Anti-War Art: Nearly Impossible

Even the most abstract of mediums, comic-adapted poetry, finds beauty in the rubble.

Making an anti-war narrative is difficult, in no small part because the "anti-war" and the "narrative" can get in the way of each other.

Narratives, and especially popular narratives, have beginnings, middles, and ends; they have protagonists and antagonists; they have morals. They create out of war a recognizable story, which tends to rationalize, domesticate, and often justify the subject. Calum Marsh recently wrote at The Atlantic about the war boosterism of Lone Survivor, but even more thoughtful war narratives can run into difficulties. Full Metal Jacket, for example, shows war as violent and brutal and awful—but it also turns war into a coming-of-age narrative, where the horrors are part of Joker's transition from weak civilian to knowing warrior who is no longer afraid.

Even the determinedly anti-war novel All Quiet on the Western Front is not exempt. Remarques's heroic victims are still the heroes of the narrative; war is gothic horror, but that horror purifies and ennobles the guys on the ground, separating them from the power-hungry jerks back home who don't understand what war is really about. And if war is purifying and ennobling, if being good is equated with being at war, it's hard to see how that ends up being anti-war. It's not that Remarques and Kubrick see some good in the horror of war; rather, their narratives both end up treating the horror of war as the font from which good flows.

Maybe if you want an anti-war story, then, it might help to find a way to get rid of the story. The book Above the Dreamless Dead seems like a good place to test that theory. The volume, released to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the start of the Great War, is a collection of comics adaptations of World War I poems. The volume is not entirely anti-war—the poems come from a range of positions—but it does include many writers who condemned the fighting, from Siegfried Sassoon to Thomas Hardy.

Poetry is, of course, often less narrative-driven than novels or films, and the comics adaptations here serve to further fragment the text, interpolating spaces and images that break the rhetorical push of the poems apart rather than speeding them forward. If narrative tropes give war an air of inevitability and purpose, then a combination of comics and poetry seems like it should offer an alternative vision.

Osbert Sitwell's "Babel," adapted by Isabel Greenberg (First Second Books)

And in some cases it does. Frances Edward Ledwidge's poem "War," for example, presents war as ominous, incomprehensible, and cool in a Dr. Doom-rant kind of way. "I am love and hate and the terrible mind/of vicious gods, but more am I./ I am the pride in the lover's eye/I am the epic of the sea." Sammy Harkham's adaptation, though, undercuts the grandiosity and the power; rather than try to illustrate Ledwidge's Sturm und Drang, he shows a cute dog toddling through a lovingly detailed landscape, until it comes upon a bombed out building and a corpse. The twee deflation verges on satire; war can rant on and on about its grandiosity, but all it amounts to is carrion for a mildly puzzled, vaguely Snoopy-looking canine.

"War," as interpreted by Sammy Harkham (First Second Books)

There are other effectively anti-war efforts as well. Hunt Emerson's earthy adaptations of the song "I Don't Want to Go To War" ("I'd rather stay in England … and fornicate me bleedin' life away!") makes civilian life seem as vivid as life at the front—a trick at which war films and novels often fail. Simon Gane's adaptation of Osbert Sitwell's "The Next War" uses illustrations of war memorials to great effect. The stillness of the monuments gives little space for action or excitement. The drama is in Sitwell's bitter recognition of lack of drama; the children called on to follow the same story as their parents—a story, Gane suggests, that inevitably turns those children to stone.

Osbert Sitwell's "The Next War" by Simon Gane (First Second Books)

In other instances though, the poetry comics seem to have the same trouble opposing war as narratives do. Or, if not exactly the same trouble, then trouble nonetheless.  For example, virtually nowhere in the book do we see a soldier killing anyone. These non-narratives can imagine the dead—frozen in place or detached from themselves. But they have trouble imagining acts of violence actually committed by someone against someone else, which seems like a failure to grapple with an important aspect of war.

Simon Gane's version of Rupert Brooke's "Peace" (First Second Books)

Dispensing with narrative also can lead to a kind of aestheticization, where violence turns into appealing, static art. This is certainly the case in Rupert Brooke's basically pro-war "Peace," which intones, "Now God be thanked who has matched us with His hour," while Simon Gane draws a soldier dressing and walking off into the sunset.

But aestheticization is also the mode for Wilfred Owen's grim "Dulce Et Decorum Est." George Pratt adapts Owen's description of a gas attack with painterly charcoal washes and an inset close-up of a man gruesomely choking to death. It's striking in its ugliness, like the poem itself ("If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood/Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,/Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud/of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues."). How removed is this really from the macabre pleasures of Poe or Lovecraft? As with Joker in Full Metal Jacket, the horror of war contains grandeur and aesthetic truth. The narrative may be fractured, but the message isn't changed that much.

Wilfred Owen's poem Greater Love illustrated by George Pratt (First Second Books)

Maybe then, the difficulty of resisting the logic of war is not one of narrative, but of art more broadly. Art makes its subject interesting and arresting and meaningful. To make art about war, even anti-war art about war, is to risk rendering war interesting and arresting and meaningful. And if war becomes a source of meaning, it seems like people, and nations, will continue to try to find meaning in the glory, or the ugly truth, of war.

One poem in the volume that definitely works to render war interesting and arresting and meaningful is Wilfrid Wilson Gibson's "The Dancers," adapted by Lilli Carré.

The Dancers

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.

Gibson makes an analogy between the dragonflies and the shells—but Carré draws only the dragonflies. Her comic starts with a male figure staring enraptured at first one dragonfly, and then dancing with a swarm of them, until, in the last image, the creatures actually seem to lift him up by his clothing, carrying him off the ground. Violence is transmuted into joy; the shells disappear into the dragonflies—with only a shadow on the ground left to remind us, perhaps, of those dreamless dead. Meaning here doesn't so much come out of war as come into existence despite it. Art and imagination, Gibson and Carré seem to suggest, will find beauty even in war—for worse, or, sometimes, for better.