Phew! After the finish of volume one, I wasn’t sure what to expect other than his survival. That it would take five long years in captivity with the Germans and his need to be reunited with his wife comes through painfully here in this stories final year. It had been a long tough slog so far, but the last months journey with the Germans using pows as bargaining chips, as the war was begrudgingly winding down.
Continuing his three horizontal panels per page layout, Tardi relentlessly shows us mile after mile of the endless marching his father and his fellow prisoners were forced to take to keep them in the German’s hands. The panoramic panels with their endless dreary landscapes, depicting repeated multiple views of marching prisoners, keeps our eyes moving, an amazing balance of artistic choices and historical respect.
Tardi nails the effort, demonstrating its hardships, not to mention the grit needed for those captured, enduring continuous attacks on their health, mental condition, and their dignity as human beings. It is unforgiving in its repetition and continuous fight to live till the next day. The sheer zig zagging of their journey at the end an exclamation point to their struggles, and the madness of their march.
But survive some of them did. The long, resisted finish of the German army and its eventual disintegration is portrayed brilliantly as witnessed by the POWs and their reactions. Germany owed a terrible price after the war, and those left alive did whatever they could to see them pay for it.
Around this time, Tardi introduces slight, tight, spots of color to illustrate the slow, begrudging emergence of hope from our tale. Just bites of color here and there, not enough to spoil us, but just enough to demonstrate that color still exists, just not as much is around as before.
A completely somber and non romantic story, I was reminded of a time in my youth when I asked my father if World War Two was anything like the spirited romantic ideas put into my head by the movies and media here of what life was like stateside during World War II.
He responded. “Yeah, in some ways it was, unless you lost someone that didn’t make it home”.
After reading Rene Tardi’s survival tale in comparison, the opposites of the wars experiences stand still from the shock of their contrasts. While Prisoner of War isn’t a gross, graphic depiction of the brutal effects of war, but it succeeds greatly in relating to us what mans inhumanity to man can look like. The marching was torturous enough, that they did it scrounging for clothes, food, and sleep throughout it all feels hopeless and devastating.
Comic books can make the mundane spectacular and the fantastic banal. Tardi’s work here runs the distance of Rene’s life while a prisoner of war, using all his tools in service of the truth, showing what human beings are capable of. The quietness of the narrative is amplified with a sad gracefulness, and benefits being transferred to the language of comics in Tardi’s hands.
Prisoner is essential reading for anyone interested in exploring the infinite capabilities of the human spirit, both good and bad. Also included at the books finish are a journal of Jacques Tardi’s trek through northern Europe retracing his fathers steps, a much “enjoyed” demonstration in “real” time.
Tardi depicts his fathers journey keeping a narrative distance, yet lets through a sliver of passion on his fathers behalf. Four years in a concentration camp, followed by nearly a year of relentless, painful marching. That anyone survived this is a miracle, and Tardi shows us how it was done.