Gang-gang. Comic's stomach-turning story of gutsy WWI nurse

Gang-gang. Comic's stomach-turning story of gutsy WWI nurse

Readers, have you ever thought of the resemblance of the foul, muddy trenches of the Great War to the mucus-lined "trenches" of our guts, our intestines?

No, and neither had your columnist until Tuesday's conversation with Dr Gregory Crocetti, creator/publisher of the Scale Free Network. His small Melbourne publishing business has just digitally published (publication was on Anzac Day for reasons that will become obvious) the very graphic comic book The Invisible War.

WW1 nurse in Anzac Day re-enactment.

WW1 nurse in Anzac Day re-enactment. Credit:Jamila Toderas.

It is the touching, harrowing story of Annie, a literally gutsy Australian WWI nurse, ​and her battle against death, dysentery and disease on the Western Front of World War I. Then, in a parallel saga, it is the story of the battle of the microbes inside our heroine's gut (this is the "invisible war" going on) after she catches dysentery from one of the sick boys she so selflessly cares for.

And to digress a smidgin, there was (pictured) an actual 2016 Annie in Monday's Anzac Day Parade. Dressed as an Australian nurse of WWI she was with other ghost-like representatives of the National Military Re-enactment Group.

Annie, now worryingly ill herself, farewells Pte Robbins then rushes to the lavatory.

Annie, now worryingly ill herself, farewells Pte Robbins then rushes to the lavatory. Credit:Artwork by Ben Hutchings

​Crocetti is a microbiologist-turned-science educator and publishes works that he hopes will help show us all (but especially students in what he calls the educative "sweet spot" of years eight to 10) "the positive role of microbes in the world around us".

And so it comes to pass that Scale Free is telling the literal truth when it promises that The Invisible War has "a cast of trillions, including battalions of bacteria, legions of viruses and exploding volcanoes of mucus".

The endearing Annie ("I'm a Fitzroy girl") is the star, but she has a supporting cast of trillions of warring microbes. Most of us, let alone today's book-shy students, might struggle to be thrilled by a textbook about microbes. But in this comic form the microbes are articulate English-speaking goodies and baddies and their adventures in their sometimes disgusting, poo-plentiful, mucus-lined world are rivettingly interesting.

And by the way, how novel it is to go literally inside the heroine of a story. Illustrator Ben Hutchings takes us deeply, explicitly, into the mucusy underworld, the labyrinths, of Annie's gut. We see her gut "being reduced to an exploding wasteland". We see another nurse wiping the sickly Annie's bottom. But any tummy troubles of Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre are never discussed. And did Elizabeth Bennet of Pride and Prejudice ever suffer (as almost all of mankind does from time to time) a bout of diarrhoea? Decorous Jane Austen never goes there. Readers get to know Annie, heroine of The Invisible War, more thoroughly than we are used to knowing our heroines.


We will not give away what happens, for we don't want to spoil the suspense of the printed book form of The Invisible War. It is bound to happen now that in recent days a plucky crowd-funding effort has almost, as we write, amassed the necessary $25,000 in shekels.

What we can say is that the story and its comic book bristle with good things. For example, Crocetti loves the way the digital novel's author Ailsa Wild (she collaborated with a famous microbiologist to be sure of her facts) has made a woman, a nurse, as the central character.

"This enabled us to talk about the experience of war in a different way, to acknowledge the role of women in World War I and learn more about their untold stories", Crocetti says.

"In fact, the novel is dedicated to nurses everywhere."

Another great virtue of The Invisible War is that it is an accessible history book. The Great War in which Annie is embroiled is carefully portrayed, right down to her agonising about how she should vote in the Conscription referendum.

"Could I force boys to face death? To turn them into killers? But what about supporting [with conscripts] the poor men already fighting?"

Then, too, Crocetti says the story discusses "the ways in which dysentery and other diseases often caused as many deaths as bullets and bombs during World War I, a fact never discussed as part of the ANZAC sacrifice ... so the story provides a unique 'inside' view of the battles being fought every day inside our intestines to keep us alive and healthy…how friendly gut bacteria and viruses can protect us against diseases like dysentery."

"We just think people need to see this inner world [the gut], this alien world. What we want people to get out of it is a positive message about mucus. The possible story is mind-blowing for me."

He says that exciting discoveries are being made about how mucus ("we have it in our mouths, noses, vaginas, intestinal tracts") contains bacteriophages that resist sickness-causing microbes when those fiends "start to get too dominant". These mucus-lurking phages seem to offer exciting health-protecting promises now that we are seeing antibiotics lose their former power to deliver us.

And the science behind The Invisible War is explained in detail in the teaching materials attached, albeit only for teachers until the printed book is published. But when the book arrives we can imagine it being made into a major motion picture starring Cate Blanchett as Annie, the Fitzroy girl with at times a gut that is "an exploding wasteland". What a challenge the portrayal of that gut will give the filmmakers' CGI team.

Ian Warden is a columnist for The Canberra Times

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