Above the Dreamless Dead, out on 23rd September, is a splendid World War One trench poem anthology edited by Chris Duffy (Nursery Rhyme Comics, Fairy Tale Comics), published by First Second, which includes work by Hunt Emerson, Luke Pearson, Pat Mills and David Hitchcock and many other great British comic creators.
Isabel Greenberg , who adapted “And the Name of It is Babel” by Osbert Sitwell for the collection, also designed the hardcover case and endpapers for the book.
As the Great War dragged on and its catastrophic death toll mounted, a new artistic movement found its feet in Britain. The Trench Poets, as they came to be called, were soldier-poets dispatching their verse from the front lines. Known for its rejection of war as a romantic or noble enterprise, and its plainspoken condemnation of the senseless bloodshed of war, Trench Poetry soon became one of the most significant literary moments of its decade.
The marriage of poetry and comics is a deeply fruitful combination, as evidenced by this collection of 20 illustrated poems, which has garnered high praise from Publisher’s Weekly, which says “The real strength of the anthology comes both from the poems selected for it and the variety of visual approaches — ranging from the cartoonish to the phantasmagoric — that prevents it from relying simply on the visual carnage of the ‘war to end all wars.’
In stark black and white, the words of the Trench Poets find dramatic expression and reinterpretation through the minds and pens of some of the greatest comic artists working today, including British comic creators such as Hannah Berry, Eddie Campbell, Hunt Emerson, Garth Ennis, Isabel Greenberg, David Hitchcock, Pat Mills, Luke Pearson and Phil Winslade, offering a moving and illuminating tribute to those who fought and died in World War One.
“A lot of people know war poems featuring horrific scenes of trench warfare and gas attacks,” editor Chris Duffy notes in an interview for the project in USA Today. “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.”
“‘Deadman’s Dump’, a poem by Isaac Rosenberg, is a gritty re-telling of the first few days of the futile battle,” says David Hitchcock of his work for the anthology. ” Pat Mills turned the poem into a superb short story, full of meaning and emotion. Hopefully I’ve kept my side of it up to scratch too. Pat said he thought it was “a mini-classic in the making”… that’ll do me.”
“The marriage of comics and existing verse immediately raises a divisive question: can pen and ink renderings successfully compete with the visually evocative language of poetry?” asked the Sydney Morning Herald in its review of the collection. “Luke Pearson’s powerful treatment of Thomas Hardy’s Channel Firing is a resounding affirmative. Pearson’s stark, simple artwork echoes the words, but his visual choices are poetic in themselves.”
“Chris Duffy assigned the poem to me,” Luke told Brigid Alverson in an interview for the project for School Library Journal. “I’m sure I could have asked for another one if I wasn’t into it, but I liked it a lot. From the imagery it conjures up, you can imagine it could have been written after the war, or during it, from the point of view of someone who’s bracing themselves for it. It’s very poignant that it was written before war officially broke out and that you could probably write the same poem on the eve of any future conflict.
“There’s a strong comic element to the poem in the way the skeletons/corpses in the graveyard talk to each other,” he adds of his approach to the art. “In a lot of ways it’s a poem about grumpy old men being woken up in the middle of the night and shaking their heads about it. A part of me definitely felt drawn to the idea of depicting them as skeletons or as grumpy ghosts or something, but I felt like doing that would undermine the sadness and the atmosphere of the rest of the poem. Like it would add a comic layer to the whole of it, whereas if I avoided showing them like that, the humour in their parts would still come through, but wouldn’t affect the rest.”
Above the Dreamless Dead looks positively stunning and a wonderful marriage of art and poetry, offering a new take on some well-known war poems from a range of terrific creators. Well worth tracking down.
• Contributors to Above the Dreamless Dead include: Hannah Berry, Stephen R. Bissette, Eddie Campbell, Lilli Carré, Liesbeth De Stercke, Hunt Emerson, Garth Ennis, Simon Gane, Sarah Glidden, Isabel Greenberg, Sammy Harkham, David Hitchock,, Kevin Huizenga, Kathryn Immonen, 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