The Great War: July 1, 1916: The First Day of the Battle of the Somme
Author Joe Sacco on his panoramic fascination with The Great War
Joe Sacco has long traveled to such conflict zones as Bosnia and Palestine and Iraq to report and create some of best comics journalism around. He weaves vivid narratives from the living — and often more acutely, the surviving.
Through it all, though, the Maltese-born Sacco has been transfixed by a war he did not experience — by battles a century past. “The First World War has loomed large in my psyche since my schoolboy days in Australia,” where each anniversary of the Gallipoli landings are commemorated, writes Sacco, adding: “My fascination with the war in which armies clubbed each other for year after year over small bits of ground has never abated.”
Sacco pens those words in his Author’s Note for his new book, “The Great War” (W.W. Norton & Co.), a dazzling 24-plate illustrated panorama of “July 1, 1916: The First Day of the Battle of the Somme.” The wordless narrative history literally unfolds before our eyes, small bit by small bit of ground, as we witness British soldiers marching and maneuvering and fighting along the Western front, in this now gravestone-strewn corner of France. The British — largely the Devonshire Regiment — would sustain more than 50,000 casualties on this day, more than half of those within the first hour of fighting, according to a companion essay in this hard-cased package.
In advance of his talk at Washington’s Politics & Prose bookstore, Comic Riffs caught up with Sacco — a Guggenheim Fellowship recipient and author of “Palestine” and “Footnotes in Gaza” — to talk about his major new work:
Michael Cavna: Congrats on the book, Joe — could you talk about why you chose an atraditional format, and are you pleased with how the finished printing looks?
Joe Sacco: I have to say, I’m proud of it. It’s got the nice hard case that the book fits well into. The colors are well-chosen. [As for] the format: In my early works, the journalism is within certain parameters -- it’s straightforward and tells certain stories. ... Journalism doesn’t [necessarily] lend itself to innovation. I try to stay out of the way of the facts. ... But I have had a desire to do more experimental work. I may start to do some more now.
MC: Could you speak to your early [and lifelong] fascination with World War I?
JS: I have shelves of books about the subject. I’ve been dwelling on it for a long time. In the late ‘80s, I visited gravesites at the Somme. ... In my consciousness, it’s always one of those symbols — when I think [of massive wartime fatalities] of the last century, I think of Somme and the Holocaust and Hiroshima. Those incidents epitomize something about the 20th century. The Somme is up there.
MC: Your book especially illustrates the futility of this war.
JS: The enthusiasm of the troops in the early stages of the war … meets reality. It’s the notion of futility in the extreme. All wars are futile. But some wars probably have to be fought. When people came out of this one [they must have asked]: What was it all about? Was all the cost worth that? … You can question many of the things the Allies did after World War II — the firebombing of Japanese cities [for example] – but there was a sense of purpose that never diminished after the war. World War I is about the human condition as futile.
MC: You write that this is a battle after which, “the common man could have no more illusions” about the war.
JS: We still have those illusions — that what people gain is a sense of understanding. … But looking at it today, we’re still eager to kick a--, especially if we're not incurring [large] casualties. We get on the side of certain things -- like the war in Iraq. The media trumpets it. If things are going well, everyone’s behind it. But once Baghdad falls, another reality sets in.
MC: The statistic that there were 30,000 British casualties within the [Somme] battle’s first hour still registers as staggering.
JS: And there were 57,000 casualties on the first day for the British alone. And of those estimated 30,000 casualties within the first hour, an estimated 10,000 were fatalities. That’s more than the entire amount of American servicemen and women who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan combined — of all American wars of the past 20 years.
MS: Your panorama puts the battle on both a large scale and a very individual level. You get the sense of the long, painstaking preparation before the sudden slaughter — and how humans work in high coordination to kill.
JS: When you talk about generals and politicians, you can find very serious fault there. But part of what troubles me a lot is how the mass of people can get behind something like this. Not everyone is culpable … there were rebels who did not fight. Those people were courageous. … But society judges courage [in terms of] obedience and marching into withering fire. There’s a certain courage that comes with that. But I think it’s more courageous to say no.
MC: How did you decide on the accordion panorama approach?
JS: Ultimately, this idea was really from a friend — we were roommates in New York 15 years ago. The inspiration was very much taken from Matteo Pericoli’s “Manhattan Unfurled.” ... My editor at Norton was interested in doing this. I liked the idea of doing something other than strict journalism. World War I had been percolating in my head for so long — I thought: Maybe now’s the time to do that. The thought of doing a World War I [had been with me] the last 20 years. I bought books to work on the project. … Jacques Tardi’s World War I comic. I saw that and thought: That closes a book for me. It didn’t rely on rational plot structure — there were vignettes. But doing a panorama seemed different from his work. I began to think of the Bayeux Tapestry. It didn’t have to be a static picture and could have a narrative. And like the Bayeux [depicting the Norman Invasion], the narrative could be read left to right [to get] a massive understanding.
MC: This panorama approach is also, of course, a portrait of human nature.
JS: It’s weird. I debate about what human nature is, but I don’t have the answers. ... Trumpeted about is the good side of human nature — that we’re a cooperative species. But sometimes we cooperate in ways that are very destructive. An army gets together, and when else do you have half a million people cooperating on something, working toward the same ends?
MC: What’s your goal in creating such a piece — what does you hope it provides?
JS: I don’t know [the reason] when I’m doing it. I’m sort of wrapped up in what it’s providing me. The drawing takes [such] time, and it’s a luxury to dwell on certain things. I’m wondering about the soldiers and trying to give them life. That’s the payoff for the artist in a lot of ways.
MC: This is such a visual lesson. Do you think this is something that schoolteachers might put up along a [high school or middle school] classroom wall?
JS: I do hope so. World War I for Americans doesn’t resonate like it does in Europe and the Commonwealth. What I do hope is [that students] get a visual idea … as an entrée into some study of this war.
MC: This is so different from panel-to-panel work. How did you approach rendering the perspective and long, tracking visual reality of this piece?
JS: I have to say, it’s difficult. What I did is establish the rhythm of the thing. I did thumbnails in loose form -- my editor insisted. He had to sell the idea to other editors at [the publisher] Norton. ... Once that rhythm is started and you have a rough idea, those were good enough marking points so I could proceed. The most difficult part was the composition at the beginning. I’ve worked on a lot of double-page spreads, but I had never sat down with a sheet yard of board. I’m not one for roughing things out on a different sheet of paper. I start drawing right away on the board, erasing about half of what I’m drawing. … But this was quite a human canvas.
MC: And it’s powerful to end the human canvas with people digging the makeshift graves.
JS: The thing is, with illustrations like this, I go to the quotidian aspects of a battle like this. It’s an amazing event, with all these little details that people have to do along the way.
MC: And what about the choice to go wordless [no word balloons or direct captions]?
JS: I wanted to be a little more disinterested [as the storyteller]. Most of my journalism is up close and gets up into the minds of people who are sort of being roiled by political and historical events. I sort of thought of myself as an alien going into 1916. And I didn’t really try to [attach judgment] in terms of having a feeling about General Haig. I was aware that some would vilify him and there are those who would rehabilitate him. ... I had my own feelings, but I want people to come away with their own interpretation. ... Then hopefully they will read the introduction.
MC: Between your panorama and the book’s companion text [by Adam Hochschild], the philosophical “Why we fight?”question is raised.
JS: There is a sort of fetishism of glorious failure or glorious inevitability. I don’t quite understand it. … In trying to understand the motivations of most soldiers, it’s not so much the bigger ideal — it’s usually about the person next to them. What the person next to them thinks, especially an officer — the pretension you have to keep up.
There is also that loyalty between soldiers, that brotherly love. I’ve spent time in Iraq and was always impressed how much the soldiers care for each other.
MC: Do we ever learn anything from previous wars like the Somme, other than technological and tactical advancements?
JS: I’m not sure that we do. Individuals learn things. But it’s frustrating. It seems like things [repeatedly] go down the same path anyway. These are the questions I’m asking myself. I’m not in the position to answer them [now]. That’s the exploration.
MC: As opposed to “The Great War,” many of your books concern the innocent civilians whose lives get steamrollered by bigger conflicts and world events.
JS: I grew up with parents who were in World War II. ... It’s heartbreaking, the amount of people on this Earth who have no say in what is happening to them. What I realize is that I am incredibly lucky where I live [the Portland area]. ... Conflict zones make me realize how fragile [things are].
MC: Last year when we spoke, you mentioned that parts of the United States were now worse off economically than war zones you covered. Has anything changed?
JS: If you look at the overall economy, the metrics financially [suggest we’re] doing better. But anecdotally ... poverty seems to be increasing. … I have to sort of wonder if the gilded age between 1955 and 1975 [isn’t returning]. … When I was in junior high and high school, it felt like it was always going to be that way — the expanding middle class seemed so inevitable, [as if] it would continue forever.
MC: Lastly, Chris Ware, in blurbing your work, refers to every stroke of your “humblingly mature pen.” Does your hand feel humblingly mature at this point?
JS: [laughs] What does mature feel like? I am humbled by Chris Ware and a lot of other artists and writers around me.