Friday, September 30, 2016

Book Review - Jacques Tardi's It Was the War of the Trenches

It Was the War of the Trenches by Jacques Tardi
Published by: Fantagraphics
Publication Date: 1993
Format: Hardcover, 120 Pages
Rating: ★
To Buy

With three horizontal panels per page we are given graphic snapshots, little glimpses into the lives and deaths of the French soldiers in the trenches during World War I. Some are given names, some die unremarked. Their bodies strewn across no man's land effecting morale. Their poignant struggles to survive sometimes highlighted by the words of greater authors. Binet sees his comrade in arms Faucheux go into no man's land and not return. During his few days leave away from the front he can't help but think of what happened to Faucheux. When Binet returns to the front he foolishly goes in search of Faucheux and meets his same fate, death at the hands of the Bosches. But at least dying at the hands of the enemy isn't as ignominious as being executed by your own men. Killed because you were scared or just didn't understand or they assumed you were colluding with the enemy. Or even shelled by your own country as a reprisal for cowardice, to stop a mass retreat. In that instance instead of the entire division being killed three random men were singled out to die for the greater good. Survival is the only thing that matters, as rats become a delicacy, only to later have the rats feast on the flesh after a shell takes out the trench and all its men. Some, like Bouvreuil, think of his wife and the future, but the truth is you have to have the will to survive, to not run into no man's land and get the fate you think you deserve. Gas, death, injury, all the peoples of the world dying in those trenches.

Years ago because of my burgeoning interest in Steampunk someone recommended that I read Jacques Tardi's Adele Blanc-Sec books. Seeing as only the first four adventures, released in two volumes, have been translated into English and published, this was a near futile endeavour. Yet I still picked up those available stories and what's odd is the lasting image I have isn't anything to do with the plot but when the author would break the fourth wall to comment to the audience. In one of these comments he very angrily states that you, the reader, probably don't know what's going on because no one read his other book, The Arctic Marauder, and that was integral to the plot. I'm sorry, but breaking the forth wall to lecture me on a book I did eventually read to see if it shown any light on the previously read book isn't kosher. Maybe people didn't like the book and that's why it didn't sell? It's just not cool to lecture and berate your readers. Ever. Sometimes when reading an author's writing you get this instinct that you would not like them in real life and they are quite possibly really jerks. I get this feeling from Tardi, much like I did from Orson Scott Card. I was hoping that in going to a book so outside the themes of his books I have read that I might see another side to him. Nope. He's still angry and bitter and his books just ooze rage.

The thing is, you'd think that the rage would work in his favor in a comic that is basically a diatribe against war. The whole "rage, rage against the dying of the light." The senselessness of war. The unnecessary death. Instead it works against the comic. It Was the War of the Trenches is just so pessimistic and outwardly hostile. The conscripted solider is an outlet for the rage so that you come to hate any character introduced. Tardi has written many books on World War I and while he is obsessed with this topic I might also put forward that he is a little jaded by it as well. Everyone, even the innocent soldier in the trenches is a target for him. But the truth is he actually doesn't show many "innocent" soldiers. Most of the characters he concentrates on seem to underscore the fact that man is a hateful being who is willing to kill and connive to survive. He will kill his own, he will kill police that piss him off. He will use the war as a great equalizer, a way to settle scores, and all the while he will inexplicably hate the countryside. And I'm not sure if Tardi was trying to say that war made them into this or they were this way to begin with. Because it's a pretty bleak outlook on life to think that man's nature is to kill and war, despite all it's horrors, allows him to revel while suffering. But perhaps this is just another reason why Tardi and I would never get along.

One problem with graphic novels is that there needs to be a strong visual with a connection to the text. I feel like It Was the War of the Trenches failed on both fronts. One reason the visuals might have been flat to me is that given the age of this comic, written over the eighties, the bounds of what could be done visually had not really been stretched yet. So this story is told in a very traditional way. Other issues I have are that the complete black and white nature of the book lacks visual interest, how about a spot color every now and then? Also, a complaint I've made about his books before, all the men look the same! So how can I tell who is who if he doesn't bother to show that? Though it was the writing that really let down this book. I don't know if it was the translation that effected it so or Tardi's writing style evolving over time, but it was oddly written, almost stilted. Skipping from the first to the third person randomly was annoying, but the writing itself was simplistic. It wasn't like it was purposefully being written for child, but more like the writer was talking down to you, something that I think is unforgivable. The prose starts to gel about half-way through the book, my guess is that it's at exactly the part where it's the newer text. It becomes more concise, more clear, and I have a feeling that the first person narrator might just be Tardi's grandfather, or someone that is representing Tardi's grandfather, like an avatar. So at least that solved the first person mystery.

In the end you can see glimpses of the jumbled narrative almost working. Like the avatar of his grandfather bringing a more through line to the comic, there are instances where the book works. Where Tardi is able to take complex concepts and hone them to just one page. Succinct ideas that could be expanded on to make the book have a more sure footing. There is this undercurrent of war being the decision of the many, of the countries, not of the individuals who given a chance, one-on-one, could work it out. This is highlighted by the military industrial complex shown in the first few panels of the book. War is there to breed innovation and profit with humans being nothing more than coal to fuel this progress. In all Tardi's jumbled asides about war being used for vengeance, for death, for destruction, underneath is the real purpose of war, progress through death. The world changed because of this war, and in a jumbled way Tardi gets this across. The world changed not just because of the amount of death and destruction but from what emerged from the war. Much like how the nuclear bomb would forever change warfare in World War II, World War I changed the world. Therefore there's a part of me that thinks this book has merit in that behind the curtain it gets to the nub. But then I think, what if you were teaching this book to students? At first I thought, yes, it would be a good introduction, but the more I thought on how steeped in anger and rage this book is that the historical horror would be lost among the overriding emotions of the author, no matter how justified they are.


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