Author Joe Sacco and the cover of his book, "The Great War." (Left: Norton; Don Usner )
For Joe Sacco, the decision to do "The Great War" (W.W. Norton: boxed, unpaged, $35) grew out of a kind of dare.
The idea — to create a panoramic drawing of the Western Front, and more specifically, the first day of the Battle of the Somme — had been a source of late-night conversation in the 1990s, when he'd shared a New York apartment with a young editor named Matt Weiland, who, like Sacco, was fascinated by the First World War.
Fifteen years later, after Weiland took a job at W.W. Norton, one of the first calls he made was to Sacco, to ask if he "was ready to revisit this presumably alcohol-induced idea."
"My first reaction was no," Sacco recalls with a little laugh of memory, over the phone from Portland, Ore., where he lives.
At 53, the journalist and artist — who over the last 20 years has produced a series of reported comics from war zones in Bosnia and the Middle East, including "Palestine," which won a 1996 American Book Award, "Safe Area Gorazde," supported in part by a 2001 Guggenheim Fellowship, and "Footnotes in Gaza," a 2009 Los Angeles Times Book Prize finalist, which looks into the mass killing of Palestinians by Israeli army units in 1956 — had grown tired of conflict, although, he says, "I can never get away."
To Sacco, journalism is more than a job, it is a calling, a way of telling stories that must be told. And yet, he has come to realize, "it doesn't answer all the questions. At some point, you start to wonder: What's in the mind of a killer?"
Such a question is especially fraught for a journalist who tells stories in the form of comics, since no matter how scrupulous the reporting, we are inevitably aware of his framing eye.
"When I did 'Footnotes,'" Sacco recalls, "I was asked why I didn't draw the faces of the soldiers. It was because I didn't know what they were thinking so I couldn't draw them. I didn't know who they were."
This suggests one of the challenges of "The Great War," which looks back to 1916 and is, therefore, less a work of journalism than of history. And yet, paradoxically, this gave Sacco his first inkling of how to approach the project, as the expression of a mass event.
"It made me think, how do I do this?" he explains. "There were many different directions it could go. Normally, I would try to personalize; here I wanted to take a step back. What I wanted to portray was a very large army with one objective — moving forward and dying together."
To highlight this intention, "The Great War" breaks out of the comics format altogether, offering one extended image, a 24-foot black and white drawing, accordion-folded and bound into a hardcover slipcase that can be read, left to right, like a tapestry or a scroll. Among its inspirations was Matteo Pericoli's "Manhattan Unfurled," a continuous representation of the New York City skyline, published in 2001.
Sacco, however, "didn't want to draw a static picture," so he began to look for other models, eventually turning to the Bayeux Tapestry, a medieval work that records the Norman Conquest; he describes it in an author's note as "my touchstone" for its ability to evoke narrative in a single frame.
"I've always loved medieval art," he observes, "and how medieval artists approach space and time. Space is metaphoric. An inch can be a mile or 100 yards. Once I realized that, I didn't have to worry about perspective. I could make it claustrophobic in a medieval way."
Thus, "The Great War" opens with Gen. Douglas Haig, commander of the British Expeditionary Force, walking in the garden of his headquarters, before moving on to an overlapping image of Haig on horseback, riding past troops as they mass for the front. Were this a traditional (or even strictly realistic) effort, Haig could not be in two places at once, but that's the beauty and the challenge of the form.
"It's different than a comic," Sacco says, "because there are no panels, so the image has to hold together as you walk across it. The idea was to take soldiers from the rear to the battle and out, ending with them walking back to the casualty station, men in bandages and graves." Indeed, at one point, he refers to the narrative as "the general and the grave, and what happened in between" — as succinct a metaphor for war, any war, as we are likely to come across.
What happened in between, of course, is the essence of the story: a massacre in which Haig so miscalculated the effects of his artillery on the German trenches that 20,000 British troops were slaughtered the first day.
"That's more than all the Americans killed in Iraq and Afghanistan combined," Sacco says by way of perspective — although as we move through his drawing, perspective shatters, the lines of British soldiers collapsing into chaos, the battlefield devastated by explosions and violent death.