Joe Sacco and the Great War

IMG_1639I had the pleasure of meeting Joe Sacco last night at Politics and Prose where he presented his latest work, The Great War. July 1, 1916: The First Day of the Battle of the Somme. An Illustrated Panorama. First conceived over 15 years ago and drawn on 12 large sheets over eight months, the work is an accordion-style book that opens up as one single black and white sketched panorama of  a portion of the front line from the morning to the evening of July 1. It proceeds from an image of the British Commander General Haig taking his regular morning walk and then heading off in horse procession all the way into the heat of battle in ‘no man’s land’ and back again later in the day through the lines struggling with casualties, ending up with men in the grave. It is thus not a synchronic panoramic shot of the battle across the British and then German lines but instead a synchronic & diachronic bird’e eye panorama that considers only the British lines, and the experience of the British Fourth Army. He cited the Bayeax tapestry as an inspiration. The work has all the fine qualities of Sacco’s drawing: compelling detailed sketch work, the humanization of people as they struggle within structures grinding them.

See this brief New Yorker interview.

I have long been a fan of Sacco’s work and, as it happens, I spent a few days in the Somme in early August 1990, staying for a night with the very hospitable resident attendants of the 36th Ulster Division Memorial, the ‘Ulster Tower’ in what used be called Thiepval Woods. The Ulster Tower has a hallowed place in Ulster Unionism and its attendants were from the Shankill Road. My friend Fintan McKenna and I, school friends from Monaghan, were from the other side of the divide. And, as often happens when meeting in a foreign country, we had a grand time together. I also remember the date well because it was there we learnt that Saddam Hussein had invaded Kuwait.

Dr Nuala Johnson, a professor at Queens University in Belfast (and fellow Syracuse graduate) subsequently wrote a great book on Ireland’s memory of the Great War: Ireland, The Great War and the Geography of Remembrance (Cambridge University Press, 2007).

I first read Sacco’s drawing about his experiences in the West Bank and Gaza after they appeared in the mid-90s. Now all are collected in one volume Palestine (Fantagraphic Books, 2001). As might be imagined, I found his work on Bosnia absolutely inspiring. Safe Area Gorazde is a powerful and compelling work. (I believe my co-author Carl Dahlman has used it as a textbook with undergrads). I also picked up Wars’s End: Profiles from Bosnia 1995-96 when it was published, with its terrific story ‘Christmas with Karadzic.’

Sacco was born in Malta, grew up in Australia and currently lives in Portland, Oregon. He described himself, in response to a ‘how do you identify’ question, ‘a man of the world’ and described a passport (Maltese) as something states rather than he need. His book emerges from early socialization into World War I’s power in Australia, and subsequent full exposure and experience with the horrors of contemporary conflicts. In the question time I asked how it relates to his previous work which is frequently first person driven graphic narrative. He spoke about not needing to see another refugee camp again, and how the Great War lead him to think about questions on a species level, about human nature. Unlike World War II, the Great War is morally ambiguous to us now, an exercise in futility. At the vortex of that futility is July 1st 1916 on the Somme. My 6 year daughter has been asking questions about the war. I plan to make use of the book to slowly introduce it to her at the right moment.


It is not difficult to think of Sacco’s work in critical geopolitical terms. Indeed Ted Holland, currently at Miami University, Ohio (where Carl is now Director of International Studies), has done precisely this in an excellent article published in “To Think and Imagine and See Differently”: Popular Geopolitics, Graphic Narrative, and Joe Sacco’s “Chechen War, Chechen Women” Geopolitics 17: 105–129 (2012). Of course there is a lot more that could be said, and perhaps has been by the many students I have met interested in graphic novels and popular geopolitics.

Sacco was very personable, sociable and self-depricating, a physically small man with an enormous talent. When we chatted briefly about Bosnia during some book signing, he spontaneously drew his familiar  scrawny self-parodying image, one that I now appreciate disguises the warm vitality of the flesh and blood person. The Great War rendered by a great guy.

About Dr Gerard Toal

Irish born academic living in Washington DC researching geopolitical competition and territorial conflicts in post-Communist Europe. Author of CRITICAL GEOPOLITICS (1996), BOSNIA REMADE (w C Dahlman) and NEAR ABROAD: PUTIN, THE WEST AND THE CONTEST OVER UKRAINE AND THE CAUCASUS (Oxford University Press, 2017).
This entry was posted in Bosnia, Bosnian war, Caucasus conflict, Chechnya, Current affairs, Geopolitics, Popular Geopolitics, Radovan Karadzic, Washington D.C. and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Joe Sacco and the Great War

  1. Reblogged this on rhulgeopolitics and commented:
    Gerard Toal on Joe Sacco

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