Review: War's infinite panorama reflected in 'The Great War' by Joe Sacco

  • Article by: TOM HORGEN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 8, 2013 - 11:26 PM

GRAPHIC NOVEL: Cartoonist Joe Sacco re-creates the Battle of the Somme in intricate, tragic detail.


Detail from Plate 11 of Joe Sacco’s 24-foot, accordion-fold book, “The Great War: July 1, 1916: The First Day of the Battle of the Somme.”


Print-is-dead forecasters keep saying the future of comic books is digital. But a handful of the medium’s masters beg to differ: There are elements of this art form that just can’t be re-created on a glowing screen.

Last year, Chris Ware wowed readers with his award-winning “Building Stories,” a collection of comics, pamphlets and broadsheets that came housed in a giant box and told one unified story. It was an unorthodox experience that grew more engrossing as you sifted through all that material.

Joe Sacco’s latest war comic also bends the rules of a typical graphic novel, but in a much different way. In “The Great War,” the cartoonist casts his eye on the Battle of the Somme, which contained one of the bloodiest days in all of human history. On July 1, 1916, the British Empire unleashed a massive offensive against Germany, hoping to turn the tide in World War I. The plan failed and almost 20,000 Allied soldiers were killed in a matter of hours.

To capture this colossal destruction, Sacco has drawn a single vision of the battlefield that stretches across a 24-foot accordion-style graphic novel. On one end of his foldout canvas, soldiers prepare to march into the maze of trenches. On the other, the German bombardment rips through the British infantry with catastrophic power. The last panel shows grave diggers. The book has an introductory essay by writer Adam Hochschild and endnote annotations by Sacco, but within the intricate panorama, there isn’t a single written word.

Sacco loves to chronicle intimate, personal war stories — his previous comics drill deep into his subjects’ lives. “The Great War” is different. It’s Sacco at his most bombastic and epic, as if his publisher had given him Steven Spielberg’s budget.

The result is much more than a traditional comic book; it is an achievement whose impact could only be felt in this paper medium.


Tom Horgen is a features editor at the Star Tribune.


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  • THE GREAT WAR by Joe Sacco


    By: Joe Sacco, introduction by Adam Hochschild.

    Publisher: W.W. Norton, slipcased, $35.

    Review: A moving, intricate, highly detailed depiction of a pivotal battle of World War I that pushes the boundaries of the graphic novel.

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