by Brian Truitt)
Trench poetry from World War I gave soldiers a way to express the dreams and nightmares of being on the front and caught in the drama of the battlefield.
Out Sep. 23 from First Second Books, the anthology Above the Dreamless Dead collects several comic-book adaptations of these poems and brings them to life a century later.
Of the two, World War II may be the one explored more often in pop culture, but World War I, which last from 1914 to 1918, was important as well, according to project editor Chris Duffy. More than 16 million people were killed, the war began an era of industrialized warfare, and it caused the redrawing of the map of Europe and the Near East.
"Facts like that can feel a little abstract," Duffy explains. "But reading the words of witnesses to war, including these poets, is always important because war is still with us.
"As Canadian cartoonist James Lloyd demonstrates in his comics adaptation of — and postscript to — Siegfried Sassoon's Repression of War Experience, the experiences of those whose lives are shattered by war haven't changed much, and neither has our failure to help them and understand them."
While the centennial was the main impetus for Above the Dreamless Dead, it also brought together many creators who know the war well. Pat Mills penned the World War I comics serial Charley's War), and Garth Ennis, Peter Kuper and George Pratt have all explored soldiers and conflicts during the period.
The adaptations range from whimsical to emotional to brutal, and Duffy aimed to draft creators with a variety of styles and points of view.
"A lot of people know war poems featuring horrific scenes of trench warfare and gas attacks," He says. "But World War I poets also wrote about everyday life in the trenches, including daily run-ins with rats and lice. Some wrote from the point of view of the home front.
"Much of the poetry has a topical satirical edge; some of it feels timeless and mythic.
Duffy found the "brilliant and bawdy brush" of artist Hunt Emerson perfect for adapting R-rated soldier songs; Isabel Greenberg (Encyclopedia of Early Earth) tackles Osbert Sitwell's poem about the pummeled city of Ypres transformed into a modern-day Babel; and Hannah Berry's take on the humorous Wilfred Wilson Gibson poem The Question explores a soldier pondering the fate of his farm cow.
Among Duffy's favorites is Simon Gane's adaptation of Sitwell's The Next War, which uses World War I monuments "matched with a satirical poem about leaders smugly manipulating those who had already sacrificed so much," the editor says.
Luke Pearson, Stuart and Kathryn Immonen and Anders Nilsen put a comics spin on three war poems by novelist Thomas Hardy that are "smart, funny, and sad," Duffy adds, "and told from the compassionate and self-critical point of view of someone who sees the war from a distance but still feels its effects deeply."
In pulling together the works in the anthology, Duffy was most impressed with the humility and humanity of the artistic soldiers.
"A professor of mine in college said that the trench poets were too close to the reality they were describing to see the complexity of it. To be nice, I think I would say that's missing the point," Duffy says.
"The trench poets were up against something very real and invented a kind of writing that was modern without the cold distance of what a lot of people call modernism. It's emotional, full of feeling and life in the face of, literally, piles and piles of corpses. It is all very readable and stays with you long afterwards."
List of poems and creators in Above the Dreamless Dead
All the Hills and Vales Along, by Charles Sorley; adapted by Kevin Huizenga
Ancient History, by Siegfried Sassoon; adapted by Liesbeth De Stercke
At the Time of "The Breaking of the Nations," by Thomas Hardy; adapted by Anders Nilsen
Break of Day in the Trenches, by Isaac Rosenberg; adapted by Sarah Glidden
Channel Firing, by Thomas Hardy; adapted by Luke Pearson
The Dancers, by Wilfred Wilson Gibson; adapted by Lilli Carre
Dead Man's Dump, by Isaac Rosenberg; adapted by Pat Mills and David Hitchcock
Dulce et decorum est, Greater Love Hath No Man and Soldier's Dream, by Wilfred Owen; adapted by George Pratt
The End, by Wilfred Own; adapted by Danica Novgorodoff
Everyone Sang, by Siegfried Sassoon, and Therefore is the Name of It Called Babel, by Osbert Sitwell; adapted by Isabel Greenberg
The General, by Siegfried Sasson; adapted by Garth Ennis and Phil Winslade
Selections from The Great Push, by Patrick MacGill; adapted by Eddie Campbell
I Don't Want to Be a Soldier, Sing Me to Sleep Where Bullets Fall and When This Bloody War Is Over; soldiers' songs adapted by Hunt Emerson
I looked up from my work, by Thomas Hardy; adapted by Stuart and Kathryn Immonen
The Immortals by Isaac Rosenberg; adapted by Peter Kuper
Lamentations: The Coward, by Rudyard Kipling; adapted by Stephen R. Bissette
Next War, by Osbert Sitwell; adapted by Simon Gane
Peace, by Rupert Brooke; adapted by Jordan Crane
A Private, by Edward Thomas, and The Question, by Wilfred Wilson Gibson; adapted by Hannah Berry
Repression of War Experience, by Siegfried Sassoon; adapted by James Lloyd
Two Fusiliers, by Robert Graves; adapted by Carol Tyler
War, by Francis Edward Ledwidge; adapted by Sammy Harkham