This week in Classic Comics Cavalcade we look at one of the most brilliant and terrible graphic novels I’ve ever read, a horrifying journey into the horrors of war at the hands of a great comics master. Goddamn this War is brilliant, insightful and disturbing, a real-life journey into the pits of Hell and the depths of human despair in wartime. It’s an outstanding example of the power of comics art to both crate a fully realized world and make readers despair about humanity. Yes, this is a thoroughly depressing book and reading it may want to make you throw up your hands about the horrors of civilization. But it’s also a very real book, a viscerally powerful portrayal of events that should never be forgotten.
Jacques Tardi’s second graphic novel about the horrors of World War I (after the earlier, and equally brilliant It Was the War of the Trenches,) Goddamn this War gives readers a complex view that dreadful war which emotionally and physically devastated an entire generation of Europeans. He presents an intense collection of images, tone poems and history that tells the dreadful tale of the almost unbelievably depersonalized and mechanized destruction of men, animals and even of civilization itself.
If you’re not familiar with his work, Jacques Tardi is a one of the most versatile cartoonists to ever lift a pencil. His “Adele Blanc-Sec” series is a wonderfully imaginative and light-hearted series of adventures, while his Like a Sniper Lining Up His Shot and West Coast Blues are existential crime novels like the Parker series, his You Are There is a surpisingly moving and funny sort of redemption tale, and his New York Mon Amour is a series of short stories that show the existential price that New York takes on people who live there. I’m a huge fan of Tardi’s writing and his lovely clean line style. But to me, the finest work of his career is in his pair of books about the horrors of World War I.
For all the horror, though, Goddamn this War is a beautifully realized book by a true comics master, a work of comic art that illuminates the human condition and tells our history to us in ways that only a master cartoonist could deliver. Though this is a book that’s permeated with despair, it’s also an inspiring comic because of the brilliant and insightful way that it’s portrayed. Presented as a metronomic form as three wide-length panels on each page, the consistency of the page rhythm provides a thoughtful contrast for the terrors that these soldiers experience.
One of the most moving ways that Tardi tells his story is through the use of parallel narrative. In the early sequences in this book, he contrasts the attitudes of French and German soldiers as they prepare to leave for war. The symbolism may be a bit high-handed and obvious, but it’s no less powerful for its familiarity – and Tardi’s scrupulous research is on strong display in these panels. Notice how specific the train stations and uniforms are, how those two panels are clearly taken from photographs but filtered through Tardi’s discerning eye.
Both sides believe that they’re marching towards a quick and decisive victory, but after decades of peace on the European continent, it turns out that everybody involved is completely naïve. Quickly everything slows down.
And quickly the infamous trenches are built. “We were settling in for a long war.”
As Goddamn this War slips into 1915 and the soldiers slip into their trenches, everything takes on a terrible bloody monotony, all mud and rats, exploded heads and mindless boredom.
A year in the trenches leads to an equally terrifying year back on the front lines, for no purpose and no true goal. Such is the classical existential fear of being in war.
And as the days go by and 1916 slips relentlessly into 1917, nothing changes for the men at war but the next thing to terrify them.
Can any man — can any civilization — go through experiences like these and not be profoundly changed? In his simple and straightforward recitation of events, Tardi can’t help but to ask that great existential question. This is the quality of work that separates Jacques Tardi from his peers &ndash
; a smart, world-weary, earned sense of deep cynicism.
Even when the Armistice is signed and the war suddenly ends – again, without anything having to do with the fighting of the common soldiers – the victory is bittersweet, contrasted with all the devastation – physical, psychological, emotional, spiritual – that the war has caused.
With its almost poetic insistence at addressing the events that happen with “you” statements, Tardi pushes the reader to empathize with the lives of these people who lived and died 100 year ago in incredible agony and pain. He brings these distant, complicated, strange events to life in the way that shows his real poetic mastery of the comic form: With writer Jean-Pierre Verney, Jacques Tardi brings this most horrific of all human events to painful, brilliantly depicted life.
Those who died in World War I – the men and women from all the world who suffered the worst possible deprivations and pain in the name of the abstract principle of patriotism – deserve nothing less. We descend into Hell with these soldiers, live their unbelievably intense live, and are inexorably and subtly changed by the experience. That is the power of great Art. That is the power of the great Jacques Tardi.