David L. Ulin: 'The Great War,' told in images

November 5, 2013 

David-ulin-2002For Joe Sacco, the decision to do "The Great War" (W.W. Norton: boxed, unpaged, $35) grew out of a kind of dare.

The idea ó to create a panoramic drawing of the Western Front, and more specifically, the first day of the Battle of the Somme ó had been a source of late-night conversation in the 1990s, when heíd shared a New York apartment with a young editor named Matt Weiland, who, like Sacco, was fascinated by the First World War.

Fifteen years later, after Weiland took a job at W.W. Norton, one of the first calls he made was to Sacco, to ask if he "was ready to revisit this presumably alcohol-induced idea."

"My first reaction was no," Sacco recalls with a little laugh of memory, over the phone from Portland, Ore., where he lives.

At 53, the journalist and artist ó who over the last 20 years has produced a series of reported comics from war zones in Bosnia and the Middle East, including "Palestine," which won a 1996 American Book Award, "Safe Area Gorazde," supported in part by a 2001 Guggenheim Fellowship, and "Footnotes in Gaza," a 2009 Los Angeles Times Book Prize finalist, which looks into the mass killing of Palestinians by Israeli army units in 1956 ó had grown tired of conflict, although, he says, "I can never get away."

To Sacco, journalism is more than a job, it is a calling, a way of telling stories that must be told. And yet, he has come to realize, "it doesnít answer all the questions. At some point, you start to wonder: Whatís in the mind of a killer?"

Such a question is especially fraught for a journalist who tells stories in the form of comics, since no matter how scrupulous the reporting, we are inevitably aware of his framing eye.

"When I did ĎFootnotes,í" Sacco recalls, "I was asked why I didnít draw the faces of the soldiers. It was because I didnít know what they were thinking so I couldnít draw them. I didnít know who they were."

This suggests one of the challenges of "The Great War," which looks back to 1916 and is, therefore, less a work of journalism than of history. And yet, paradoxically, this gave Sacco his first inkling of how to approach the project, as the expression of a mass event.

"It made me think, how do I do this?" he explains. "There were many different directions it could go. Normally, I would try to personalize; here I wanted to take a step back. What I wanted to portray was a very large army with one objective ó moving forward and dying together."

To highlight this intention, "The Great War" breaks out of the comics format altogether, offering one extended image, a 24-foot black and white drawing, accordion-folded and bound into a hardcover slipcase that can be read, left to right, like a tapestry or a scroll. Among its inspirations was Matteo Pericoliís "Manhattan Unfurled," a continuous representation of the New York City skyline, published in 2001.

Sacco, however, "didnít want to draw a static picture," so he began to look for other models, eventually turning to the Bayeux Tapestry, a medieval work that records the Norman Conquest; he describes it in an authorís note as "my touchstone" for its ability to evoke narrative in a single frame.

"Iíve always loved medieval art," he says, "and how medieval artists approach space and time. Space is metaphoric. An inch can be a mile or 100 yards. Once I realized that, I didnít have to worry about perspective. I could make it claustrophobic in a medieval way."

Thus, "The Great War" opens with Gen. Douglas Haig, commander of the British Expeditionary Force, walking in the garden of his headquarters, before moving on to an overlapping image of Haig on horseback, riding past troops as they mass for the front. Were this a traditional (or even strictly realistic) effort, Haig could not be in two places at once, but thatís the beauty and the challenge of the form.

"Itís different than a comic," Sacco says, "because there are no panels, so the image has to hold together as you walk across it. The idea was to take soldiers from the rear to the battle and out, ending with them walking back to the casualty station, men in bandages and graves." Indeed, at one point, he refers to the narrative as "the general and the grave, and what happened in between" ó as succinct a metaphor for war, any war, as we are likely to come across.

What happened in between, of course, is the essence of the story: a massacre in which Haig so miscalculated the effects of his artillery on the German trenches that 20,000 British troops were slaughtered the first day.

"Thatís more than all the Americans killed in Iraq and Afghanistan combined," Sacco says by way of perspective ó although as we move through his drawing, perspective shatters, the lines of British soldiers collapsing into chaos, the battlefield devastated by explosions and violent death.

"Plans for the orderly march forward in line abreast were quickly abandoned as men separated into small groups and sought the shelter of hillocks and shell holes," historian Adam Hochschild writes in an essay that accompanies "The Great War"; the power of Saccoís image, though, is that it encapsulates all that without words.

"I didnít want this to be about bravery," he insists, "but about carnage and its aftereffects. There was such enthusiasm on both sides. This was where you had to be if you were a young man of a certain age. But where does it lead? Even when I was drawing, I wanted to think about these things. I always knew that the battle would be at the center, but I also wanted to illustrate the trenches, and how they kept feeding, always feeding, the beast."

This is the difference between history and journalism, which we might define as the difference between the big picture and the small. When it comes to journalism, in other words, it is important to see the faces of the soldiers, whereas history involves too many faces to see them all.

"As someone who has done a lot of work with conflict," Sacco says, "I begin to wonder about the species. Not just the British and the Germans; Iím thinking about humanity and our enthusiasm for war. A journalist goes to the next conflict, but in the end, to me, you see the same thing. Itís cooperative, but what is it that we cooperate on? What do we put our shoulder to? It never goes away, this great human endeavor that is war."




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