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Comic Art and the First World War

Sarah Glassford, Christopher Schultz, Nathan Smith and Jonathan Weier

As regulars know, comic book writers and artists sometimes find inspiration in history (see posts by Mosby, McCracken, and Carlton).  This is certainly true of the First World War, which has offered material for interpretation in this artistic medium just as it has in poetry, fiction, or film.  And it did so right away.  Comics interpreted wartime experience during and soon after the war, alongside poetry, prose, fine arts, theatre and film.

Old Bill. Source: Wikipedia Commons

Old Bill. Source: Wikipedia Commons

Tim Cook’s research into Canadian soldiers’ culture shows that comic illustration was an important aspect of the trench journals produced by some battalions during the war.  (See his “Anti-Heroes of the Canadian Expeditionary Force,” in the Journal of the Canadian Historical Association.) Veterans’ publications included comics about soldier (and returned soldier) experience too.  Probably the most popular comic character to come from the war was Old Bill, a working-class British Army veteran who survived the dangers of the front and put up with the ignominies of life as a private soldier.  Creator Bruce Bairnsfeather, who survived frontline service in the British Expeditionary Force, introduced the character in the pages of The Bystander magazine in 1914. Old Bill’s popularity supported book publications of the cartoon during the war, a postwar play, and a film based on the play.