Joe Sacco, the decision to do "The Great War"
(W.W. Norton: boxed, unpaged, $35) grew out of a kind of
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.
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
first reaction was no," Sacco recalls with a little
laugh of memory, over the phone from Portland, Ore.,
where he lives.
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
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?"
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
"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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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
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