Joe Sacco’s ‘The Great War’ becomes a Paris subway mural

A moving walkway in the Montparnasse Metro station in Paris carries commuters past Joe Sacco's massive cartoon mural depicting the first day of the 1916 Battle of the Somme.
(Francois Mori / Associated Press)
Los Angeles Times Book Critic

This week marks the 98th anniversary of the first day of the Battle of the Somme, and to note the occasion Joe Sacco’s magnificent single-panel panorama “The Great War” has become a mural in the Montparnasse station of the Paris Metro.

“I’m delighted by this project,” Sacco told the French daily Le Figaro. “I really believe in public art exhibition, because art is, by its nature, public.”

“The Great War” is the culmination of a long-held aspiration to create a kind of modern equivalent of the Bayeux Tapestry, a medieval work that portrays the Norman Conquest.


“I’ve always loved medieval art and how medieval artists approach space and time,” he said in a Los Angeles Times interview late last year. “Space is metaphoric. An inch can be a mile or 100 yards. Once I realized that, I didn’t have to worry about perspective. I could make it claustrophobic in a medieval way.”

The published version of the project features one long black-and-white drawing — 24 feet and fan-folded — which can be viewed left to right. There are no words, just an array of images, beginning with the British commander, Douglas Haig, walking in his garden, before extending across vast arrays of carnage to end with the wounded and the slain.

The Metro mural [link in French] blows that out to nearly 500 feet — “almost double the length of the Bayeux Tapestry,” observes the Telegraph — stretching the length of an underground corridor. It’s massive, overwhelming … which is, of course, the point.

“I wanted to give an idea of the size of the massacre, an idea of the losses and the human suffering,” Sacco explained in Le Monde, adding that the idea was to highlight “the scale of what happened that day.” This is the best, perhaps the only, way to commemorate the loss on the opening day of the five-month battle. After all, more than 20,000 British troops died that day, as well as 10,000 Germans — “more than all the Americans killed in Iraq and Afghanistan combined,” Sacco has noted.

“As someone who has done a lot of work with conflict, I begin to wonder about the species” Sacco said in The Times in 2009. “Not just the British and the Germans; I’m thinking about humanity and our enthusiasm for war .… It’s cooperative, but what is it that we cooperate on? What do we put our shoulder to? It never goes away, this great human endeavor that is war.”

Twitter: @davidulin