From a historian’s perspective, the creative output of the twentieth century’s major conflicts exhibits some interesting trends. The art made during and in response to war seems to mimic our self-view, and how that perception can interact with war itself: something that’s supposed to be aberrant. WWI, WWII, the Vietnam War, and the contemporary conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq tend to clot in a “pet” medium of their respective eras.
World War I, more than any other conflict since, can claim poetry as its own. In Flanders Fields, written by Canadian Colonel John McCrae, has become eponymous with that war, so much so that the red poppies in the poem are an international symbol of Remembrance Day. I’ve always thought poetry was a fitting art form for the time period. “The world’s worst wound” was warfare on a scale that nobody had seen and certainly wasn’t prepared for. When you read the verse of the day, the civilized European reliance on high-minded language to move and persuade is palpable. In Imperial Europe, diplomacy, not blood, was the preferred tool. The poets (whether soldiers cum writers or just home front philosophers) seem to be holding onto the belief in language as tightly as their ache for the pre-war way of life. Wilfred Owen, author of Dulce et Decorum Est, wrote of his poetry:
My subject is War, and the pity of War,
The Poetry is in the pity.
Yet these elegies are to the generation in no sense consolatory. They may be to the next. All a poet can do today is warn. That is why the true Poets must be truthful.
The decades amid and after WWII saw the “golden age” of comics. War and comics had a much less direct relationship in, say, the 1940s than they do today. For the most part, nobody was producing realistic sequential art about world events. But it was the prime time for superhero comics. Superman, Captain America, and Wonder Woman were all among the beloved characters to debut in this period. The world was quite different from the first decades of the twentieth century. People weren’t immune or as shocked by the horrors of war. America was a superpower. But we were at war again. Superhero comics provided at outlet for optimism and stories of good triumphing over evil. Superman could punch a Nazi in the face, and that was probably a lot easier to think about than the facts. The war stories did gradually become more ambiguous. Comics like War is Hell started to reflect our collective cynicism and preference for gray areas and anti-heroes over cut and dry good vs. bad. It tells the story of a Polish deserter who embodies soldiers of different WWII factions in their eleventh hours. Dark stuff, eh?
I’d argue that film more than any other medium was the favorite of the Vietnam War. Films produced in the ten years immediately following the conflict are reflective of the extremely pessimistic opinion of the war. The Deerhunter, Apocalypse Now, and Full Metal Jacket are generally depressing, violent, and sarcastic. It’s telling that The Green Berets, a 1968 John Wayne film, was derided for glorifying war. A classic good vs. evil story likely would have gone over well twenty years earlier.
Comics are still very much the art of today’s warfare, but they couldn’t be further from the superheroes of WWII. Think of how far we’ve come since 1919. Our empires fell, and our barrier between war and ourselves chipped away. War isn’t something other people do. It is by now a mirror of sorts…not that we’re too comfortable with that realization. For this grim outlook, artists need the language of WWI and the uncompromising violence of the Vietnam War. We have to reconcile the cartoon gore and reality, and it’s unsettling. Instead of a symbol like Captain America, we have writers like Joe Sacco and Ted Rall – just guys very much like us. It’s murky where their/our character and nature ends and the shocking violence of war begins. We’ve come full circle in a way. WWI was full of writers muddling through what the world meant with their pens. We’re doing the same thing today, but we’re wiser, and more ready to turn inwardly for the source of the horror.