Riding Shotgun: Two Funnybooks and the War on Terror

A hard look at the blood, muck, and mire of the last five years with DMZ and Pride of Baghdad.

As I write this, I am tired and incensed. Tired after waiting until 99.18 percent of the Virginia vote was in before going to bed last night (hoping in vain to see whether the Macaca guy was really defeated). And incensed because Virginia voters, as expected, passed a state constitutional amendment limiting the definition of marriage to between one man and one woman. Tomorrow, I’ll begin searching for a “Virginia Is For Bigots” bumper sticker.

Today, however, I’m going to talk you into spending $30 on comic books. Why talk about comics when the Democrats have just taken back both houses of Congress after 12 years? Because, in this case, I think comic books are more important, and far more likely to change hearts and minds then the Democratic Party could ever hope to.

It has been five years since 9/11 and since our military foray into the Middle East began. We’ve been in Afghanistan four years and in Iraq for three, and there’s a rising sentiment in America that we don’t belong there — or that, if we do, we don’t know what the hell we’re doing.

And yet it’s taken artists so very long to respond and react, or at least react with some kind of intelligence and grace. Television and film are a barren wasteland as far as war commentary goes, but they have to answer to their sponsors, so I don’t expect much. But even live theater, that bastion of liberalism, has little to offer. Oh, there are many, many, far too many, plays that lambaste Bush and the war on terror, but most do so with the kind of ham-fisted zealotry that should be reserved for Sunday morning televangelists. Most are more than willing to sacrifice an engaging, entertaining story for a message with a capital “M.”

But are comics the answer? Is that much-maligned medium an appropriate one to delve into the blood, muck, and mire of the last five years?

Yes, yes it is. Let me present the proof.


Written by Brian Wood; illustrated by Riccardo Burchielli. Published by Vertigo (DC Comics’s mature readers’ line). Vol. 1: “On The Ground,” available for $9.99.

DMZ takes place in an alternate America. In this reality, the country’s involvement in multiple wars abroad and the government’s refusal to return its attention to problems at home sparked a second American civil war. Anti-establishment militia, bolstered by an angry citizenry, rose up and begin taking over the country, working outward from the heartland. By the time U.S. military forces can be pulled back home, the “Free Armies” have made their way to New Jersey and are on the brink of taking over New York City.

The expansion is halted there. The country remains divided, with the most prominent battleground on the East Coast and Manhattan remaining a “demilitarized zone,” a DMZ.

And that’s where the story begins. Matty Roth, hired as a phototech intern to a famous journalist, travels with that journalist and crew to the DMZ for a series of “from the war zone” reports. When the rest of the crew is killed, Matty remains in Manhattan as the sole embedded journalist to tell the story of how the remaining citizens live in what the rest of the world sees as a bombed-out wasteland.

At its most basic level, this is a story of Baghdad — or any city that becomes a battlefield — told in a way that Americans can understand and empathize with. Matty, before entering the DMZ, knows as much as he’s seen on television — which he quickly discovers is minimal, and mostly false besides. It doesn’t take a stretch of the imagination or of the heart to see that the same thing has likely happened with Baghdad and other Iraqi cities, which we see as little more than a backdrop for bombings and RPG attacks. Somewhere in those cities, there are people trying to survive and continue in a life that’s been radically changed.

This story cloaks itself in the folds of science fiction, but it’s a paper-thin garment. One of the emotionally and intellectually chilling qualities of this series is that it shows how easily something like this could happen. In one recent issue — a flashback from the perspective of one Manhattanite — we see modern day New York City turned into a war zone in the space of a week.

The first five issues are currently available in graphic novel form under the title “On The Ground.” The next five — “Body of A Journalist,” where Matty gets his first look at the “Free Armies” and begins to see neither side has a trademark on righteousness — will be available in February.

Pride of Baghdad

Written by Brian K. Vaughan; illustrated by Niko Henrichon. Available at bookstores everywhere for $19.99.

Also published through DC’s Vertigo imprint (which has brought the world Sandman, Hellblazer, Y: the Last Man, and Fables, among other titles), Pride of Baghdad was released as a stand-alone hardcover graphic novel in September and was called one of the most important graphic literary works in recent memory and the must-read book of the year.

During the 2003 bombing of Baghdad, a pride of lions escaped from the Baghdad Zoo. Pride of Baghdad tells their story. Any more summary would be overkill. And unless you want to be spoiled, don’t Google the original news story.

It’s a simple tale — the sort of thing Disney would embrace, except here it’s drenched in blood and philosophy — and it wears its metaphors proudly. The book is very much an allegory for the “freedom” that was foisted on Iraqis by America’s military. While much of the action of the story deals with how the pride is going to survive in this strange new world, a lot of the dialogue (yes, in this world the animals talk to each other) revolves around just what this freedom means and whether it is worth anything — or if it will even be of any worth since it was handed over and not fought for. Think of it as a feral Animal Farm.

All this might sound a little too heavy-handed and dry, considering the capes and cowls characters that comic book readers are usually drawn towards, but with a story written by one of the industry’s most popular young guns and with art so gorgeous even the ugliest moments have their own beauty, the book became a hit before it even hit the stands. Many comic book retailers, who rarely preorder more than 20 units of a graphic novel, were preordering in the triple digits. Not bad for a talking animal book.

It’s hard to find a story (on TV, the big screen, or within the folds of a book) that can pull at heartstrings as easily as it can spark debates on philosophy or foreign policy. But both of these books manage to do so with the kind of intelligence and grace that are sorely lacking elsewhere. And both manage to do it without leaning too far to either side of the partisan divide. If you want another example of Vaughan’s ability to mix comics and politics, check out his ongoing series Ex Machina, in which only one tower fell on 9/11 and the superhero who stopped the second plane became mayor of New York City.

Comics aren’t just for kids anymore, and they haven’t been for some time. And they’re an excellent medium for social commentary and should be embraced as such, since, in this day and age, any canvas that readers or viewers will actually take the time to examine is precious.

Article © 2006 by Steve Spotswood