Journalist Depicts Battle In 24-Foot-Long Cartoon

Nov 11, 2013

Joe Sacco is best known as a journalist whose dispatches from places like the Middle East and Bosnia come in the form of cartoons.

In his latest book, “The Great War,” Sacco uses his drawings to depict the first day of one of the worst battles of  World War I: the Battle of the Somme.

Sacco recreates that day from its hopeful beginning to its brutal end in a book that is a 24-foot-long panorama.

NPR’s Lynn Neary reports.


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YOUNG: Bells tolled at Arlington National Cemetery today where President Obama marked Veterans Day by placing a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns. The U.S. Air Force Band filled the memorial amphitheater with "America The Beautiful."


YOUNG: And on this day that honors the sacrifices and service of veterans, we wanted to take a look at a book that takes us back to the early days of World War I. Journalist Joe Sacco, known for his reporting from places like the Mid-East and Bosnia, has published a new book, but this time in a form of cartoons. "The Great War" is filled with his drawings depicting the first day of one of the worst battles of World War I, the Battle of the Somme. Sacco recreates that day from its hopeful beginning to its brutal end, in a book that us a 24-foot long panorama. NPR arts correspondent 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 Mid-East, 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. I 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.


YOUNG: The battle was preceded by a week of bombardments, which General Douglas Haig thought would decimate the Germans, allowing British troops to move in easily and take over their position. 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 realized, 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.


YOUNG: It is this terrible day that Sacco set out to draw in "The Great War." The panorama opens with images of General Haig as the day begins, and moves of 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 are in the trenches, et cetera, just to give myself a sense of the rhythm before I began it.

YOUNG: 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.


NEARY: Sacco says that it was important to him to include the stories of individual soldiers within 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 one million casualties on both sides. Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington.

YOUNG: And I'm looking at the drawings, including that 24-foot foldout from Joe Sacco's "The Great War," and you can see them, too, at


Now, an update on a story we talked about on Friday. "60 Minutes" has issued a formal on-air apology for its story about the attack on the American diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya. The story aired on October 27th and in it, former British contractor Dylan Davies told "60 Minutes" correspondent Lara Logan that he rushed to the scene of the attack. Well, CBS now says it doesn't have confidence in the report, in part because Davies had told the FBI he was not at the scene of the attack. Here's Lara Logan on "60 Minutes" last night.


HOBSON: Well, not everyone was satisfied with that on-air apology, which didn't offer more details about why CBS had trusted Davies, and some thought its length, just 90 seconds, was too short. Senator Lindsey Graham who had said after the report initially aired that he would block President Obama's key nominations until he got more answers said on CNN yesterday that he was not budging from that position. One of those key nominations, by the way, is Janet Yellen, whose confirmation hearing to be the next chair of the Federal Reserve is scheduled for this Thursday.

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