A different sort of hell

I’ve been in Grant Writing Hell for most of last week and right through this long week-end. Everything has to be in by tomorrow morning, and I’ll post the final version of what has become Medical-military machines and casualties of war 1914-2014 once it’s done and I am in recovery (for an early preview see here).  If only I could track down whoever persuaded the Social Science and Humanities Research Council (and the rest of the world for that matter) that drop-down menus achieve consistency and save time… They don’t; apart from the time taken to scroll through endless lists the pre-selected categories never seem to quite fit so you have to click “Other” AND THEN TYPE IT IN ANYWAY.

SACCO The Great War

But I must stick my head above the parapet to notice Joe Sacco‘s forthcoming book The Great War, July 1, 1916, due out at the end of this month/early next.  It depicts the first day of the Battle of the Somme, which for Sacco represents ‘the point where the common man could have no more illusions about the nature of modern warfare’, and I’ve selected (below) panels that speak directly to Medical-military machines.  Writing in the Guardian, Steve Rose explains:

Technically it’s not a book at all: The Great War is actually one continuous drawing, a 24ft-long panorama narrating the British forces’ experience of 1 July 1916, spatially and chronologically, from orderly morning approach to chaotic battlefield engagement to grim aftermath. There are no boxes of text or speech bubbles, no individuated characters, instead Sacco portrays a mass event in painstaking, monochrome, almost technical detail. It’s like a cross between Hergé and the Chapman brothers; the Bayeux Tapestry as a silent movie.

SACCO The Great War

It took Sacco eight months, working in part from photographs held at the Imperial War Museum in London.  ‘When you’re drawing,’ he told Rose,

‘it makes you experience things at a deeper level. Because you kind of inhabit the whole scene … You inhabit each person you draw. You have to give some individuality to each figure, no matter how small they are. I’m leading them to war, and in a way I’m killing them. It’s a very intimate experience.’

In  a departure from Sacco’s previous works there are no words – remember Walter Benjamin: ‘I have nothing to say only to show’ (though he was writing about literary montage) – though there is an accompanying essay by historian Adam Hochschil (adapted from his own book, To end all wars).  In an author’s note Sacco explains:

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.

He’s also cited other influences – the late Joe Colquhoun‘s Charley’s War [there’s an excellent and probably unique interview here], Jacques Tardi‘s It was the war of the trenches (see here).

The physical scale of the project is extraordinary – a day a foot, you might say – and NPR unfolded the panorama in its newsroom:

NPR unfolds Sacco

Here it is in a jerky video from Vimeo:

Laura Sneddon has an interesting report from Sacco’s appearance at the Edinburgh International Book Festival earlier this year, where he situated The Great War in relation to his previous work (notably, for me anyway, Palestine and Footnotes in Gaza) and described his take on his combination of listening-drawing-reporting.

I like the description of Sacco as a graphic journalist, and if you want to know more about his work there’s a short overview by Hannah Sender, a thoughtful review of Sacco’s Journalism by Rob Clough at The Comics Journal,  and a fine short article by Reed Johnson published by the Los Angeles Times to coincide with Footnotes.  In it, Sacco said he was at the point of thinking it was time ‘to walk away from battlefields…’  I’m glad he didn’t.

If you’re in London later this month he’s appearing at the LRB Bookshop on Monday 28 October  in conversation with David Boyd Hancock.

SACCO The Great War 2

Perhaps I should have drawn my application…