I find World War I fascinating. Where World War II is largely this clear delineation between the holocaust, and not the holocaust–where for one of the few times after the fact, the white hats and black hats of war seem particularly stark and defined. It is the war that brought us the banality of evil and the end of modernism. World War I is less defined. It stands like a spectre of war, pointless and shadowy. It was less a war of sides, than of a continual procession celebrating the joyless unimportance of life. It was this terrifying morass of a meatgrinder consuming flesh and bone. It was a war where men passed on indistinguishable from the next, living in dug out mounds of earth, that could easily be confused from air with mass graves. It was the atrocity of geography meeting the existential madness of the abject. Men who cried out in no-man’s land for their mothers, unrescuable from their terrible end. It was a war for the rats. It was a war that ushered in the end of the age of the cavalryman, and instead met him comedically mid stride with the horrors of mechanical steel that stood beyond his comprehension.
It was because of this that I picked up Jacques Tardi’s It Was the War of the Trenches. I have to admit I’ve fought reading Tardi for ages, and this is actually my introduction to his work. I’m not exactly sure how to explain my reticence with Tardi, except to perhaps lay the blame at the kind of resentments that one might find reasonable under the weight of a comic’s canon that I feel little relation to, and oftentimes find unfolds like the world’s most disappointing paper fortune teller. And not that you should care, or I should care, or you should care whether I care–but what is a review of comics, without some sort of ancillary observation attributed to larger inconsequential concerns.
With Trenches, Tardi captures the bleak hilarity of this horrible first world war. The stories here are bathed in a bitter irony that constantly seeks to undermine any notion of traditional heroism and humanity. This is not your younger sibling’s American Sniper. This is a book about madness. This is a book that beautifully captures a nihilistic psalm dedicated to the total absurd inconsequentialness of our being. These good men, these bad men, these petty men…all united here in the mud to die like dumb cows in the slaughterhouse of war. Sometimes they are cognizant of dying, sometimes they just die, and other times they escape only to become boxed in by the Kafkaesque bureaucracy of war; executed for crimes beyond their understanding or conviction. More bodies for the ravenous pire.
Tardi depicts men swallowed up by war. Their bodies disappeared, consumed, under their heavy too large coats. Coats that make them look like children playing war, as much as anything else. Their faces, once fresh and clean, become masked with the lines of trauma. Their smiles covered up by their unkept grooming. They become defined by their relation to the earth they are destined to die in, to recede into. This mud-covered encroachment of hellish barbed wire guarded by demonic machine gun sentries underscore a kind of bleakness that Tardi juxtaposes against the cleaner, mudless, people of fashion back behind the lines, outside of the war–in a separate world entirely–their identities still in tact, not swallowed up yet by the duty of country.
It is in this dull weight of the trenches, that happiness contorts to a kind of dumb bovine delusion. The best example of this is the story of Bouvreuil, the artist. Bouvreuil is known to his fellow soldiers for his craftsmanship with metal. He can turn any kind of metal into all manner of trinkets which he then sells for money to send to his wife back home, while they plan their lives after the war. He is depicted by Tardi with tiny stupid eyes, a tiny stupid hat, all framing a stupid bucktoothed grind. It is only at the moment of his death that Tardi draws him with any real humanity. The horror in his face as he yells out to his wife, who cannot hear him; framed with a newly depicted gruff shadow of a beard, his eyes morphing into these larger fear stricken globes, his mouth agape in horror. It is only now that he realizes the situation he has been thrust into. The whole of his stupid life, and his stupid arrogant plans, all laid to waste before the god of steel now dancing through his bloodied groin.
This bending of the cartoonish and the realistic by Tardi, is most apparent in his depiction of tanks and artillery guns; their gleaming hyper-realism jutting out in stark contrast from the lumpy cartoons to the men they consume, creates a kind of metallic monstrosity that is beyond the capabilities of the established world of Tardi’s page to encapsulate. Tardi through this slight visual tension is able to give us something of the idea of what it must have felt like to see the first tanks appear on a battlefield. They must have appeared as from another world. Their straight lined edges, and rigid geometries beyond the lumpen understanding of the the flesh and the soul they obliterated.
These elements are lensed through a fairly rigid three horizontal panel structure that Tardi S’s through with compositional force. The wider format allows for the focus and stretching of faces in closeup, as well as the landscaped horror of the worlds those faces disappear into. The panels themselves are balanced in grayscale between the heavy inky death shadow of Tardi’s brushwork, and the grey moral textural hopelessness of whatever few rigid structures find themselves trapped in the mud. Tardi juggles these forces to vacillate between moments of clarity and their bled into moments of horror and death.
It Was The War of The Trenches is less a cry for peace than it is a howl of horror across the terrible battlefield of the first world war. It speaks bluntly to our capacity for inconceivable self-annihilation. Tardi offers less a warning than, a cold observation. There is no morality, only insanity. Nothing is justified. Everything is cruel. And whatever might pass for a candle in the darkness, it too shall pass.
It was the War of the Trenches is available now from Fantagraphics as part of a box set which also includes another of Tardi’s works on WWI: Goddamn this War. It is available wherever fine comic books are sold, presumably.