No Laughing Matter
Two comic books illustrate the nuances of contemporary war
by Paul Lewis
"Iraq" is not just a proper noun, a geographical locale, but a touchstone that describes any number of political, social, and economic strata. It's a word that can elicit cheers or anger or tears, and it is so pervasive that it has hooked into any number of our popular arts as we try to explain and come to terms with the war and the order of the world and our country today.
Comic books might not seem at first glance the ideal place for such exploration, but their immediacy, their affinity for illustrating points of view in both epic and close-quartered settings, their ability to translate internal thoughts and emotions into physical form, actually make them a perfect resource for artists to utilize. Seeing illustrations of the country, its residents and its visitors can put us in a different frame of mind, and are not as easy to ignore as columns upon columns of newsprint or battleground photos that, years into the conflict, only seem more and more alike each day. Paradoxically, it may take an aspect of fiction to help us process the terrible facts that are so difficult to digest.
Though illustrated, writer David Axe and artist Steven Olexa's War Fix (NBM, $15.95) is a semi-autobiographical account of journalist Axe's fascination with violence, borne out of watching the first Gulf War on television and leading to his choosing to travel to Iraq. His jaunt is ostensibly to cover elections, but more correctly, Axe chooses to feed his addiction. As he quickly learns, "In the movies, war is 99 percent action, and one percent sitting around. In real life, it's reversed." He passes the time as best he can, itching for a firefight and regretting that he didn't spend an extra $100 for better body armor.
Axe finds a sounding board in Pratt, a BBC journalist who has covered 20 wars in 20 years, once even escaping execution by moments in what could only be termed sheer dumb luck. It's not quite enough to cure David, who returns home to a fragmenting relationship and an itch to get back the war zone. While War Fix may not be long enough to fully explore the concept of war as addiction, it does bring up a variety of interesting talking points and presents a distinctive point of view. Axe continues his adventures as a war journalist in Army 101 , an investigative book about a college ROTC program during the current Gulf War. Both are recommended.
It should be noted that artist Olexa is a University of Tennessee-Knoxville graduate who won the Charles M. Schulz Award in Cartooning in 2002 for his work in The Daily Beacon . Olexa has abandoned traditional grid narrative for War Fix , allowing images to often bleed across two pages, resulting in tableaus that are nearly impressionistic at times. The graphic novel would not be able to maintain its fever-dream intensity without these bold yet sure-handed artistic choices.
Moving from autobiography to allegory finds us reading Brian K. Vaughan and Niko Henrichon's Pride of Baghdad (DC Comics/Vertigo, $19.99). Based on a true incident during the bombing of Iraq in April 2003 and the subsequent escape of a group of lions from the Baghdad zoo, Vaughan uses a series of anthropomorphic creatures to illustrate the complexities, the hope, and the sad realities of life in Iraq before the invasion as well as the state of the country struggling for democracy amid an occupying military force and insurgent civil war.
As with most allegory, there is a fair amount of interpretation to be debated, though some analogues are more than clearly paralleled. An old turtle is clearly an elderly citizen who's seen this all before, for instance, and a group of monkeys are opportunistic insurgents. Happily, Vaughan never allows the proceedings to be treacly, allowing most of his characters a nobility to balance their foibles. Pride is by turns hopeful, then heartbreaking, and it is one of the most complete looks at the Iraq prism yet presented in the culture at large. So what if it's about talking lions? This is strong, meaty literature deserving of its place at the table.
Henrichon, who took a year to complete the pages, is simply a stunning artist. He balances the needs of the story, giving these creatures the humanity they require to make the story sing, yet he never allows the reader to mistake the pride for Disneyfied plush, sweet confections. He delights in the moments of spectacle, yet does not shortchange the smaller, quieter moments that give the epic moments their weight.
Significant events always draw the strongest reactions from our artists and become as much a part of our timeline as the events that prompted their existence. Who knows if these books will be read in history classes 50 years from now, but in the present we can enjoy them for what they are--incisive looks at world-altering events.