The United States responded to the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon by invading Afghanistan in October 2001 and by invading Iraq in March 2003. America has been at war ever since.
NBM has responded to America's wars with left-leaning publications critical of American leadership and power. A great deal of it – perhaps too much – is authored by syndicated political cartoonist and journalist Ted Rall (more on that later). But in the mix we find two astounding graphic novels, War-Fix by David Axe (writer) and Steve Olexa (art), and Johnny Jihad by Ryan Inzana.
War-Fix is an account of journalist David Axe's first trip to Iraq as an embedded journalist. This is a compassionate and eloquent account of the different people affected by the war: civilians, children, translators, soldiers, contractors, and fellow journalists. Axe is captivated by war and its mysteries of violence and suffering. He becomes "addicted" to the experience. Above all, he seems enthralled by death, the ultimate end of war, the one that remains a mystery as long as you stay alive. A talented writer and dogged war correspondent, Axe provides readers with a decidedly compelling story: his own.
What really catapults War-Fix to the next level, however, is the art. Steve Olexa has a feeling for graphic storytelling that reaches far beyond what most others have accomplished with the medium. He plays with panels to suggest a collage or a scrapbook, or eschews them altogether in order to express the total disorientation of sensory input in the wake of an explosion. He defines the potential of the comics medium with his use of perspective. He effectively communicates emotions so powerful that most of us will (thankfully) never experience them. Axe wisely surrenders much of the storytelling to the art, sometimes allowing occasional pieces of dialogue or commentary to act as punctuation to the intensely expressive pages.
The collaboration between Axe and Olexa is beautiful to behold. The novel is so fluid that is doesn't seem to have chapters. It feels more like a chamber piece with movements. With the war in Iraq apparently winding down, and attention now turning to America's very long and worrying engagement in Afghanistan, War-Fix might not have the same ability now that it had in 2006 to puncture the reader's preconceptions about the U.S. strategy in Iraq. But it still has much to say about contemporary warfare, its victims, and why it never seems to end.
Johnny Jihad, on the other hand, has perhaps grown in urgency since it was originally published in 2006. Ryan Inzana delivers a well-researched and sobering story about an alienated and misanthropic American teenager who is recruited by an American cell of Muslim radicals with political ties to Pakistan and Afghanistan. Readers will be very surprised to realize that 16 year-old John Sendel was drafted by these radicals in the mid-1990s, and will be very disturbed to realize that the web of global politics is neither simple, nor particularly effective (if the goal is national security).
Inzana's art is done in a woodcut style that is relentlessly stark and dark. In other words, it is a perfect companion to a story of those who operate in the dark, beyond public scrutiny and therefore accountability. Now might be a very good time to realize that those Americans in the business of protecting our national interests are not doing a particularly good job, and should probably be subjected to the bright lights of citizen job evaluation.
This is a depressing story with an unhappy beginning and an unhappy end, and it is definitely not for people who want to tell themselves comforting stories of American heroism. Inzana challenges us to consider the importance of finding and weighing the facts of American relationships in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, and Israel, and with perhaps even greater urgency, he challenges us to consider the importance of reconsidering our culture, and asking if it provides enough work, value, and meaning to our young people.
Aside from these two perfect gems, NBM seems to have limited itself to a narrow partnership with Ted Rall. I have here on my desk three books by Rall: Generalissimo el Busho, Silk Road to Ruin, and To Afghanistan and Back. I also have all three volumes of his terrific series Attitude, anthologies of alternative cartoonists, each interviewed by Rall.
Silk Road to Ruin is a travelogue, recreating in words and pictures a journey Rall took to Central Asia and what he found there: a dam waiting to break and wipe out American security in the ensuing flood.
Generalissimo el Busho is a collection of essays and cartoons written between October 2000 and March 2004. These still have the ability to make our blood boil, despite the historic election of Barack Obama, the man who promised to reverse President Bush's policies. It comes in handy for those wishing to evaluate President Obama's job performance.
To Afghanistan and Back is Rall's report of a trip he took to Afghanistan in the first months of America's ongoing war. It is his best book. He is alternatively heartfelt, angry, and raw, and doesn't even pretend to be "objective". Why should he be? People were dying all around him.
These three books are excellent for raising consciousness about the realities behind the official line regarding the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. They are for citizens who accept their responsibility to question the government and insist that it tell the truth. They aren't the last word on the war, far from it, and you must read more extensively and think more deeply before you fall under the spell of Rall's fingers-on-blackboard prose. But Rall is so screechy because the problem is so urgent. America needs to be goaded. Something's very wrong.
The claim that our troops are fighting in order to preserve our freedoms is getting a little tired, and as a result, a little empty. War-Fix and Johnny Jihad tell compelling stories that go beyond the rhetoric and find the humanity. We need more of that. Ted Rall's books are really good, and I would particularly recommend To Afghanistan and Back to anyone wishing to deepen their understanding of America's longest war.
But we need to hear more. I hope that NBM can keep up the good work, and publish a greater diversity of views. We've still got a long road to hoe.