Jacques Tardi’s Goddamn this War!
1914, 1915, 1916, 1917, 1918, 1919: these dates, set in grey, mark the beginning of fifteen-page chapters each, with each date being followed by two page-wide panels across the bottom two thirds of the page. In Jacques Tardi’s Goddamn this War!, these dates, which like few others open up a rich field of historical associations, are not so much chapter headings as beats to whose rhythm the graphic war narrative must submit. The very design of the first page of every chapter thus already sets up a tension between the grey and abstract representation of historical reality and its depiction in a comics format.
Where history meets experience
Goddamn this War! is a story, or rather an account, of the war years on the Western front as seen from the perspective of a Parisian factory worker drafted at the beginning of the war. Word balloons, the comic’s dramatic dialogue form on the graphically narrated stage, are nowhere to be found in Tardi’s graphic novel. He rather uses the quasi-filmic stylistic device of the voice-over, with the narrator commenting on images that depict a man-made hell – already the first few pages leave no doubt about that. As the narrative progresses, the intensity increases all the way to gruesome images of detonating artillery shells or mutilated French soldiers – an entire two pages at the end of the 1918 chapter are dedicated to the gueules cassées. Drawn comic-style, they stand as a mute indictment of war. Contradicting the end of the chapter as well as of the war, these “broken” faces bitterly hint at the continuation of the suffering. It is then only logical that the final chapter, on the year 1919, does not tell of peace, but of the devastations wrought by the war.
Tardi masterfully succeeds in interweaving exemplary images and accounts of wider historical events with his chronicler’s fictional war experiences: one moment, he briefly comments on the war in the Alps or the situation of the English soldiers in Belgium, the next he tells the story of an ill-considered fatal shot fired by one of the narrator’s comrades, which provokes a deadly German artillery attack on his company’s trench. The major historical events are thus traced back to the conditions on the ground, which, in Goddamn this War!, consists of the mud and blood of the trenches. Again and again, Tardi’s graphic novel tells of the soldiers’ progressive brutalization as a result of the cruelty of modern warfare. By connecting the historiographical level with the harsh everyday reality in the trenches, the chronicler’s voice takes on a universal character. Tardi’s protagonist is thus portrayed as someone who is rendering judgment on the war, based on his own experiences.
Mired in grey and brown
Similar observations can be made about the drawing style: Like in the case of the gueules cassées, the historical images that served as a model are often palpable. Since they are reworked, however, in a very distinct comic book style, which sometimes borders on caricature, the drawings assume a degree of individuality and vitality that a historical photograph, used for illustrative purposes, cannot convey. Through his powerful, rather broad yet at the same time highly detailed line work, Tardi takes the reader directly to the events on the Western front. His images show a Europe drowning in the mud of the trenches. This is reflected in the color palette; after the first, rather colorful pages, it is increasingly dominated by grey-brown and black-and-white until red comes to stand out as the only bright color on many pages. Apart from the story that is held together by the first-person narrator, every single panel thus speaks for itself, providing a unique window on a truly goddamn war.
This graphic style is matched by a scathing political critique of the rulers and authorities, which often takes on a sarcastic tone and sometimes borders on cynicism. Here, one believes to hear an echo of the voice of Tardi, who has never made a secret of his pro-anarchist leanings and only recently refused the French Legion of Honor award.
A terrible awakening
For more than forty years, Jacques Tardi has engaged with the First World War. In an interview, he once talked about his grandfather who died from the effects of gas when Tardi was five years old, and about his grandmother whose stories of the war had caused the young boy nightmares. It may be suggested that his first work, Adieu Brindavoine (1974), reverses these early memories: In this graphic novel, the photographer Lucien Brindavoine is sent by a mysterious messenger to the Middle East. The adventure turns into a surreal nightmare and takes the protagonist to colonial Afghanistan and an Iron City on stilts. Eventually, Brindavoine wakes up in the middle of the First World War, takes refuge, with two French fellow soldiers and a German, in an abandoned churchyard and, accused of desertion, suffers a nervous breakdown. We may well end with a question that is probably not far from Tardi’s intentions: How many more times do we need to wake up after the experiences of the First World War?
studied literature and history. He lives and works as a freelance writer in Offenbach am Main.
Translated by Manuela Thurner
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e.V.
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