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Bruce Mutard: The Sacrifice -- World War II was not all ANZAC spirit and flag waving solidarity

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

My parents were of the generation who were caught up in the war effort locally and offshore so the family album began life very much 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'd 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 and thereabouts to begin what he promises us is 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 some one's granddad. But then...

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

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

Jingoism over ruled all objections -- but so too did a quickly engineered  corporatist state and a war economy.

And it wasn't all ANZAC spirit and flag waving solidarity. It wasn't a RSL retelling. The story of Robert 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.

History afterall, is so often about  choosing what to remember.

The Sacrifice:Australian and US soldiers brawl in 1941 outside Flinders Street Railway Station
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 with street directory precision. It's like my parents photograph album has come alive. I could pass this 'comic' around a bunch of 80 year olds and they'd delight in the  cityscapes. And acknowledge the events. Then add their own layer of storytelling.

His 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 POV of our contemporary comforts.

There is one segment in The Sacrifice which 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 troops. 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 may be treated with respect but they are not cast as a bunch of working class heroes nor prattling dogmatists. 

For me, The Sacrifice serves as history. It may not be foot noted 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. 


 

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