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Representing Unrepresentability: Manu Larcenet’s La Ligne de Front and the Quest to Document the ‘Spirit’ of War

By Birte Wege1

World War I. Somewhere safe in the idyllic French countryside, far removed from the new and terrible military practices of trenches, tanks, and mustard gas, the French President and his aides sit, stumped. Things are not going well. The enemy is advancing, but rather than stand their ground, fight, and be killed, French soldiers are deserting in droves. Why? It cannot be mere fear of dying, the Military Command decides, for the soldiers are brave men. There must be more to it; something which has not yet been conveyed by the reports and dispatches received from the front. Nor, one might surmise, is it to be discovered in the photographs of atrocities the President and his generals have presumably been shown. It is, they conclude after much deliberation, the “‘spirit’ of war” that eludes them, the sensation of the lived experience (Larcenet 5). The reality of the horror.2

Since both photographs and words have proved insufficient in illuminating this ‘spirit of war,’ and since none of the illustrious leaders show any inclination of risking their own lives by travelling to the front lines to see for themselves, they cast about for an adequate alternative. How may the horrors of war be captured, how can the Military Command learn to understand the experience of their soldiers, and thereby, it is hoped, come to devise a plan that will lead them to victory? The President, as it transpires, has one last trump card. And so it is that none other than Army Private Vincent van Gogh—his alleged suicide in 1890 revealed to have been staged by the French Secret Service, for whom he is now an (albeit unwilling) agent—finds himself on his way to the trenches. His mission is to achieve in painting that which neither text nor photographs have accomplished: he is to capture the truth of war. High art, they believe, will finally help the President and his generals understand.

Thus run the opening pages of Manu Larcenet’s 2004 graphic narrative, Une Aventure Rocambolesque de Vincent van Gogh—La Ligne de Front. Its protagonist, the grouchy and foul-mouthed, heavily-fictionalized artistic genius, ‘Vincent van Gogh,’ slowly and reluctantly makes his way further and further towards the heart of the action, until he finds himself in a desolate No Man’s Land. This deserted space of death and destruction itself becomes the artist’s canvas, geographical space made graphic space. Between the literal lines of the front, where the very real horror of death and the surreal fancies of a mind shattered by what it has witnessed blend, van Gogh creates his final work: a series of paintings which have the potential to succeed where all other forms of representation have failed.

After discussing some of the general issues surrounding the relationship of graphic narrative documentaries and photography, as well as a basic interpretation of the story of Larcenet’s graphic narrative, this analysis will focus on exploring how La Ligne de Front can be read as making with regards to the understanding of the complexities that arise when creating documentaries by means of the comics form.

I. Failures of Representation within Graphic Narrative

Even as the premise of a resurrected, disgruntled ‘Agent’ van Gogh, sent on a quixotic, absurd quest by an evidently cowardly and incompetent Military Command fulfills much of its humorous potential, La Ligne de Front never denigrates the very real horror of soldiers’ experiences in warfare. Instead, presented as a deceptively playful allegory, Larcenet’s work engages with an old, yet still very topical issue: the ultimate unrepresentability of pain and suffering in general, let alone of mass slaughter.3 The self-reflexive interrogation of representation goes further still. Within its deep engagement with the question of how to adequately represent real-life experience—more precisely, the truth of the experience of war—Larcenet’s graphic narrative is also intriguingly invested in exploring its own form: comics.4 By pitting different forms of representation—textual descriptions, photography, and, finally, images bearing the handmark of the artist—against each other within the logic of the story, by even featuring an ’embedded artist’ who is witness, documentarian, and, ultimately, victim to the events he portrays, La Ligne de Front can be understood as addressing many of the issues which confront the ever-increasing number of war-themed graphic narratives available today, especially those attempting, as is Larcenet’s fictional artist, to represent reality. Larcenet’s work here can thus be read as an illuminating illustration, even theorization, in comics form, of the remarkable potential in the recent nonfiction work of comic artists—Joe Sacco, Art Spiegelman, Marjane Satrapi, or Emmanuel Guibert, to name a few—who have, one might say, picked up the gauntlet tossed down for van Gogh in La Ligne de Front.

Nonfiction graphic narratives’ recent, ever-increasing rise in popularity can be explained at least partially in the context of the heightened role of visual culture today. As W.J.T. Mitchell writes in Cloning Terror, “[in] our time, both the things done and the things said are filtered through mass media, and the role of images and imagination is much expanded” (xi, emphasis added). The development is an expansion from his earlier conception (in Picture Theory) of the ‘Pictorial Turn,’ understood as a “postlinguistic, postsemiotic rediscovery of the picture as a complex interplay between visuality, apparatus, institutions, discourse, bodies, and figurality” (Picture Theory 16). The pictorial turn, Mitchell takes care to emphasize, “is not the answer to anything[, but] is merely a way of stating the question,” essentially a realization of the complexity of visual literacy (Picture Theory 24). In the years since 9/11, meanwhile, the pictorial turn has become increasingly relevant, so Mitchell: “[The] era of the War on Terror [will] be remembered as a time when the accelerated production and circulation of images in a host of new media […] ushered a ‘pictorial turn’ into public consciousness” (Cloning Terror 2). We live in a time of a flood of news images where the “shaping of perceptions of history does not have to wait for historians or poets… but is immediately represented in audio-visual-textual images transmitted globally” (Cloning Terror xi). The possibilities given in the age of digital (re)production and dissemination of images echo, even surpass, what Susan Sontag similarly has written about as the preoccupation with changes to the production and perception of images since the modernist period, which viewed the camera as the instrument of fast seeing—repercussions of this attitude being felt to the present day: “The cult of the future (of faster and faster seeing) alternates with the wish to return to a more artisanal, purer past—when images still had a handmade quality, an aura” (On Photography 124).

Graphic narrative, it can be argued, addresses that wish in a complex manner—while mass produced in its final form, it yet retains its ‘handmade quality.’ The handmade quality inherent to the form is not unproblematic, however. On the one hand, as Hillary Chute and Marianne DeKoven note, the artist’s mark can be read as contributing “an important part of the rich extra-semantic information a reader receives” (767). Yet, on the other hand, the form’s inherent subjectivity can easily be viewed as a shortcoming, particularly for works aspiring to represent reality. Thus, as Ann Cvetkovich points out: “While it can carry with it the presumption of the evidentiary truth of seeing so attached to the visual, graphic narrative’s hand-crafted drawing distinguishes it from contemporary realist forms such as photography and film and reminds us that we are not gaining access to an unmediated form of vision” (114). Precisely this evidence of mediation can be turned to advantage, however, as in, for example, Emmanuel Guibert’s The Photographer, where a juxtaposition/interplay of narrative shared by comics imagery and photography serves, as Nancy Pedri observes, to “challenge long-standing, influential notions informing the understanding of both modes of representation” (n.pag.). The comic form can not only engage with today’s fast-paced visual culture, then, but even provide a counterpoint to the potential ill effects of simplistic views on the objective nature of photography, as well as ‘the cult of faster seeing.’ Slowing it down, as it were, leaving more room to gaze at and contemplate both detail and the big picture and gain a fuller understanding of the workings of today’s visual culture. Certainly the most groundbreaking graphic narrative documentaries today, like Joe Sacco’s work on Gaza, by virtue of their dense imagery and emphatic narrative lines, and their necessary de-coupling from ‘real-time’ demands (by the necessities of the slow and laborious creation process) appear to make this possible. They provide, quite literally, a new way of seeing.

Figure 1: Larcenet, Manu. Une Aventure Rocambolesque de Vincent van Gogh – La Ligne de Front. Paris: Dargaud, 2014. Print. 29.

It is in similar hopes of attaining a new way of seeing by virtue of the artist’s handmark that the President of La Ligne de Front sends out his secret agent. The initial results of van Gogh’s mission, however, are not quite what his superiors anticipated, much less hoped for. The paintings the artist sends back at regular intervals are brightly colored, easily recognizable and emphatically subjective versions of the historical van Gogh’s artistic style (even if adapted to the comics form—see Image 1). Both style and increasingly bloody subject-matter meet with blank incomprehension from his commanders, however. For all the violence depicted in the first batch—”…soldiers, trenches, ruins… a few explosions for a balanced composition” (17), as President and General mechanically recite—the viewers discover that the paintings “show us nothing we don’t already know… nothing about our people’s distaste for war” (18).5 The images are dismissed as “well-composed but lacking emotion” (20).6

The constant reproaches immediately communicated back to the artist via telegram, not least the trite accusation that he uses too much yellow—a clear indication that his commanders remain at a loss to pinpoint how the images fail—enrage the aged artist, who laments the bourgeois attitude of an audience that will never understand, much less be moved by, that which they are shown in pictures. Yet there may be some justice to the initial plaintive complaints; the true nature of war, or at least the ability to represent it, does appear to evade him. Until, that is, the artist finally arrives on the front line where, in a surreal turn of events, he encounters the ‘spirit of war’ in the shape of a little girl (named “the mother of grenades” (36)) and her mother.7 It is here that the allegory unfolds: amidst the muck and ruins, grenades planted like gravestones around it, stands a tree. Hanging from the tree, and carefully, even lovingly tended by the two strange figures, are a myriad of mementos—knapsacks, flasks, helmets, books—everyday objects, each marking the unique life of a soldier who died. They are memory fragments, capturing at one and the same time the stories of the individual lives lost, and yet, in their very commonplaceness and interchangeability, simultaneously marking precisely the impossibility of ever capturing, completely, both the full magnitude and the unnumbered details of the destruction, of ever telling all that happened, in this first modern war (and all those to follow).

Here, finally, the artist’s mission appears to succeed. Before being devoured by the spirit of war, and handing over his well-used paintbrushes to join the other keepsakes on the tree, van Gogh paints the truth at the heart of No Man’s Land: the spirit of war and the mother of grenades. It is his final masterpiece—a literal representation of the unrepresentability of the true horror of war. Even with this masterpiece, however, the conclusion presented by the graphic narrative remains a bleak one. Even an artistic genius like (the fictionalized) van Gogh, we must learn, who has given his life to create this final image, cannot make the viewers understand—except, of course, that they never will understand. “War,” the president finally declares on the book’s final page, while gazing at this last batch of paintings that have miraculously reached him from the Front, (and in what reads as a twisted echo of Sontag’s conclusion on photography in Regarding the Pain of Others), “is obviously too difficult an art to leave to artists” (Larcenet 48).8

Within the logic of the story, then, the military leaders, looking for a simple solution to a problem the nature of which they never fully grasped in the first place, fail to learn anything from the final paintings. In this, even an artwork successfully defying unrepresentability must fail. Their reaction demonstrates what would appear to be the broader statement being made in this graphic narrative: the unlikelihood of even the best pictures, regardless of their artistic skill in depicting the evils of war, will have any real-world consequences, let alone stop the powers-that-be from resorting to armed conflict in the game of politics. Interestingly, photography, along with painting, is implicated as having failed with regard to representations of the horror and suffering of war. When the first batch of paintings are dismissed as “hopelessly banal,”9 the President’s comment is overtly directed at miniature frames of van Gogh’s supposed paintings depicted in the panel (17). On a meta-level, however, it might be applied as well to the World War I photographs which likely have served Larcenet as template for his ‘recreation’ of van Gogh’s paintings.10 When the paintings are derided for showing their viewers ‘nothing we don’t already know,’ one can add ‘from photographs.’ Even as visual depictions of photographs remain conspicuously absent in this work, then, both painted and photographic images are thus brought together in a broad critique; as a means of capturing truth, both have failed. Not only can they not help the Military Command (and us) comprehend, but attempts of representation furthermore run the risk of aestheticizing the brutality and hence rendering it banal, mere art.

II. On Comics and/as Documentary

Yet, as shall be discussed in the following, while La Ligne de Front appears entirely pessimistic in this reading of its basic statement, expanding the reading even further beyond the story to incorporate fully this graphic narrative’s complex engagement with form yields a somewhat more nuanced, perhaps, ultimately, even more positive perspective.

The images the President examines are, within the logic of the story, ‘paintings.’ Yet they are, of course, rendered in a comic-form imitation of (the real) van Gogh’s style. The accusation of ‘banality’ can thus be read as a meta-critique not (just) of the content and composition of the fictional paintings (and of the photographs that served as Larcenet’s templates), but on the form in which they are rendered: it is the comic form itself that is implicated as ‘banal.’ The image-problem addressed by La Ligne de Front thus extends beyond the question of the representability of war, and the rivalry between hand-created image and photograph plays out not just in the story, but on the formal level as well, encompassing the long-standing perception of inferiority of comics as a medium. Evan as all kinds of images appear to be ultimately dismissed, the portrayal of no one less than the great Vincent van Gogh as a frustrated and foul-mouthed old drunkard, his raving insistence that he is a genius, his comic fury at everyone else’s insistence that he uses too much yellow, and the Military Command’s ongoing inability to recognize the worth of his work, could, from this angle, be read as a good-natured though poignant dig from a medium well-aware of its common perception as lowbrow (both with regards to the artistic quality of the artwork and the kind of stories told) at its high art ‘superior.’ And yet, at the same time, it might then also be seen as an attempt to hoist itself up to the level of capital ‘A’ Art by wistfully acknowledging (with tongue-in-cheek) a shared burden of lack of recognition—after all, (the real) van Gogh’s art was not much appreciated by his contemporaries, either.

Thus self-reflexively drawing attention to its own form, La Ligne de Front—a work of fiction featuring an artist attempting to create an adequate representation of reality—can be used to interrogate its own form’s potential with regards to their adequacy at capturing said ‘reality.’ A central concern of graphic narratives like those of Guibert and Sacco is of course the question of veracity, of what is entailed by the label of ‘nonfiction,’ and whether this is, ultimately, a viable moniker for such a visibly subjective form (as common sentiment, at least, would have it—see discussion in previous section). The complexity of the issue of definition is already suggested by the many different terms with which the breadth of these works have variously been described: as comics/graphic narrative journalismgraphic memoirautobiographical comicsautographics, or simply as nonfiction graphic narratives/comics. I choose graphic narrative documentary for being perhaps the most useful umbrella term, encompassing a somewhat wider range than the above suggestions: whatever other nonfiction category may also be appropriate for the individual comics (autobiography for Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, and journalism for Sacco’s Footnotes in Gaza, for example), many, even most, qualify as a serious documentary effort. Like the above terms, however, documentary is neither a clear-cut nor undisputed category. The general question that these works must address is if the form of comics even allows for a nonfiction category, and if they can be considered documentaries in a similar sense to the way this term is applied in the medium of film.11 The answer to the possibility of nonfiction comics in general, and graphic narrative documentary in particular, is, I argue, best given as: ‘Yes, but…’ While the effect achieved is always (visibly) marked by subjectivity and artistic interpretation, the subject matter is nonetheless grounded in actuality. And far from detracting from these works’ ability to function as documentaries, this medium rather adds a compelling (and varied) voice to the genre, serving also to challenge some common preconceived notions brought to nonfiction of any medium for, as Bill Nichols writes with regard to film, “documentary is not a reproduction of reality, it is a representation” (20, emphasis in original).

La Ligne de Front illustrates such complexities in a number of ways. While a hand-created original painting or drawing may not commonly be read as providing authenticity in the sense of verifying and confirming that that which is depicted did in fact occur (as does photography, at least in common perception, thanks to its mechanical, supposedly objective mode of capturing images), it can be understood as, through the very materiality of the artist’s handmark visible in the image, providing a different sense of authentication or verification.13 In comics, however, this level of implied authentication is more complicated, since it is encountered by the reader one degree removed. While customarily the comic artist does create an original, an inherent part of the medium is that this original is then duplicated, copied, in the process of mass-production, leaving the reader, presumably, with little more than what appears to be a highly subjective artistic interpretation falling far short of the commonly assumed demands of a work of documentary, even given an understanding in the broad sense of John Grierson’s early definition of the (film) genre as the “creative treatment of actuality” (qtd. in Hardy 11) . Thus, even if the fictional original of van Gogh’s final painting had indeed opened up the possibility of tapping into an original picture’s sense of the artist’s handmark-mediated authenticity, and therefore, potentially, into a sense of the ‘reality’ of the horror of war, it remains to be seen how this effect is perceived when the images are presented as ‘banal’ print copies, as comics.

La Ligne de Front‘s illustration of the complicated issue of authenticity for documentary comics may be taken further still. After all, within the logic of the story, van Gogh’s final portrait of ‘The Spirit of War’ is of somewhat dubious authenticity in the sense of being a document that captures and hence verifies a real-life being or occurrence. Propelled by fear and horror at what he is witnessing, the character Vincent van Gogh is well on his way on the descent into madness by the time he enters No Man’s Land. Grappling as he does with his experience of the horrors of war, van Gogh’s encounter with the little girl can hardly be read as anything other than a figment of his imagination, and therefore while, according to the story, the painting is ultimately implied to succeed in representing the unrepresentable, the spirit of war (though it requires a receptive audience—the military elite, unfortunately, remains impervious), it does so by means of artistic interpretation. Even on an intradiegetic level, then, presumed boundaries between fiction and nonfiction, even between work of art and historiography, are thoroughly complicated, raising the question of what exactly it may mean to create a document of historical ‘fact.’

The artist’s hallucination in No Man’s Land, and his subsequent ‘portrait’ of this hallucination, is pertinent for yet another reason, bringing as it does into play the twin issues of trauma and witnessing, and their impact on memory and attempts to convey the experience of events past and present. The artist’s vision thus appears as a fairly exact visual interpretation of Cathy Caruth’s frequently cited assertion on trauma: “there is a response, sometimes delayed, to an overwhelming event or events, which takes the form of repeated, intrusive hallucinations, dreams, thoughts or behaviors stemming from the event” (4). Being traumatized, according to Caruth, “is precisely to be possessed by an image or event” (4). While this would certainly not undermine the final portrait’s inherent ‘truth’ as representation of the horror of war and the victim’s perceived experience, it does, once again, raise the issue of what exactly is entailed in a documentary effort, and what counts as an accurate depiction of reality.

III. What’s in a Name: Graphic Narrative Documentary

A different angle for approaching the issue of authenticity and adequate representation of reality is opened up by the question of terminology, considering the term now favored for long-form comics: graphic narrative. In their introduction to a 2006 issue of MFS dedicated to comics studies, Hillary Chute and Marianne DeKoven plausibly argue that, in light of the increased number of nonfiction (especially autobiographical) comics, graphic novel might be replaced by graphic narrative to denote a story, any story, of any length, told at least in part through pictures. To support their choice, the authors observe that “graphic narrative does the work of narration at least in part through drawing,” adding that these works make “the question of style legible” by maintaining “an explicit awareness of [their] own surface” (767).

In their article, Chute and DeKoven go on to ask how the form may illuminate “the project of narrative representation itself” (768), subsequently guiding this line of inquiry back toward the question of the language of comics and the specifics of text/image interaction. With regards to the project of graphic narrative documentary, however, and the question of capturing the ‘spirit’ of war, the use of the term graphic narrative suggests an additional perspective, one which utilizes discussions of the role of narrative in historiography. In this sense, a parallel may be drawn to Hayden White’s argument in The Content of the Form: that narrative is not, as assumed by “traditional historiography” (ix), merely a “neutral medium” (ix) to be used by historians to convey the lived stories of the past, “the truth of which would reside in the correspondence of the story told to the story lived by real people in the past” (ix-x), with the only “literary aspect” to be found in “certain stylistic embellishments” to make the texts more “vivid and interesting” (x). Instead, White understands narrative discourse as “a particularly effective system of discursive meaning production” (x), noting that it “already possesses a content prior to any given actualization of it in speech or writing” (xi), a lack of objectivity veiled, as it were, by the way in which the events thus conveyed “seem to tell themselves” (3). The problems this raises for historiography is that, while ‘events seeming to tell themselves’ is perfectly acceptable with regards to “imaginary events” (3), i.e. fiction, real events, as White states, while “they can perfectly well serve as the referents of a discourse, can be spoken about, […] should not pose as the subjects of a narrative” (3). When employed to represent “real events,” following White, narrative “endows them with an illusory coherence and charges them with the kinds of meanings more characteristic of oneiric than of waking thought” (ix): it is “the very stuff of a mythical view of reality” (ix). It is a critique, he notes, “of a piece with the rejection of narrativity in literary modernism and with the perception, general in our time, that real life can never be truthfully represented as having the kind of formal coherency met within the conventional, well-made or fabulistic story” (ix).

Concerning the ‘content of the form’ of the graphic narrative documentaries being created today, one can say, first, that, just as Hayden White outlines for narrative, the same may be taken to apply in the case of graphic narrative. It is likewise not a ‘neutral medium,’ whether the images come in the shape of photographs or are hand-created—though the viewer may be more aware of this when regarding the supposedly ‘subjective’ handmark than the supposedly ‘objective’ photograph. The most successful of these texts, however, in a sense play with this. As graphic narratives, they do on the one hand also ‘endow with an illusory coherence’ and ‘charge with meaning’ the events they portray as stories in pictures. And yet, the nature of the form itself as a text-image hybrid always already undermines that coherence constantly on various levels, while the visible ‘subjectivity’ of the artists’ line always already dispels the reader’s unquestioning faith in the neutrality of the medium conveying the story of these real events. Furthermore, especially with regards to those graphic narratives (Emmanuel Guibert’s The Photographer in particular) which include ‘real’ photographs in their pages, the manner in which the various kinds of photographic footage, with all the therein encased implications and various established (media) narratives, is incorporated into these graphic narrative documentaries, exploit the potential to draw attention to that manifold ‘illusory coherence.’ Considering the enduring prejudices regarding their (in)ability to function as works of nonfiction, these comics have little to lose and everything to gain; rather than being simply a drawback, it may be that this status provides them with the leeway they need to unfold a distinct approach to the representation of reality.

White’s comparison of ‘oneiric and waking thought’ as expressing the implications real events receive when conveyed in narrative finds an interesting, literal echo in van Gogh’s experience at the front. It is a sequence which furthermore addresses the parallel drawn by White in his article “Historical Emplotment and the Problem of Truth” (1992) of the uses of modernist techniques for approaching historical phenomena which cause practically insurmountable problems for attempts at adequate representation: the Holocaust in White’s discussion, but, as Larcenet shows, also pertinent to attempts to represent phenomena like the horrors of the Great War.14

Van Gogh’s recurrent dreams and visions (primarily of nightjars, which feature as premonitions of individual soldiers’ imminent deaths) become increasingly intrusive as La Ligne de Front progresses, until, in No Man’s Land, the line between reality and dream becomes entirely obliterated when the general who has accompanied the artist is consumed by the maggots of van Gogh’s hallucination. In Larcenet’s story, it is ultimately oneiric thought that is represented as the only way of beginning to adequately approach the representation of the horrors of World War I. Or rather, it is literally between the lines—the lines of the front and the line between reality and dream, on the blank canvas of the wasteland that is Flanders Fields, van Gogh’s No Man’s Land—that some of the “limits of representation” are demonstrated in comics form (“Historical Emplotment” 42). Thus, embedded in the story (coherent even for, or because of, all its bizarre, dream-like events) of van Gogh in No Man’s Land, are fragments of ‘real’ lives, soldiers’ lives: after van Gogh meets the little girl, she takes him to her mother (the Mother of All Wars?) who realizes the impossibility of remembering (and comprehensively narrating) the stories of all those killed, and in lieu of any attempts along those lines, hangs mementos of each of their lives on a tree remarkably unscathed in the desolate landscape. As discussed above, this tree of fragments, then, is held up as the closest one can get to representing that which the Military elite proclaim to desire.

Figure 2: Larcenet, Manu. Une Aventure Rocambolesque de Vincent van Gogh – La Ligne de Front. Paris: Dargaud, 2014. Print. 48.

The complexity of the issue is brought to the fore by the visually ambiguous ending of La Ligne de Front, where all the various expectations of what may serve as an adequate representation of reality seem to collide (see Image 2). The final page at last shows the outcome of van Gogh’s frantic scribblings before he too is swallowed up by No Man’s Land. The president and his aide are in their drawing room, the last of van Gogh’s paintings lined up against the wall as—surely no coincidence—images in sequence (the core definition of comics in Scott McCloud’s sense)15: van Gogh’s own graphic narrative, as it were. The content of the paintings is undecipherable to the reader, mere smudges, but three inlaid panels might be interpreted as close-ups of van Gogh’s artwork. They show, respectively, the tree, the little girl, and her mother. Whether these are van Gogh’s work is unclear, however: they might just as easily be read as flashbacks, fragmented memory traces of the real thing so imperfectly captured in the smudges of drawings, just as the memory fragments of the tree itself were, pointedly, insufficient. Both layout and style of the three inlaid panels contributes to an inherent, continuing uncertainty with regards to their status as painting or panel. As inlaid panels floating over the present moment of the President, linked to the figures of the larger panel only by wisps of smoke, they mark not temporal, narrative sequence but rather appear to be existing beyond time—like the ‘truth’ they may represent. And unlike earlier imaginings of van Gogh’s paintings, which, while evidently comic-esque, show some resemblance to (the real) van Gogh’s style, the final portraits are drawn in the same style as the story. Viewed outside the visual logic of Larcenet’s graphic narrative, marked by stylized, black outlines, they come across as pure cartoon. Within the visual code of the story (now reading them as indeed being close-ups of the paintings the president is seen gazing at), however, being virtually identical to Larcenet’s depiction of these characters in No Man’s Land, they can be interpreted as an attempt at artistic realism. Thus the hallucinations of No Man’s Land are now captured in realistic portraits which are, in turn, identified as cartoon by the reader. And identified as surrealist by the president when he beholds the final paintings: “I get the impression that Private van Gogh has descended into madness… or Surrealism, which is exactly the same” (Larcenet 48).16 Even as this may be pushing the boundaries of possible readings of the final page, one might, when examining the tiny paintings by van Gogh displayed in the President’s drawing room, find, in the shape of the dark smudges there—a Rorschach test for comic buffs, as it were—hints and traces of the shapes of Dali’s clocks in The Persistence of Memory. While the painting dates from 1931, it is, as the President correctly diagnoses, surrealist. One might thus say that (fictional) van Gogh has been allowed to anticipate artistic reactions and developments in the wake of the Great War (or retrospectively invent them, as a cartoon character—striking a blow for the comics form), reactions to changes captured compellingly by Walter Benjamin in “The Storyteller”: “A generation that had gone to school on a horse-drawn streetcar now stood under an open sky in a countryside in which nothing remained unchanged but the clouds, and beneath the clouds, in a field of force of destructive torrents and explosions, was the tiny, fragile human body” (Illuminations 84). As James Clifford writes (also emerging from the theme set by “The Storyteller”), the world post-World War I “was permanently surrealist” (119).

To conclude, the hallucination of the real thing—the impossible ‘Spirit of War’—and the collection of the multitude of experiences that it encompasses, never to be captured as a coherent single story (or image) beyond the hallucinated tree, all are captured in individual paintings, and are then presented, within a single comics panel, as a sequence of images: a graphic narrative within the graphic narrative. Presented on the final page of La Ligne de Front are thus all the tensions inherent to various approaches. None are ever sufficient; and yet, combined as they are here in a little comic book as the ending of an imaginary alternate history of the back-from-the-dead Vincent van Gogh, they are very compelling. Even if, or exactly because, the issue of what is ‘real’ is never quite resolved.


[1] This article derives off of my dissertation, entitled: Drawing on the Past: The Graphic Narrative Documentaries of Emmanuel Guibert, Ho Che Anderson, Art Spiegelman, and Joe Sacco.

[2] All translations are mine. Taken from the original French: “L’esprit de la guerre” (Larcenet 5)

[3] See Ole Frahm’s Die Sprache des Comics (2010) for a detailed analysis of Une Aventure Rocambolesque de Vincent van Gogh—La Ligne de Front as allegory on the representation of war, and a further detailed discussion of the representation of war in comics ‘between the lines’ (pp 145-147).

[4] While the term ‘graphic narrative,’ by virtue of its precise implications for the understanding of the genre of graphic narrative documentary, is favored in the discussion in this paper (as will be discussed in the following), the terms ‘comics’ and ‘graphic narrative’ will be used somewhat interchangably for stylistic reasons.

[5] Translation mine. Original French: “…des soldats, des tranchées, des ruines… quelques explosions pour équilibrer la composition” and: “…cela ne nous éclaire en rien sur la désaffection de nos hommes quant a la chose guerrière” (Larcenet 17-18).

[6] Translation mine. Original French: “bien composes mais dénués d’émotion” (Larcenet 18).

[7] Translation mine. Original French: “la mére des obus” (Larcenet 36).

[8] Translation mine. Original French: “la guerre est décidément un art trop complexe pour le laisser aux artistes” (Larcenet 48). As Sontag observes at the end of her thoughtful study, discussing an artwork whose subjects see no point in meeting their viewers’ gaze: “Why should they seek our gaze? ‘We’—this ‘we’ is everyone who has never experienced anything like what they went through—don’t understand. We don’t get it. We truly can’t imagine what it was like. We can’t imagine how dreadful, how terrifying war is; and how normal it becomes. Can’t understand, can’t imagine” (125-126).

[9] Translation mine. Original French: “désespérément banal” (Larcenet 17).

[10] As Ole Frahm notes, van Gogh’s paintings as depicted in La Ligne de Front are visual quotes of historical photographs from World War I (147).

[11] An interesting recent attempt at adapting film documentary categorizations and definitions (as developed by documentary film theorist Bill Nichols) is offered by Pascal Lefèvre in “The Modes of Documentary Comics” (2013).

[12] See Chute (2011) on the issue of handmark as bodily marker and the issue of authenticity (112).

[13] According to Forsyth Hardy, Grierson first used the term, and its concomitant definition, in his 1926 New York Sun review of the early documentary classic, Robert Flaherty’s Moana (Hardy 11).

[14] As in The Content of the Form, in “Historical Emplotment and the Problem of Truth,” White discusses what he here calls the “inexpungable relativity in every representation of historical phenomena,” a function, as he writes “of the language used to describe and thereby constitute past events as possible objects of explanation and understanding” (37). Here, he asks if certain phenomena, meaning expressly the Final Solution, set limits to “the kind of story that can responsibly be told about [them]” (37, emphasis in text). Spiegelman’s Maus, meanwhile, an essentially modernist text (in many readings of this graphic narrative, including White’s) “makes the difficulty of discovering and telling the whole truth about even a small part of it as much a part of the story as the events whose meaning it is seeking to discover” (41).

[15] McCloud’s often-quoted definition from Understanding Comics is that of: “[juxtaposed] pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or produce an aesthetic response in the viewer” (9).

[16] Translation mine. Original French: “J’ai comme l’impression que le corporal van Gogh a sombre dans la démence…ou le surréalisme, le qui est du pareil au méme” (Larcenet 48).

Works Cited

Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations. London: Random House, 1968. Print.

Caruth, Cathy. Trauma: Explorations in Memory. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995. Print.

Chute, Hillary L. “Comics Form and Narrating Lives.” Profession (2011): 107-17. Web. 4 Feb. 2015.

Chute, Hillary L. and Marianne DeKoven. “Introduction: Graphic Narrative.” MFS Modern Fiction Studies, 52.4 (2006): 767-782. Web. 20 April 2015.

Clifford, James. The Predicament of Culture: Twentieth-Century Ethnography, Literature, and Art. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988. Print.

Cvetkovich, Ann. “Drawing the Archive in Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home.” Women’s Studies Quarterly 36.1-2 (Spring/Summer 2008): 111-128. Print.

Frahm, Ole. Die Sprache des Comics. Hamburg: Philo Fine Arts, 2010. Print.

Guibert, Emmanuel. The Photographer. Trans. Alexis Siegel. New York: First Second, 2009. Print.

Hardy, Forsyth. Introduction. Grierson on Documentary. London: Faber and Faber, 1979. 11-17. Print.

Larcenet, Manu. Une Aventure Rocambolesque de Vincent van Gogh—La Ligne de Front. Paris: Dargaud, 2014. Print.

Lefèvre, Pascal. “The Modes of Documentary Comics.” Der Dokumentarische Comic: Reportage und Biografie. Ed. Dietrich Grünewald. Essen: Christian A. Bacmann Verlag, 2013. 50-60. Print.

Mitchell, W.J.T. Cloning Terror: The War of Images, 9/11 to the Present. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011. Print.

—. Picture Theory. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994. Print.

Lefèvre, Pascal. “The Construction of Space in Comics.” A Comics Studies Reader. Eds. Jeet Heer and Kent Worcester. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 2009. 157-62. Print.

McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. New York: Harper, 1993. Print.

Nichols, Bill. Introduction to Documentary. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001. Print.

Pedri, Nancy. “When Photographs Aren’t Quite Enough: Reflections on Photography and Cartooning in Le Photographe.” ImageTexT: Interdisciplinary Comics Studies. 6.1 (2011): n.p. Dept of English, University of Florida. 17 July 2012. Web.

Sontag, Susan. On Photography. 1977. London: Penguin Books, 2008. Print.

—. Regarding the Pain of Others. New York: Picador, 2003. Print.

White, Hayden. The Content of Form: Narrative Discourse and Historical Representation. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990. Print.

—. “Historical Emplotment and the Problem of Truth.” Probing the Limits of Representation. Ed. Saul Friedländer. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992. 37-53. Print.

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