Tripwire continues its 100 Graphic Novels You Should Read While Stuck Inside with its twentieth choice, two books which can be read together, It Was The War Of The Trenches and Goddamn This War By by Jacques Tardi, from Fantagraphics, reviewed by Tripwire contributing writer Joe Gordon…
It Was The War Of The Trenches/ Goddamn This War Writers: Jacques Tardi with Jean-Pierre Verney Artist: Jacques Tardi Fantagraphics
Tardi has long been one of my favourite European comics creators, a writer and artist who can collaborate with others or work solo, turning his hand to a myriad of different subjects, from the historical of his wartime stories to the fantastical adventures of Adele Blanc-Sec (a pure delight), gritty crime adaptations from bestselling novels, to Jules Verne-inspired science fiction. With each different subject Tardi often adapts his art style, technique and layout – in many ways he reminds me of our own Bryan Talbot, a writer, an artist, one who can turn his hand to a huge variety of subjects and styles.
I first came across C’était la guerre des tranchées (originally published in the famous A Suivre in 1993, then Casterman) in a French bande dessinée magazine BoDoï I picked up on holiday in Paris in the early 2000s. It was celebrating a number of creators you should read (appropriately enough given this very series we’re running right now on Tripwire!) who had featured in the Grand Prix at Angouleme, and included several pages from their works, including Tardi’s WWI masterpiece. Even with my rusty French skills I was totally overwhelmed by the power of the imagery, and the anger – no, the rage, pure rage – at the injustice of it all inflicted on those who were forced into that slaughter. There’s no space for jingoism here, Tardi’s anger at the political and military leaders and his sympathies for those forced to serve knows no national boundaries, he lacerates Prussian generals as surely as he mauls French and British commanders and politicians.
As part of their push to translate Tardi’s many works into English (championed by the late, great Kim Thompson), the excellent Fantagraphics published it as It Was the War of the Trenches in 2010, and finally I could read the entire volume. Growing up in the 70s, war was a frequent subject of the many boy’s comics published weekly, with most frequently showing it as daring, heroic adventure. Except for one: Pat Mills and Joe Colquhoun’s stunning Charley’s War – not many comics aged at youngsters dared to show a shell-shocked protagonist clutching a dripping sack containing what was left of his friend after an attack. It left a mark on my psyche that has lasted throughout my life, so you will understand that when I say Tardi’s work stands up to that high bar, it is the biggest compliment I can bestow.
How do you approach a subject like the Great War? It devoured millions, shattered countries, toppled empires, redrew the maps of many lands, created a lost generation, disrupted the social and class order. It is difficult to do it justice, to bring the weight of statistics down to a personal level, and there is the burden of knowing you must do it in a way that respects those who suffered. I’ve had personal experience of this, writing for the To End All Wars anthology a few years back.
Rather than the ongoing characters of a long, serialised strip like Charley’s War, Tardi here opts for a series of short pieces featuring different characters from different nations, not just the French, the Germans, the British, but the many troops who came from their various empires, some willingly answering the call, such as Canadians, others pressed into service by the very powers who had taken their countries from them, such as Sikhs from British India, or Vietnamese and Algerians from the French colonies (in a bitterly ironic twist Tardi depicts the latter forced to fight for an empire that had taken their land from them, the same soldiers who after the next war would turn on those French authorities to fight for independence).
In Putain de Guerre!, published by Casterman in 2010, then in English as Goddamn This War, takes a different approach, the structure here being chronological, a tale from each year, from 1914 to 1918 (and a bit of the aftermath in 1919), mostly following the perspective of one French soldier’s experiences, with some digressions to allow other areas to be covered, from the point of view of the Germans, Australians, British, the American “doughboys”, the war at sea and, a new horror of the industrial age, war in the air.
Where Trenches keeps a muted, mostly black and white approach, Goddamn starts off in 1914 in brilliant colour – this is before the muddy, bloody stalemate of the trenches develops, the French soldiers still wearing their colourful uniforms with bright red trousers, uniforms that were for show at parades or in front of conquered natives in colonies, not designed for the realities of industrial-age warfare:
“Little August soldier in your madder-red trousers, you tried to hide but there wasn’t much cover behind the poppies. You entered the history books dressed up like a trooper in a comic opera, little August casualty.”
There’s no pretence at the “nobility” of heroic actions and glory in death in battle here – for a moment it leans towards an old-school, almost chivalric-era battle between mounted soldiers, but then misdirected artillery rains down and men and horses are ripped to bloody pieces. In another scene one poor soldier meets his end with his trousers around his ankles, communing with nature when surprised. As the years ago past, the colour drains increasingly from Tardi’s artwork, it becomes ever more brutally eloquent. Soldiers in a trench forced to see every single day the slowly rotting corpse of a friend on the barb wire of No Man’s Land, wondering if they too will look like that by the day’s end, if it will be quick or if they will linger in agony.
Towards the final years of the war, the style changes again, to larger two or three panels per page, glimpses of other theatres of war, from the hug battleships at Jutland to a nurse, tending the maimed and dying while wondering about her own husband serving on the front lines, about their infant child back home and if he will ever end up fodder for such slaughter when he comes of age. The aftermath is also touched on, with macabre, gallows-humour a triumphal, colourful parade marches by in front of a wounded veteran, blinded during the war, their military triumphalism and finery invisible to his now forever unseeing eyes.
Throughout both volumes there is some pitch-black, barrack room humour, but mostly there is the feeling of raw rage Tardi feels on behalf of the men and women who were swallowed by this needless war, many used by a country that expected them “to do their duty” when previously that country hadn’t given a damn about them, living in poverty, in slums, but now suddenly they are expected to be dutiful subjects for governments who didn’t care about them or their families, or nations bankrupting themselves in slaughter when for a fraction of that money they could have housed, fed and educated every one of their peoples, rather than sending them en-mass to a hideous death. There are numerous influences here, artistic as well as historical sources, such as Gance’s powerful 1919 silent film, J’accuse (with its return of the dead fantasy sequence), or Kubrick’s Kirk Douglas-starring Paths of Glory.
And yes, I know we’re supposed to be picking individual books out here, but while you can read either of these two volumes as stand-alone works, really they are best read together as one body of work. The emotional reach of both, the sorrow, the sympathy, the anger for the suffering of a century ago are powerful, the artwork remarkable (a few facial reaction shots of the men in battle speak volumes). Tardi’s astonishing take on “The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est. Pro patria mori.”