Book Review: Cartoonist explores a key battle in WWI with mixed results

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The first thing you notice when sliding Joe Sacco’s “The Great War: July 1, 1916: The First Day of the Battle of the Somme” from its case is the scope of the project: 24 feet of comics journalism covering one of the most horrific days of modern times, the Battle of the Somme.

Finding space to look at the expanse of attached panels turns out to be the easy part. But let’s back up a little. Many people consider Joe Sacco our finest comics war journalist. From books like “Palestine,” an American Book Award winner, to the recent “Journalism,” Mr. Sacco has delivered firsthand accounts of strife-torn locations across the globe.

In the process, his work has come to define what can be accomplished with the form. His newest book, while displaying his trademark moral intelligence, is also something of a departure both in terms of subject and style.

By Joe Sacco
W.W. Norton & Company ($35)

To begin with, the story arrives with an enormous amount of previous representations. Who hasn’t seen grainy photos of doughboys with dread-infused grins squinting from under their helmets? Or those black-and-white panoramas of corpse-strewn destruction? In a brief introduction, Mr. Sacco refers to “the shelves of books” he has on the subject and to his research.

Noted journalist Adam Hochschild contributes an essay describing the perverse extravagance of the operation, as if words might help us better grasp it:55 miles of railroad, 70,000 miles of telephone lines, and in the end, over 57,000 dead or wounded on the first day of the campaign. Although Mr. Sacco has worked with literary journalists before, this time it seems almost an acknowledgement that the complexity of the iconic battle and the sheer magnitude of the carnage will defy successful graphic representation.

So what exactly has Joe Sacco done? Although drawn in his hallmark style, the book lacks two signature qualities: detailed commentary on the individuals experiencing the conditions he depicts (Mr. Sacco eschews both dialogue balloons and commentary) and the New-Journalistic presence of himself as a character. Their absence raises critical conceptual issues.

Whereas most panels display a combination of masses of men and a few closely observed individuals, these two perspectives can generate a visual antagonism. In an early section, for example, a dense formation of anonymous soldiers marches through the center of the scene while in the background others either load and fire cannons or sprawl under trees apparently awaiting orders.

In the foreground is a field kitchen where one soldier in line for rations looks toward the plane-streaked sky with a beautifully captured expression of innocent exuberance.

As viewers, we are left trying to attribute a similarly particularized existence to those other soldiers and simultaneously second-guessing our accuracy. The situation becomes more urgent when the panels document the actual campaign.

Here, as throughout the book, Mr. Sacco’s perspective remains above and behind the action, and as the crush of soldiers leave their trenches for “no man’s land,” we remain staring down at their backs. Rendering battle sequences from this orientation makes identifying with the thoughts and experiences of individual soldiers difficult.

Some turned faces create opportunities to feel the situation, but overall we are detached spectators, quite unlike, say, the “Death and Deliverance” or “White Death” sections of Mr. Sacco’s “Safe Area Gorazade” where we are acquainted with many participants and are on ground level with the action.

In the panels depicting the campaign after its murderous peak, this sheltering perspective gives way, and the possibility to engage becomes stronger, but it also arrives late.

Perhaps Mr. Sacco’s intention is to insist on the disquieting politics of looking. But if so, the tactic risks what might be called, in the spirit of Susan Sontag, another student of human suffering, a kind of moral prurience where the sheer scope—and the unremitting muteness— of the scenes can make viewing the panels a strangely voyeuristic experience.

In this regard, his brief annotations in the accompanying booklet are no substitute for his usual method of appearing within the action, a moral plumb to help us bear witness to the atrocities human beings commit against one another.

Tackling its weighty subject, “The Great War” carries a special burden. If it doesn’t always cleanly fulfill expectations, it’s still a book worth having because of the important central question it asks: Really, how are we supposed to respond to the moral affront that is war?

Robert Peluso is co-founder of Braddock Avenue Books and teaches literature at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh.

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