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WWI Comics and Poetry: A Fine Example

This is Denise Low, a regular contributor to HPPR.

Dear Listener, first a confession before I discuss Above the Dreamless Dead: World War I in Poetry and Comics, edited by Chris Duffy. I don’t like comic books. My mother forbade them when I was a child, except for Bible stories. So, what mixed feelings I had when I opened this World War I book of poetry about a gruesome trench war. The word “comics” suggests humor, but Above the Dreamless Dead is in no way a humorous book.

Sections are “The Call to War,” “In the Trenches,” and “Aftermath.” Each poem is illustrated by a contemporary graphic artist. The poets are first-rate—Wilfred Owen, one of my favorites, and Thomas Hardy, Rudyard Kipling, Rupert Brooke, Robert Graves—to name a few. There are almost 30 separate poems illustrated in black-and-white comics style. Backmatter includes notes, biographies, and suggestions for further reading.

My mother, born at the beginning of WWI, has been gone 15 years. So, I took a deep breath and cracked the illustrated book. It fell open on “The Dancers” by Wilfrid Wilson Gibson:

All day beneath the hurtling shells 
Before my burning eyes 
Hover the dainty demoiselles – 
The peacock dragon-flies. 

Unceasingly they dart and glance 
Above the stagnant stream – 
And I am fighting here in France 
As in a senseless dream. 

A dream of shattering black shells 
That hurtle overhead, 
And dainty dancing demoiselles 
Above the dreamless dead. 

Wow. The contrast between beauty, the “peacock dragon-flies” and danger, the “shattering black shells” creates emotional ping-pong. The poem uses contrasts effectively, like “Dancing demoiselles / Above the dreamless dead.” The other dancers in the poem, unstated, are the writer and his fellow soldiers, who dance with death.

Illustrations of Gibson’s poem, by Lilli Carré, center around a silhouette man staring at the dragonfly, and then this outline figure repeats in different postures as more and more demoiselles appear. This emphasizes the narrator as an individual, and I find myself identifying with him—despite the distance of history.

After more time with Above the Dreamless Dead, I see that poetry adapts well to the format of graphic panels. Patterns of verse help to keep continuity from one section to the next. A few poems become garbled by overly busy pictures and typography. But overall, the range of creative approaches is amazing.

I have read one other graphic work about war, Maus, a novel told in illustrations by American cartoonist Art Spiegelman, published in 1991, about the rise of Hitler. Like this book, it is terribly effective.

The rise of graphic literature would unsettle my mother, no doubt, but libraries now have sections devoted to the genre. This book is a fine example.