by Paul Buhle
The Great War, July 1, 1916: The First Day of the Battle of the Somme, an Illustrated Panorama, by Joe Sacco, with an essay by Adam Hochsdhild. A boxed, 24-foot-long drawing, $35.
(Swans - October 21, 2013) Comic art has been accepted as an art form in much of the world, but especially Europe and North America, only within the last generation or so. Artists, all but a few, face an audience that, over the age of 30 or so, has always viewed comics with contempt -- or never outgrown superheroes, the most juvenile of forms. Even as comics drawings increasingly appear in museum shows and other art spaces, it's natural that artists with stature are prone toward experiments that spell escape; that is, escape into something like Real Art. Chris Ware, who achieved high status as a book designer, not long ago produced a "box" that was nevertheless a sort of comic, and comic artist star Joe Sacco has now created a panorama, not unlike the stage panoramas of old (but on a microcosmic scale) that looks like a cross between sketch artistry and comic narrative.
It's one more experiment, but Sacco has earned the right to experiment. At least he's not physically in the middle of a war zone this time, just a historical one. Born in Malta and raised in Australia and Southern California, Sacco has been a journeyer, a man on a continually revised mission. His travelogues of Israel and the beleaguered Palestinians won awards, his immersion into the personalities of the Balkan war offered the kinds of insights lacking in the hawkish Western press, and most recently, he collaborated with journalist Chris Hedges in the hard-hitting Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt. I almost forgot to say that back in the 1990s, Sacco drew a handful of Harvey Pekar's tales about jazz and oddball music, a collaboration that deserves another look for many reasons.
If there is a collaboration going on here, it's with popular historical writer Adam Hochschild, whose chronicles of ghastly destruction have opened a few eyes to the brutality all too common in "civilized" Western history. At any rate, the war that destroyed the best hopes for steady progress in Europe and the U.S. toward a cooperative social order is epitomized in the drawings here. The trenches had long since been dug by 1916, and any thought of "home by Christmas," the early optimistic hope on both sides, was as dead as the wider optimism that pervaded a Europe spared of any mass warfare on their home ground since Napoleon's defeat. The vast brutality visited upon Africa and Asia by these same European powers seemed to be in another cosmos -- and then the Europeans (soon joined by the Americans who, however, got off easily) turned upon each other.
The British plan to sweep over German lines in a "Big Push" that would virtually end the war was doomed before it began. The mass, weeklong shelling had little effect upon the dug-in Germans, and when the "Tommies" came over the top, they came straight into blazing guns. Artist-plate by plate, we see the monstrous process unfold and in that sense, a story has been brilliantly told. Out of all of the pseudo-romantic comics drawn in the Cold War days of the US in Vietnam, by contrast (at least so far), only the satires of them stand up, although in one corner of earlier comic art, an action line of EC Comics had realistically portrayed the Korean War (Harvey Kurtzman did most of the writing and much of the best art as well), and it may be these that offer a precursor to Sacco's work.
I look at this experiment and say: Sacco, carry on. A chronicler of miseries with an eye for the social contradictions that may offer civilization a way out, he's the kind of artist whose every work deserves careful scrutiny.
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About the Author
Paul Buhle retired from college teaching to produce radical comics fulltime. His latest include Studs Terkel's Working, A Graphic Adaptation [reviewed in these pages], The Beats, A People's History of the American Empire (aka an adaptation of Howard Zinn's classic) and a pictorial biography of his childhood hero, The Art of Harvey Kurtzman. His last production (2011) is Yiddishkeit: Jewish Vernacular & the New Land, edited with Harvey Pekar, and reviewed in these pages. (back)