It Was the War of the Trenches.by Jacques Tardi. "I haven't told the 'whole story' because that would be a monstrous enterprise. From when I first herd my grandfather's stories, I've always been haunted by the desire to try to create an account of this early part of the 20th century. I consulted books...; I used them as departure points for episodes which I then fictionalized. It was not my goal to create a catalog of weapons and uniforms--although I did, of course, use documentation--even less so to render an accounting: How many shells per square meter, the number of men involved in such-and-such offensive. ... The only thing that interests me is man and his suffering, and it fills me with rage." --Tardi, in the Foreword.
In "It Was the War of the Trenches," Tardi provides a fictional account of French frontline soldiers during World War I. You can't really say there's a story at work here; it's rather a series of vignettes, almost all of them ending with the death of the figures they depict. The result is that the names and characters become a blur, with the only commonalities being war, death, and the trenches. But that, I think, is Tardi's point: the war dehumanized its victims, and everyone was just a body in the trenches. After the first establishing part, most of the book is told in 3-long panels per page, and the repetition of form contributes to the overall sense of immersion. It's a bleak book, without consolation or mercy. It ends in the armistice, but the final panel of corpses that were just alive tells us that such treaties always come too late.
This book is the third I've read from Tardi, the other two being the almost absurdist "You Are There" and the noir adaptation "Like a Sniper Lining Up His Shot." This book is by far my favorite. Both of the others had much more in terms of characterization and plot, but they also both left me with a sour taste in my mouth. I don't think I have the French political background to really grasp There's ending, and Sniper's just seemed nihilist. And that's an odd response, given that Trenches is far more nihilist--and more sniper-filled, for that matter. Part of the difference is that I don't like the way Tardi writes women. I realize that there's a tendency to idealize female discourse in English male writers, and I feel that, on some intellectual level, I should appreciate what Tardi's doing in attempting to portray them as different, but it often comes across as less "unidealized" and more of "woman = mother earth savage." (See the female characters in Sniper and There; I also feel the same way about many of the female characters in the Dungeon series by Sfar and Trondheim; perhaps it's a cultural thing.) So perhaps I like Trenches because the female element that Tardi is misconstruing (IMO) is minimalized. Mostly, though, I think what I like is that Tardi doesn't flinch from his depiction. These are men dying in horrible ways. There's no false nobility, no heroism. Just death.
I guess I have to ask, though, what the use of such a book is. We are long past World War 1, after all; these men would almost certainly be dead now one way or the other. Tardi makes it clear that his connection to the war is personal, in dedicating it to his grandfather. It's also a cultural connection--a war fought on French soil. And I think, as evidenced by the quotation above, it's representative of all wars to him, especially the brutality of the modern war. Not brutal in the sense of people savagely attacking the message--a message, one of many messages--here may be that we need to see soldiers as people, see everyone as people. Does it work on that level? I don't know. It made me reflect on the subject, for a little while at least. Maybe that's enough. Maybe that's a start.