But, until and unless my pipe dream comes to pass, what we have is the size and shape of a book. The Great War probably won't be considered the equal of Sacco's best books; it's simpler and more straightforward than they are. But it's still motivated and informed by Sacco's analytical eye and precise hand: it's a fine snapshot of one day that was instrumental in forming the modern world.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

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