Saturday, June 15, 2013

Combat Panorama: A Sneak Peek at Joe Sacco's The Great War

I came home yesterday to find a thin envelope from publisher W. W. Norton, heralding an advance copy of a book they thought I might like: The Great War.  Inside: a piece of 8-1/2 by 11 cardboard that unfolded into an astonishing triptych of a battle scene drawn by Joe Sacco (author of Palestine and Safe Area Gorazde, among others).  These were three of twenty-four panels from Sacco's new "book" coming in November.

I air-quoted "book" because though this will be a handsome volume packaged in a deluxe hardcover slipcase, it's more like a continuously unscrolling narrative.  Imagine one 24-foot black-and-white drawing printed on heavyweight accordion-fold paper, an entire war-is-hell panorama stretched across the length of a room.  There are no words in The Great War, only Sacco's soldiers, shell bursts, and trenches.  Judging by the three panels I was privileged to see, this will be enough.  Here is one of those sections:

Click to enlarge

This is the third panel of the unfolded three which were in my envelope and, if my eye "reads" left to right like a panning camera, it is the most brutal.  In the first two panels, we see British soldiers in their trenches--smoking, talking quietly, loading their knapsacks, mounting the ladders that lead them onto a battlefield whose horizon is one wall of smoke, fire and explosions.  It's not until this third panel that we actually see death--and then it's pretty brutal (note the two torsos flying through the air on the right).  Sacco sure as hell doesn't need words to make his point.

The single-scene book depicts one of the most infamous days of World War I: the Battle of the Somme on July 1, 1916--a day on which nearly 20,000 British soldiers were killed and another 40,000 wounded.  Staggering, sad statistics, rendered all the more telling by Sacco's pen.

My package from Norton came with an author's note from Sacco:
      The Great War is modeled in part on Mateo Pericoli's wordless Manhattan Unfurled, a beautiful, accordion-style foldout drawing of the city's skyline. As a comic book artist, however, I felt impelled to provide a narrative, so the Bayeux Tapestry, which tells the story of the Norman invasion of England, was my touchstone. In the interest of making the drawing compact, I referenced medieval art in other, stylistic ways, namely by dispensing with realistic perspective and proportion. Thus a few inches in the drawing might represent a hundred yards or a mile of reality. However, I have tried to get the details--the field kitchens, the horse ambulances--right.
      Making The Great War wordless made it impossible to indict the high command or laud the sacrifice of the soldiers. It was a relief not to do these things. All I could do was show what happened between the general and the grave, and hope that even after a hundred years the bad taste has not been washed from our mouths.
World War I was known as "the War to End All Wars."  That, as we all know, was dozens of wars ago.  And now we're left with the continuous taste of death and destruction in our mouths.

Sacco's wide-angle landscape of war reminds me of the Cyclorama in Atlanta, the 15,030-square-foot oil painting of a Civil War battle; or even a great, sweeping CinemaScope scene from a David Lean film--with one exception: I can hold Sacco's 24-foot battlefield in my hands and easily visit it any time I like.  I'm looking forward to seeing more of The Great War when it arrives in November.

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