The historian Eric Hobsbawm referred to the years between the start of World War I in 1914 and the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 as the “short 20th century.” The point of the construction is that many of the political, social, economic and cultural trends that shaped life in the 20th century have their roots in the First World War and its immediate aftermath. From the technology used in the war, to the political geographies created by the settlements that ended the conflict, the Great War is in many ways the birth of modernity. To understand the horror of the war is to understand the century that followed.
This year is the centennial of the 1918 armistice that ended World War I. In light of the anniversary, the New Haven Museum has put together an excellent exhibit, The Courier: Tales from the Great War, reflecting a local man’s story that reaches out across time into the present.
In 1917 Philip English, the son of a prominent New Haven family, enlisted in New Haven’s 102nd Regiment, attached to the 26th Infantry “Yankee Division,” composed of soldiers from across New England. English worked as a courier, ferrying messages across the front throughout the war, and kept a meticulous diary and scrapbook of his experiences. In 1976, English donated the diary to the New Haven Museum’s archive. In order to bring the diary to life, the museum has commissioned local comic book artist and graphic novelist Nadir Balan to illustrate it.
Through his background — both personal and artistic — Balan is the perfect person to illustrate the diary, this bridge between the local and the global. An artist living in New Haven with a fresh but classic comic book style, Balan was born in Turkey and describes himself as a World War I buff. (The end of the war is usually cited as the birth of the modern Turkish state after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.) Balan also points out that the “isms” — communism, capitalism and fascism — that have defined our lives were born during or in the rubble of World War I.
The exhibit consists of six 4-by-6-foot panels, each illustrating passages of English’s diary, as chosen by Balan. By Balan’s pen and artistic vision, the lines are clean and forceful, erupting toward the viewer in classic comic book style. The first panel starts the story in New Haven, as English and his brothers-in-arms march off toward war, heads held high, with scenes of New Haven mobilizing for the war stretching out across the background. Students of New Haven history will spot iconic scenes from the city’s past, including the tents of soldiers at Yale Bowl waiting to head to Europe, and the Winchester Arms factory cranking out munitions. Behind the young soldiers marching off to battle, brimming with excitement and waving flags, there is a mother, choking back tears. One gets the sense that she alone knows the horrors to come.
In subsequent panels those horrors begin to make themselves clear, as frightening images start to appear. Gas masks, bayonets and trench knives, the iconic and brutal paraphernalia of Europe’s killing fields, start to appear. New Haven is gone and in its place we have Europe in the midst of its great self-mutilation.
While Balan’s figures and scenes are all in black and white, the panels are bathed in a glaring red, shouting and setting the viewer slightly at unease. As the viewer moves through the panels, and the scenes become more frightening, the red begins to become more glaring, more unmanageable, intruding on the scenes. Balan says that the world was “shocked into modernity” by the bloodshed of the war, and the red of his compositions shocks us similarly.
The exhibit is accompanied by a stunning collection of historical photographs of New Haven, to append the fantastical illustrations of Balan. The exhibit is on display through Nov. 11, the 100th anniversary of the armistice that brought the war to a close.
This article appeared in the March 2018 issue of Connecticut Magazine.
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