Graphic novels (posh comics) are gaining in prestige and influence in Britain, but in France the bandes dessineés have been treated respectfully for a long while.
In Paris recently, I was interested to find quite a large number of these books dealing with the First World War.
Recently, a reader of this blog emailed me to ask, since I had a low opinion of Morpurgo’s Private Peaceful, what book I might recommend for an eleven-year-old who wanted to know about the War.
I was a bit stumped, but finally recommended the book version of an English comic strip, Charlie’s War (which is a bit tendentious and sensational, but its author has a real feeling for the period). Had the boy been French, I should happily have recommended the two volumes of Putain de Guerre! by Jacques Tardi and Jean-Pierre Verney.
These contain a comic strip telling the story of one soldier’s progress through the War, but each volume also has a historical summary and commentary.
Like Charlie’s War this is history from below. Its poilu hero begins in cheerful idealism, but soon experiences horrors. There is a graphic account of the savagery of the war of movement in 1914, and then a clear and grim account of the war’s progress. Trench warfare, waste, fruitless attacks, atrocities committed by both sides.
Tardi’s palette starts off full of bright and lively tones, but by 1917 has become reduced to mud-brown and grey. In the bitter depiction of the mutinies of 1917, the colours of Nivelle’s elegant uniform become a graphic reminder of his distance from the troops he commands.
(Click the image to see a larger version)
Tardi had drawn an earlier bande dessinée about the War – C’Etait La Guerre des Tranchees.
This has been translated into English, and is probably well worth looking at.
A less predictable work in the same genre is Vies Tranchées: les Soldats Fous de la Grands Guerre.
This book interleaves stories of shell-shock by various artists, in a discontinuous narrative which lurches disconcertingly from one graphic style to another, perhaps in an attempt to simulate the chaotic nature of the victims’ perception of life. An oddity.
And now I’ve been given two more of these books for Christmas.
I haven’t read them yet, but Ambulance 13 seems a relatively straightforward account of a medic’s experiences. Le Roi Cassé is something else altogether. A deserter receives a prediction that he will be the last man to die in the War. I think I’m going to enjoy that one…
There is a chapter on bandes dessinées and the War in a newish book by Nicolas Offenstadt, 14-18 Aujourd’hui: La Grand Guerre Dans la France Contemporaine. This is extremely interesting on the ways in which the War is remembered, and its political resonances. I may write more about it when I have finished it.