Graphic novel brings old war times to life

An imagine from Bruce Mutard's The Sacrifice.

The Sacrifice
By Bruce Mutard
Allen & Unwin, 2012
Paperback, 252 pages

I don't know about you, but Australia's World War II years are obscured in my mind by a melange of family reminiscences and ad hoc snippets of history.

My parents were of the generation caught up in the war effort locally and offshore, so the family album began life with pics of folk in khaki.

Us baby boomers were delayed sprogs of them days. But as far as I was concerned, and those of my generation, them days were their's not mine.

So it is unusual that Bruce Mutard, who is very much a contemporary, should attempt to capture that period in, of all things, a graphic novel ― The Sacrifice.

He is not from there and then. You would think that since he isn't a writer of that period he cannot offer a memoir that can capture the times.

You may also wonder ― as I did ― why would he bother? Why go back to 1939 to begin a three-volume story on the life of Robert Wells?

Who? Never heard of him, right?

This is fiction, so Wells is unlikely to be someone's granddad. But then...

Mutard has done an extraordinary job of taking us back to Melbourne in 1939-1941. He has captured the substance of the period in a way I have not found anywhere else, except hinted at in my own family members' reminiscences and the recall of old Communist Party members I have worked with.

These were amazing times. Australia committed itself to a huge international slaughter and retooled the economy and society to serve that singular end.

Jingoism overruled all objections ― but so too did a quickly engineered corporatist state and a war economy.

And it was not all ANZAC spirit and flag waving. It was not like it appears in an RSL retelling. The story of Wells, the keen pacifist with Communist Party friends, congeals a lot of the issues that are neglected each time we are told not to forget.

After all, history is often about choosing what to remember.

In that sense ― in the sense of what we are encouraged to believe in ― Mutard's pre- and at-war Melbourne is a revelation. So tangible, so geographic and with street directory precision.

It is like my parents photograph album has come alive. I could pass this comic around a bunch of 80-year-olds and they would delight in the cityscapes. And acknowledge the events, then add their own layer of storytelling.

Mutard's depiction of St Kilda, where Wells lives, is like peeling back that suburb's contemporary facades to the raw brick and weather board of the past. That sense of time and place ― and history ― is buoyed up by a rigorous chronology that is a revelation: not just in way of nostalgia and anecdote, but of underlying tragedies that are never acknowledged from the point of view of our contemporary comforts.

There is one segment in The Sacrifice that epitomises Mutard's graphic attainments. Wells is on leave from boot camp and must travel across St Kilda home late one night. It's 1941 and the city is occupied by US soldiers.

In a series of darkly forbidding panels, the impact of the war on the life of the city is played as a montage of debauchery and crime. The home front was at war with itself.

No patriotism. No comradeship. Instead a pervasive and threatening anarchy.

In similar mode, Wells' friends ― local communists who are part of the Acland Street bohemia ― are fleshed out with more verve than most Communist Party memoirs even manage. They are treated with respect, neither cast as a bunch of working-class heroes nor as prattling dogmatists.

For me, The Sacrifice serves as history. It may not be footnoted and there is no bibliography, but the angst and troubles of Robert Wells make me re-consider that time and the people who shared it with him.

[Dave Riley is a member of the Socialist Alliance in Brisbane. He maintains the Left Click blog.]

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