9 Comics and Graphic Novels Set During the First World War
1. Harlem Hellfighters (2014)
Today marks the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the First World War, the “war to end all wars” that waged for four years, killed more than 16 million people, directly caused the collapse of four major imperial powers (German, Russian, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires) and set the stage for the Second World War just two decades later. In other words, it’s a pretty big deal in world history… not that you would know that from the scant number of comics set during that time. Which is too bad considering the many stories waiting to be told, like the story of the regiment of black soldiers known at various times as the Black Rattlers, the 369th, and the Harlem Hellfighters. Max Brooks (World War Z) and artist Caanan White focus on a regiment that spent more time in combat than any other American unit, never losing a foot of ground to the enemy and winning countless decorations — but still faced massive discrimination at home, even from their own government (“They would rather see white Germans instead of black Americans march in triumph up Fifth Avenue,” says one soldier). The book’s black-and-white artwork easily stacks up against the best EC Comics war titles for sheer shock value; no surprise, there’s already a film adaptation in the works with Will Smith attached to the project.
2. Charley’s War (1979)
Originally published in Britain’s’ Battle Picture Weekly between January 1979 and October 1985, Charley’s War tells the story of Charley Bourne, who joins the British Army at the age of 16 (he told the recruiting officers he was 18). With minimal training, he discovers life in the trenches is very different from the way it was portrayed to the public, and the rats, flooding, and small-scale attacks are only a precursor to the devastating Battle of the Somme. Pat Mills’s meticulous script and Joe Colquhoun’s detailed artwork were so popular in Britain that the final two years of the war lasted five years in the strip; Charley would continue fighting beyond the end of the Great War, eventually returning to France with the British Expeditionary Force at the start of World War II. The early stories contrast Charley’s upbeat letters home with the grim reality of his day-to-day existence, with the horrendous living conditions, loss of life and futility of what the characters were ordered to do taking their physical and mental toll on Charley and his mates. The first book collecting the earliest strips (Charley’s War: 2 June 1916 – 1 August 1916) features short articles explaining the conflict, putting the stories in historical perspective.
3. White Death (1998)
While most stories about the war tend to focus on what happened on the Western front, trench warfare was also practiced high in the Trentino, Dolomite and Caporetto mountains on the borders of Italy and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. There, soldiers engaged in the “White War” triggered deadly snowslides with artillery fire; between 60,000 and 100,000 troops were killed in these deliberately caused avalanches. First published in 1998, a new edition of Robbie Morrison’s and Charlie Adlard’s White Death will be launched at the Edinburgh International Book Festival next month to mark the centenary of the war. As Morrison said in a BBC interview, it’s easy to see the metaphor, with both war and an avalanche being “a terrifying, irresistible force that remorselessly consumes and destroys everything in its path.” What wasn’t so easy was doing the research; when they started out gathering material for their project, the pair found precious little information about that part of the war, and it was important to them to get it right. “In writing a story like White Death, there is a duty to be as realistic as possible and capture the horror and cruelty but also the humor and camaraderie,” Morrison said. “There is also a duty to be respectful as well.”
4. Enemy Ace
Based loosely on the real-life Red Baron, Manfred von Richthofen, with whom he shared the distinction of flying a Fokker DR1 Triplane and having the most confirmed aerial combat kills during the Great War, Hans von Hammer (or “the Hammer of Hell” as he was known) was a German ace pilot who made a point of never shooting down an unarmed man. First conceived by Robert Kanigher and Joe Kubert in 1965, “Enemy Ace” strips appeared in Our Army at War, Star-Spangled War Stories and other anthology titles throughout the 1960s and ’70s; Hammer’s first marquee role was in Enemy Ace: War Idyll, a 1990 graphic novel written and painted by George Pratt. Unlike most war stories that focus on action and shock value, “Enemy Ace” stories find many of the quiet moments between the battles, taking the viewpoint of someone who wouldn’t be considered one of the “good guys” to American audiences and advancing the somewhat radical notion that things like bravery, duty and honor aren’t displayed only by “our side” in any given conflict.
5. The Phantom Eagle
And then there was the Phantom Eagle. Never heard of him? Don’t sweat it; few people have. Shortly after Enemy Ace hit the stands, Marvel came out (completely coincidentally) with its own WWI action ace, a German-American pilot who hid his identity to prevent the Germans from retaliating against his parents (they had moved back to their homeland shortly before the war’s outbreak). Only his friend and mechanic, Curly Anderson, knew who the Phantom Eagle really was. Preeeeeesented in the usual over-the-top Marvel fashion, even his own creators seemed to think he was a bit out there; in an interview with Sequential Tart, artist Herb Trimpe said Gary Friedrich’s idea for the character “was what Roy Rogers and Gene Autry were to the American Western — totally Hollywoodized.” It didn’t help that the Eagle’s planes weren’t based on any planes from that era, and a lack of excitement from readers shelved any further plans for the character. As all Marvel characters tend to do sooner or later, he made cameo appearances in the oddest places, like a Hulk story in which Kang the Conqueror sends the big guy back to World War I to stop the Phantom Eagle from accomplishing a mission, which would lead to the Avengers (and the Hulk) having never been formed… or something. But then Kang could never have sent the Hulk back in time. But then… you know what, just forget it.
6. The Great War (2013)
With such books as Palestine and The Fixer: A Story from Sarajevo, Joe Sacco has established himself as a comics journalist with keen insights into modern-day conflicts. The Great War is something different: a 24-four-foot-long panorama that folds out like an accordion, it illustrates the first day (July 1, 1916) of the Battle of the Somme, one of the bloodiest battles in history. Zeroing in on a specific moment in history like this, without using a single word of dialogue, was something new for Sacco, who said he was drawn to the idea of depicting a moment from World War I because of the role that war played in shaping the national identity of Australia (where Sacco grew up). “I did a lot of image research and I actually had to read a lot of books, because sometimes prose takes you where photography never went,” he told the New Yorker. “I would read and get images in my head, and it was just a matter of putting them down. I’ve spent a lot of time doing journalism, and I still am interested in it, but I think the artist side of me wants to sort of come out now. And that’s what The Great War was to me, letting myself go in that direction.”
7. C’était la Guerre des Tranchées (1982)
French comic artist Jacques Tardis mentioned the First World War in his works, but it was C’était la Guerre des Tranchées (It Was the War of the Trenches) where he first immerses himself in the daily routines and horrors of the war. Like Mills and Colquhoun, Tardi is less interested in the underlying causes of the war and more intent on learning how the men on the ground managed to survive in one of the most hellish environments possible. No surprise, his book offers no simple answers as he records the lives of everyday soldiers, moving from one character to another when one dies (which happens frequently) to keep us as close as possible to the realities faced by soldiers on the front lines. Rats, decomposing corpses, the screams of the dying, the cold, the dampness, the first clouds of mustard gas, the first tanks rumbling onto the field — Tardi doesn’t spare the reader any of the gruesome details. A translated edition was published by Fantagraphics in 2010.
8. Above the Dreamless Dead (2014)
When they weren’t fending off the rats or praying for a quick death, many soldiers whiled away the time in between battles by writing letters home or composing poems and songs about their experiences. Trench poetry gave the soldiers a way to express their dreams and nightmares, and gives those of us living in the present a direct window into what those men were feeling as they sat in their trenches waiting for the order to go “over the top.” Above the Dreamless Dead is a graphic anthology of adaptations of World War I trench poetry, bringing them back to life a century later. The poems in this book range from whimsical to brutal, reflecting the many different topics and points of view the soldiers put into their poems. Not that this collection should be considered purely a history lesson; as Canadian cartoonist James Lloyd suggests in his adaptation of Siegfried Sassoon’s “Repression of War Experience,” the experiences of those whose lives have been shattered by war haven’t changed all much — and neither has our failure to help them.
9. Ghosts of Passchendaele (2014)
In his memoirs, former British Prime Minister David Lloyd George wrote, “Passchendaele was indeed one of the greatest disasters of the war… No soldier of any intelligence now defends this senseless campaign.” Begun in July 1917, the campaign didn’t end until November when the Canadian Corps captured Passchendaele; in between, somewhere between 400,000 and 800,000 soldiers lost their lives. Ghosts of Passchendaele is the third book of a graphic novel trilogy by Belgian artist Ivan Petrus featuring Belgian, British and French soldiers and their true stories from the First World War. He chose to focus on the Third Battle of Ypres in 1917 – a battle in which British, ANZAC and Canadian forces suffered immense casualties securing only a few miles of ground — because of that battle’s iconic status among those nations. “Plus, 1917 was the wettest year imaginable,” he said in an interview. “Passchendaele is all about courage and fighting spirit — in deep mud. In my first two graphic novels, I had to draw a lot of ruins, but with Passchendaele, there’s only mud.”