above the dreamless dead: world war I in poetry and comics (First Second)

The stark imagery of the trench poets of World War I is reimagined in comics form in this thought-provoking new anthology.



144 pgs., B&W; $24.99
(W / A: various; edited by Chris Duffy)
When I was taking English in junior high school, we had a unit on what are known as the “World War I poets” (a.k.a the “trench poets”): Siegfried Sassoon, Rupert Brooke, Wilfred Owen, and so on. I don’t know why those poets were particularly singled out as a group (we didn’t have a unit on Civil War poetry or World War II poetry), but they certainly made an impression on my young mind. During World War I (also known by the unintentionally ironic title “the war to end all wars”), Europe experienced devastation on a previously unknown scale, and perhaps the shock of just how destructive modern warfare could be played some part in the poignancy of poems like “Does it Matter?” (Sassoon) and “Dulce et Decorum Est” (Owen). The words of these poets also resonated with young people because of their emphasis on the sorrow and even the pointlessness of war, a point of view we had no problem applying to America’s involvement in Vietnam.
above the dreamless dead: world war I in poetry and comics is a new anthology of comics edited by Chris Duffy that pairs almost 30 poetry and prose excerpts from World War I with a number of different comics artists. The result is a fresh presentation of material that communicates as clearly today as it did when it was first written. All in all, 28 artists interpret writing by 13 authors, including some that are certainly household names (Thomas Hardy, Rudyard Kipling) and others that may be less well known unless your English curriculum was similar to mine (Edward Thomas, Osbert Sitwell, Isaac Rosenberg).
A few of the comics take a somewhat light-hearted and satirical view of the war (Hunt Emerson’s adaptation of the anonymous soldier’s song “When This Bloody War is Over” is a prime example), but for most, the mood is grim. Eddie Campbell’s adaptation of a section of Patrick McGill’s novel The Great Push is as dark as a night in the trenches, with heavy ink wash emphasizing the surreal nature of the soldier’s experience and the hopelessness of it all. George Pratt’s adaptation of Wilfred Owen’s “Soldier’s Dream” draws on Cubist techniques (a contemporary artistic approach flourishing in the world outside the trenches) to suggest the fragmentation of the soldiers’ world. An adaptation of Isaac Rosenberg’s “Dead Man’s Dump” by Pat Mills (writer), David Hitchcock (artist), and Todd Klein (letterer) contrasts the civilized comforts of the officers’ quarters with the grim circumstances of the average soldier, with the frames becoming increasing filled with anonymous bodies.
I’m not crazy about all the selections in above the dreamless dead, nor in all the pairings, but that’s beside the point. It’s an anthology, and it can be assumed that some people will prefer one poem or pairing, and others, others. The key fact is this: War remains a daily fact in much of the world. For that reason, it’s well to remember how terrible it really is, and how far removed a soldier’s experience may be from the sanitized, heroic versions presented on television. Artistic interpretations of the experience of war, such as those presented in above the dreamless dead, help reminds us of what we are really talking about when we talk about war.   
A preview of above the dreamless dead is available here. | Sarah Boslaugh

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