Nadir Balan: Nothing Comic About War

Philip English, "WWI motorcycle courier, driving along the front lines with courier pigeons. Various emotionally charged scenes he experienced fly by behind him".


12 FOR OUR 12TH
THE COURIER: TALES FROM THE GREAT WAR
NEW HAVEN MUSEUM
114 WHITNEY AVENUE
NEW HAVEN, CONNECTICUT
THROUGH NOVEMBER 11
(VETERAN’S DAY)

by Tom Soboleski

“Here and there a farmhouse burned, throwing a deep red illumination into the night … Here on a perfect summer night ‘neath the quiet stars, the concentrated hatred of nations created a storm of such deadly violence as to stun one’s reason.” — excerpt from the World War I diary of Philip English

This passage summarizes a gripping exhibit of large murals created by illustrator Nadir Balan to interpret the WWI diary kept by Lieutenant Philip English of New Haven, Conn. Adopting the narrative and graphic style of comic books, Balan distilled the diary into a series of 4’ x 6’ panels entitled, “The Courier: Tales from the Great War,” now on view at the New Haven Museum.

The two-year daily diary provides an intimate window into the anguish, tragedy and idealism of soldiers on the ground in the churning crucible of war. Balan has captured all of it vividly and dramatically, from cheering send-off parades, to torn bodies hanging on barbed wire, to a motorcycle courier racing to deliver orders. English’s job was motorcycle courier.

Each panel is dominated by bright red, symbolizing the glowing skies of burning villages and exploding shells that English describes in his diary. Balan’s approach was to depict “not only action scenes and war scenes,” he said, but to capture the emotional impact the war imposed on soldiers. The foreground images in black and white represent six different phases of the war and are surrounded by a series of light-grey montages depicting experiences such as meeting French women in pubs and zeppelins being shot out of the sky.

Balan said this technique of saturated red on top of black and white is used extensively in comic books as a way to induce excitement to the narrative. “The comic book style has its own history of being used to show a story,” he said, “always larger than life stories, a hero’s journey.”

Jason Bischoff-Wurstle, the museum’s director of photo archives who co-curated the show, feels the comic book style is especially appropriate to illustrate a war diary. “We wanted to do something different and this approach complements the diary,” Bishcoff said. “The graphic novel/comic book medium is able to tell a better narrative than just using individual shots. There’s also a zeitgeist to it; comic book movies are popular; kids relate to it.”

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