Ninety-nine Christmases ago, out of the earth of northwestern France, some British, German and French soldiers emerged to sing songs, offer greetings and walk through No Man’s Land to exchange gifts, food and souvenirs, or even kick a football around. This glassy snow globe of peace on the Western Front doesn’t appear in Joe Sacco’s foldout panorama of The Great War, which accordions out to 24 feet in its paper-tapestry of a horror that’s become a grand myth and maze of militant madness. That’s because Sacco is drawing, and drawing on, the first day of the Battle of the Somme, July 1, 1916. That morning, an Allied artillery barrage ended with 224 221 shells in its last hour and an English battalion’s captain gave a football to each of his four platoons, pledging a prize to whichever “first managed to kick a ball into the German trench.” Twenty-one thousand British men then advanced to be mowed down, dead; in the 1st Newfoundland Regiment, 684 of 752 men were missing, wounded or dead—the Germans they’d targeted “did not suffer a single casualty.” So writes Adam Hochschild in an excellent written addendum (adapted from his book) to Sacco’s visuals.
Sacco’s godless-eye-view surveys an assembly-line of men, moving from left to right and hour-by-hour over 24 pages (the same as a typical number of frames in a second of silent-film; there’s a cameraman here, shooting passing soldiers). We’re moved through a mechanized (horse carts, motorbikes, ambulance cars; bayonets, artillery guns) process of order rendered into disorder as life’s shrapneled into death or near-death. Our eyes trudge along with marching soldiers to the walking wounded or the lying maimed or, finally, to those dumped in makeshift graves. It’s a colourless, sprawling mass of forever-changed men, their struggles and agony soon stretching beyond the pages’ edges. A stark and sober work of reconstructive war-reportage, Sacco’s approach is brutally, ever-presently matter-of-fact—the First World War churns up and grinds out nothing but bare survivors, half-men or body parts.
Twentieth-century wastelands and concentration-camps echo through Martin Vaughan-James’ Can-cult-classic The Cage, reprinted with an introduction by Seth and a preface by the late author. It’s a fascinating early example (first published in 1975) of the graphic novel, marred by overwriting—a pseudo-intellectual prose-poem drones on below the images in blockish captions. What remains enthralling are the frames above the words: austere architecture, a body-less but seemingly tortured bed, and zoom-like sequences moving down corridors, deeper into the rooms of abandoned buildings, then out and back in, only these curious ruins of time and space have changed again. There’s a trinity of headphones, binoculars and a microscope. Vaughan-James’ bold line drawings sharply delineate a Kafkaesque inner-world crossed with a morphing art-installation. The narrative starts and ends, though, with that chain-linked space, the cage. Is the cage a metaphor for the constrictions of the comic-strip frame itself, or the limits of written language? A mysterious, mesmerizing series of pictures; a shame about the words.
It’s generic film-noir moments—a prostitute in a motel room, a gun-toting trenchcoat agent pursuing our hero, blonde femme fatale in a diner—that undermine the dimension-travelling time-thief story Rasl, from Jeff Smith (Bone). The story jolts to life in its flashbacks to Nikola Tesla (1856 – 1943) and his work on electricity. In those moments, in this tale of parallel dimensions, it’s scientific history that seems like a series of alternative possibilities. Smith plays with Native American motifs and concepts of creation, too, but it’s his fall-back on noir, sci-fi (government conspiracies and scientists) and horror clichés (a lolling ghost-child, Frankenstein allusions) that let the book down. It would’ve been better to draw parallels between madly inspired scientific and artistic creation—between experiments with antennae and coils and experiments with paint and brush (Rasl steals a Picasso).
Riffing off the golden age of newspaper strips, Cole Closser’s Little Tommy Lost often finds pathos in what seems, at first, just homage and pastiche. Tommy, separated from his parents in Chicago in what seems to be the early 1900s, gets taken to a work home run by skull-cane-holding Mr Greaves. Sepia-saturated daily installment by daily installment (in six parts total, running over what would have been 12 weeks), Gothic elements creep in: a Frankenstein-ian underling, Halloween, even pirates. The timely dialogue can be too expository, but the story’s oddly moving when this harsh portrait of orphanhood, in a time before children’s rights, is balanced with Dickensian sentiment. The ending, after too much serial prose, is a nightmarish rush. Tommy’s talks to a pet rat he calls “Kid” are particularly touching. And on every seventh day, much-needed visual splendor, in the form of Sunday spreads—full of colour, dream-logic, and flights of fancy—take us to a time when the morning of church, for many kids, meant diving devilishly into those fantastic funny pages.
Sarah Burwash’s The Far Woods is a wordless wash of female settler history and animal-myths, of surreal walks in strange but familiar woods. Edenic imagery—snakes, women—is balled up beautifully with native legends and motifs—eagles, bundles of sticks—even as Burwash paint-strokes, sometimes as Brueghel-like landscapes, a dreamlike Canadian wilderness: grasses, settlers’ boots, oil-lamps, log cabins, Canada geese, Anne-of-Green-Gables-like braids of red hair. There’s a maze-ness to many of the frame-like pages (which could easily, if blown up, be hung in a gallery), rewarding repeated viewings. Near the end, as Burwash offers a snapshot-like flip through settler history, materialism and technology gradually emerge: clothing’s catalogued, farm tools are placed next to guns, a matrilineal clan appears as if in a family picture. Her book’s a smoky, starry tribute to the women who stitched and knitted and quilted their own art, surrounded by nature’s wonder.