Monday, May 28, 2012

Book Review: "It Was the War of the Trenches"

In our recent visit to France, we toured the fantastic Historial de la Grande Guerre museum in Peronne. Along with a staggering collection of uniforms, weapons, equipment and artifacts, the museum presented a very interesting perspective on the origins of the war. And there was, of course, a gift shop ;-) And in that gift shop, there was a fine collection of posters, including some very cool posters advertising past "special exhibits" at the museum. One of the exhibits focussed on comic art, and one of its finest current practitioners, the masterful Jacques Tardi.

The poster art inspired me to pick up Tardi's book "It Was the War of the Trenches", available in English from Fantagraphics. Notwithstanding the English title (which is so incredibly clunky that I'm surprised that it made it past the editor), the images in this book are mesmerizing - no less than visions of Hell through a two-dimensional black-and-white lens. The book is comprised of short stories featuring the average poilu. No superheroes (or really even regular heroes) here - just ordinary men thrown into the horrifying, otherwordly Hellscape of the Western Front. The artwork and storytelling is amazing - although depressing - and gives a real sense of the despair and horror that must have been the lot of the poilu.

It was very interesting to me to see the War from the French perspective. I'm used to studying the Great War from the British/Commonwealth perspective - and even in terms of comic art, the "Charley's War" series by Pat Mills and Joe Colquhoun. "Charley's War" is a quite different proposition from IWAWOTT both in terms of art and tone. The British strip has a very "2000AD" feel with a more realistic artistic style, while Tardi's work is a bit more... "impressionistic"? Faces are evocative and expressive while being more cartoony in style. Details of uniforms and weapons are excellent in both strips. The tone of "Charley's War", while it contains an element of horror, tends to be somewhat more "traditional comic" in the sense that the story is driven by action and combat, while Tardi's work is vignette-like and not episodic at all. From a gaming perspective, either work will get you revved up about painting and gaming, but to me it's clear that Tardi's is the more "mature" work, a definitive masterpiece of war art that will stand the test of time.

I'm not a big comic guy but I really love this book. I am anxious to hear whether Tardi's other Great War magnum opus - "Putain de Guerre!" - will be translated into English. It looks fantastic, following a single poilu through the War from 1914-18. In its English translation, IWAWOTT is highly recommended as part of a popular library on the Great War - even for readers who are not comic fans.

"It Was the War of the Trenches" Hardcover, 120 B/W pages, Fantagraphics Books. RRP $24.99USD


tim said...

That's a great review Dallas. Tardi's book is amazing. I remember reading them in snippets in Drawn & Quarterly years ago. I was so glad when Fantagraphics collected them into a book.

It's odd have very few comics there are set in the Great War - considering how many are set in WW2!? I've only come across a handful - and I've been looking - being interested in comics (especially historical comics) and the Great War.

The only ones I can think of are Charley's War, that you mentioned, Enemy Ace: War Idyll (and the companion volume No Man's Land - which isn't really comics - it's just a bunch of sketches George Pratt did while preparing Enemy Ace). There's White Death - which, interestingly, is set on the Italian/Austrian front. I seem to recall feeling "That's it!?" when I finished reading it... I'll have to dig it out again. And there was a book called Trenches by Scot Mills (that was utter crap - historically speaking).

Curt said...

Very cool. I'll definitely be picking this up.


Ray Rousell said...

Sounds like an excellent book, thanks for the review.

The Angry Lurker said...

Sounds well worth a read, thanks for that!

Dusty said...

For those who would like more of a taster,you can download a free 10-page preview of the book at