The eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month…

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I usually try to take some photos of the annual Garden of Remembrance which is around the towering stone structure of the Scott Monument in Princes Street Gardens each year. This year I decided to try for some night shots again as I was pleased with how they came out last year, I thought somehow shooting this scene at night (well, early evening, street nearby still very busy, but sunset is by half past four now so you can start ‘night’ shooting at a reasonable hour then be back home in time for tea – there is an upside to the long, dark nights of winter). added something to the atmosphere, so went in with tripod and left camera lens open to drink in what little light there was till they came out, then since I had the tripod I walked my way back home, pausing to take more night shots of the city as I did, but those will be for another day.

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Serried ranks of small crosses, drawn up neatly as if on drill parade, a poppy on each to remember the Fallen, many with hand-written messages from old comrades, friends and family

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Goddam This War! – Jacques Tardi returns to the trenches

Goddam This War! (buy from Forbidden Planet/ Goddamn This War! (buy from Amazon)
Jacques Tardi, Jean-Pierre Verney,
Fantagraphics

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I’m a huge admirer of the work of Jacques Tardi – I consider him to be one of the finest creators in the comics medium in Europe, with a diverse body of work and styles, from the fantastical adventures of Adele Blanc-Sec to his hard-edged adaptations of Manchette’s crime stories, or the Jules Verne homage of Arctic Marauder. His award-winning It Was the War of the Trenches is a remarkable entry in his oeuvre, even by his high standards, a blisteringly angry look at World War One. I was so impressed with it I struggled through it with my rather poor French skills until our friends at Fantagraphics announced their English language translation as part of their very welcome series of works by Tardi. Now, years after C’était la guerre des tranchées (as it was called in the original French language edition) Tardi has returned to The War to End All Wars. I’ve been eagerly anticipating this for quite some time – Trenches was on my Best of the Year list when it came out, an immensely emotional, powerful piece of work; Goddam This War had much to live up to.

Structurally Tardi takes a different approach this time – where Trenches was a collection of short slices of life at the Front with different characters, Goddam This War is chronological, a chapter dedicated to each year of the Great War from 1914 through to the 1918 Armistice and the aftermath in 1919, plus a text section by historian Verney giving a potted chronology of the war as the appendix. This time we mostly follow the war from the perspective of one French soldier, with some digressions to show other areas of battle – in the air (a brand new development) and at sea, as well as taking in others, away from our French soldier’s unit, the British Tommies, the Australians, Canadians, the colonial troops from French North Africa or Indian soldiers from the British Empire, and, late on, the arrival of the American doughboys, and he takes in life, and death, in the German trenches. There’s no jingoistic nationalism being waved here, Tardi has nothing but sympathy for the soldiers caught in this industrial carnage, his ire – actually his virulent rage – is saved to direct against the generals and the politicians. You know, those well-dressed, usually older gentlemen who direct the war efforts of entire nations and empires, who send millions repeatedly into the meat-grinder, order the shooting for ‘cowardice’ of those who refuse or who eventually break under the relentless strain, talk of ‘doing their duty’ for their country, but of course their duty doesn’t involve living in mud with rats with a view of what had been your friend rotting away on the barbed wire of No Man’s Land and wondering when it will be your turn, if it will be quick, or if you will linger in mutilated agony.

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Yes, you can probably surmise from my tone that I am with Tardi on that score. In one scene our little French soldier wonder which is worse, the French generals, the British generals or the German generals, but surmises there is probably little difference between them.

We start, as you would imagine, with 1914: it’s the very early days of what will become a four year slaughter on a scale never before imagined. Unlike Trenches we begin not only in colour, but in bright, primary colours – vibrant blue, glowing red, the verdant greens and golds of summer fields through which our French troops march off to a war they are convinced will be finished so soon they are, as the narrator puts it, already imagining drinking a well-earned beer on the Alexanderplatz after they beat the Germans and march into Berlin. Despite this being 1914 the scene, at first, resembles the old-fashioned, large formation battles of previous centuries, and you can understand why the generals brought up in that mindset struggled to deal with the muddy, bloody deadlock of mechanised trench warfare that things would soon degenerate into (although the fact they could not or would not try to think on another strategy over the next four years as battle after battle revealed the futility of their approach is rather less excusable). Even the French troops look like something from the 18th or 19th century, in blue coats and caps with bright red trousers, uniforms more suited for drilling on a parade ground than fighting a modern battle. There are still the aristocratic cavalry units galloping around in their lordly manner as the brightly-garbed troops march towards the enemy through villages (where they are cheered) and fields.

Little August soldier in your madder-red trousers, you tried to hide but there wasn’t much cover behind the poppies. You entered the history books dressed up like a trooper in a comic opera, little August casualty.”

Our narrator, however is not convinced even at this early stage where most are optimistic – he already has the horrible feeling many are being cheered on by the civilians they pass to their certain doom. In one frame French troops are packed aboard freight wagons on the railways, all seemingly cheerful, sure they are off to deliver a quick knock-out blow and return as heroes while elderly grandparents look on admiringly and the mothers and wives carrying young children smile bravely for the soldiers, but there is fear behind their smiles: “Only the mothers really knew. They knew the babies in their arms were tomorrow’s war orphans, and the cattle cars (8 horse, 40 men) were noting but rail-mounted coffins joined end to end and headed for military cemeteries.” The page with this scene is mirrored opposite, with three large, broad frames showing the French preparing for a ‘quick’ battle and marching off to war, the opposite page in the exact same format but from the German point of view; military madness and rampant jingoism running rampant over common-sense on both sides, as Tardi shows, most caught up in it, not questioning, the few, like our narrator, who do realise they are powerless to change things, that no-one would even listen to them.

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It’s not long before their illusions about the ‘glory’ of battling for one’s country – “the old lie, dulce et decorum est, pro patria mori”, how sweet it is to die for one’s country – are rudely, brutally shattered for all the armies on all sides of this massive, continent-crossing alliance of nations determined to march on one another. The peace of summer fields erupts into shocking violence and suddenly there are dead men lying on the ground, others screaming in agony from their wounds; the corn still sways, it is the men who have been reaped. The cavalry on both sides charge in a scene that could have come from the high age of heroic chivalry… Until misplaced artillery rains down blowing men and horses from both sides into butcher’s meat. It’s shocking and brutal to the reader, one panel graceful horses and riders, lances and swords drawn like knights, galloping across the frame, the next panel is a pure horror of explosions and pieces of animals and humans. The notions of grace and noble heroism vanish, and in a darkly humorous moment Tardi finishes off that misguided notion of honourable death in battle by having one poor German going behind a tree to relieve himself during a lull, suddenly finding himself face to face with a French soldier and is killed while his trousers are still around his ankles. So much for noble martyrdom for one’s country…

As we move on through that first year and into 1915 the palette slowly starts to fade, the world shrinking down for our narrator and his comrades (and those around them on both sides, for Tardi takes pains to show the universal suffering of all the troops regardless of nation), bleached of colour until it becomes almost monochromatic, the style here also making use of watercolours which, despite the subject matter, often give a softer feel than the art in Trenches, although it also helps convey the murky, muddy world of churned up earth and water-logged shell-holes and gas-misted trenches very effectively. The early mobility of those bright scenes of 1914 give way to digging in, then to serious entrenching, and the start of what we’ve all seen from the history books and early newsreels, the hell of trench warfare, where literally thousands of men could be slain in an afternoon for the gain of a few yards of mud. And it isn’t just the horrible ways the men can die, Tardi carefully articulates the mental anguish and suffering; the lice, the rats, the constant fear of a gas attack, the sight, day after day, of what had once been your comrade and friend, dead, caught on the wire in No-Man’s Land, rotting away, none of you able to pull him down without being killed yourselves, the body hanging there constantly to remind you of what happened to him and what you in turn may be by the day’s end too, a rotting cadaver flapping like a broken puppet in the wind between the lines, where even your mangled body will never know the peace of a simple burial. No wonder then that some break, succumb to shell shock, desert, try to get themselves wounded so they can be sent home, or simply kill themselves because they can endure this hell no longer.

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Moving into the final years of the war, then the aftermath Tardi switches mostly from following his French soldier narrator to individual scenes, three frames per page (much like his earliest pages of the book, a circular return to the layout of the beginning) in broad landscape form, each a window into a different part of the war, from the German observer leaping from a flaming balloon to the disaster of Gallipoli, sailors clinging to wreckage in the cold sea after their ship has vanished below the icy waters taking most of their comrades with it, the poor horses forced to drag equipment through the shattered landscapes humans have made of the world, the nurse struggling to be professional, to stay strong and care for the hideously wounded while she worries about her own husband on the front line, looking at the wounded, thinking on her own son, wondering if some day he will go through this sort of hell too, if it ever ends.

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The parades of the victors after the Treaty of Versailles is signed, the blind veteran who lost his eyes to a gas attack standing unseeing as they march past with flags and finery, the funeral parade of a French officer in a defeated, occupied Germany, the French soldiers beating any German civilian who refused to take his hat off as the funeral carriage went past, but as the dialogue points out, how hard it is for that German father to remove his hat out of respect when the French had killed his son in the trenches, and so the hatred is further sown in both sides (as with several scenes in the book Tardi has lifted this from an actual event, the picture matches remarkably closely a short piece of early film footage of this very scene which still survives to this day), or, in an ominous foreshadowing another of these scenes shows the chaos in post-war Germany as nationalistic right-wingers and far left socialist groups clash in the streets, a problem that would be there throughout the Weimar Republic and help sow the seeds for the rise of the Nazis to power and the war which would follow the War To End All Wars… A few pages towards the end are effectively a horror-show gallery of the maimed and wounded, the men with no limbs, other with large parts of their faces gone, masks to cover what remains of their visage. It’s horribly reminiscent of scenes we’ve all seen on the news of injured troops brought back from Afghanistan; the years advance, the number of casualties may be far smaller, but still in it’s fashion history repeats itself and men mangle other men with machinery, again and again, nothing learned…

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There are the odd touches of humour here and there – the French looking at the Scottish regiments and wondering if they have pants on under the kilts or if they go into battle with everything bouncing around like something from Carry on up the Khyber – and a few other places, but mostly it is of the barrack-room mentality or else of the gallows-variety, two strands of black humour that have served soldiers to help them get through probably every war in human history. But mostly this, like the earlier Trenches, burns with anger for the futility, the sheer, vast waste of human life, the treatment of the rank and file, who the powers that be never cared about in peace time but come a war their political manoeuvres and treaties had created, expect to come forth and ‘do their duty’ by a country that previously didn’t care if those same men lived in slums. His fury pours off the page, mixed with huge empathy and sympathy for the suffering of those forced into those awful events, and there in lies the key which makes this such an affecting, powerful, emotional read: Tardi takes the vast scale of the war, the unbelievable casualty rate and he humanises it, puts it on a personal level the reader can comprehend, understand, sympathise with. When the fallen run into millions we are horrified, but at the same time the numbers go beyond our individual comprehension – add in the distance of years and with the best will in the world it is hard to see more than awful statistics. But when presented at the human scale we too can bear witness, and Tardi presents this in a wars-and-all human level. It’s not an easy read, nor should it be, and you too are likely to find yourself with mounting anger at what was perpetrated on so many, so needlessly, and you should feel that anger. That’s the anger that makes us question each time a new generation of leaders try to promote war as the ‘honourable’ thing for a nation to do, it reminds us of the individual cost behind the grand rhetoric of political leaders and why we should never take them at their word, why we should consider the consequences behind such plans. The last of the old veterans of that slaughter have finally left us, next year marks a century since the start of the Great War, but the hard-learned lessons from that conflict are still relevant, even now as the various powers posture and rattle sabres once more, each claiming to be with the forces of right. Tardi reinforces the old lesson, “never forget”.

Film: the German

Cracking short film by Nick Ryan, The German sees a the pilot of an RAF Spitfire locked in a duel with a Luftwaffe ME 109 during the Battle of Britain. Determined to claim the Nazi pilot who shot down his friend the Spitfire pilot pursues the fleeing Messerschmit, the two exchanging fire, evading, chasing, diving through clouds, to a surprising conclusion:

The German from Nick Ryan on Vimeo.

Having a look around Vimeo I spotted another short ten minute film by Nick, A Lonely Sky, a gripping short movie about the attempts to break the sound barrier in the 1940s, complete with an appearance by Keir Dullea of 2001 fame, well worth a watch:

A Lonely Sky from Nick Ryan on Vimeo.

Reviews: Medusa

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet blog:

Medusa
Chris Kent
Graphite Fiction

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I wondered, what if a modern day soldier saw a face so horrific, it could turn him to stone?” Chris Kent in his Director’s Commentary.

I’ve been anticipating reading Chris Kent’s fascinating-looking Medusa since it first was listed for pre-orders in Previews a few months ago, and his recent guest Director’s Commentary here on the blog increased my desire to read this unusual work, so I was delighted when Chris dropped by to say hi when he was in town and also drop off a copy of the book. Ostensibly it is the story of a British soldier, Corporal Elliot Ford, fighting in Iraq when he gets news from home that his daughter has gone missing, and he is sent home on compassionate grounds. But home and the battleground may be separate geographically, but such distancing between the two is not so simple in the scarred mind of the veteran soldier…

This is not just a tale of the mental wounds so many of our armed forces personnel carry home with them, important though that issue is (especially given a recent news report just the other week about how veterans are more likely to find themselves doing something violent because of their experiences and training, without meaning to, yet another festering wound for too many), as Chris takes elements of Elliot’s combat experiences and his family life back home, then mixes them with his deepest fears and mythology. Who is the young woman he saw in Iraq watching his squad just before an explosion? Was she a suicide bomber? An innocent bystander caught up in an eruption of violence in what had once been her own neighbourhood? Why does her face haunt him? Why does he keep thinking of her, seeing her face? And when he gets the news of his daughter’s disappearance back home why is it he feels some subconscious link between both women? Is there a link? How could there be?

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Medusa is suffused with this dark, confused, tormented view of events and Chris wisely opts not to give the reader the ‘god’ position, where we can look upon the narrative and know more than the characters, instead we see this mixed up world through the filter of Elliot’s increasingly frantic, desperate attempts to make sense of things, struggling to comprehend what he is experiencing, to understand what is real and what must only – surely? – be in his mind, constantly driven to find his girl, to make sure she is safe.

There’s a real feel of drowning slowly in dark, cold waters here – Chris mixes his own art with an almost collage-like collection of images from newspapers, reworked to fit the tale; rather than the traditional sequence of panels and speech bubbles of most comics this is a series of overlapping images, some dark splashes through which figures or scenes can be barely glimpsed, others like snapshots from a soldier’s diary of life at the front, some flow, others suddenly break up violently into jagged, fractured scenes, emulating both the sudden eruption of adrenalin and violence and danger that comes with a routine patrol suddenly flaring into instant combat action and also the stressed and strained mind of the combat veteran, trying to keep it together for the sake of his unit and his mates relying on each other, then trying to keep it together because he has to be strong, he has to strive for his girl, while all around him he can feel the demons waiting to sink their teeth into him and drag him into dark chaos.

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The art approach may put some off, but I found it highly appropriate to the story, a mix of the almost documentary then the broken, fractured scenes, the almost photographic collage collapsing into painted darkness; it gives a flavour of the anguished state of Elliot’s mind, not just his frantic search for his missing daughter (handled so well, anyone who’s had a family emergency will empathise with that lurching, dropping feeling, the panic, the attempt to try to make sense of it, to be ‘strong’ for others and deal with it while wanting to collapse within) but also how the constant strain of patrols and combat and seeing comrades injured or killed, civilians harmed, starts to break down the defences of the mind, causing emotional damage as surely as bullets and bombs do physical wounds. The swirling darkness and struggle to comprehend events that refuse to fall into a regular three-act chronological narrative (even his sense of time starts to break down – how long has he searched? A week, a month? Or has he only been home for a couple of days?), and Elliot’s perspective is ours, so we share that disorientation.

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And the Medusa herself? Is that haunting image of the young woman really just a young woman or is she an aspect of an ancient myth, the achingly beautiful rendered monstrous? It’s hard to tell until very late on just how much is in Elliot’s deeply wounded mind and how much is real, and that is how it should be (and I won’t spoil it by going into more on that intriguing aspect of the tale). This is a journey through the Heart of Darkness, and like the voyage up-river to the lair of Colonel Kurtz there is that deepening fear in the soldier that the darkness is infecting him too, and through him perhaps his own flesh and blood, his family, that his actions will lead to karmic payback for what he has had to do, a spiritual, emotional stain that could go beyond his own self and actions to others he cares for.

Elements of Apocalypse Now are in there, also perhaps a nod to the fascinating Tim Robbins movie Jacob’s Ladder. But where this journey through darkness will take Elliot, that’s the real question? Is this a journey of a wounded soul to redemption or a spiral into chaotic despair? A highly unusual, deeply disturbing, dark tale, the mythological elements are timeless and echo the fact that for all the hi-tech equipment of the modern soldier, warfare itself is also, sadly, timeless, and equipment is but a tool, at the end of the day, regardless of century it is the humble squaddie who is at the heart of it, and what it does to the soldier.

The eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month…

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… the day the guns fell silent on the unbelievable carnage of the Great War. Each year the fallen from that dreadful harvest of death are remembered by the nation on Armistice Day, and all those who have fallen since. The Garden of Remembrance in Princes Street Gardens, by the towering stone edifice of the Scott Monument, opens each November to honour their memory. Sadly recent years have seen too many new names added to the rolls.

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The smaller crosses frequently have personal messages written on them by family, friends and old comrades, some from long ago (the other year I saw one which simply read “Uncle Alex, HMS Hood – gone some seven decades, but someone still remembers Uncle Alex and his 1400 odd shipmates who were annihilated in an insant on the pride of the Royal Navy), some from far too recent losses in Iraq and Afghanistan. When I zoomed in to take this one I saw that one of the crosses in the section for the Scots Guards that read “we miss you so much, dad and mum. We think of you every day”; some poor soul’s heart is broken, someone in power makes the decisions and sends the troops but they themselves never make any sacrifice, that they leave to families like that one. Perhaps it the sacrifice came from their own blood they would be less swift to send our forces into harm’s way.

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One of the crosses on the left here was dedicated to a father and son – the father lost in 1918 at Arras, his boy lost in the war that followed that one, falling at El Alamein in 1942. The sheer bloody waste of life, the father dying in a war, perhaps he thought at least if we win I will save my wee boy from ever having to endure the same…

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Above all I am not concerned with Poetry.

My subject is War, and the pity of War.

The Poetry is in the pity.

Yet these elegies are to this generation in no sense consolatory. They may be to the next. All a poet can do today is warn. That is why the true Poets must be truthful.” the war poet Wilfred Owen.

D-Day

Today is June the 6th; to a boy who had seemingly endless amounts of Warlord, Victor, Action and Commando war adventure comics to read growing up it’s a historic date drummed into the memory: D-Day. Despite what criticisms a modern reader could heap on those old comics they did impart a fair chunk of familiarity with major events so that when you came to them in history lessons in school you realised you already knew some of it. D-Day for me has always remained in my mind since first reading about it as a lad, an unbelievable effort by thousands by land, sea and air on a daring but desperate attempt to breach Fortress Europe and drive the vile evil of the Nazis back to their own bombed out ruins of their homeland. It’s passed almost into myth now, decades on, the vast armada of Allied ships appearing off the coast of France in the morning mist, like the fabled thousand ships of Homer’s Odyssey arriving on the shores of Troy. A lot of mostly young lads wouldn’t last through that day.

Of course as I got older I learned more about that history and found out that well before the thousands of British, Canadian and American troops stormed the shores of Nazi occupied France that day many other very brave men had risked – sometimes lost – their lives to make it possible. Not just the veterans of the Dieppe raid, but smaller, quieter missions, often carried out in secret, in the dark of night – French Resistance members risking capture and torture before death on missions to disrupt German lines or supply information to D-day planners, Commando or SIS members sneaking ashore to take samples of a beach to see if it could support a landing, masses of men, tanks… More than a few would vanish into the dark night and never be seen again, dying somewhere alone, unknown, to try and make that day possible, while others orchestrated astonishing projects of disinformation, stage magicians designing the greatest illusions of their lives, entire fake regiments of tanks and men made of mannequins and inflatables to fool the German aircraft into the Allied intentions. The sheer effort that went into planning the entire thing even before the actual landing is Herculean and it is astonishing to look back at a time when everyone just simply got on with ‘doing their bit’ for the greater good in a way that seems amazing to today’s far more selfish me-me-me society. And through it all these amazing photographs by one of my great photography heroes, Robert Capa, running ashore at bloody Omaha with the troops, terrified, fingers fumbling to reload his film… He shot several roles, escaped the beach and returned to London only for the developer to rush the film and ruin most of them – only a handful of shots, blurred, survived, first hand images from the beaches of D-Day, the day the Allies started to change history and roll back the Nazi menace with a mixture of cunning intelligence use, amazing engineering projects and sheer, naked courage (think of the Scottish regiments marching ashore under fire defiantly playing the bagpipes, like something from a movie scene and yet it really happened) and quite enormous cost. A cost paid for us, for the right to live in a free, democratic society. It should always be remembered.

And there is the legendary Robert Capa himself, having a ciggie break between combat coverage. Hard enough to imagine having to rush ashore into withering fire as you carry your rifle and pack, but imagine rushing ashore between machine gun fire and shells exploding, mines underfoot, and you are armed only with a 35MM camera. And yet Capa and others did and because of them we have these visual images to remind later generations of the debt that was paid for the future generations to come after them, a debt of blood paid so we would grow up never having to do what they had to. No muscled superheroes or supersoldiers like Captain America, just ordinary blokes from the streets of Glasgow, London, Cardiff, Toronto, Chicago, New York and many others, ordinary men doing extraordinary things…

Remember…

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Improvised night shots taken on the way home from work, the Garden of Remembrance in Princes Street Gardens, with the above shot taken by balancing camera on short fence post (restricted the angle but a freehand shot wouldn’t work in the dark!), this side of the Scott Monument is regiments and units mostly, the opposite side of the Monument (below) the small crosses that people can write names and messages on to remember old comrades and loved ones, very touching. Funny to think on this side of an iron fence, a quiet, dark park, serried ranks of poppies and crosses, other side the pavement of a hugely busy city, commuters and shoppers coming and going – I was glad to see quite a few paused for a moment though.

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They went with songs to the battle, they were young.
Straight of limb, true of eyes, steady and aglow.
They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted,
They fell with their faces to the foe.

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.

Laurence Binyon, For the Fallen

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I took this shot hunkering down to the base of the iron railing, lens pointed between them and used the flash, which normally I wouldn’t as I don’t like the quality of light you get with a flash. But somehow it still has something – as one commentator said on my Flickr it lights up the foreground leaving the crosses behind to fade away into the dark night.

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“They shall not grow old…”

For Armistice Day, one of Edinburgh’s smaller memorials, a little plaque in Edinburgh’s Waverley Stations, probably passed by and largely ignored by thousands of people every day as they go around their busy journeys, a tiny reminder of the past, of maimed and injured soldiers coming home from the War to End All Wars, resting here on their way, hopefully cadging a brew-up and a fag from some Red Cross volunteers. A little corner of history, if you care to look for the echoes of the past that still sound in the present.

Great War memorial, Waverley Station

As they at last comprehend all their sacrifice, all their pain,
All their sorrow, all their suffering, all the death,
Did not change or alter a thing, was not a lesson learned
Nor an experience not to be repeated..
Realizing their friend’s painful, brutal, ultimate sacrifice
Was only a necessary evil of Mankind’s political process
Which has never changed, and never will,
For each generation brings anew to the world
Its own self-styled madness of universal death, tragedy and suffering,
In wars to be fought by the young, bright-eyed children of the world
Unknowingly raised as sacrificial lambs of slaughter,
To be killed and gone forever, for nothing.
That is why, all Veterans cry.

In this hallowed place of the dead
The lonely graves of war’s youthful victims
Who died for a thought,
an idea, for a cause
Promulgated by selfish, insane men in power
These war graves and cemeteries are Harbingers
Of the eternal, mindless death cycle of war.
Young men killed by politicians’ words and mindless acts,
Their promise and existence forever ended too soon.
Now, forever sleep beneath the green muffled grass
Sharing the earth with the youth and victims of past wars,
Too numerous to count, to numbing to contemplate,
The dead, as powerless and impotent as the now living
To change or alter, or detour the inexorable course of madmen,
They patiently wait for the next generation to join them
.”

a fragment from Harbingers, a poem on the occassion of the Normandy landings anniversary by Curtis D. Bennett

Reviews from the past: Regards From Serbia

Another old review of mine I thought I would repost on here, this one from the FP blog back in 2007:

Susan Tomaselli on 3AM has a feature on Aleksandar Zograf’s Regards From Serbia, published earlier this year by Top Shelf (link via Marko at Neorama). I’ve been reading Regards myself recently and found it fascinating – the strife in the Balkans is quite recent history of course and it gave me a peculiar feeling as I read it because I remember following the events on the news throughout the 90s, while many friends would also watch and comment sadly how they had just been on holiday to that part of what had been Yugoslavia only a year or two before those events.

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As I read on that peculiar feeling increased; half-remembered events from the BBC news resurfacing in my memory contrasted against Zograf’s first-hand accounts from ‘the other side’ (as he tells an American during a trip abroad, he’s from Serbia, the ‘bad guys’!) – it isn’t just that he describes the surreal nature of living under threat of bombings and the ranting and spin of politicians (in the West as much as in Serbia, all full of justifications for their actions, all ignoring the harm to civilians they caused), it’s seeing events from the news reports we saw in the UK but from the perspective of someone who lived there. While NATO commanders and US and UK politicians cheerfully told us that we were using precision weapons to surgically strike only specific targets, the reality of being at the other end of a ‘precision’ raid is somewhat different. Precision is a very flexible term, especially when presented a military campaign to a cynical public sensitive to civilian suffering (although Zograf still manages to inject humour into this grim situation).

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Of course when you read Regards From Serbia it puts you in mind of other works, notably Joe Sacco’s comics war reporting, but I think Regards stands on its own – the fact that Zograf is describing his own home adds much to the impact of the book; how would we feel if the place we had lived all our lives suddenly became a war zone? Not something that would happen to us? Well, I seem to recall before the struggle in the Balkans most of us assumed we’d never see large-scale armed conflict in Europe again… The surreal nature of trying to lead as normal a life as he can during abnormal events lends the whole thing a dreamlike – or nightmarish – quality, something Zograf exploits openly, taking the darker dreams he has during the war as raw material for the comic strip. In some ways the surreal and often absurd nature of wartime events and the humour used to deal with them reminded me a bit of Spike Milligan’s war memoirs. On the art front there’s a lot of heavy, black ink which seems appropriate to the subject matter in the same way black and white film seems more suited for serious documentaries. Zograf’s characters are often seen from a side-on perspective, only one, large, oval eye visible in profile, reminiscent slightly of classical Egyptian art but also very much (to me at least) of Pablo Picasso and several times I found his scenes reminding me of Picasso’s powerful and terrifying nightmare vision of war in Guernica.

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A large section has been included by Top Shelf reproducing many emails back and forth from Zograf to friends and fellow comics creators in the rest of the world (when the power was on and when the net access wasn’t being blocked by the West); I know some thought this distracted from the comics, but personally I thought it was a good idea, adding to the very personal perspective on the events (I also enjoyed Monty Python’s Terry Jone’s contribution). And that personal perspective is the heart of Regards From Serbia; Zograf never pretends to be a reporter or historian – he presents the events that went on around him and his family and friends, their thoughts, feelings, hope and fears, from a very personal and emotional place, presenting us with an insight a more impartial news report of history text never could.

It Was the War of the Trenches: Jacques Tardi’s WWI masterpiece

It Was the War of the Trenches

By Jacques Tardi

Published by Fantagraphics

I’ve been pretty delighted to see the crew at Fantagraphics translating and publishing some of the excellent work of acclaimed French BD artist Jaques Tardi over the last year or so (with more to come), but I’ve been especially keen to read the translation of his It Was the War of the Trenches, having first come across it in French a few years ago, just a few pages from it extracted in a French comics mag I’d picked up. Even those few pages made quite an impression on me and I’ve had a strong desire to read the whole book ever since, so before we start kudos to Fanta for publishing this and other works by Tardi for the English language readership.

Where do you start when your subject is the Great War? How do you approach a conflict which had casualties running into the millions? Which brought new levels of unbelievable, mechanised, mass-produced horror and slaughter to the world, which saw the fall of governments and whole empires, redrew the map, shattered an entire generation and broke social divides? The statistics from the First World War are mind-numbing; they become mere numbers after a while. Our brains simply cannot really process the fact of millions of deaths – we need the personal level in order for us to emotionally engage with the savage events and, like Mills and Colquhoun did with the classic British WWI series Charley’s War, we get that personal, soldier’s level view of events. The men in these trenches may only represent a fraction of the millions from many nations dug into the scarred earth of the trenches, but they are personalised, they’re real and that makes it much easier to identify with them and empathise with the awfulness of trench warfare.

(Tardi captures the industrialisation of the slaughter of war and contrasts the awful effectiveness of manufactured steel and explosives against human bodies and the very earth itself, a Hellish landscape where even the dead cannot rest; (c) Tardi, published Fantagraphics)

Lacking the ongoing characters of a serial strip like Charley’s War, Tardi opts for a more documentary approach, selecting scenes from the war and following a short story of a small group or an individual caught up in a collective madness beyond their control (reminiscent of Burns’ approach in the highly respected Civil War series, using personal tales and reminiscences to give us a human, personal face to vast events). Starting with an even-handed scene setter showing the daily routine of shelling from both the German and French, which then introduces the trenches and the hell of No Man’s Land, cleverly introducing the first man he will follow, Binet. Alas, when we first see him, Private Binet is already dead and rotting away in No Man’s Land, so we already know that he’s going to be one of those vast numbers of statistics. As Tardi goes back to fill in some of Binet’s life he becomes a person, not another number. I think it’s quite brave of Tardi to have as his first character a man who’s quite misanthropic and unlikeable; he’s not trying to paint all of the fallen as saints or heroic paragons of virtue and honour, they are people, some good, some miserable, some funny, some selfish. Binet is not very likeable, but he doesn’t deserve the dreadful death he will endure.

And that’s surely part of Tardi’s point, that this huge, mechanical, industrialised war swallowed all who came before it, regardless of their character, the good and the bad, the poor and the noble born. The suffering Tardi portrays is universal to all of the front line troops – on both sides – and civilians caught up in the maelstrom of events too. A scene from the earlier, more mobile segment of the war shows advancing German troops driving Belgian refugees in front of them to act as human shields, uncaring of the vicious immorality of their actions. It sounds like a piece of the (rather obvious to modern, media savvy eyes) propaganda that was circulated in Allied nations about the ‘monstrous Hun’, but actually it is based on real events. Not that Tardi paints only the decisions like this by war-mongering Prussian generals, he shows the French commanders as uncaring and immoral as the German ones, when they order their men to fire anyway because, after all, the human shield isn’t composed of their countryfolk…

(Belgian refugees caught between equally uncaring French and German troops in the early days of the war, (c) Tardi, published Fantagraphics)

A burning sense of injustice and anger runs throughout War of the Trenches, and rightly so; to anyone who has read the history of that disastrous, monstrous start to the last century it isn’t hard to see why anyone should still be angry about it ninety years after the Armistice. He highlights the sheer ridiculousness of the war, of how nations and entire empires were prepared to spend their entire wealth and resources on slaughtering millions and yet for far less they could have housed, educated and fed every single one of their own citizens (including the many who lived in squalor and poverty, ignored by their countries until their countries required them ‘to do their duty’). He sketches the global nature of the conflict, of regiments drawn from the far corners of the world empires of the French, British and others, the Sikh soldiers from India fighting for the British Empire that had happily taken their country, the Algerian and Vietnamese troops from French colonies who, as Tardi points out, were pressed into service for the glory of France and who would, only a few decades later, be killing French troops as they fought for their own freedom, making a few pages of a single war into a shorthand for the seemingly constant conflicts which litter that entire century around the world.

(past conflicts may have ranged across the world – the French and British empires fighting from the Indies to the Americas, for example – but it took the Great War to make conflict so truly global. Not the best way to bring together the peoples of the world… (c) Tardi, published Fantagraphics)

It isn’t an easy read – there are moments of humour, but it is of the gallows variety (a pair of police who harassed soldiers end up strung up in a ruined village in front of the Charcuterie – the pork butcher’s shop, a macabre pun on referring to police as pigs). But for the most part it is, as you would expect given the subject matter, often grim reading. Which isn’t to say you shouldn’t read it, quite the reverse – yes, it is grim and frequently horror-filled, but Tardi draws on history and personalises it, bring huge events down to a human scale we can understand and empathise with in a way that we don’t always get from a large history volume (although for those who do want to learn more I’d recommend the highly respected Hew Strachan’s The First World War as a very accessible single volume introduction). I have actually read quite a bit of the history over the years but the visual aspect that comics bring to the human aspect of the history adds enormously to its impact, even more so than other visual medium, such as film, can manage (the classic WWI film J’Accuse – obviously an influence on Tardi – is a masterpiece in imagery, but unlike a comic you go at the filmaker’s pace; here you can pause on a scene, a frozen moment, an expression, a detail).

(several times Tardi uses a page layout which is reminiscent of some of the illustrated gazettes of the era; (c) Tardi, published Fantagraphics)

When I was a boy, first reading comics, most of the strips of the time made warfare seem like something of a Boy’s Own Adventure, with the notable exception of Mills and Colquhoun’s Charley’s War, which left a lifelong impression on me. So when I say Tardi’s War of the Trenches is the most powerful comic I’ve read on World War One since Charley’s War, you’ll understand what a compliment that is. The black and white art is perfectly suited to the era being covered, an era we are most used to seeing in monochrome film and photographs, while Tardi, not for the first time, proves himself a master of expression, the looks on the faces of the men caught up in the war speaking absolute volumes (a hallmark of a true master comics artist, a single frame depicting men’s expressions is worth pages of eloquent prose) and some pages are laid out in a fashion reminiscent of an illustrated gazette of the era (a nice touch). It’s a hugely powerful work, both moving and horrific and filled with anger for the suffering and injustices one group of ‘civilised’ humans can visit upon another (and in some scenes on their own people); as I said it isn’t the easiest read though, but then it shouldn’t be. And it does deserve to be read; as the last voices of those who were actually there are fading into silence works like this are needed to remind us of the monstrous acts we can be capable of in service to the beasts of jingoism and nationalism and hubris, that we should read them and take cautionary lessons from them. Never forget.

This review first appeared on the Forbidden Planet blog

The eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month

Do not despair

For Johnny-head-in-air;

He sleeps as sound

As Johnny underground.

Fetch out no shroud

For Johnny-in-the-cloud;

And keep your tears

For him in after years.

Better by far

For Johnny-the-bright-star,

To keep your head,

And see his children fed.”

For Johnny, written by John Pudney on the back of an envelope as the bombs fell on London in 1941.

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The Remembrance Garden in Princes Street Gardens, right in the shadow of the Scott Monument; in the background were some anti-war protesters, although I should say they were quiet and not at all disrespectful; in fact I saw some talking to some old veterans. I don’t think they had anything against the soldiers or those paying respects to the fallen, just against the concept of war, and its hard to disagree with that.

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remembrance 1

Some of the markers in the Remembrance Garden are plain, many have names or regiments or ships or squadrons marked on them. This one touched me the most – it simply read “to dad”. I have no idea if the dad in question fell in one of the recent conflicts or half a century ago; I doubt it matters, the pain and loss and grief will still hurt as much.
remembrance 2

This one was marked to ‘Uncle Alex’ on HMS Hood; the Hood was a famous, huge Royal Navy battlecruiser. During a duel with the German pocket battleship Bismarck she was completely destroyed; its thought a lucky hit penetrated the weaker upper deck armour and set off a magazine. She exploded and sank almost instantly taking hundreds and hundreds of men with her to the bottom of the ocean; only three sailors from this enormous ship survived. Some say one of her turrets fired a last salvo as she sank. The comedic actor and former Doctor Who Jon Pertwee also served on the Hood and had transferred off her just shortly before the battle to train as a chief petty officer, or he may never have lived to become a famous entertainer.
remembrance - for all in Afghanistan

Not just historical battles remembered here but also the here and now as someone marks a cross for the men and women serving in Afghanistan right now.

Waltz with Bashir

For me, animation meant children’s films that you let them watch in order that they will leave you alone...” – respected Israeli war journalist Ron Ben-Yishai explains to the BBC that he was less than enthusiastic when Ari Folman approached him about contributing to the animated documentary Waltz With Bashir. Folman talked the 65 year old reporter around, fortunately – his segment, as the BBC article notes, is fairly brief, but as the first reporter to risk life and limb to enter the site of the refugee camp massacres his testimony is essential to the story; he’s now quite convinced by Folman’s animated efforts: ”The animation is adding a layer, a psychological layer of his trauma. In a normal documentary film you couldn’t have documented all these things – like the dreams…. Believe me, I have a lot of nightmares of this kind. After being in war situations… it comes to haunt you.”

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Waltz With Bashir is a film I had been waiting to see for some time, following the good word of mouth it had been picking up on the international film festival circuit. An animated, feature-length documentary is a fairly unusual beast in the film world, and as someone who is fascinated by animation in its many forms I was intrigued. Ari Folman’s film looks back to the war in the Lebanon in 1982, seen through the memories, dreams and nightmares of former Israeli conscripts. The film opens with a pack of rabid dogs, barking, growling, running through the city streets, eyes glowing red, terrifying people, before arriving outside a building where they bark viciously at the inhabitant. The scene cuts to a bar and Folman is listening to his friend recount the dream of the dogs, which he has repeatedly, a mental echo of the war when he was forced to shoot dogs before their patrol could enter a village so the dogs couldn’t bark a warning (Shakespeare’s line “let slip the dogs of war” sprung to mind). When he asks Folman what bad dreams he has from the war Folman answers that his memory is mostly blank from that period. His friend’s troubled dreams spark the first glimmerings of memories and images from the war in Folman’s mind and so he sets out to talk to former comrades, slowly piecing together events surrounding their time in Lebanon, culminating in a horrific massacre of civilians in refugee camps.

Folman travels to meet old comrades, some fairly open about their war experiences, others quieter, more troubled; in between he talks to his therapist friend, troubled by his own missing memories and wondering what he saw or did that caused his mind to blank so much out. As anyone would be in such circumstances he wants to know but is also worried what he may learn about himself in the process. The film itself is mostly non-linear, made up of frequent flash backs as the former soldiers talk to Folman. But this is no straight ‘talking heads’ documentary – many of the men have only fragmented memories and images, often dreamlike or even hallucinatory. Folman himself is jarred into remembering a scene of himself and some comrades floating in the sea like drowned men; slowly they come to life and, quite naked, shamble slowly towards the war-torn shore, the scene lit by the eery light of flares. It reminded me of one of cinema’s strong visual scenes, Martin Sheen emerging from the dark waters in Apocalypse Now (and like Apocalypse Now there is much of Heart of Darkness about this film) crossed with a sort of D-Day landing but by undead, zombie soldiers, slowly shambling through the surf, across the beach and into the war zone.

And much of the film is seen in this manner; while some scenes are related and shown fairly literally (such as an ambush on a column of tanks) many are hazy, drawn from confused images in the memories of men who saw more than they wanted to and still see it frequently in their dreams, or composed entirely of fantasy images and hallucinations (one man on a boat heading to the war imagines a giant naked woman, who lifts him gently from the ship and swims away with him nestled child-like against her stomach as the ship and his comrades behind them explode into flame; another distances himself from events by pretending he is taking photos of it for an article). Its something a live action documentary simply couldn’t capture but the medium of animation is suited perfectly for; the animation takes us as close as we can be to the dreams and nightmares of those men, as well as showing how different minds react to the stress, how they interpret what they saw and endured, the strains, the stress, the guilt over actions forced on them or simple guilt for being alive when friends are dead. The film doesn’t try to excuse actions, nor does it seek to judge and condemn, it simply shows and shares those events and memories.

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(escape fantasy, sexual fantasy or simply the childlike urge to have a mother figure taking you away from harm – one of Folman’s friends recounts his vision of a giant, naked woman who carries him from the boat taking him to battle)

Popular music of the period features throughout, especially in scenes where the soldiers are given leave to visit home. A home life which now seems alien and bizarre – at the front they dream of being home, at home they feel strange, uncomfortable. Around them people are playing music, video games, enjoying everyday life, all familiar things which now seem so odd compared to what the soldier has been living. In this Folman scores again, showing us just a bit of the contrast the soldier (of any war) encounters when they come home and try to be ‘normal’ but wondering how everyday life can be so ordinary after what they have seen (its no surprise that many former soldiers have to deal with mental health and a myriad of other problems when they return to civilian life. A peace treaty might end a war politically, but it doesn’t end in the minds of many who had to prosecute it).

Its very powerful material, extremely emotional and often very, very uncomfortable to watch – but then, it should be. The last act leads up to the slaughter of hundreds of Palestinian civilians in refugee camps (spoiler warning, you may not want to read this last bit if you are going to see the film), the very event that Folman has been wondering about as he probes the gaps in his memory. The Israeli soldiers themselves are not directly involved, but they are ordered to encircle the camps while their Christian militia allies enter them, ostensibly looking for terrorists. They see women, old folks, children, being rounded up and loaded onto trucks; Folman flashes back to an earlier generation of his own family being loaded onto trucks by the Nazis. What happens next is, sadly, a matter of historical record – hundreds of innocents were slaughtered. Ben-Yishai, the reporter, was on the front lines and following leads from Israeli soldiers troubled about what they suspect is going on inside the camps, he investigates, bringing it to the attention of the government.

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(Lebanon, once called ‘the Paris of the East’, shattered and ruined by war; a scene probably familiar to many from news bulletins in the early 80s)

In the very last scenes animation is suddenly, jarringly, dispensed with in favour of Ben-Yishai’s news footage. Its simply horrific and the sudden move from animation to news film re-enforces that horror. Its dreadfully hard to take – I found myself seriously struggling to maintain some emotional control – but its something that should be seen by a wider audience (and I wish we could make our so-called world leaders sit and watch it before they decide on more foreign adventures). Like Apocalypse Now it is by turns fascinating and yet often horrific, but its engrossing and powerful. Sad to think Folman must have been working on it when Hizzbolah were firing rockets at Israeli civilians and Israel was bombing Lebanon once more just the other year. Which, regrettably, makes this not just a look at a historic event from decades ago but very contemporary to ongoing strife in the Middle East and elsewhere, while the animated nature of the bulk of the film guarentees images that will stick in the viewer’s mind long after the film has finished. One of the most unusual and remarkable animated films I’ve seen; as I said, it can be hard to watch, but you should try.Waltz With Bashir is on general release in the UK now; a graphic novel version of the story is due soon.

I originally wrote this review up for the Forbidden Planet blog