Thursday, August 7, 2014

Gabriel Winslow-Yost - Grim Fragments of the Great War

“The only thing that interests me is man and his suffering,” declares French cartoonist Jacques Tardi in the foreword to his It Was the War of the Trenches, “and it fills me with rage.” The book that follows—a series of delicately drawn, thoroughly researched, thoroughly grim vignettes of life in the trenches during World War I—bears him out. Tardi’s war does not unfold linearly, nor, although it sticks to the French troops, does it give us a distinct set of characters to follow. Instead, it skips from soldier to soldier and year to year, starting with a series of artillery barrages (“The muzzles of the cannons turn red hot and their servants go deaf”) in late 1917, then turning back to the outbreak of war in 1914 (an old man is beaten to death in a cafe for refusing to sing La Marseillaise, “one of the first victims of the war”), then ahead again to a French infantry charge at an unspecified battle in 1916, and on, crabwise, from there.
It’s a war not of progression or strategy, but of madness and agony, told in fragments. The Germans advance using civilians as shields, and the French fire anyway. A company struggles back to the trenches after a charge has ended in devastating failure and is shelled by its own general—for “cowardice.” A cook’s attempt to deliver soup and wine to his trenchmates becomes a night-long, thirteen-page journey through hell, featuring a suicide by hand-grenade, a tumble into “mud” made of disintegrating corpses, and the dying confession of a fed-up soldier who’s been murdering military police and is caught in a shelling.
Published in France in 1993, It Was the War of the Trenches was finally translated into English in 2010 by the late, influential Fantagraphics publisher Kim Thompson. Along with Tardi’s later book about the war, Goddamn This War! (2008-2009; translated by Thompson in 2013), it is one of the most passionately bleak works in the history of comics. Tardi is unremitting in his focus on the small, human details of the catastrophe—not just the look of uniforms and weaponry, but the way one soldier advances in an awkward, stiff-armed posture, “protecting my belly with the butt of the rifle,” and the way another makes sculptures and rings from discarded shells, to sell to his comrades. The closest thing to a panoramic view comes from the beleaguered cook: “Amazing how much harm it was possible to inflict on men and beasts,” he reflects, gazing at a dead horse lodged in a tree. “On men, fine, it was their war after all.”
This is not exactly a joy to read, to be sure. (Tardi himself found the book “exhausting” to make, and produced it in dribs and drabs over the course of a decade.) What pulls you along is the liveliness and authority of Tardi’s style. No matter the subject, his line is immediately recognizable: clear and solid, but also loose, even casual. He tightens up a bit to render the details of architecture, machinery, or clothing, then indicates a distant tree or a reflection in a puddle with a simple well-placed scribble. His depiction of a captain’s trench quarters, midway through It Was the War, is typically confident. The sandbags above the entrance, the kerosene lamp hanging from the low ceiling, the crucifix and family photos on the wall, the contrast between the captain’s kempt moustache and relaxed posture and the scruffy weariness of a sergeant reporting to him—all this is drawn with immediacy and precision, but without any fussiness; the Christ on the crucifix is little more than an oblong blob, the light from the lamp just a speckling of white.
On Tardi’s page, the world has weight. Clothes wrinkle and drape, get wet and drag the wearer down; objects topple, shatter, rot. The Tardi man is solid, stolid, world-weary; his shoulders are slumped, his hands thick-fingered and lumpy, his face wide-nosed, heavy-browed; he lugs, he bends, he squints through the smoke of his cigarette. I’m sure there’s a dancing scene or two in Tardi’s oeuvre, but it’s hard to picture. (At one point inGoddamn This War!, a young soldier lets out an entirely carefree grin, and it looks like it was drawn by someone else.) Violence and gore, when they come, are all the more shocking for the way they break this heavy world apart. The drawing becomes rough and violent, blobs and dots and squiggles strewn across the page. A shell goes off in a graveyard and the explosion is a wash of black and white smudges, with bodies flying through it; a corpse in a trench has a head that is half carefully rendered face, half smear of ink.
Since the late 1960s, Tardi has had a multifarious, wildly productive career, drawing everything from light-hearted science fiction to family memoir to adaptations of the crime novels of Jean-Patrick Manchette (the third and last of these, Run Like Crazy Run Like Hell, is due out in English this winter). His style has shifted a little with each—especially bare and scratchy for the intimate nihilism of his Manchette adaptations, especially slick for the nostalgic clutter of the ongoing Extraordinary Adventures of Adele Blanc-Sec, his gleefully cynical (and extremely popular) historical adventure series... read more: