Copyright ©2013 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

ARUN RATH, HOST:

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath.

Joe Sacco is best known as a journalist. But his dispatches from places like the Middle East and Bosnia come in the form of cartoons. In his new book, "The Great War," his drawings depict one of the bloodiest battles of World War I - the Battle of the Somme. Sacco re-creates the first day of that battle - from its hopeful beginning to its brutal end - in a 24-foot-long panorama. NPR's Lynn Neary reports.

LYNN NEARY, BYLINE: Joe Sacco began drawing comics as a kid. But in college, he studied journalism. So when he was traveling in the Mideast, Sacco began interviewing people, but he drew pictures of them as well. The result was his first book, "Palestine." Sometimes, Sacco says, words are not the only way to convey the immediacy of a conflict.

JOE SACCO: What I try to do with my images is just give the reader a real feel for a place; to give them a real feel of a refugee camp in Gaza, or a city in Bosnia. You know, it's very visceral. You open the page and you're right there, in the moment.

NEARY: Now, Sacco is using the cartoon form to depict history. Growing up, Sacco was fascinated with World War I. He remembers looking through history books, and seeing phrases like "no man's land" that conjured up powerful images.

SACCO: To me, it meant if you entered no man's land, you wouldn't survive because no man could possibly live there. You know, later on, it sort of rolls off your tongue. But I've never sort of lost that sense of awe and horror.

NEARY: When a friend suggested that he draw a panorama of the Western Front, Sacco was interested. But he wanted to do something with a narrative, and remembered hearing about the first day of the Battle of the Somme. The story had been told many times, including in this 1964 BBC documentary.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE GREAT WAR")

UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR: The time, 7:30 a.m. The date, July the 1st, 1916. The place, Picardie on the Somme.

NEARY: The battle was preceded by a week of bombardments, which Gen. Douglas Haig thought would decimate the Germans; allowing British troops to move in easily, and take over their positions. The bombardment was so loud that it could be heard in Hampstead Heath, in London. But it was not so effective. Many of the shells were duds; others simply didn't do the job.

SACCO: And when all that noise quieted down, the Germans realize, OK, the shelling has stopped. Let's get out of our dugouts and man our machine-gun posts. And the British were marching toward them in a line, and the Germans just started firing on these troops.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE GREAT WAR")

UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR: Night fell upon a disaster never equaled in the British Army's history: 57,470 officers and men had fallen, or were missing. Over 19,000 were killed, or died of wounds. This was not going to help the Allied cause. This was not going to relieve Verdun or wear the Germans down. This was near-massacre.

NEARY: It is this terrible day that Sacco set out to draw in the Great War. The panorama opens with images of Gen. Haig as the day begins, and moves to the battle itself and its aftermath.

SACCO: I did a very rough plan for it so I knew, you know, I need three pages to show the logistics, another three to show the troops marching up, four or five when they're in the trenches, etc., just to give myself a sense of the rhythm before I began it.

NEARY: Each panel in the panorama is dense and detailed. Fresh troops march in, looking eager for battle. Some soldiers eat and relax while others man the huge howitzers that fire on the Germans. Eventually, troops begin advancing, and the chaos of war consumes them. In that BBC documentary, one survivor of the battle remembered what it was like.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE GREAT WAR")

UNIDENTIFIED VETERAN: I started crawling towards our lines, and I never seen so many dead men clumped together as what I saw then. And I thought to myself, all the world's dead. They're all dead.

NEARY: Sacco says it was important to him to include the stories of individual soldiers within the larger panorama.

SACCO: As I was going, I would think about the people, and this one's going to be talking to his friend, this one's going to be in pain, this one is going to be relieved - a lot of little stories that you can sort of look at, and see for yourself.

NEARY: As detailed and realistic as Sacco tried to make his panorama, he knows it can give merely a hint of what it was really like to be on that battlefield.

SACCO: You know, I think I captured a representation of this sort of thing, but I don't think I can - myself - imagine this sort of thing properly. This is a drawing. It's a filter of sorts that allows me to draw, and the reader to look. It's not the real thing.

NEARY: The Battle of the Somme went on for four months. When it ended in November of 1916, the allies had advanced less than 10 miles. There were more than 1 million casualties on both sides.

Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

Copyright © 2013 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.