Above the Dreamless Dead

Poems and Writings by: Rupert Brooke, Wilfrid Wilson Gibson, Robert Graves, Thomas Hardy, Rudyard Kipling, Francis Edward Ledwidge, Patrick MacGill, Wilfred Owen, Isaac Rosenberg, Siegfried Sassoon, Osbert Sitwell, Charles Sorley, and Edward Thomas
Adaptations by: Hannah Berry, Stephen R. Bissette, Eddie Campbell, Lilli Carre, Liesbeth De Stercke, Hunt Emerson, Garth Ennis, Simon Gane, Sarah Glidden, Isabel Greenberg, Sammy Harkham, David Hitchcock, Kevin Huizenga, Kathryn Immonon, Stuart Immonen, Peter Kuper, James Lloyd, Pat Mills, Anders Nilsen, Danica Novgorodoff, Luke Pearson, George Pratt, Carol Tyler, and Phil Winslade
Edited by Chris Duffy
Published by First Second

The often-overlooked World War I is given voice through an adaptation of trench poetry by a stellar group of comics creators in this new anthology from First Second, edited by Chris Duffy. The experiences of those who were there and wrote about the trauma, reflections, or ways to deal with massive amounts of tedium, terror, and death are brought to life for the reader in a variety of ways, all of which are respectful to the source material.

As I wrote in my introduction to today's feature, the First World War is a neglected part of history, due in large part to the fact that World War II eclipsed it in the eyes of so many, given the large volume of survivors who came back from Europe and Asia and formed the backbone of America's middle class. However, even in Europe, this war doesn't seem to have the prominence of the latter conflict.

But just because it gets less page time in history books doesn't meant that the level of sacrifice, pain, and loss were any easier on those who participated. Many wrote about their experiences, and those writings are used here to form the stories each creator or creative team works on in their adaptations. They've come to be called the "Trench Poets" because of their shared war duties, but they were a group of people as diverse as those who illustrated the works here. As editor Chris Duffy notes, "Some of the Trench Poets were friends, but on the whole they came from many classes, had different educational backgrounds, wrote in a variety of styles, and held different religious and political beliefs."

Those differences play out across the pages here, as we go from the ribald solders' songs (all of which are illustrated to great comedic effect by Hunt Emerson) to accounts of being on the front lines to reflections on home or trying to deal with the war's aftermath. There's also an amazing matching of comics creator to prose piece here, which is either a credit to Duffy or a strong understanding by those involved at taking on a work that speaks to their strengths as an artist. It's also very impressive that while each creator's style shines through, whether it's Simon Gane's grimy detail or the stark lines of Stuart Immonen, at no time does it feel like they are running roughshod on the text. Each shows the respect they have for the Trench Poets and what they represent to their generation and to history.

As with any anthology, it's impossible to cover every entry without being pedantic. These are some of the adaptations that I thought were particularly powerful, in order of their appearance in the book:
  •  Luke Pearson opens with an adaptation of Thomas Hardy's Channel Firing, making great use of black and white space to draw attention to the visuals presented. Opening with a church and graveyard in silhouette that is brought into the light by a crack of lightning, the rest of the poem follows along with pictures that rely on heavy blacks or whites, like dirt around bleached skulls. Dead bodies and graves repeat across the pages, setting a tone for the rest of the adaptations to come.
  • Kevin Huizenga is perhaps best-known for his depiction of the everyman in his Glen Ganges series, and that makes him a great choice to depict the regular solder in the poem All the Hills and Vales Along by Charles Sorley. Alternating between men on the march and nature scenes that belie a sense of death, the images become more severe until we reach the climax, where we we pan out to the Earth itself, the final resting place of the dead.
  • Eddie Campbell's adaptation is hidden within dark shadows, using white lines on black and gray to illustrate part of Patrick MacGill's Great Push. Even the lettering is in white ink rather than the traditional black, putting the reader off-guard. The slightly abstract and shaky lines of Campbell make the whole thing feel almost ghostly and unreal, especially when he sticks on the image of a dead man hanging from barbed wire, something soldiers certainly saw regularly. The overall effect here is striking and was one of the best in the collection.
  • Hannah Berry opts to avoid direct focus on the main character of Edward Thomas's The Private, instead showing parts of his pre and post war lives, with only one panel giving us an idea of his face, partially obscured in the grey background. It works for a poem about a person barely known in life and buried somewhere unmarked in death.
  • Working in the same stark style that he's used on other projects with Kathryn Immonen, Stuart Immonen's lines in an adaptation of I Looked Up from My Writing by Thomas Hardy contrasts against much of what has come before by making white the primary color instead of black or gray. They also are perhaps the most liberal in working with the material, going for a theme instead of literal interpretation. Picking certain words to highlight on, the pair pick odd angles to provide the perspective, such as going from looking at the moon to the moon looking back at the observer. A ship heads for the rocks, soldiers on a train are smiling all the way to death, and a horse slowly drowns as the words of poem come to a close.
  • In using drawings of memorials to both World War I and World War II, Simon Gane emphasizes the bitter prophecy of Osbert Sitwell's The Next War, which features words that continue to haunt, as we watch sons and daughters grow up to keep fighting the conflicts of their parents and grandparents while the same powers look on. Gane's art technique is amazing here, because his weathered look with extra lines makes the monuments appear to be slowly decaying. Brilliant work.
  • James Lloyd's adaptation of Repression of War Experience by Sigfried Sassoon owes a lot to Will Eisner, as the images blend across the page without strict panel boundaries. Words and images mix to form a complex whole that depicts a soldier haunted by the images of war that will never leave him, no matter what he tries to do. Lloyd writes a brief afterward, drawing attention to the fact that those who lose a limb get a purple heart, but those who lost their soul in wars right up to this very day and are emotionally broken are shunned and shunted off to the sidelines. So very true, and a great way to link the past to the present.
  • Carol Tyler takes on another poem that deals with the aftermath of war, this time written by Robert Graves. She shows a man who is broken by age but still has memories of who he-and his lost friend-once were. It's very understated, but when we see the man turn young again as he looks out the window, the weight of the work comes crashing down on the reader.
Like Duffy himself admits at the start of the book, I, too, am woefully unfamiliar with body of literature, and I say that as a former English Major. A work like Above the Dreamless Dead is important because, when done right, it gives readers a chance to sample that which they might not otherwise seek out, because someone they know is involved. Someone looking for more Campbell or Ennis might pick this up, and learn a part of history they'd previously been unaware of, and maybe even seek out more from the original writers after finishing the anthology.

Even if they don't, or even if you are more familiar with the Trench Poets than I was, Above the Dreamless Dead is a great anthology series and well worth picking up when it is available.