Goddamn This War!
Created by: Tardi, Jean-Pierre Verney
Published by: Fantagraphics
ISBN: 1606995820 (Amazon)
My heart is heavy. Like, real heavy.
I knew going in that reading a book devoted to a French soldier’s perspective on World War I would immerse me in a certain bit of melancholy, a certain bit of distrust in the worthwhileness of the whole human endeavor. As civilian mass shootings bloom and blossom across my nation, as unarmed men and women die at the hands of my nation’s peace officers, as the world continues to collapse into war after war—it’s always art that brings that sickness home to me.
Snow Falling on Cedars makes the plight of Japanese Americans in the days during and after WWII come home to me. Watching Winter on Fire last night made a sour pit in my gut. Grave of the Fireflies, Town of Evening Calm, Palestine, Safe Area: Gorazde, Footnotes in Gaza, Epileptic. These are the things that break my spirit and my heart. News reports of tragedy are one thing, making an art of it another. And so Goddamn This War! breaks me all over again. It’s powerful, raw, cynical, perfect.
The third time I accidentally ran into the woman who would become my wife (and the last time before I began to pursue a relationship with her), we saw a movie together—Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s A Very Long Engagement, a dark and humourous detective love story set against and amidst the French trenches of WWI. It was a wonderful film full of light and romance and the dark hideousness of war. Scenes of those depravities have lingered with me for more than a decade now. And it wasn’t until after finishing Goddamn This War! that I discovered that one of its contributers, Jean-Pierre Verney, was an expert consultant employed to keep the fantasy landscape of Jeunet’s film from straying too widely from reality. That the writer from the book I had just found so moving and important also played a role in my introduction to my wife seemed a special kind of serendipity. I’m glad I discovered this after the fact—I feel my ignorance kept me from an honest romanticism.
Goddamn This War! is my first experience of Tardi (the book’s principle creator11As I understand it at least. Initially, I believed Verney to be the writer and Tardi the artist, but the supplemental material makes it sound like Tardi is responsible for the story and art while Verney provides the rich appendix of history/chronology for the book.). Fantagraphics has been recently bringing his works to American audiences, but because none of us can be aware of all things, I had never before heard of him. I happened upon the book as I was browsing the graphic novel section at my local library branch. As something near a pacifist and non-interventionist,22I’m actually neither a pacifist nor a non-interventionist, but I’m certainly sympathetic to their ideologies. I don’t tend to enjoy war narratives. I did when I was younger, but not any longer. I don’t, I believe, any longer have the stomach for glory. Still, Fantagraphics’ packaging of the book was so handsome and well done that I thought I’d give it a shot.
Bang. A shot. Fired with reckless precision.
I don’t rightly know how to describe Tardi and Verney’s book without gushing. Descriptors like tour-de-force are clichéd and dulling. Still, it is what it is I guess. It certainly bowled me over.
Goddamn This War! follows a young recruit into the French infantry at the start of the first World War. He against odds survives to the war’s conclusion—which is why he’s able to narrate the whole thing from after the fact. We see other characters as he sees them: occasionally and as fodder. The soldier-narrator is dry and cynical and wise, likely a product of having the privilege of recounting everything from well after the war’s close. And by the end we wonder, if they weren’t already steeped in savagery before the war, how the decades could unfold afterward without the human race floating belly up in a sea of barbarism.
Tardi’s writing (or at least Helge Dascher’s translation of it) is crisp and natural. The book strays from the typical revelation of the comics mode in that there are no word balloons, only narration blocks. In a way, it’s as if we’re reading an illuminated work of prose memoir. On first flipping through the book, I was skeptical. I’m generally not a tremendous fan of the technique, but the collaboration of words and pictures here is so fruitful that within pages all my misgivings evaporated and I found myself wholly invested.
A large part of the goodwill that eventually subsumed my experience of the book is due Tardi’s magnificent illustrations. The sublime horrors of the war are more than adequately captured in every panel. He moves us from the lovely green hills and bright blue and red uniforms of 1914 through to the blue-grey muck and madness of 1918. His use of colour is exquisite. It’s a grim and human work featuring grim and human art.
While the title alone should probably be hint enough, let me underscore: Goddamn This War! is a cynical work, broadly condemning not just the atrocity of warfare but more the politicians and bureaucracy that spend so prodigally the blood of the young, the naive, and the idealistic. Damn this war, yes, but damn also those who would wage it, those who would put our sons and cousins and nephews and fathers in front of bullets and gas and bombs and missiles. For honour, for oil, for glory, for land, for God, and for country. Damn them and damn the reckless negligence that turns human dignity into a soup of viscera and terror. Or maybe, Tardi might argue, there was never any dignity to humanity to begin with.
Good Ok Bad features reviews of comics, graphic novels, manga, et cetera using a rare and auspicious three-star rating system. Point systems are notoriously fiddly, so here it's been pared down to three simple possibilities:
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I am Seth T. Hahne and these are my reviews.
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