When the First World War began in August 1914, the belligerents told their respective publics that they'd be in their enemies' capitals by winter. When hostilities finally ended Nov. 11, 1918, between 22 million and 24 million men in uniform were killed, wounded or missing. The number of civilians killed in the war is unknown, though estimated to be about 7 million. Afterward, people called it "the war to end all wars."
Of course, WWI didn't end all wars, making it a tagline for the disillusionment of those affected by the conflict—and if there is a word that sums up the graphic novels of Jacques Tardi and Jean-Pierre Verney, Eisner Award-winning It Was the War of the Trenches and Goddamn This War!, it's disillusionment. In time for the Great War's 100th anniversary, Fantagraphics Books has re-released and translated these titles into English, bundling them together in Tardi's WWI ($39.99).
From the outset, Tardi frames the war as an insane burden on the warring countries' populations, colonies and resources. In his telling, governments flex their military might to realize their petty ambitions while industry cashes in on oversized military contracts. Officers trained in outdated battle tactics order their men from the trenches and into the infamous No Man's Land, from which few return. The bulk of Tardi's exposition explores soldiers' feelings of helplessness, resignation and disgust in the face of a reality that's far removed from the people ordering them into battle.
Both books focus on various French soldiers who leave literal or figurative pieces of themselves in the trenches. They've seen the hell of war, but through their fears, memories and letters to loved ones, they're familiar to those of us reading at home. They are colorful, where war machines—tanks, planes, gas masks and artillery—are the gray, mechanized embodiments of death.
It Was the War of the Trenches, like Erich Maria Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front, focuses on the day-to-day experiences of soldiers. The illustrations are in black-and-white, and its tone is somber. Goddamn This War!, with its pale watercolor palette, lets the mud, smoke and mustard gas creep into the trenches from the margins of panels. Written 15 years after It Was the War of the Trenches, it's the more bitter of the two volumes and contains sustained meditations on the injustice of the conflict, as well as reflections on the war's aftermath: millions dead, disabled and traumatized.
Florence Green, the last surviving veteran of WWI, died in 2012, and with her passed our direct connection to that war. What remains is a body of historical evidence including diaries, recorded interviews and internal documents that attest to it. Tardi's meticulously researched graphic novels belong in the same class as Dalton Trumbo's Johnny Got His Gun and All Quiet on the Western Front for its staunch allegiance to soldiers' humanity and unwavering antagonism for war itself.