The Great War
by Joe Sacco
Joe Sacco’s book The Great War is something that really needs to be seen and touched in person. At first unremarkable, once the reader opens it, The Great War it is revealed to be a 24-foot long accordion-folded panorama depicting the first day of the Battle of the Somme, one of the largest and bloodiest battles of World War I. On that day the British army suffered 57,470 casualties, the largest number for a single day in their entire history before or since.
Joe Sacco is best known in his capacity as a comics journalist, writing and drawing accounts of his time visiting and interviewing people in war-torn countries. His book Palestine takes place in the West Bank and Gaza Strip in 1991/1992 and Safe Area Goražde showcases Bosniaks living in Eastern Bosnia between 1994 and 1995 during the Bosnian War. In the booklet of essays and annotations that accompanies The Great War Sacco writes of his reasons for choosing the Battle of the Somme as his subject.
“My first thought was, ‘I don’t want to draw another war scene.’ I’d spent a couple of decades reporting from places like Palestine and Bosnia, and I’d had enough of drawing war and its consequences. My second thought was, Why not? The First World War still clouds my vision of humanity; drawing the war might give me some months to reflect on its meaning, if any.”
Sacco also makes references to various inspirations, including the cartoonist Jacques Tardi’s book It Was the War of the Trenches, Matteo Pericoli’s panorama of New York City (also accordion-style) Manhattan Unfurled, and what Sacco refers to as his “touchstone”, the Bayeux Tapestry.
“In the interest of making the drawing compact, I referenced medieval art in other, stylistic ways, namely by dispensing with realistic perspective and proportion. Thus a few inches in the drawing might represent a hundred yards or a mile of reality.”
The booklet that accompanies the great war also contains an essay from Adam Hochschild’s book To End All Wars: A Study of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918. This essay makes the events of the Battle of the Somme even more real as it tells the story of that first day through historical accounts and soldiers’ own words. Also included is “The Great War Annotated,” an annotated reproduction of the panorama, with descriptions and clarifications by Sacco of various scenes throughout the illustration.
The book itself is breathtaking in terms of both scope and detail. Sacco spent months researching every small fact about the Battle of the Somme from people involved down to the uniforms that the British were wearing. The amount of people, animals, equipment, and trenches is not underrepresented, with so much information crowded in that it can, at times, be overwhelming.
The Great War is an experience to be spread out over as much floor space as available. It’s pretty impossible to open the whole thing at once- the book stretches almost halfway across the library. It should be stepped back from and admired as a whole but also painstakingly searched for tiny details that Joe Sacco included. It’s an incredibly impressive book about a very dark day in history.
Evening Circulation Assistant