Jacques Tardi’s World War I opus, Goddamn This War!, is a hard beast to categorize, at least when using English terminology. It’s not a comic book, and for a graphic novel it’s not very novelistic. But call it what you will, it’s hard to deny its power. This is a harrowing masterpiece of one unnamed soldier’s experiences in the Great War that so wholly failed to be the war to end all wars.
Things the reader won’t find in Goddamn This War! include plot and dialogue. Does that sound less than appealing? Tardi pulls it off and then some. The book moves forward in chronological manner, one chapter covering one year of war. But it’s episodic, fractured, chaotic. The neat order of narrative cause and effect is absent. As for the dialogue, there is none. The events are told by the aforementioned unknown soldier, and besides his voice we don’t learn much of him. Before the war he worked in a factory in Paris. He’s leans left. He’s not old. He had a girlfriend. When he gets vacation, he doesn’t visit his mother.
But that voice! It’s a living thing. Tired, resigned, angry, even raging at times. And sarcastic, ironic, darkly funny. The voice brings the incomprehensible horrors of war in front of the reader in full force. And he is bitter. He makes no bones of the fact that the war is senseless butchery. There are no heroes, no grand cause. I have a vague recollection of reading somewhere that parts of the narration are based on Tardi’s grandfather’s memoirs, but I might have imagined that, because writing this now, I have been unable to confirm that.
A word on the artwork. Tardi uses a realistic and detailed touch. His squares are big, and color schemes varied. We begin with bright greens, reds and blues, and then move via faded yellows, browns and grays to black, with frequent splashed of blood red. Much of the iconography is familiar, from the gas masks to bodies tangled up in barbed wire, but no less arresting or harrowing for that. Pay attention to the poppies!
Last but not least, the essay by historian Jean-Pierre Verney that concludes the book is excellent as well.
PS. I had such a hard time picking a title for this review, because while there’s not shortage of poems and songs to take the mind to WWI, there’re usually Anglo-American in origin. The French context is less familiar to me. But any line of Wilfred Owen would have worked.