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Above the Dreamless Dead

Chris Duffy, editor of the World War I graphic novel, Above the Dreamless Dead, answers some questions about the haunting and beautiful marriage of poetry set to art by some of today's top cartoonists including Garth Ennis, Pat Mills, and Stuart Immonen.

ATDDQ1: Above the Dreamless Dead is an anthology of WWI poetry from a specific movement, 'trench poetry.' Can you tell us a little about that movement?  What were those poets trying to do with their poetry?

Chris Duffy: I should clarify to start with that I am an amateur on his topic -- it can be kind of embarrassing when I'm talking to someone who does know it well. The book wasn't my idea -- I was asked if I wanted to take it on as a freelance job. At the time, some research had been done by the publisher and they thought it seemed like a good idea. Just a little reading of the poetry from WWI convinced me it was a VERY good idea. The poetry is vivid, compelling, and for some reason, unknown to most people. Nothing really brings home World War I (or any war) more than the poetry or prose of those who lived it.  Any book that brings these works to more people is valuable. In the end, I did not become an expert on the topic -- but I'll try to answer these questions and hope that anyone interested seeks out more work on the topic.

During the war and immediately after, "trench poets" referred to many English soldiers who wrote poetry about the war -- especially the ones who made a name for themselves with war poetry. These days, the term is used by many to refer to a larger variety of poets who wrote about the war. As far as I can tell, though, no matter who the term refers to, trench poetry was not a movement -- the poets came from different classes and religions; they didn't share one style or literary goal.

A few of the poets are considered to be part of the Georgian poetry movement. That movement is known for a straightforward lyrical style, often speaking of the English countryside and tending to extol hedonism. But it's safe to say that Georgian poetry is not trench poetry.

The war poets are literally just that -- people who wrote poetry about the war, no matter their point of view. Usually that point of view is a soldier's -- and often on the Western front -- but sometimes it is from the vantage point of a soldier on his way to war; from a civilian in England, from women working with the wounded in France or England.

The trench poets are largely thought of as anti-war; this is pretty much true, but there were many voices. Some were anti-war but not anti WWI; some were staunchly loyal to the crown; some were hoping for a big socialist upheaval; and some definitely saw the romance in war.

But it's important, I think, to see the poems not simply as ways for soldiers to communicate their experience or beliefs: the poets used their imaginations and skill to transform what they saw around them into art. They spoke of the war using the tools of writers and poets, not journalists -- they created characters, stories, and imagery that told their stories. They weren't merely victims reporting on brutality.

Q2: What's the process for a cartoonist to adapt a poem into a comic?

CD: I don't know their processes, but each contributor brought something different to the table. For example, Pat Mills (the comics writer who wrote the book on World War I comics with his landmark strip Charley's War), added a very dynamic layer to his adaptation of Isaac Rosenberg's "Dead Man's Dump." He and artist David Hitchcock put the reader in the shoes General Douglass Haig, the man widely believed to have been responsible for more than a million Allied deaths due to incompetent leadership and arrogance. Rosenberg's poem is written from the point of view of an average soldier in the nightmare landscape of the front -- so making Haig part of the story adds a level of commentary and also bridges our comfortable world (which is a lot like Haig's) to the reality of the war.

In contrast, many of the cartoonists in the collection had never read a World War I poem before.

Q3: What does an anthology editor do? How did you find the creators who contributed to Above the Dreamless Dead?

CD: In this case, I read a few anthologies of WWI poetry, I read what I could about the war, and about the lives of the poets.

Then I selected the poems that seemed to make good comics and that covered a variety of points of view and settings. After that it was just about making contact with comics creators who I thought would do good work for the book, or who would want to have work in it. There were a few creators (Pat Mills, Peter Kuper, Sara Glidden, Carol Tyler, Garth Ennis, James Lloyd, and George Pratt) who I knew from the start I needed to get in touch with, because they had done comics about war and the effects of war. I also wanted to invite cartoonists who (to my mind at least) think like poets: cartoonists like Sammy Harkham, Kevin Huizenga, and Lilli Carre.

Q4: Where does the title of this book, 'Above the Dreamless Dead,' come from?

CD: It comes from the final line of Wilfrid Wilson Gibson's great 12-line poem "The Dancers." Wilson describes living under "hurtling shells" while his "burning eyes" watch dainty dragonflies hover and dart over stagnant pools and over fallen soldiers. A lot of the poems in the book are about living with the dead -- as a mental and at time physical reality.

Q5: The poems in this book are all adapted in different styles by different artists.  How do you feel that this multitude of voices and styles serves the project?

CD: One answer is that the poets have different voices so the artists follow suit. Another is that having a number of graphic approaches to similar material makes the reader think about what they are reading; there's no comfort zone to fall back to -- readers are constantly thinking about both the poem and the way it has been presented. That seems appropriate given the material. Most of us will never know what it is like to be in the middle of war. And movies and fiction that try to really make us feel like we know what it's like are deceptive, I think.

Q6: Why is it important for people today to remember World War I?

CD: I'm not a historian, and you could probably learn as much as I do about World War I if you had a quiet day at home to do some reading.

But what was significant to me doing the research was to read the words of these writers who were there in the war. I think that's always important, whether it be for World War I or wars being fought today.


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