The Great War has more in common with the Bayeux Tapestry than most graphic novels. The publisher’s description – an illustrated panorama – is probably about as close as I can get to pigeon-holing it.
It’s an enormous, 24-foot illustration, folded concertina-like between two hard covers, and sold in a solid slipcase with an accompanying booklet. This makes reading it in bed (and I use the term reading in its loosest possible sense – ‘studying’ or ‘poring over’ would be more appropriate) almost impossible. Instead, you need a big table or floor space, where you can stretch out as much of it as you can.
The panorama documents July 1st 1916, the first day of the Battle of the Somme; a tragic day in British military history, when 21,000 allied troops lost their lives in a catastrophic assault on German trenches.
It starts in the far left, with General Haig pottering around the beautiful gardens of his commandeered country mansion, finalising his plans deep behind the battle lines. And it ends in mud and gore, as thousands of men march through flooded artillery craters and barbed-wire, being cut down by machine gunners from impenetrable concrete bunkers, none of which should have survived the British artillery. Between the two we see the battle lines being supplied with thousands of men, most of whom will march out and never return; and the artillery units, loading their canons with the ineffective shrapnel shells they’ve been provided with, and firing a barrage of ordinance so deafeningly violent that the rumble could be heard back in Blighty.
The Great War is an astounding piece of work, meticulously researched and built into a complimentary, if unwieldy, package. The wordless illustration needs the accompanying book of notes to help draw out the detail of what Joe Sacco has illustrated. But the way it works, flowing across the panorama, telling the story of the battle as it goes, is an achievement in itself. The panels work as well individually as they do spread across its entire 24 feet.
If it’s lacking anything it’s the German perspective, though this is a side not often considered. The battle is more often viewed a spectacular failure of British command rather than a German victory. But it would have been interesting to get a feel for what it was like for the other side. However, it seems likely that the story of the German soldiers, hiding safely in their bunkers under the heavy barrage, then popping back out to mow down tens of thousands of enemy soldiers isn’t the stuff of heroic war histories.
Instead we just see the backs of several thousand doomed men as they walk into their final few minutes, expecting a short walk to victory and finding Hell on Earth. It’s a poignant view of a tragic day, illustrated with skill, compassion and an eye for detail. However, for such a weighty package, it’s surprisingly light – even with the supporting material, it won’t keep you busy for long, though World War I enthusiasts will undoubtedly get the most out of it.