WWI: horror of Somme gets graphic treatment from comic book master

AMIENS, Pascal Mallet- Joe Sacco's first impressions of World War I were forged as a schoolboy in Australia, more than four decades ago.
But the Malta-born master of comic book reportage found himself delving much further back in time after taking on his latest project, a massive cartoon mural depicting the first day of the 1916 Battle of the Somme -- a project that he says was partially inspired by the 11th Century Bayeux Tapestry.

The author of acclaimed comic strip treatments of contemporary conflicts in Israel/Palestine and Bosnia, Sacco, 53, has long nurtured the idea of doing something about the Great War.
"It all started when I was playing darts with a friend of mine in New York. 'Why don't you do something on the first world war?' he asked. That was 15 years ago."
The same friend later suggested an accordion-style book. "I thought of the Bayeux Tapestry: it is a long corridor of images you can read from left to right.
"And I have been interested in the first world war since I was 10 years old. In Australia it is part of the national psyche."
An epic work of embroidery depicting the Norman conquest of England that culminated in the 1066 Battle of Hastings, the Bayeux Tapestry is nearly 70 metres long (230 feet).
Sacco's mural, which goes on display in a Paris underground station next month, is nearly twice as long, several metres high and every bit as rich in telling detail.
At its heart, on the 12th of its 24 panels, a British officer, pipe in mouth, points the way for his troops as they calmly make their way towards the German lines with rifles slung over their shoulders.
"The officers tried to convey a sense of calm to their men ... at least for a few seconds," Sacco told AFP by way of explanation of one of the many carefully calibrated images that make up an extraordinary piece of work.
- Darkest Day -
Convinced that days of bombardments would have left the German forces opposite them severely depleted and demoralised, Britain's military high command judged that their troops could march towards the enemy.
It was a calamitous miscalculation: the Germans had not suffered anything like the anticipated damage and by the end of the day, 20,000 British troops were dead. The Somme's place in history as a byword for carnage born of tactical error was assured.
"It was the darkest day for English troops in the war: in one way it epitomised the war," said Sacco, who lives in the United States.
Against a backdrop of mass slaughter, Sacco was determined to ensure that the place of the individual was not lost.
Before starting on the project, he spent months devouring books on the war and visiting the Imperial War Museum in London to ensure that he got details like the extent of a Howitzer's recoil right.
Field Marshal David Haig, the British commander in the Battle, and one of the WWI generals most readily associated with allegations of incompetent leadership, appears three times in the piece, including in the opening panel, launching the offensive.
The final panel depicts bodies being discreetly buried and the injured receiving treatment while other troops take their turn in advancing to the front line.
"It gave me a chance to draw as a mediaeval artist would have drawn," added Sacco. "Everything was packed together in medieval art.
"I wanted to convey the enormous undertaking that war involved. Humans cooperate to kill other humans. I wanted to show what was at the foreground as well as in the background, to give a feeling of depth."
The drawings have already been published in book form and the mural itself goes on display from July 1 on the wall of a long underground passage way at the Paris subway station of Montparnasse.

Friday, June 20th 2014
Pascal Mallet

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