there more comics about terrorism?
I don't mean the sort of adventure comics in which terrorists
are cast as the villains just for the pleasure of seeing the
hero beat them up. (Although even that type of story has become
scarce; witness the smothering in the cradle of the egregious-sounding
AMERICAN POWER. There seems to be a widespread understanding
that that old jingoistic routine just isn't adequate anymore.)
what I'm looking for is fiction that takes terrorism as its
subject and makes it fathomable, or rather a little less unfathomable.
You'd think writers would be falling over one another to tackle
a subject so sensational, controversial, and urgent. But fictional
treatments of terrorism are thin on the ground, in comics and
out of it.
started wondering about this while reading the latest story
arc in Peter Milligan's HUMAN TARGET, lasting from issues #7-9,
entitled 'Which Way the Wind Blows'. Nominally it's about the
Weather Underground, a group that took ‘60s student radicalism
to its most militant (and absurd) extreme by bombing government,
police and corporate buildings, albeit while sparing the occupants,
in an avowed attempt to "bring the (Vietnam) war home".
TARGET is a well-crafted and reasonably adult book (which helps
explain why it's one of the lowest-selling that DC publishes),
but it gets the WU wrong, and probably can't help but do so.
To set the plot in motion, Milligan invents a muscle-bound,
violently psychotic Weatherman who remains underground and,
in the present day, starts knocking off those of his former
comrades who resurfaced.
rings false. The interesting thing about the Weathermen is that
they weren't predisposed towards violence; they were, as Milligan
has a character concede, "mainly upper-middle-class college
kids" from liberal backgrounds, who argued themselves into
acts of violence on an ideological level and couldn't argue
their way out.
Milligan makes his main character a Weatherperson still wanted
by police, living a conventional life under an assumed identity
in suburbia, because masks and double lives are the running
themes of the series. But that rings false as well. Milligan,
even with his fondness for ironic endings, would be hard pressed
to top the end that the actual Weathermen came to: most of them
were shielded from serious prosecution for the group's activities,
because the FBI had obtained most of the evidence against them
illegally, and after serving minor sentences, if any, they reintegrated
into society with ease due to the class privilege that they
had strained so hard to renounce.
has been something of a resurgence of interest in the Weather
Underground during the past few years, even before the terrorist
attacks of September 2001 - in fact, in one of history's little
jokes, former Weatherleader Bill Ayers was the subject of a
major New York Times profile published on the morning of September
11th, 2001, mortifyingly entitled 'No Regrets for a Love of
was unapologetic and hawking his memoirs, in which he fondly
reminisces, "Everything was absolutely ideal on the day
I bombed the Pentagon". It would have been interesting
to have a comic that did more than just allude to the group's
ghastly new relevance. But even assuming Milligan were interested,
the thriller conventions of HUMAN TARGET probably wouldn't let
him delve into the Weathermen's real motivations and characters.
about superhero comics, you ask. If it's true that the genre
can be called "the literature of ethics", as has been
asserted throughout the comics blogosphere lately, then it ought
to be uniquely well-equipped to tackle the subject of terrorism.
on the current evidence. The highest-profile post-9/11 attempt
came, naturally, in CAPTAIN AMERICA, in a 2002 arc written by
John Ney Reiber that pitted the patriotic hero against a stand-in
for Osama bin Laden, but nonetheless attempted to be even-handed.
Paul O'Brien wrote an admirable and comprehensive takedown of
the story at the time; for this article, I only need to talk
about the villain, Faysal al-Tariq.
his showdown with Cap, al-Tariq explains that he hates America
because his poor unnamed country-of-origin was used as a proxy
battleground in the Cold War, and American-funded guerrillas
murdered his father as he was out tilling the fields. This in
no way resembles the actual experience of bin Laden, member
of a wealthy and highly-favoured commercial family in Saudi
Arabia, then as now one of the US's most cosseted client states.
Apparently Reiber - or quite possibly his editor - can't imagine
anybody hating America without having been personally wronged
you arts-comics types feel too smug. The most substantial piece
of fiction about terrorism to emerge from the independent publishers
after 9/11 has been the ham-fisted JOHNNY JIHAD, by Ryan Inzana,
you might guess from the title, the book plays off the story
of Johnny Walker Lindh, the infamous American Taliban, but in
a way that robs it of most of its interest. In his first handful
of pages, Inzana quickly and crudely sketches the sad circumstances
of his protagonist, John Sendel, viz: he was abused by his redneck
ex-Marine dad, until the dad's Vietnam memories drove him to
suicide, and then neglected by his shattered painkiller-addicted
mother; he got beat up all the time in his stratified and spirit-crushing
public high school; and, worst indignity of all, he had to live
in New Jersey. It's no wonder that moving to Afghanistan would
look like a step up to young Sendel.
by contrast, had by all accounts an affectionate, permissive
upbringing; attended an experimental private high school; and
lived comfortably in one of the wealthiest counties in California.
Why Lindh turned to fundamentalist Islam is still a mystery,
and it's a mystery that Inzana does everything he can to avoid,
because it doesn't fit in with his attack on American imperialism.
dwell on these three books because I think that they all commit
the same basic error. The motivations they attribute to terrorism
are narrow and negative, such as desperation, vengefulness,
or just plain bastardry. But a terrorist has to think that they're
fighting for a greater cause, by definition, because only that
could justify such ruthless tactics. There's no sense in these
comics of that kind of religious or quasi-religious zeal, of
being on fire for an ideal.
Weatherpeople occasionally claim to have believed things deeply,
but the reader has to take their word for it; Faysal al-Tariq
has no positive agenda whatsoever; and John Sendel seems to
have joined the Taliban solely for the military discipline,
not for spiritual guidance. These books are powerless to explain
why well-educated young persons, born into affluence, would
give up comfort and promising futures, to say nothing of their
own humanity, in order to wage war on the culture that spawned
it's not possible to capture that kind of zeal in fiction. One
characteristic of the zealot is to believe that all truth is
contained in a single book, whether it be a holy book, Mao's
Little Red Book or The Turner Diaries. Maybe there's something
about the literary imagination, informed as it must be by a
whole galaxy of books, that can't conceive of that kind of severe
circumscription of the mind, or translate it into language.
there any comics that do have something useful to say about
terrorism? So far, I can think of only two. The first is Joe
Sacco's PALESTINE, rightly acclaimed as an exceptional work
both of reportage and of art. It's really about occupation,
not about terrorism per se, but it is a fact that the one tends
to be accompanied by the other. Sacco gets it exactly right
in stressing the crucial element of humiliation throughout,
in matters large and small - just think of the last intense
image of the book, of the Palestinian boy being questioned by
Israeli soldiers and made to stand in the rain. But, alas, PALESTINE
second is TROUBLED SOULS, a less celebrated book. It's the professional
debut of both writer Garth Ennis and artist John McCrea, and
it was originally serialized in CRISIS, a UK comics anthology
of a political bent. Set in Belfast, it's about a decent but
not exceptionally strong-willed young man named Tom who, quite
by chance, gets blackmailed into a sinister errand by an IRA
soldier named Damien. Once he's done it, neither his conscience
nor Damien will leave him alone.
Troubles, and conflicts like them, often get described as a
"cycle of violence", which is accurate so far as it
goes. But the great virtue of TROUBLED SOULS is that Ennis goes
farther - he has both characters conclude that it's not just
a cycle, but a racket, in which leaders on both sides tacitly
happens towards the end of the book, when Tom and Damien have
had to go on the lam together. They get on well, to their surprise,
and Tom allows himself to think for a moment that their improbable
friendship proves that there's hope for peace - "but I'm
drunk, so I don't see how bloody childish that is", he
thinks immediately afterward, in a fine moment of cliché-busting.
And their friendship does fail in the end.
SOULS is not without its flaws, but considering the thorniness
of the subject matter and the youth of the creators, it's a
truly impressive achievement. Ennis now seems a little embarrassed
by its earnestness, and he's allowed the collection to remain
long out of print and difficult to find. That's a shame. It's
a rare example of political art in which the politics don't
overwhelm the art, and it deserves to be better known.
WHEN I THOUGHT I WAS OUT...
Regular readers of Ninth Art may remember me as the former Previews
reviewer. I had to give it up some months back; prolonged exposure
to the catalogue had reduced me to an addled, trembling shell
of a man, liable to fly into fits merely on hearing the words
'Top Cow' or 'Dynamic Forces'.
So I took a much-needed vacation from comics in general, cancelling
my pull list and avoiding comics stores, secure in the knowledge
that I was missing practically nothing. It felt wonderfully
liberating at the time. No more committing to purchase books
three months in advance, sight unseen; no more being shackled
to my local shop; no more buying books automatically upon release,
out of some vague and misguided desire to support the scene,
rather than buying them when I had the time, money and desire.
No more oppressive obligation. As the spring returned to my
step and the roses to my cheeks, I could only wonder, whatever
possessed me to start preordering in the first place?
I'm starting to remember. I've been frequenting my local shop
again, but I can't seem to get there quick enough to nab the
new releases. I was consistently behind on MY FAITH IN FRANKIE,
I never saw HUMAN TARGET #8 and only found it in a different
shop even further from where I live, and I went looking for
THE FILTH collection exactly one week after its release only
to find it already sold out. And this is a quality shop with
a healthy, diverse selection.
The indies, I have no trouble finding. The new LUMAKICK and
FORLORN FUNNIES and the like have been there waiting for me,
possibly because it's only me and three other wretches buying
them. And the superhero books appear to be stocked in some depth.
It's only the books in between those two poles, like those Vertigo
titles mentioned above, that disappear fifteen minutes after
the Diamond boxes are cracked open on Wednesday morning.
Obviously, they're engineering shortages in an underhanded
attempt to get me to reopen my pull list. It's the only rational
explanation. Well, let them do their worst. We Ekmans are stubborn.
Previews, you and me is through.
Chris Ekman is a political cartoonist.
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