Page 45 Review by Stephen
"An eye for an eye only ends up with the whole world blind."
- Mahatma Ghandi
So begins Mary Talbot and Bryan Talbot's exceptionally eloquent, direct, pithy and masterfully controlled contribution to this potent anthology so desperately deserving your attention.
Priced at a ridiculously affordable £14-99 for a 150-page, album-sized hardcover, TRACES OF THE GREAT WAR is part of 14-18 NOW and the Lakes International Comic Art Festival's continued campaign to keep the impact and legacy of WWI alive in our minds, just as Dave McKean's BLACK DOG did so successfully before it; to make us sit up and think once again about so much that was endured by those caught in the merciless clutches of a physically horrific and mentally shattering First World War before being left mind-blinded, angry and exhausted in its wake.
The Talbots' post-war 'Make Germany Pay' is an improbably calm and well weighted excoriation of the British public's understandably vindictive demand (egged on as always by the likes of the Daily Mail hate-rag and by opportunistic politicians who could see ever so clearly which way the ballot-wind was blowing) for such extreme, punitive reparations against a drained Germany in the aftermath of World War I that the country-cleaving Treaty of Versailles inevitably - not even almost, but inevitably - led to a Second World War.
So much for the War To End All Wars.
Balanced against this short-sighted slavering is the Talbots' knowledge of what the Suffragette Movement sought to so stridently educate into the public's collective mind (their publicly pronounced prescience as to where it would lead: WWII), in authentic, historically documented detail, and who were their greatest supporters...? The returning Allied soldiers: those who knew first-hand, so much more keenly than anyone else, the cruel cost of war. It was they who understood most clearly that their children must never have to witness what they did, to lose so many and so much.
It carries with it a punchline which is as powerful as that of their SALLY HEATHCOTE SUFFRAGETTE graphic novel - and equally pertinent - for the Talbots draw a parallel with our next big mistake for precisely the same reason and with exactly the same collaborative entities which is looming so large as I type: Britain's imminent withdrawal from Europe.
As to gender inequality, you might want to inspect the rationing cards reproduced here from 1918.
There is so much in these diverse perspectives from some of international comics' finest - along with fellow craftsmen from outside this medium like author Ian Rankin illustrated by Sean Phillips and Oxford Professor of Poetry, Simon Armitage, illustrated by Dave McKean - that is surprising, reflective, intense and affecting, rendered in highly personal and so re-arresting detail.
TRACES OF THE GREAT WAR has also been artfully arranged in its order.
Jean-David Morvain, Scie-Tronc and Hiroyuki Ooshima's 'Mines for the miner!' and Maël's 'A Pretty Little Village' are the perfect examples of all of this. Both deliver fictional first-hand accounts of very real mine-related explosions which occurred at 7:28am on July 1st 1916 (marking the beginning of the Battle of the Somme) and at 16:30pm May 14th 1916, respectively.
On the surface it seems counter-intuitive to run the two stories in reverse chronological order, but the former not only explains the role of the former Welsh miner turned war-time sapper digging deep down underneath enemy trenches, but brings that awful horror alive in personal, self-sacrificial detail.
Then, several stories later, Maël plays a particularly powerful visual trick as two of the troops talk in the French trenches where once stood the village of Vauquois. It is an idle moment during a pause in hostilities, as the two soldiers together conjure in each others' mind's eye the idyll of a quiet café life.
"How sad! No birds signing in the trees on a day like this! Mind you, there aren't any trees left, either... But this place must have been so nice, before the war.."
"Oh yes, it was! I came here once, as a kid - I had some relatives near here. Vauquois.was very pretty, and there were plenty of trees!"
The man lights a tobacco pipe.
"There was a church, too - can you see, just over there? That heap of stones?"
"Right in front of the German machine-gun?"
"That's it. That's all that's left of the bell tower."
From the muddy bottom of the now-amorphous trenches from which vantage point there are no longer any landmarks to speak of, they imagine / recall beautiful buildings in architectural, sandy-orange line super-imposed on the painted page. Gradually, they then repopulate Vauquois with its joyous villagers, productive, contented or at play. Their imaginations running exuberantly rampant!
But then, in a flash, their minds are no more...
There follows a pastoral page in gorgeous green.
What else can I promise you? Brothers fighting on opposite sides, early strife without any end perceived in sight, and a quiet contemplative story by Ian Rankin and Sean Phillips called 'War Games' in which the creator of a video game company which makes interactive entertainment "for people who like to kill things", and directs a designer called Helmut who's working on one of those set in the trenches WWI to see if he can dig into the history of a metal hip flask engraved with the name 'Reiner Iser' which was salvaged from the battlefield as a trophy by his grandfather. Helmut's from Berlin and speaks German. He is a little more successful in his research than perhaps proves comfortable.
There's so much more that I haven't covered like the halting Haiku of Julien Vocance discovered by Riff Reb's (although by "discovered" I mean pilfered from someone's party) in The Book Of Haï-Kaï.
Also, the dreadful cost of the 1918-1919 Spanish Flu will astound you; mortality in such numbers as to be incomprehensible to me, but isn't it always the way that civilian deaths - as in our recent illegal invasion of Iraq - outweigh those of the combatants?
The cost of the "Great" War: 5 million soldiers; 13 million civilians.
It can't happen here, it can't happen now, and it cannot happen again: that's what Edmond Baudoin is emphatically not trying to tell you in 'Really?' There are logistical reasons why this would never happen again, a young boy patiently explains.
"Really?" replies his childhood sweetheart, at the end of every page.
Because, I'm afraid, he is wrong.
Also recommended on the subject of WWI: AFTER THE DREAMLESS DEAD anthology with Eddie Campbell, Simon Gane, Hannah Berry etc and THE GREAT WAR by Joe Sacco.