Joe Sacco’s latest work of graphic reportage is a little different from his previous books in that, for once, Sacco himself is not writing based on personal experience of a specific place and period (although he does admit, in the foreword, that the first world war ‘loomed large in [his] psyche’ as a result of the fact that the anniversary of the ANZAC landings at Gallipolli was commemorated each year at his school as he was growing up in Australia). It’s also different in terms of how it comes: in a box, held together between two hard back covers but unravelling like the Bayeaux Tapestry (which Sacco acknowledges was an influence on the work).
What Sacco has done here is recreate the first day of the Battle of the Somme, a battle that ran for about three months and cost each side of the conflict enormous casualties. The first day saw 57,000 Englishman die as they marched into machine guns that weeks of shelling had effectively done nothing to disable. The figure stands as the most men who perished in a war on a single day in history. What Sacco carefully recreates is a sense of futile peril, General Haig, the only historical figure we see recreated here (Sacco has not sought to recreate the faces of all of the men who died, this would be an impossible task, but Haig, pictured at the opening of the piece, carries a weight of responsibility for the unfolding drama), pictured many miles from the action, forging ahead despite reports to suggest it wasn’t going as planned, the officer class once more driving poorer less educated men to their doom. Sacco telegraphs and adumbrates, covering many miles and opening a God-like eye upon the entire field of battle. The art is such that you will pore over the book, cross referencing with the annotations, almost hearing the tick tick tick of the seconds that separated each wave of men from their terrible deaths.
It’s a powerful ‘read’ (despite being entirely wordless), and interesting both as a work in its own right but also as a placeholder within Sacco’s career. Fantagraphics have recently published their forthcoming works as part of a Kickstarter programme (which you should contribute to if you have the readies) and one of those forthcoming books is Bumf 1: I Buggered the Kaiser, the first in a series of satirical shorts by none other than Joe Sacco. So it would seem The Great War is the first book Sacco has created from interacting purely with other books, but quite possibly it will not be the last…
Any Cop?: An important document that you can imagine being used as a teaching aid for cooler teachers. Well worth immersing yourself in.