Joe Sacco's new book, The Great War: July 1, 1916: The First Day of the Battle of the Somme, an Illustrated Panorama, left me speechless. And maybe that's fitting, for the book has no words. This is a great departure for Sacco, to say the least.
Comic-book artists (or graphic novelists, if you like) fall roughly into two groups – the silent types (think Chris Ware) and the talky types (think Lynda Barry). Sacco, the author of Palestine and Safe Area: Gorazde, is the latter kind. His panels overflow with you-are-there reportage and casual conversations splayed over the drawings. Unflattering portraits of himself and others often show mouths wide open -- chatting, yelling, emitting voluminous balloons of speech. The central drama of these talky books concerns Sacco's evolving politics, as his attitude moves from an almost esthetic aversion to the group he's depicting to a hard-won sympathy.
Indeed, you might say Sacco's books are battles pitched between vaguely repulsive images and the tug of the words, which always win out in the end. Somehow Sacco is able to bob and weave his way through unbelievably tangled ethnic conflicts and to come out with a coherent, empathetic angle. There's no better way to understand the mess that was Bosnia in the 1990s, for instance, than to read Safe Area: Gorazde. It's a triumph both as a comic and as a piece of journalism.
So it's a shock to see how many of Sacco's usual elements – unflattering caricatures, you-are-there reportage, personal perspective, and, by golly, words – are missing from The Great War. When you pull this book-like object from its slipcover box and open it – or rather unfold it – you'll see it's no book at all. Rather it's a 24-foot panorama, black ink on off-white paper, detailing various facets and moments of the first day of the Battle of the Somme, the bloodiest day of World War I. That's roughly one foot of drawing for each hour. And no words.
In the history of comics, Sacco's Great War lies somewhere between two other near-silent comic-like narratives: the medieval Bayeux Tapestry, a 230-foot-long piece of embroidery showing the Norman Invasion of England in 1066 (which Sacco cites as an influence), and Building Stories, Chris Ware's giant box of comic-book-like objects. But for sheer silence these two can't compete with The Great War. After all, the Bayeux tapestry has embroidered captions that tell you what's going on, and Chris Ware allows his characters occasional grunts and sniffs. Here Sacco, the cartoonist of human speech and argument, has banned all words.
The next shock is the beauty of it all. Sacco's evenly weighted lines almost have the feel of a medieval engraving or a topographical map. And these marks form a landscape that extends both through time and space, which is quite a feat. (Sacco used photographs from the Imperial War Museum as source material.) One particularly haunting passage shows the dark and early morning hours of July 1. You can see the British shells exploding in the distance, festive and light, and men standing, sleeping and moving about in the trenches, which cut through the drawing like well-planted hedges. (We see only the British point of view.) Even death is not ugly. Occasionally a body will fly up in the air like a ragged astronaut. If you compare this to the horror of, say, Jacques Tardi's jagged, filthy chronicle It Was the War of the Trenches (another one of Sacco's touchstones), you'll see what I mean. Who knew that World War I could be so beautiful, so medieval – if you pulled back far enough?
It's possible to move through The Great War more or less traditionally, by turning the folds, but because the “book” has no spine it will wobble in your hand. To really “read” this panorama you have to spread it out on the floor and lean over the long drawing, crawling as you go. And you might want a magnifying glass, too, because some of the details are small. (Only one face, that of Douglas Haig, the commander in chief of the British Expeditionary Force, is clearly shown.) And did I mention that a fair amount of World War I history would come in handy? Before I discovered that the slipcase holding The Great War also holds a very helpful annotated version of the panorama by Sacco plus an excellent essay by the journalist Adam Hochschild (derived from his book To End All Wars), I drafted my 10-year-old, a World War I fanatic, as my guide.
The first thing visible is General Haig out for a stroll, while officers, cavalrymen, and infantrymen prepare for battle at the end of June, 1916. All is calm. Artillery is rolled into place. Horses are fed, supplies unloaded. Planes and dirigibles float above. The infantrymen are all smiles. You can see the town of Albert in the background, with its tower. (Legend had it that the war would end when the figurehead on the tower toppled.) As evening sets, howitzers begin firing on German emplacements. The Indian lancer units arrive. In the wee hours of July 1, soldiers stand ready in the trenches. White explosions go off in the distance. Then, slowly, casually, as the day dawns, British troops begin climbing out from the trenches through openings cut in the barbed wire with their bayonets and moving toward the German lines. Almost as soon as they emerge, though, they're systematically gunned down. Bodies begin piling up. Explosions take over the pages, then stretchers. The last frame shows soldiers digging graves.
So that's it? What are we supposed to think? Hochschild's essay clearly places the blame for this horrific fiasco on the nauseating hubris of the British commanders – a hubris that trickled down to the youngest soldiers. (One captain even gave his platoons soccer balls “and promised a prize to whichever one first managed to kick a ball into the German trenches.”) The British, he notes, were blithely confident that the huge mines they'd explode under the German trenches and the hundreds of thousands of shells they'd rain down on them would decisively knock out the German emplacements and the barbed wire -- softening up the enemy for a more traditional battle on the field. The commanders were cocksure that by early July 1, the 120,000 British troops would be able to freely “move forward across no-man's-land in successive waves” toward the Germans, easily overwhelming them. And they had no doubt the day would end with their cavalry charging in, victorious.
Of course, none of this happened. As Hochschild writes, the week-long bombardment “had been impressive mainly for its noise” (it was heard as far away as Hampstead Heath). And so “when the soldiers clambered up the trench ladders and over the parapet, they quickly discovered something appalling … the German trenches and the well-fortified machine gun emplacements were still largely intact” – as were the Germans manning the machine guns. Surely the British officers looking through binoculars saw this early, but, as Hochschild notes, “rare is the commander willing to recognize that something is awry” and rarer still is the commander willing to call the whole thing off. “Haig was not such a man.” Thus, more nearly half of the 120,000 British troops died or were wounded that day. And the cavalry, awaiting their glorious entrance onto the field, waited in vain.
Part of the tragedy of the Battle of the Somme, as Hochschild notes, is that the generals prepared for the wrong battle with the wrong weapons. The explosives, though powerful, weren't targeted enough to knock down barbed wire and machine gun emplacements. What's more, the generals, who were counting on flushing the Germans out of the trenches, had prepared for a battle on horseback and in open fields, a medieval kind of war. (You'll see the Bayeux Tapestry showing the war of 1066 also has lots of horses.) Which brings me back to Sacco's tapestry, with its beautiful, silent, medieval look. Why did Sacco chose this esthetic for that battle?
Perhaps Sacco wanted to show how outdated the generals' plot was. Or perhaps he had wearied of his usual methods; they are clearly a lot of work. Or perhaps, once Sacco decided to focus on World War I, he figured that his usual you-are-there comics journalism just wasn't appropriate; after all, he wasn't there. Plus, Jacques Tardi had already done the classic comic (with words) on World War I, as Sacco himself mentions. And given that a lot of verbiage has been spilled telling the story of World War I, perhaps he thought it would be more powerful to tell the story only with pictures, to draw the reader into the dehumanizing horror, via these repetitive, impersonal armies of figures with their sad, impersonal little helmets.
Whatever the case was, it was brave of Sacco to chuck the word-image by-play that he is so good at. But it's a tough bet. And at some point, it seems that Sacco the journalist and wordsmith, or perhaps his editor, must have seen the writing on the wall and (unlike the generals who never changed tactic) decided to retreat from his work of pure draughtsmanship. Realizing there would be readers like me who needed a guide, he kindly included an annotated version of the panorama and an essay; it was an excellent instinct. However, I found it awkward going back and forth between the two versions and I have to admit I favored the annotated version over the full-size one; it was just easier in every way to get a handle on.
Now that I have some distance, I see the appeal of the big wordless panorama, especially for those World War I buffs who have had their fill of words. As I watched my son poring over the pictures, crawling from frame to frame, as if he himself were in a trench, I realized that The Great War is not unlike another kind of floor play that is endlessly absorbing – arranging toy soldiers on the fields of war, reliving the year, the month, the day, the hour of battle. It is not a book, but it is, after all, an art.