Reading The Great War: Comics' Greatest World War I Stories

One hundred years ago today -- July 28 -- the opening shots of World War I were fired, following Gavrilo Princip's assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in the city of Sarajevo a month earlier. That murder changed the world and The Great War -- later renamed World War I -- has defined the past century like no other event.

While supremely important to the history of the 20th Century, the war has not been the subject of as many comics as other conflicts that followed. Often it has been dealt with in small ways, such as in the "Corto Maltese" books and Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie's "Lost Girls;" or even the shadow that the events of the war cast over books like Jason Lutes' "Berlin."

Other creators have tried different approaches, making it an element if not the subject of their stories -- cartoonist Bud Fisher sent his comic strip characters "Mutt and Jeff" to fight in the war, strips that were later collected into a book "Mutt and Jeff in the Trenches" (now out of print). British artist Frank Bellamy produced some exceptional pieces about the war which were collected into the limited edition volume "The Story of World War I." There have been numerous short comics that tackled the war, many of which can be seen in various EC war comics collections published by Fantagraphics. The publisher will release yet another of its EC war collections this October, "Aces High," featuring the work of acclaimed artist George Evans.

To coincide with the 100th anniversary of the official start of World War I, CBR compiled a list of books focusing on the massive conflict -- some of which are more fictionalized than others. These are not objective works of history, but comics notable for their subject matter. Not all the projects listed are anti-war -- or at least anti-WWI -- though the majority do fall in this category. After reading them, it's very easy to understand why the creators involved took this approach. In the introduction to one of his books, Jacques Tardi described The Great War as "nothing but a gigantic, anonymous scream of agony."


by Charles Schulz

Who can forget Snoopy, dressed up in goggles, flight helmet and scarf, as the World War I flying ace, dueling in the skies with his arch-enemy, The Red Baron. Many of us knew the phrase "Sopwith Camel" long before we knew that actually was -- a type of biplane, for those still wondering.

Easily the most lighthearted effort on this list, at the same time, Schulz manages to convey both the sense of adventure many who didn't fight in the war felt toward it while also getting at something deeper. After all, Snoopy escapes into a fantasy in which he always fights alone and always gets shot down -- surviving, but losing. As outlandish as it may seem, like everything in the strip, there is a loneliness at its heart.

Enemy Ace

This DC Comics character was neither an American nor British pilot, but a German. Created by Robert Kanigher and Joe Kubert, Hans von Hammer may enjoy a hammy name, but his complex history is anything but. Hammer was dark and haunted by the war with no nemesis or arch-enemy. Coupled with the fact that he was not one of "us," but rather one of the people Americans were trying to kill, the moral ambiguity that created for readers cheering the character on helped make these stories some of the best of DC's Silver Age war comics.

Phantom Eagle

Gary Friedrich and Herb Trimpe created this World War I flying ace for Marvel Comics, and Karl Kaufman was more superhero than a typical war comic protagonist. In recent years, Garth Ennis and Howard Chaykin returned to the character in a miniseries from Marvel's MAX imprint, lending the book more realism. Kaufman's story is unique for the fact that he was an American-born son of German parents who moved back to Germany, so he originally concealed his identity (much like a superhero) in order to keep them safe.

Lt. Steve Savage, AKA "Balloon Buster"

Created by Robert Kanigher and Russ Heath, Steve Savage first appeared in "All-American Men of War" #112, but has only made a few appearances in DC Comics over the years. Balloon busters were known for their skill at destroying observation balloons. Used to survey the battlefield and gain a tactical advantage, these hydrogen-filled balloons were heavily defended and pilots skilled enough to shoot them down were highly lauded.

Modern readers may remember how James Robinson incorporated the character into the mythos he built around Starman and the history of Opal City in his legendary "Starman" run.

"Harlem Hellfighters"

by Max Brooks and Caanan White

This recent book is a departure for the author of "World War Z," telling the story of the 369th Infantry unit, the first regiment of African American soldiers who fought in the war. The nickname "Hellfighters" was given to them by the Germans as a tribute to the unit's toughness.

The book is heavily fictionalized, composed mostly of composite characters, but it does not shy away from the horrors of war and the horrors these men had to endure by virtue of the color of their skin. While the Hellfighters may have been excellent soldiers, they were assaulted by civilians during basic training and treated brutally by their superiors and fellow American troops in Europe during the war. Sadly, it was their French allies (who called them "Men of Bronze") and German enemies that treated the Hellfighters with more respect than did the Americans they fought beside.

"White Death"

by Robbie Morrison and Charlie Adlard

A new Image Comics edition will bring this recently out of print title back this September, and "White Death" is notable for taking one the war's odd footnotes and bringing it to life. World War I didn't take place solely in French trenches, but also in the mountains between Italy and the Austro-Hungarian empire. Troops used artillery to cause avalanches, literally harnessing nature as a weapon.

Those who only know Adlard from his work on "The Walking Dead" owe it to themselves to pick up the new printing this fall. It's an incredible look at a story that sounds more science fiction than history. For the men who lived through it, the war was a science fiction experience all its own with tanks and planes and gas warfare -- all either new technologies or ones that had previously never been widely used in combat -- and some aspects of the war take on an almost otherworldly but true-to-life aspect in this story.

"It Was the War of the Trenches (C'etait la guerre des tranchees)"

by Jacques Tardi

The book began with Tardi's grandfather, who fought in the war and told stories about it that fascinated the Jacques as both a boy and as an adult. The book consists of a series of short pieces with a variety of protagonists, and while it's equal parts powerful, moving and chilling -- not to mention a staggering work of art -- it is by no means an easy read. One character book describes the war as "this disaster, this shame, this rollback of civilization." Readers will be hard-pressed to think otherwise after reading the book.

"The Great War: July 1, 1916: The First Day of the Battle of the Somme"

by Joe Sacco

Sacco is known for his highly detailed books like "Safe Area Gorazde" and "Footnotes from Palestine." This project isn't technically a comic, but rather a long panorama that depicts the first day of the Battle of the Somme. Reading the piece from left to right, it's not simply a wide look at the battle and the positions of troops, but details everything that happened over the course of the entire day.

"Enemy Ace: War Idyll"

by George Pratt

While Enemy Ace was cited earlier, Pratt's graphic novel deserves special mention. A fully-painted tour de force, the book stands as one of Pratt's best works. A powerful story of an aged Pratt being interviewed by a Vietnam veteran, the book has been out of print for many years, but remains as an important anti-war document.

"Charley's War"

by Pat Mills and Joe Colquhoun

Originally serialized in the British anthology "Battle Picture Weekly," "Charley's War" tells the story of Charley Bourne, a 16-year-old who lies about his age to enlist in the British army and quickly finds himself thrown into the Battle of the Somme. Though beautifully drawn, the comic is harsh and decidedly anti-war. It makes clear what the mostly working class soldiers endured not just at the hands of the enemy, but also at the hands of their superiors.

Joe Colquhoun had a reputation as an incredible artist because of his work on "Johnny Red," concerning an RAF pilot, but his work on "Charley's War" is arguably the finest of his career. Pat Mills set out to tell an epic story, and while he never had the opportunity to end the book the way he wanted, it remains an unflinching look at the war and the ten volumes reprinting the series comprise an amazing read.

Additionally, the comic has a character of Sergeant Tozer, or "Ole Bill" as he's known. Bruce Bairnsfather previously created a character named "Old Bill" during the war who become an oft reproduced and referenced symbol of the war and its soldiers.

"Goddamn This War! (Putain de Guerre!)"

by Jacques Tardi and Jean-Pierre Verney

If there was any question of how Tardi felt about World War I after reading his earlier work, the title of this volume should put it to rest. Written with the aid of a noted WWI historian, the book also includes notes, clipping and sources from Verney, making up almost half the book.

I would call the book beautifully drawn, but that seems incorrect due to the subject matter. The pages begins in full color but are slowly, purposefully replaced by shades of gray. This signifies the drab and hopeless struggle in the trenches, but also signifies an emotional shift for the reader. By the end of the book, when one characters sits in a cafe after the war's end, it truly feels as if he and the world itself has changed.

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