Page 45 Review by Jonathan
"Joyful, despite their grief, are those families whose blood flows for their country."
- General Rebillot December 13th, 1914
"Bastards, bastards, miserable fucking bastards! Fuck the army! France can kiss my ass!"
- Private Jean Desbois, 3rd Company of the 115th French Infantry November 27th 1916
Very powerful collection of short stories from the trenches of WWI which certainly will appeal to aficionados of CHARLEY'S WAR. Start with the premise that no one is actually going to get out alive - well, maybe one or two but they're certainly not intact - and you'll understand the approach Tardi is taking here. Not that it's overly gratuitous, far from it; it's merely realistic. Many a story actually starts with the knowledge that the protagonist ends up dead or disfigured and then lets things unfold so we can see exactly how inescapable their fates are in the wasteland of battlefields and trenches.
Possibly my favourite (entirely the wrong word to use, really) story involves the man who somehow survives all night in a shell crater in No Man's Land wearing his gas mask after being gut-shot in the midst of yet another suicidal, failed attack. First light sees the maskless stretcher bearers coming towards him and, thinking he's going to be evacuated home for certain with his wounds, he takes off his gas mask. Unfortunately for him, as he immediately remembers, mustard gas is heavier than air and the shell crater he's laid up in is in fact a pocket of the undispersed toxin which instantly decimates his lungs and eyes. Tardi always approaches the stories from the most human of perspectives, which of course makes the inevitable bleak endings even harder to bear. I think that's probably why most of the stories do start off with the denouement revealed to us, so that we're already steeling ourselves for what's inevitably to come.
The neo-'clear line' art is classic Tardi, conveying significant details with apparent minimal effort and a certain distinctive rotundity of style that I really like. Something that suddenly hit me was the frequent lack of complexity in the structure of certain peoples' faces throughout the book, and then you realise in fact he's making their faces look almost skull-like as they approach their deaths. It's powerful, shocking, and truly manages to capture the almost unbelievably hellish landscapes that were the battlefields of Western Europe in World War I.
This work is a fine starting point for people unfamiliar with Tardi and will almost certainly make you want to have a look at his WEST COAST BLUES about a depressive Parisian who accidentally witnesses a murder and is subsequently hunted by a pair of hit men who just happen to be lovers. It's something which all noir fans out there really really should be picking up and just aren't for some reason. If you're looking for a different creator to try, I sincerely suggest you try some Tardi.