Work by Nadir Balan, courtesy of Nadir Balan and the New Haven Museum

War Paint

A man in a gas mask grips the handlebars of his twin-cylinder motorcycle and speeds past the shelling to deliver a general’s orders.

A soldier wearing a gas mask and wielding a bayonet lunges toward the viewer, while behind him a man is blown into the air by an explosion.

These scenes from the life of New Havener Philip English are the subject of a new and unconventional exhibit at the New Haven Museum. Commemorating the centennial of America’s involvement in World War I, its co-curators, Jason Bischoff-Wurstle and Mary Christ, knew that the museum’s collection included medals and photographs and letters of the sort that might usually star in such a show.

sponsored by

Joyful Learning at Cold Spring School

But they wanted to do something different to recall New Haven’s role in the First World War, finding direction after the museum’s librarian suggested they take a look at English’s diary. “This is a story,” Christ says the staff realized. “This is a hero’s journey. This is an action adventure.” Then the question became: “What’s the way to visualize that?”

Enter local award-winning comic book artist Nadir Balan. Bischoff-Wurstle and Christ asked Balan—who also happens to be a WWI buff—to read English’s diary and interpret it in six large-format comic book panels. The stunning result is The Courier: Tales from the Great War.

Philip English grew up on Hillhouse Avenue. According to a panel in the exhibition, he served during the First World War “as an instructor, motorcycle courier and director of the 26th Division Message Center on the battlefields of France. He trained soldiers, relayed orders between commanders and was a first-person observer of the death and destruction of war.” After, English returned to New Haven, where he married Katharine Trumbull Dana and raised two sons, James and Richard, in East Rock. A dedicated member of the New Haven Colony Historical Society, now better known as the New Haven Museum, he donated his diary and several scrapbooks to the museum in 1976.

Mounted in two parts, the exhibition begins in the museum’s upper rotunda with 18 large-scale digital reproductions of English’s photographs as well as a map and a letter to set the scene. The images range from a soldier standing guard on Winchester Avenue at the start of America’s involvement in the war to the USS Agamemnon arriving in Boston at war’s end, its decks packed with 6,000 soldiers.

From the rotunda, visitors enter two gallery rooms, where—Pow!—Balan’s red, white and black panels take over. Each of the six has three visual layers. The foreground on each, a bold, hand-inked image in black and white, is where Balan says he “combined descriptions of how he felt about things that were going on”—the emotional crux of the serviceman’s experiences.

The middle-ground images on each panel include several frames that more literally illustrate actual incidents in the diary. In gray tones meant to evoke old newsprint, visitors will recognize an echo of some of the photographs in the rotunda: Winchester Avenue, the Agamemnon, neat rows of tents at “Camp Yale” in the summer of 1917. Balan describes these images as a “montage,” giving viewers “the context of the location and time.” Each panel includes a specific date label that ties back to the diary and provides a starting point for museum-goers who want to pull out their phones and do their own research.

Finally, the third visual layer of each panel is a brilliant red background. “Philip English calls out in the journal the red skies and the explosions and the burning cities, and he mentions the red a few times, so that stuck in my mind,” Balan explains. The “bright, attention-grabbing” color is, of course, also a popular comic book choice. In this case, according to Balan, it represents English’s emotional journey. On the first panel, red stripes evoke the stripes on the American flag. “It’s also sort of in a sunburst pattern,” Balan points out. “It’s forward, it’s hopeful, it’s excited, it’s naive what’s to come. The first panel is just a straight-up propaganda poster, so the red is very patriotic there…and that’s reflective of his emotional mindset.”

As the panels progress, the red “emotion” recedes, taking up less space because, Balan says, “when you’re in the heat of the moment, you don’t have that much time to reflect… Life becomes more ‘black and white.’”

Descriptive placards in front of each painting pair explanatory paragraphs with quotations from English’s diary. The one placed before the painting titled The Yankee Division Goes Over the Top reads, in part:

Leaving my motorcycle against a tree just south of the village I commenced a tragic hunt for my friend. A score of American dead lay where they had fallen in the fields nearby, many with their rifles still in hand, bayonets fixed and still pointing towards the nearby shattered hamlet, which appeared so serenely peaceful in the bright sunshine. For twenty minutes I went from body to body looking for my friend… Thank God Dan was not there!

For Balan, it was “the perfect project,” he says. “You can bore people to tears with textbook descriptions of what people at the top did, nobody cares about, nobody can relate to. But then you hear how it really looked in somebody’s own words… That’s what really brings you in.”

Indeed, boredom shouldn’t be a problem at The Courier. The visitor is more likely to experience the panels first as comic book pages, “some fleeting, some clear, some beyond our grasp,” as Balan describes the mid-level montages. But don’t just fly by as English might have on his motorcycle. Slow down. Pay attention. There’s much to learn about this hundred-year-old war.

The Courier: Tales from the Great War
New Haven Museum – 114 Whitney Ave, New Haven (map)
Tues-Fri 10am-5pm, Sat noon-5pm, 1st Sun 1-4pm
(203) 562-4183
Admission: $4 adults, $3 seniors, $2 students (free 1st Sundays)

Written by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Image #1 provided courtesy of Nadir Balan and the New Haven Museum. Image #2 photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel.

More Stories