Jacques Tardi's graphic novel of the Great War, It Was The War Of The Trenches, is one of those books that is critically lauded appearing in 'Best Of' lists as well as reviews of the year and with its complete translation into (American) English we get the chance to see just what all the fuss is about.
Rather than one story the book is a collection of moments in the lives, and all too often deaths, of the French troops on the front line fighting again "the Boche" which range from short two page vignettes to longer tales lasting up to ten or more pages. This anthology style is due to the fact that while C'Etait La Guerre Des Tranchees was originally published as one book in France in 1993, it was compiled from stories by Tardi that had appeared in various magazines and books from 1982 onwards.
Like the conditions the men were fighting in, the stories are grim and invariably end in death. This is a book about World War that is more in the thoughtful style of Maus than the more uplifting style of Commando. Tardi's art style is detailed but does not have the intense level of detail that Joe Colquhoun used in Charley's War while his writing is much more matter of fact and to the point than Pat Mills weaving of reality with fiction in the same strip, but then Trenches is aimed at making an adult audience think rather than keeping boys buying a comic each week.
Indeed if there is a flaw in this book it is the relentless introduction of a new character whom we get just enough time with to discover a little about before he is killed. As such it is the stories that break this mould that stand out in the memory, be it the jovial artisan who creates beauty from the destruction around him in an attempt to make enough money to buy his wife a pair of earrings, or the French troops marching into Belgium in the earliest days of the war who are confronted by German troops using women and children as human shields.
Tardi's grandfather fought in the war and while he never talked of it to his grandson, Tardi's fascination with the conflict comes his grandfather's stories that his grandmother passed onto him along with the books that he read as a child, books of bravery and heroism that, as an adult, he could see the flaws with. This isn't a book of men achieving medals and glory, rather it is a book of men trying to live to see the next sunrise. With a book so realistically downbeat full marks must go to Fantagraphics for translating and publishing it in an American market that it so fixated on the generally upbeat fantasy of superheroes.
For all its depressing tone It Was The War Of The Trenches leaves you with a sense of accomplishment of getting to the end and of having read something worthwhile, and that perhaps is what sets it apart from so many other war stories.
• There are more details of the book on the Fantagraphics website including a 10 page PDF excerpt.
• Details of other books by Jacques Tardi are on the Casterman website (in French).
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