Comic Dossier

Comics and the First World War

Tardi/Verney: Elender Krieg 1914-1919. Copyright: Edition Moderne 2014Tardi/Verney ELENDER KRIEG 1914-1919, (c) Edition Moderne 2014
In recent years, it has been widely acknowledged that the interwar years and the Second World War figure prominently in modern comics, with the rise of the superhero, and thus of the genre, being closely tied to this era. It therefore seems logical that the medium is also turning to the First World War.

The genre of the graphic novel, for example, which is enjoying huge popularity today, was launched in 1967 with the publication of Hugo Pratt’s Ballad of the Salt Sea. In this tale set in 1914, the rebellious sailor Corto Maltese is making his début appearance as a pirate caught between the German and the British navies. Like few other figures, this belated adventurer was to define the history of European comics until his creator’s death. Another approach to the First World War – less romanticizing, but no less significant for comics history – has been chosen by the French illustrator Jacques Tardi. His 1974 début, Adieu Brindavoine, starts out as a surreal adventure in Afghanistan, only to be revealed, in the final pages, as the feverish dream of a French private and deserter. Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather and his father, Tardi has since then returned again and again to World War I, most recently with an ambitious blend of historical and graphic narrative (Putain de Guerre!, 2009; published in English in 2013 as Goddamn this War!).

Marking the centenary of the beginning of World War I, the year 2014 has, of course, spawned a number of publications that deal with this seminal catastrophe of the twentieth century. Joe Sacco, the American creator of the comics reportage, for example, reconstructed the first day of the Battle of the Somme in a 24-foot-long fan-folded book. Blown up to nearly 500 feet, the panorama is now on display as a mural in the Montparnasse metro station in Paris.

With popular adaptations of great literary works gaining in popularity, the German painter, graphic artist and photographer Peter Eickmeyer has re-worked Erich Maria Remarque’s classic All Quiet on the Western Front into a graphic novel, while the French authors Kris and Maël, in Notre Mère la Guerre (Mother War), explore the era by way of a murder mystery, telling the story of a serial killer of women in the Champagne province in the winter of 1915. Edited by Jonathan Clode and John Stewart Clark with the explicit aim of contributing to the commemoration of the war, the volume To End All Wars gathers short stories based on actual events or historical figures by 53 authors from 13 countries.

The thematic and stylistic variety of this section not only reflects the diversity of the medium, but also of the subject: whether romanticizing the war in the genre of the adventure tale, reconstructing it in a realistic manner, or rendering it relevant in the context of current political debates, the selected works make clear that the First World War continues to be a valid subject for aesthetic inquiry, even one hundred years after its beginning.

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