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Illustrating the Poetry of World War I, One Hundred Years Later

There are various dates given as the first day of World War I, from the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand on June 28, 1914, to the first shots fired by Austro-Hungarian soldiers on July 28 to the August 4th declaration of war by the British Empire, signalling the truly world-wide stretch of the conflict. Whatever the case, there is no doubt that 100 years ago today, thousands of soldiers were being killed in the first weeks of one of the largest wars in world history.  Among those fighting in August 1914 was Siegfried Sassoon, one of the best of the “Trench Poets”–mostly British writers and poets who fought in the trenchs of the Western Front and wrote about their experiences, mostly in poetry but also in prose.

I first encountered the Trench Poets at age 19, in a course on Early 20th Century British Literature at UCLA, while a less epic, but still horrifying war was being waged in Iraq and Afghanistan (and, if President Bush was to be believed, throughout the world). I was immediately taken with these poets, especially Wilfred Owen and his magnum opus “Dulce et Decorum Est,” a blisteringly anti-war poem which nonetheless manages to convey the longing of boys for combat. “Gas! Gas! Quick, boy!–An ecstasy of fumbling” remains one the best and most disturbing lines of poetry I’ve read. Metaphors and imagery taken from sex (like that “ecstasy of fumbling”) and nature permeate the poetry of the Trench Poets, as if they are trying to ward off the horrors of the mechanized war by comparing it to the most natural things they can think of.

Today’s review is of an incredible collection of the poetry of the Trench Poets–along with some baudy soldier’s songs–illustrated by some of the great graphic novelists and comic artists around. As I state in my review below, the illustrators have used a range of styles and angles on how to illustrate poems which are already complete in themselves. But it is very rare that any of them fail to add something to the already powerful words. These are perfect poems for teenagers trying to make sense of war and destruction, especially those teens who sense war’s inherent futility, in which so many of the Trench Poets believed. And the illustrations should be a perfect entree for teen into this important work.

For anyone whose interest is piqued by this review, come back on Friday for an interview with George Pratt, illustrator of three of the four Wilfred Owen poems included in the collection.

* DUFFY, Chris, ed. Above the Dreamless Dead: World War I in Poetry and Comics. illus. by Various. 144p. First Second. Jul. 2014. Tr $25.99. ISBN 9781626720657. LC 2014029047.

In this haunting graphic novel, editor Duffy has collected 25 poems written during World War I—most by the so-called “Trench Poets,” men who fought and in some cases died in the trenches of Western Europe—and asked some of today’s finest comic artists to illustrate them. While the vast majority of the poems can be categorized as anti-war, their tones and styles range from the lyrical, contemplative verse of Thomas Hardy (at 74 years old decidedly not a trench poet) to the densely bitter barrages of Wilfred Owen. And the illustrations show a similar range of styles. Most of the artists opt for fairly traditional panelled cartoons, though the art can range from grittily realistic to more traditional comic mannerisms. And some artists, such as George Pratt and Stephen R. Bissette abandon panels entirely to create darkly expressionistic backgrounds for their spreads. In addition to the primary poems, Duffy includes several soldiers’ songs—popular, often bawdy, and irreverent songs sung by soldiers in the war—all illustrated in a jokey comic style by Hunt Emerson. The result of this hodgepodge of techniques and tones is nothing short of a masterpiece: at once a reimagining and reinterpretation of some of the great poetry of the early 20th Century for those who have already encountered it, and an ideal introduction to the facts and the literature of World War I for teens who have not.—Mark Flowers, John F. Kennedy Library, Vallejo, CA

About Mark Flowers

Mark Flowers is the Young Adult Librarian at the John F. Kennedy Library in Vallejo, CA. He reviews for a variety of library journals and blogs and recently contributed a chapter to The Complete Summer Reading Program Manual: From Planning to Evaluation (YALSA, 2012). Contact him via Twitter @droogmark