Above the Dreamless Dead: World War I in Poetry and Comics
:01 First Second Books
Edited by Chris Duffy
This year, the centenary of the start of World War I, has seen the release of a number of projects that celebrate… no, no, that’s the wrong word… reflect on the war, those who fought in the war, and the societal changes it wrought. My RSS reader is filled with BBC podcasts on the war, and I’ve listened to (and recorded) all six episodes of BBC Radio 4’s Tommies, a drama set 100 years ago on the Western Front.
One project that especially interested me was Chris Duffy’s graphic novel anthology, Above the Dreamless Dead. Duffy’s creators took poems and songs, including famous poems by trench poets Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, and adapted them graphically. Artists in the book include Eddie Campbell (From Hell), Garth Ennis (Preacher), Kathryn Immonen (Journey Into Mystery Starring Sif), Stuart Immonen (Legion of Super-Heroes), Pat Mills (Judge Dredd), and George Pratt (Enemy Ace).
The poems are grouped into three themes — “The Call to War,” “The Trenches,” and “Aftermath.” The titlings of the groupings give the progression from the romanticism and optimism of the pre-war era to the horrors of the trenches and finally to the lives shattered of the survivors.
Above the Dreamless Dead is a slim book, just 144 pages, yet it’s packed with emotion. I had read a few of Wilfred Owen’s poems over the years, and several — “Greater Love,” “Dulce et Decorum Est,” “Soldier’s Dream,” and “The End” — are adapted here. Most of the poems in the book I was unfamiliar with, and their unfamiliarity made them no less powerful. From the naivete of the pre-war period to a haunting vision in old age of a comrade lost in youth, each poem illuminates a facet of the war experience.
What comes through forcefully is the hopelessness and the despair of the trenches; it was the war poets and their ability to give voice to that despair that has, in large part, shaped the view of World War I as a senseless tragedy.
I hadn’t read most of these poems, as I said above, and I was glad for the opportunity to experience them. Warfare has changed vastly in a century, and by illustrating the poems, Above the Dreamless Dead gives readers the framework to understand the trench experience.
And it forces the reader to ask, as Linus van Pelt did, “What have we learned?” In a century, have we learned anything?