Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Josh Ellenbogen reviews Joe Sacco’s The Great War

Joe Sacco. The Great War, July 1, 1916: The First Day of the Battle of the Somme. New York: W. W. Norton, 2013. 54 pp.

Reviewed by Josh Ellenbogen

When art historians such as myself comment on work such as that of Joe Sacco, the Maltese-American cartoonist and comics journalist, the results sometimes prove calamitous. Anxious to establish our populism, the relevance of the visual skills we teach to contemporary culture, and our claim to an infectious and endearing enthusiasm for “all things visual,” we can fall over ourselves in praise of such work, sometimes adopting a frankly uncritical stance before it. Coupled with the fact that the subject of Joe Sacco’s The Great War—the British Somme offensive of 1916—is one in which I have a deep and abiding interest, I confess to having started my appraisal of this work with a significant amount of skepticism.

But Sacco has in fact put together a compelling and instructive representation of the Somme, one that offers a unique vantage on the central moment of Britain’s experience in World War I. Sacco’s reputation to this point rests on work such as that of Palestine and Safe Area Gorazde, graphic novels in comic book format that have concerned the conflicts in the Middle East and the former Yugoslavia. The Great War, in addition to bearing on a subject from the more distant past, dispenses with an internal textual accompaniment. An 8-inch wide by 22-foot long panoramic drawing, presented as an accordion-fold book of twenty-four plates, The Great War narrates, in pictorial form, the preparations for, conduct of, and aftermath to the notorious British assaults of the Somme battle’s opening day, 1 July. For this reason, while Sacco states that Matteo Pericoli’s panoramic drawing of New York City Manhattan Unfurled inspired The Great War, he locates his work’s primary model in The Bayeux Tapestry, another picture-story of another battle.

Sacco’s The Great War provides a treatment of the Somme very much in line with traditional estimates of the battle (this statement also applies to the short essay about the Somme by Adam Hochschild, which appears in a separate pamphlet sold with the panorama). While the French army to the South of the British fared significantly better on the Somme, the British assaults of 1 July have become synonymous with catastrophe and dashed hope. After a weeklong artillery bombardment of the German lines, the British launched the assault that they earnestly believed might win the war. Instead, in just a few hours, they suffered no fewer than 60,000 casualties, of whom some 20,000 died, all in exchange for modest advances into German lines (by the battle’s termination in November, the British, French, and Germans had suffered a combined total of approximately 1.2 million casualties). For these reasons, the Somme has lent itself particularly well to all the classic emplotments of World War I—unmitigated military disaster, callous and unimaginative generals, the death of a generation, Western Europe’s loss of confidence and cultural cohesion, and the destruction of a more innocent Victorian world. One could argue that parts of this account are slightly overblown, but the classic picture deservedly retains enough traction to make Sacco’s work poignant.

One of the main things that gives The Great War its power consists in its manipulations of space and time—the space within the drawing, and the time within the battle. It offers a rhythmic display of the two expanding and contracting, doing so always in inverse proportion to one another. Because it makes use of this technique, Sacco’s work gives itself, especially in its middle panels, a novel means by which to communicate the sheer intensity of battlefield experience. 

At either of its ends, the panorama is sealed by the vastest spans of time— these are symbolized, quite strikingly, by the most cramped bands of pictorial space. Confined to a few inches of the drawing’s 22-foot length, these narrow bands function as lids for the work. At one end, we have a picture meant to encompass at least six months of time. It strives to embrace in one image the activities of Sir Douglas Haig, the controversial architect of the Somme Offensive, as he planned the battle from his headquarters (planning for the Somme had begun in December of 1915). At the furthest left edge of the work, the drawing’s inception, the amount of time at issue seems in fact to expand to the eternal. We see the famously devout Haig emerging from prayer in church, fresh from communion with divinity. Sacco confines this scene to an approximately 2-inch margin.

As the story unfolds from plate 1, the units of time that the work pictures grow progressively shorter, and consequently acquire, in the work’s logic, more and more pictorial space. Plates 2–5, which concern the build-up of men and materiel behind British lines prior to the battle, encompass a period of weeks, while plates 6–11, which show British forces entering the trenches in preparation for their assault, handle the days just before the battle (plates 8–10 are darker than the rest of the panorama, indicating they depict the night of 30 June/1 July). These scenes of preparation for battle are rich in anecdotal detail. We see a soldier urinating against a building, men playing cards, officers writing letters, and everywhere the presence of the Somme’s central feature—the great guns that dominated World War I. Sacco renders the paraphernalia of war with punctilious fidelity, and clearly wants viewers to pick out individual stories within the enormous mass of soldiery he depicts, where men, horses, crates, and weaponry are piled on top of one another.         

This goes on until we reach the events that commence with plate 12. Here, what amounts to only a few minutes of time receive a diffuse expanse of drawing, running on to plate 19. We witness the terrible destruction of British battalions, advancing into a maelstrom of German machine gun and artillery fire. On the Somme, unlucky units with a starting strength of 875 sustained, in less than a quarter of an hour, over 800 casualties. Apart from their expansion of pictorial space, these panels communicate their focusing of time by the sudden attenuation of anecdotal detail. Individual figures still stand out, but there is little room for telling different stories about different men, just endless repetitions of death. In the panels that show battle, time attains such concentration that the trivial and the unique get burned away, cannot sustain themselves under these conditions. In the upper left corner of plate 13, a group of soldiers are being routinely machine-gunned. Sacco renders them with a dreadful perfunctoriness, a line of rudely drawn figures on a frill of grass, kicking out their limbs to announce their deaths.  

After this climax of concentrated temporality, as though breathing out, the work begins slowly to expand time again, progressively treating larger units of time in smaller amounts of space. We see wounded soldiers making their way back from the lines, new battalions marching up to continue the battle, a man carrying a message, a broken down ambulance with an orderly vomiting beside it, an unruly horse kicking. In plates 20–23, time returns to a more leisurely pace, allowing the viewer once again to remark on difference and individuality. This lengthening of time continues until plate 24, the work’s last panel, in which time takes on such a scale that these questions no longer matter. In its closing marginal band, plate 24 reprises, in grimmer form, the eternity that plate 1 offered—in the last inches of the panorama, we see British dead going to their final resting place, a cemetery just behind the lines. While the Somme has received enormous amounts of commentary, some of it maudlin, Sacco’s pictorial strategies establish a new way of figuring the intensity of this battle, and the slaughter that has become its byword.