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Monday, 28 July 2014

Joe Sacco’s “The Great War”

My thanks to old Eurocomics stalwart Sebchoq for reminding me of this. The news item from The New Yorker is from November 2013 but this "exhibit" is something to go and see if you are in Paris this Summer!

Joe Sacco’s latest work, “The Great War,” a twenty-four-foot-long panorama that folds like an accordion, illustrates the first day of the Battle of the Somme, one of the bloodiest battles in history, which took place on July 1, 1916. The Maltese-American cartoonist is best known for his comics journalism, including works like “Palestine,” “Safe Area Goražde,” and “Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt” (his 2012 New York Times best-selling collaboration with Chris Hedges), but “The Great War” is a purely visual work, homing in on a specific moment in history. We spoke with Sacco about his approach.

When I got a call from an old friend of mine, an editor at Norton, asking me to draw a panorama of the Western front, my first response was “No!” Being a cartoonist, I always think in terms of narrative—but I grew up on Australia, and there the First World War truly gives Australians a sense of national identity. I’ve been reading about it since I was a kid, and I’ve spent so much time thinking about it—I’ve read so many books—that in the end, I thought, Why not?
When you read obsessively about a subject, at some point you begin to wonder about yourself. Why am I reading another book about the First World War? What’s pulling me in? So one of the reasons I agreed to do this panorama was trying to deal with my historical voyeurism: O.K., I should deal with this now, because otherwise, why did I visit the Somme battlefield fifteen years ago? It was almost like a penance for a boyhood interest that had lasted so long.
I don’t feel a separation from the people I read about in history books. Right now, I’m working on a long book on Mesopotamia—that’s years in the making, it’ll take a long time. I’ve been obsessed with the Middle Ages, I’ve been obsessed with the ancient world, I read a lot about different subjects—and to me, they’re all living people, just people who are just no longer with us.
When we first talked about my drawing a panorama of the Western front, the idea seemed static. But immediately I thought of the Bayeux Tapestry [a work probably made in the eleventh century depicting the Norman Conquest], which has a narrative. William the Conqueror in France is getting ready for the invasion; they’re building the boats; they’re crossing the English Channel; then there’s the Battle of Hastings, and you basically read it left to right. It just came to my mind that I could show soldiers marching up to the front, going to the trenches, going over the top, and then returning after they’ve been wounded, back through the lines to the casualty-clearing station behind the front. So it seemed like a very simple idea, and to be honest, I just wanted to draw. On a visceral level, it was just a pleasure to think only in terms of drawing.
It was a relief not to think about words, and to do a different kind of research. I did a lot of image research and I actually had to read a lot of books, because sometimes prose takes you where photography never went. I would read and get images in my head, and it was just a matter of putting them down. I’ve spent a lot of time doing journalism, and I still am interested in it, but I think the artist side of me wants to sort of come out now. And that’s what the Great War was to me, letting myself go in that direction.
I can’t get journalism out of my blood, so even for this First World War drawing, I needed to get everything right about the details. With the Mesopotamia project, which is very historical, I’m interviewing archaeologists, so that’s how my journalism background comes into it—it’s not just about reading and then distilling. I can get to the level where I can ask intelligent questions, but obviously you have to speak to people who really know that sort of stuff and have spent ten years on digs.
When I worked on “Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt” with Chris Hedges, it grew organically—he and I are good friends. I’d do these little scenes of some of the people we met. I’ve done that in my other work, so I thought, Why not just translate the approach into an American context?
I’ll probably never give up journalism … but I’ve done this for twenty years and I’m not sure I need to go to another conflict zone. You begin to see the similarities in certain human behaviors, and that starts to interest you. There are some things that may be easier to approach artistically than journalistically. I’m not sure I’ll write fiction, but fiction allows a writer to connect the dots while journalists often place the dots down without connecting them. And, I mean, I just need a creative change.
 There are some video links but the videos are in French.



  1. Phenomenal idea. Breathtaking art in every detail. What more can I say ? I wish I had the guts and the talent to take on a task like this.

  2. Speaking as an historian with an interest in the military all I could say was "incredible". Maybe not enough solid blacks! Now THIS is what people should be doing for the anniversary of what was, really the 2nd World War of 1914-1918! (the first being the Napoleonic war which encompassed the United States/Canada, Egypt and so on. It was also referred to as "The Great War" (its okay -they did a reboot so it was all changed).

  3. Lack of solid black ...True. But did you notice this was not in colour ? Colour would have taken away from the mesmeric quality of the fine line drawing - I think that the lack of solid blacks lends a truely dream-like quality to the work. In the second video - where they display the whole picture on a subway wall in France -the slight curvature of the subway tunnel and the unique swirling dot art of the smoke from shell explosions in the centre of the battlefield, develop a 3 D effect ( also some trees, too ) !! You should check it out. Stunning. we're now looking at the Fourth World War in and around Ukraine /Crimea/Syria/Israel etc. Hmmm. Good to know. I'd hate to think that we hadn't had some practice at it. Poor Turkey.

  4. What was it they said in the late 1960s (before your time, Laddie) -"Once you've had black you won't go back!" which referred to the use of solid blacks in art and I agree. Once I had black I wasn't going back. I was like a gorged stallion. My Member (no. 5 brush) was all over the places splashing and dabbing. Also, I never upload videos to CBO until I watch them. Seven Years War was a "world war" -Alexander III of Macedon waged a world war in 334 (?) BC....then Rome waged a world, when we were not killing each of in world wars we tried to practice a bit in civil wars....let Captain Kirk talk his feckin way round that!!!

  5. I didn't think you'd upload vieo's without watching them - simply that the effect was stunning, and I thought you should watch it. Sorry if it sounded odd. Hmm....I wonder what the actual definition of a World War is ? That it involved every country in the world ... in the known world ? That it effected every country in the world ? That the declaration of war and it's limits was understood by every country in the world.. or every continent ? Or every 'significant power' ? Or that every country had to choose a side ? How much like a schoolyard game does this sound ? ..... I hope you're splashing and dabbing right now, Terry. Nothing like creation to put a smile on your face.... I'm trying to draw now. Talk about solid
    blacks... wow. I'll send something in a bit (waiting for your letter). See ya.

  6. I just mentioned it because I dont want to upload any of the prodigious number of Japanese schoolgirl Futanari videos....I do not watch. No. Never. erm. Hot here.