Graphic Novel Artworks Illustrate "The Great War" At New Haven Museum

World War I was “the birth of the modern age,” says Nadir Balan. “It transformed the whole world. Every piece of foreign policy since then can be traced back to how the maps were redrawn after World War I. Horses and swords gave way to tanks and machine guns.”

Since modernity is key to understanding the war, New Haven Museum wanted a modern art form to illustrate it. Balan’s exhibit — “The Courier: Tales from the Great War” — tells the story of one New Haven man’s service in the mega-conflict, presented in the form of six pages of a graphic novel.

“Using a comic-book medium makes sense because they’re narratives and they have a larger-than-life central hero,” Balan says. Using primarily black and white, he adds, reflects on the nature of war. “There is good and there is evil. In the heat of the battle, there is no time to reflect on nuance.” The addition of swatches of startling red gives punch to the impact of war.

Balan has worked with animation legends. He created art for Marvel Entertainment and helped make “Wrath of the Titans” with Ray Harryhausen and “God Woke” with Stan Lee.

Balan’s exhibit of six ink paintings is based on the wartime experiences of Lt. Philip H. English, who went to France in 1917 and worked as a motorcycle courier, delivering messages, looking for people. Traveling about, he saw many bloody battlefields and became immersed in more than his share of tragedy.

English, the lead character, changes with every panel. In the first, dated April 15, 1917, he marches off to war confidently, surrounded by worshipful boys.

“Young men go in thinking the propaganda about the romance of war. Then they find themselves in absolute horror,” Balan says.

The mood of each succeeding piece is increasingly horrific, culminating in an image of English climbing on top of a pile of human and horse corpses, rifles and bayonets, planting a Christian cross like the men planting the flag on Iwo Jima. The concluding panel shows English arriving home on a ship docked at Boston harbor. He is joyfully embraced by his sister, an older and wiser man, and drops his gas mask and kit bag, as if to be done with war forever.

“THE COURIER: TALES FROM THE GREAT WAR” is at New Haven Museum, 114 Whitney Ave., until the fall. newhavenmuseum.org.

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