There is something about the emphatic way Alexandre Taillard de Vorms speaks that makes the reader almost forget he is talking nonsense. Although he isn’t the protagonist of “Weapons of Mass Diplomacy”, there is no question that he’s the star. This fictionalized version of French foreign minister Dominique de Villepin is presented as an orgy of contradictions. Everyone around him thinks he is incoherent, but insists he is a genius. His ministerial staff relentlessly mock and undermine each other even as he is presented as an effective statesman. Most of all, he stands like a colossus of morality over the geopolitical landscape even as the reader is aware the man is a dangerously self-involved opportunist whose only care outside himself is France’s strategic interests. Physically and by dint of sheer presence, this tower of inconsistency looms over Arthur Vlaminck, the lowly speechwriter and nominal main character.
Title: Weapons of Mass Diplomacy Author: Abel Lanzac Illustrator: Christophe Blain Translator: Edward Gauvin Published: SelfMadeHero (2014) Purchase: In the Ad Astra Comix Online Shop
Aesthetically, the comic is enchanting. For a story about civil servants it flows with marvelous action – dropping, running, drinking and above all gesticulating wildly. The reader may be forgiven for feeling it owes something to the aesthetic of Tintin. The author devotes a page and a half of de Vorms’ dialogue to praising Tintin as flowing, beautiful poetry. The homage is both explicit in the text and implicit in the style, making action out of a torpid subject. Above the narrative looms de Vorms, large as the rocket ship that took Tintin to the moon. It is easy, as the protagonist does, to allow this looming character to take you in. It is very plausible he is on some kind of just – if slightly absurd – crusade against a world of bureaucrats and hypocrites. But here is the danger of a story like this one, told from on high to those below. The idea of history as a tale of great men and their daring deeds has been tossed into the requisite dustbin. New movements of history from below have opened up space for voices of women, workers, people of colour and others traditionally left out of historical narratives. The beauty in this is that it allows us to reinterpret those great, white men from the perspective of those they exploited.
In some respects, “Weapons of Mass Diplomacy” suffers from the ‘Great Man’ view of history. There are a handful of female characters in this male-dominated narrative. First is the minister’s secretary, and though it is a literary convention to depict secretaries as weirdly all-powerful, this one is built to be chastised by her boss. The protagonist’s girlfriend is the second of three notable female characters, but though she is evidently educated, she seemingly exists only to admire her partner then suffer disappointment and neglect. Finally, there is one staffer to the minister, but she is heavily sexualized, a scheming Jezebel. At no point do these women interact. Other women make brief appearances but it is a comic dominated by men.
So too one might rightly observe that they are all white men, at least apparently. While France, the United States and Germany are all featured as relevant global players, countries in Africa and the Middle East are fictionalized. Several African countries are given phony names, as is Khemed, a stand-in for Iraq. In one of these fake African countries, a horde of mostly faceless black bodies are shown menacing French citizens. Valerie Dumontheil, the ministerial staffer responsible for Africa, is white. So too is Stephane Cahut, whose file is the Middle East. It is a story about white people making decisions that will affect the whole world. The sole person of colour with much agency is a thinly veiled Colin Powell, point-man for American imperialism. One suspects his token presence in the comic reflects the tokenization he experienced in office.
What makes “Weapons of Mass Diplomacy” worthwhile, then? On page after page, silk ties and designer suits flow before our eyes. First class flights, ornate corridors of international power and expensive dinners greet a reader who might well presume they are meant to be enchanted by it all. But satire, it must be said, is a subtle science. Reading closer, it becomes apparent that there is an empty pomposity to those dazzling halls of power. The first-class destinations are interchangeable sets for self-indulgent babble. The decadent dinners taste of hypocrisy and self-absorption. Most of all, designer suits notwithstanding, the emperor is quite naked.
All of which is fine from a literary perspective. They might still have made space for voices of irony or dissent, representing the oppressed. This is a fine thing, an admirable practice in modern narrative where it occurs. But the sad truth is that real life, like the comic, is often a story about white people making decisions that will affect many lives beyond their own. Including oppressed characters is an important ongoing project, but perspective is versatile. By taking the view of the rich and powerful and showing their arrogance, cynicism and isolation from consequences, the comic mocks their pretensions.
Without ever presenting a real voice of critique, the comic is the critique. Taillard de Vorms is an absurd figure, a bombastic bureaucrat with delusions of heroism. The sycophantic civil servants surrounding him are desperate courtiers, vying for the favour of one of the king’s men. The grandeur of their offices at Quai D’Orsay is the faded pomp of a decaying empire, struggling to maintain itself in a changing world. If the perspective is a privileged one, the narrative quietly exposes the destructive narcissism of the powerful. Pulling the thread of official narrative until it unravels, the ugly nakedness of 21st century imperialism is exposed for all to see. If stories are to be told from a privileged perspective, there is no better view than that.
Today marks the centennial of the beginning of World War I. For those looking to comics for a quick and easy fix to explain how WWI started, there is indeed a comic for that. But for those looking to take advantage of the medium’s great ability to disseminate a deeper understanding of the conflict’s human impact, there are some exceptional titles available this year. These include anthologies like Above the Dreamless Dead and To End All Wars, as well as re-releases of classics like Charley’s War and It Was a War of the Trenches, to name a few.
Today we’re taking a look at Above the Dreamless Dead (First Second, 2014), an anthology of comics written and drawn to WWI poetry and song. Contributions are made by Peter Kuper, Garth Ennis, Sarah Glidden, Hunt Emerson, Eddie Campbell, and many more.
The space between a human being, their pen, and a piece of paper is a place not for patriotism any more than any other compulsory thought. In a time when you could have been arrested for resisting a war that saw thousands die for every mile of ground gained, poetry gave precious creative room for soldiers and non-combatants alike to process the trauma and stress of a life at war. Counting the years both during and after the conflict (1914-1918), World War I poetry, has grown to become a huge body of literary work. It is within this section of 20th century literature that dozens of comics creators have put together a creative and aesthetically varied collection for Above the Dreamless Dead.
Soldier songs, like those illustrated by British cartoonist Hunt Emerson, satirize and make light of the harsh everyday of the soldier–whereas Eddie Campbell’s piece, illustrating an episode of Patrick MacGill’s “The Great Push”, plunges head-first into the darkest corners of the human soul. Still others transcend the ultimately subjective spectrum of human emotion, and attempt to seek solace in the naturalist truth that regardless of man’s follies, the earth will continue to be as it always has.
Within the larger category of WWI poetry is the subcategory of trench poetry. Noteworthy space is given to the most well-known of these poets, namely Wilfred Owen, Isaac Rosenberg and Siegfried Sassoon. Bearing witness to some of the most hellish of situations imaginable, trench poetry takes the reader to another world of blood, mud, and pain, at one both impending and uncertain. The stress induced by the battlefield lent itself well to art, where soldiers could perhaps hold on to their sanity by airing their demons.
In Isaac Rosenberg’s “The Immortals“, adapted here by Peter Kuper, we get a real taste of the fear and paranoia of the gunner who is tasked to shoot at an enemy that seems immune to death. The feeling of this unending hoard of soldiers leads Rosenberg to feel that he is fighting not a massive army, but the same undying soldiers over and over again.
The aesthetic diversity of the art presented in Above the Dreamless Dead is a reminder that WWI poetry is in fact a huge genre–and one that the book doesn’t even illustrated to its fullest, in my opinion. Above the Dreamless Dead focuses mostly on the poets proper of the era, and in doing so missed an opportunity to take a critical look at the growing argument for sexual and racial diversity of World War I poetry.
Focusing on young white men in documenting the First World War is obviously the norm, whether you’re interested in comics, poetry, or history in general. But historian Dr. Santanu Das (King’s College, London) states that our understanding of the war’s poetry is changing as we come to recognize the diversity of the work written at the time and on the subject. “Today, no serious anthologist can ignore the poetry of non-combatants, civilians or women, such as the poetry of Thomas Hardy, or Rudyard Kipling, or Margeret Postgate Cole.” Note that neither Thomas Hardy nor Rudyard Kipling were enlisted, let alone combatants, yet they both appear in this anthology. Margaret Postgate Cole, a wonderful poet, was not, although it is arguable that she was more personally affected by the war as a socialist and activist (her brother was jailed for refusing military orders, after his application for CO status was rejected).
Das continues, “We also must move beyond Europe, because there was war poetry being written in Turkey, India, and Eastern Europe. We cannot just limit ourselves to a narrow, Anglo-centric definition of First World War poetry. We should embed First World War literary memory in a more multiracial framework by investigating, recovering, and translating First World War poetry that’s being written often in non-European languages.” Suffice to say that there is no poetry here from a non-white or non-English-speaking perspective, in addition to there being no women poets.
This criticism could surely be echoed for most graphic interpretations of World War I, but it is a point worth noting from the perspective of our mandate (see Harlem Hellfighters below, for the ONE exception to this rule that we could find!). As 2014 invites us to meditate on the “War to End All Wars” we encourage our readers to keep a lookout for examples, comics or otherwise, of marginalized perspectives/histories of the World War I.
We hope that you pick up and enjoy your own copy of Above the Dreamless Dead, or any of the other WWI titles following!
World War I in Comics: A Reading List
Title: Above the Dreamless Dead: World War I in Poetry and Comics Poets: Rupert Brooke, Wilfrid Wilson Gibson, Robert Graves, Thomas Hardy, Rudyard Kipling, Francis Edward Ledwidge, Patrick MacGill, Wilfred Owen, Isaac Rosenberg, Siegried Sassoon, Osbert Sitwell, Charles Sorley, Edward Thomas
Creators: Eddie Campbell, Sarah Glidden, Garth Ennis, Simon Gane, Luke Pearson, Hunt Emerson, Sammy Harkham, Kevin Huizenga, Peter Kuper, Isabel Greenberg, George Pratt, Hannah Berry, Phil Winslade, Stephen R. Bissette, Kathryn & Stuart Immonen, Lilli Carré, Pat Mills, David Hitchcock, Liesbeth de Stercke, Danica Novgorodoff, James Lloyd, Carol Tyler, and Anders Nilson Edited by: Chris Duffy Published: 2014 by First Second Dimensions: 21.7 x 15.9 x 1.7 cm, 144 pages Purchase: Ad Astra Online Store
Title: The Great War Creator: Joe Sacco Published: 2013 by WW Norton Dimensions: 21.8 x 29 x 3 cm, 54 pages Purchase: Ad Astra Online Store
Launched on July 1, 1916, the Battle of the Somme has come to epitomize the madness of the First World War. Almost 20,000 British soldiers were killed and another 40,000 were wounded that first day, and there were more than one million casualties by the time the offensive halted. In The Great War, acclaimed cartoon journalist Joe Sacco depicts the events of that day in an extraordinary, 24-foot- long panorama: from General Douglas Haig and the massive artillery positions behind the trench lines to the legions of soldiers going over the top and getting cut down in no-man s-land, to the tens of thousands of wounded soldiers retreating and the dead being buried en masse. Printed on fine accordion-fold paper and packaged in a deluxe slipcase with a 16-page booklet, The Great War is a landmark in Sacco s illustrious career and allows us to see the War to End All Wars as we’ve never seen it before.”
Title: The Harlem Hellfighters Author: Max Books Illustrator: Caanan White Published: 2014 by Broadway Books Dimensions: 23.5 x 15.5 x 1.6 cm, 272 pages Purchase: Ad Astra Online Store
In 1919, the 369th infantry regiment marched home triumphantly from World War I. They had spent more time in combat than any other American unit, never losing a foot of ground to the enemy, or a man to capture, and winning countless decorations. Though they returned as heroes, this African American unit faced tremendous discrimination, including from their own government.
Title: To End All Wars : The Graphic Anthology of The Great War Creators: Brick, Jonathan Clode, Michael Crouch, Steven Martin, Sean Michael Wilson, John Stuart Clark, Ian Douglas, Petri Hänninen, Bex Burgess, Stuart Richards, Lotte Grünseid, Chris Colley, Lex Wilson, Susan Wallace, Dan Hill, Faye Turner, Joe Gordon, Russell Wall and James Guy, Colm Regan, Andrew Luke, Sean Fahey, Pippa Hennessey, Steve Earles, Gary and Warren Pleece, and Selina Lock. Edited by: John Stuart Clark and Jonathan Clode Published: 2014 by Soaring Penguin Press Dimensions: 26 x 17 x 2.5 cm, 320 pages Purchase: from their blog!
An omnibus of 27 short graphic narratives based on actual events, characters, circumstances, incidents, myths or consequences of the Great War WWI. £2 for every copy of this publication sold will be donated to Medecin Sans Frontieres. Featuring the four theatres of war (land, sea, air and the home front), spanning four continents and drawn from both sides of the conflict, the stories range from 4 to 16 pages, each by a different author and/or illustrator from the world of independent comics.
Title: Charley’s War Author: Pat Mills Illustrator: Joe Colquhoun Published: August, 2014 by Titan Books Dimensions: 26.8 x 20 x 2.4 cm, 320 pages Purchase: Through a few places on Seven Penny Nightmare
Arguably the most well-known WWI comic of all time. From renowned UK comics writer Pat Mills and legendary artist Joe Colquhoun comes a truly classic piece of British comics history, by turns thrilling, humorous and horrifying. From its initial publishing in the 1970s and 80s, it was widely considered to be anti-war.
Title: Line of Fire: Diary of an Unknown Soldier August – September 1914 Illustrated by: Barroux Translated by:Sarah Ardizzone Published: 2014 by Phoenix Yard Books Dimensions: 25 x 18.2 x 1 cm, 96 pages Purchase: Available soon!
One winter morning, Barroux was walking down a street in Paris when he made an incredible discovery: the real diary of a soldier from the First World War. Barroux rescued the diary from a rubbish heap and illustrated the soldier’s words. We don’t know who the soldier is or what became of him. We just have his words, and in his own words and Barroux’s extraordinary pictures
Title: Tardi’s WWI: It Was The War Of The Trenches/Goddamn This War! Illustrated by: Barroux Translated by:Sarah Ardizzone Published: 2014 by Phoenix Yard Books Dimensions: 25 x 18.2 x 1 cm, 96 pages Purchase: Available soon!
Jacques Tardi is responsible for two acknowledged graphic novel masterpieces about World War I: It Was the War of the Trenches and Goddamn This War! To honor the 100th anniversary in 2014 of WWI, Fantagraphics has now released a two-volume boxed set collecting these two perennial classics. The first book, It Was the War of the Trenches, focuses on the day to day of the grunts in the trenches, bringing that existence alive as no one has before or since with some of his most stunning artwork. His second WWI masterwork, Goddamn This War!, is told with a sustained sense of outrage, pitch-black gallows humor, and impeccably scrupulous historical exactitude, in masterful full color.
Title: Trenches Creator: Scott Mills Published: 2002 by Top Shelf Productions Dimensions: 21.1 x 17.5 x 1 cm, 176 pages Purchase: Ad Astra Online Store When Lloyd and David Allenby arrive in the trenches of the Western Front, they have no idea of the misery and violence that awaits them. Can an aloof Major be the father figure and guiding force in their desperate battle for survival? Or will the estranged brothers be swallowed up before they can come to terms with each other, trapped in the clutches of the Great War? Trenches is about the beautiful stories that come out of dark times.
Title: The Ghosts of Passchendaele Creator: Ivan Petrus For more info: Check out his website!
Launched in 2014, this is the third book of a graphic novel trilogy by Ivan Petrus featuring Belgian, British and French soldiers and their true stories from the First World War. Painted in bold, dark, muddy colours, his art powerfully invokes the iconic post-war Passchendaele landscape. Petrus said: “My first graphic novel was about Nieuport, my second about Furnes and Pervyse, so the battle of Ypres in 1917 at Passchendaele was the next logical step. It was an iconic battle for the British and Anzacs troops. Plus, 1917 was the wettest year imaginable. Passchendaele is all about courage and fighting spirit – in deep mud.”
Ad Astra Comix is pleased to provide an up-to-date listing of comics, graphic novels, and “bandes desinees” about Israel and Palestine. As a part of our growing interest in political comics education, we offer this information as a useful resource, and do not necessarily condone or support all the various viewpoints expressed in the following books.
by José Gonzalez and NM Burton
Title: Palestine Author: Joe Sacco Published: 1993 (First Edition). Single volume edition published in 2001 by Fantagraphics, currently on its 14th or 15th printing.As a comics journalist, Joe Sacco visually documented his travels through the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in a first-hand account of the people of Palestine. Over the past 20 years it has become, hands-down, the most lauded example of a comic depicting the reality of Israel-Palestine tensions. Sacco’s travels in between late 1991 and early 1992, mixed with comic-rendered flashes of significant historical moments, serves as a great primer to a history and conflict often misunderstood in the West.
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Title: Footnotes in Gaza Author: Joe Sacco Published: 2009 byMetropolitan BooksA follow-up to Palestine, this work was released in 2009 documents Joe Sacco’s quest to discover the truth behind the events in Khan Younis and Rafah in November 1956, when Israeli forces were responsible for the deaths of nearly 400 Palestinians. Using largely first-hand Palestinian oral testimony, the comic chronicles the people met and interviewed during his travels, which gives shape to a dark history some 5 decades old. History and its revisions are explored as Sacco’s depictions of the stories told by each interviewee sometimes conflict and circle around the truth of why those Palestinian people were killed.
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Title: How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less Author: Sarah Glidden Published: Vertigo (2011)What started off as a Birthright tour to Israel, special tours to help nurture a personal relationship with Judaism, became a challenging journey of personal discovery for Sarah Glidden. She traveled through many popular destinations like Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, though the most striking voyage is her unescorted trip to the West Bank, forcing her to ask serious questions of herself and her identity.Glidden has explained that she found herself discarding many pre-conceived notions that she had about Israel/Palestine before leaving North America.
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Title: Jerusalem: Chronicles from the Holy City Author: Guy Delisle Published: Drawn & Quarterly (2012)Another travelogue, this one situated entirely in Jerusalem as comics journalist Guy Delisle documents the life of his family who have travelled there as part of his partner Nadège’s work with Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders). Situated in the eastern part of Jerusalem, Delisle finds himself situated on the precise ground of conflict detailing the lives of people on land with a disputed border and what it means to revere a sacred city.
Exit Wounds is Rutu Modan’s first full-length graphic novel, and tells an intricate story of a cab driver living in Tel Aviv who is suddenly faced with the possibility that his father has been killed by a suicide bomber.
Joe Sacco has helped open North American readers up to Modan’s complex and beautiful work by describing Exit Wounds as “a profound, richly textured, humane, and unsentimental look at societal malaise and human relationships and that uneasy place where they sometimes intersect.”
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The works of Mohammad Saba’aneh
Though perhaps most known for being imprisoned for five months in Israel from February 2013, Mohammed Saba’aneh’s cartoons have been featured in newspapers throughout the Arab world and he’s had exhibitions in the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and Jordan. His most recent exhibition, Cell 28, centres on his time in that Israeli prison. Much of his work describes a deep cynicism towards offers of peace coupled with a generally critical view of Israel.
Title: Hamas in Comics: Terror and Tyranny in Gaza Author: Israeli Defense Force (IDF) Published: 2013
Produced by the Israeli Defence Force (IDF), this comic book introduces young readers to Hamas through the eyes of the Israeli military. A prominent example of a comic being used as political tool to shape the mindset of children, it also provides a unique glimpse into how the Israeli military envisions its own role in the conflict. Hamas in Comics draws striking parallels with comics you would be more likely to see in WW2-era North America (a time period not often considered to be the most enlightened when it came to representing non-American cultures).
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Title: Moussa et David: Duex enfants d’un meme pays (two children of the same country) Author: Maurice Rajsfus and Jacques Demiguel Published: 2007 by Les Edicions Tartamudo (France)
A slightly different approach to a comic book aimed specifically towards children, this work by French Jewish historian Maurice Rajsfus tells the story of two boys who learn they have far more in common than their different religions might suggest. It serves as a lesson that those who are most innocent in this conflict may be able to show the rest how to solve the region’s problems.
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Title: Histoires d’une Région Enragée (Stories from a Raging Region) Author: Ouri Fink Published: 2008 by Gabriel Etinzon
Best known for his long running series Zbeng!, Ouri Fink’s collection of short stories targets political and religious extremists and satirizes them with a number of colourful comparisons. Some of the stories include “Hamas – the world’s mightiest moron versus the Rabbi ben Death” and “Humaus,” which borrows a device from Art Spiegelman comic Maus, but instead casts the Israeli settlers as the cats and the Palestinians as the mice. Fink’s refreshing use of humour sets his work apart from most other somber additions to this category of comics.
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Title: Farm 54 Author: Galit and Gilad Seliktar Published: 2011 by Ponent Mon S.L
This semi-autobiographical collection of short stories follow a young Israeli girl, and eventually a woman grown, named Noga. The conflict between and Israel and Palestine is muted to Noga during her childhood, but gradually as the stories move forward to Noga’s mandatory military service where she is most directly confronted with the reality of the conflict when she is compelled to take part in a forcible evacuation of Palestinian houses. Created by the brother and sister team of Galit and Gilad Seliktar, it provides a counter-narrative from within Israel that humanizes their closest neighbours.
This webcomic is one of the few examples of a comic from a Palestinian, due to the scarcity of jobs for comic artist in Palestine. Based on a true story, it follows an American Palestinian family trying to build a home in the West Bank. The challenges of maps is brought into focus as the very lines on each map make placing a home so difficult, with the slightest breach in a line being seen as a form of aggression. Considering the story is literally about lines drawn on paper, it makes a comic the perfect medium to explore this, and other disputes on where Israel ends and Palestine begins.
The Political Cartoons of Naji al-Ali
Of all Palestinian political cartoonists, the most influential is arguably Naji al-Ali, not only for the impact of more than 40,000 cartoons that he drew in his lifetime, but for the creation of the Palestinian characature and icon known as “Handhala”. Handhala has had a life and history for decades, depicting a 10-year old Palestinian boy, shoeless and in shabby clothes, with his hands behind his back. Al-Ali has explained that he symbolizes both himself (he was ten when he was forced to leave his homeland), as well as a number of general principles, including an allegiance with the poor and an unwillingness to have problems solved by external forces. Like any who saw it first-hand, Handhala became the iconic witness of the Israeli occupation. And like Handhala, al-Ali insisted he would forever remain a child until he was able to return home to Palestine.
On July 22, 1987 Naji al-Ali was shot in the face outside the London offices of al-Qabas, a Kuwaiti newspaper he worked for. He died of his wounds 5 weeks later.
His is one of the truest examples of the power of political comics to move, inspire, shake up, and frighten those who see them.
North America: Why Aren’t you familiar with Darren Cullen? I think he’s right up your alley.
While his previous art, available for viewing on his site, http://www.spellingmistakescostlives.com covers other subject matter, his first published book, out October 17, is (Don’t) Join the Military – an absolute assault on the eyes that blends incredible artwork, political satire, and a dark sense of humour that had me thinking all through it that he must be a veteran.
Title: (Don’t) Join the Military Author & Illustrator: Darren Cullen Self-Published: October 2013 More Info: Darren Cullen’s Website: Spelling Mistakes Cost Lives
As the U.S. struggles with its ongoing war machine, here is a document that nips the syphoning of soldiers in the bud: at recruitment. Largely composed of content that mimics and mocks the recruitment-style propaganda, familiar to those of us on both sides of the Atlantic, Cullen juxtaposes biting humour (that will make you laugh out loud, as dumb as that sounds in a review) against images of war that can barely be reconciled: dismembered bodies, civilians being murdered, and soldiers having breakdowns.
The over-arching theme remains the lunacy of war, the ignorance needed to carry one out, and the level of lying and manipulation that must take place to market them.
“I’m really interested in advertising and the gulf between the advert and the reality,” says Cullen. “…and there doesn’t seem to be a starker example of that than when it comes to army recruitment. The adverts makes it look like a kayaking and abseiling holiday but if you join up you’re thrown into an actual hell on earth, forced to kill and be killed. It’s horrific.”
If this were not all enough, there are lots of goodies stuffed into the booklet itself. Most notably, in my opinion, is the fold-out at the end–a jaw-dropping 3-4 ft insert that reminds me of a Mayan Codex… a fold-out expanse of war in its various dimensions, from recruitment to death.
It need not be said that this kind of work doesn’t speak to everyone. Cullen has weathered quite a bit of difficulty just in finding a printer who would help him publish, due to the content–which I think is saying something in this day and age. But the offence is not so much to the violence, in my opinion. We see depictions of violence and war frequently. But this cuts into the insanity of advertising violence and war being sold to us as something other than what it is, and mocks it ruthlessly for being so blatant a contradiction. It seems quite natural, in this context, that Cullen would point out, “I think the expectation and the reality [of the military] are so different, it’s a perfect subject for satire.”
Some discussion has come up around Ad Astra Comix and a recent addition to our stock list– a graphic history of the Vietnam War. Not only does the book gloss over major historical events, like the Gulf of Tonkin incident (and the fact that it never happened, yet was a major cause for the war to escalate). The historical narrative, which has had 40 years of time for reflection, comes to some very troubling conclusions. As a new generation looks back on Vietnam as the war of their Grandmothers and Grandfathers, and as a generation that has been raised far too comfortably around operations in Iraq and Afghanistan being “business as usual“, there is a serious need to dispel this re-write of history in the comic record. -NMG.
by Allen Ruff, guest contributor
A Little Background
As the U.S. aggression in Vietnam escalated in the mid-1960s, the liberal Cold Warrior Walter Rostow, an advisor to John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, spoke of the need of “winning hearts and minds” of the Vietnamese, at least those under the control of the US client regime in Saigon, if US force was going to prevail. As the barbarity of the venture — the toll in lives destroyed and the devastation exacted — spread, the invaders not only failed on that front in Vietnam, but also lost the campaign for political support, the battle for hearts and minds back in the States.
The war makers, of course, suffered a humiliating defeat despite their firepower. Failing to defeat militarily what was primarily a peasant-based anti-colonial and nationalist movement already decades old, it also lost the war on the political, ideological and cultural levels. Never having them in the first place, it never won the bulk of the Vietnamese people. The war machine murdered, maimed and debased too many and destroyed too much for that ever to happen. Those that survived, after all, were not about to buy the nonsense about “freedom” and “liberty” churned out by US propaganda specialists and parroted by a succession of corrupt, murderous regimes in Saigon. All the claims of the American “Free World” mission to save the country from “Communist Peril” rang hollow as that tiny land was scorched by what amounted to in a massive fly-by shooting.
Defeat in some sense became inevitable, a done deal, when the Washington war makers simultaneously lost large swaths of political support at home. They lost the battle of ideas, the claims and justifications, and explanations of what the war was about as the body counts and war costs mounted.
That loss of domestic political support for the war has never been forgotten, especially by those intent on winning future wars abroad who have come to view that home front defeat as a significant “lesson” of the conflict, not to be repeated.
In their ongoing efforts those still imagining that Vietnam could have been won and those already invested in current and future interventions have utilized every available means at their disposal to revise and reframe the story. At that level, the portrayals and accounts in the popular culture – television and film, in music, art and print media, even the comic book press – have long been been utilized in the campaign to mold “hearts and minds”, especially among the young and the impressionable, the potential recruits and fodder for future imperial campaigns.
Few recent examples illustrate that fact better than Zimmerman and Vansant’s graphic rewrite of the Vietnam war’s history. Well-illustrated by the clearly talented Vansant and shrewdly scripted by Zimmerman to include the actual words of participants, the book in some ways has more to do with the present than it does with some approximately accurate portrayal of what the US did to Southeast Asia.
Title: The Vietnam War – A Graphic History
Writtenby: Dwight Zimmerman Illustrated by: Wayne Vansant
Published: New York: Hill & Wang, 2009. 143pp
Now, of course, it can be rightly argued that the writing and depictions of history are always selective and that all historians make choices and have an agenda, an axe to grind. and that a graphic history could not possibly be comprehensive in any sense of the term. That all remains true since the agenda of this rightward revision of the war on ‘Nam comes clear right in the opener, in the foreword written by the retired Air Force General, Chuck Horner.
A combat pilot during Vietnam, Horner later commanded the U.S. and allied air assets during Desert Shield and Desert Storm. According to the publisher’s boilerplate accompanying his account of the Gulf War co-authored with fiction writer Tom Clancy, he, Horner “was responsible for the design and execution of one of the most devastating air campaigns in history.”
Horner, in one page, casts Vietnam in terms clearly pitched to the novice, the young high-schooler or working class kid, perhaps.
“Like other wars,” he tells us, America’s war in Vietnam, “began with a premise of good versus bad and which was which depended on whom you side with.” Well, okay for the obvious, war as some shape shifting morality play.
He then proceeds to explain that, “As the conflict dragged on, those views changed into the reality of a dedicated, committed North Vietnamese enemy and the committed-but-not dedicated US led-coalition.” The implication is simple (and simplistic): The US and its junior “coalition” partners (Who they were, he doesn’t say) lost because they weren’t dedicated enough, didn’t have the endurance or the will to win. Or, by implication, one running throughout the book, that their determination was undermined not so much by the tenacity of the Vietnamese adversary but by the falling away of support at home.
He goes on: “President Kennedy had committed our nation, but then President Johnson instituted polices that lacked dedication.” Here, immediately, one of the main themes of the conservative accounts creeps in: the war came to be lost because the civilian leadership, especially the politicians back home lacked the guts and the determination to see it through.
Following Johnson, “President Nixon became dedicated to getting us out of our commitment (to whom or what, Horner doesn’t say), but at “great cost to our honor.” Apparently even Nixon, known during the height of the war as the “Mad Bomber,” is viewed by this former Air Force lifer as aiding and abetting the commission of that sin of sins among the military, dishonor. (In some sense Nixon ended up getting a dishonorable discharge, but not for the major war crimes for which he should have been tried.)
What might be drawn from all that? Horner lays it out: “Years later, in Desert Storm, our politicians and our military, remembering the lessons of Vietnam, set goals and conducted operations that deserved our unqualified commitment and dedication.” That matter of dedication and steadfastness, once again.
Horner then raises a second read on the history commonly forwarded by the right: “In the case of the Vietnam War, the divergence of political will and goals resulted in constraints on our military operations.” Disregarding or not knowing that war is the extension of politics, he seems to suggest that the whole thing could have been “winnable.” If only the military didn’t have to fight with “one hand tied behind its back” and they weren’t “stabbed in the back” by the peace movement and their allies in the “liberal” media.
The old canards die hard.
Horner tells us, as well, that “our South Vietnamese ally’s leadership could not rally the dedication of its own people.” As venal, repressive and as illegitimate as the US-bolstered Saigon sham of a government was, could it have been any different? Horner may think so, but few others versed in the history appear to hold that peculiar line.
The Good General asserts, in closing, that Zimmerman and Vansant have come together to present the history, “in a clear and comprehensible way.” He concludes his foreword by describing the work’s present day purpose: “It serves to enlighten those for whom Vietnam is only academic history, so that we may be armed against making the same mistakes in the future.”
Interspersed with occasional accounts of heroic efforts by troops on the ground, the bulk of the narrative is loaded with half truths and craftily retooled tellings. Parts of it read as if it was selectively scripted by someone with the suppressed memory of a sleepwalking amnesiac.
This tale — an illustrated comic after all — might seem “comprehensible” to the novice, those unfamiliar. After all, if Vietnam was nothing but a series of mistakes made mainly by a civilian leadership at home, unwilling to fight to win, then a further mistake, perhaps, might be made by one looking to this work for some understanding, today, of what that criminal enterprise perpetrated against the people of Southeast Asia actually was about.
Allen Ruff is a U.S. Historian, Social & Political Activist; Host, Thursday’s “A Public Affair” – WORT, 89.9fm, Madison, Wisconsin; & Writer of Non-Fiction and an Occasional Novel. You can find more of his writings on his blog, Ruff Talk.
At its offset, it would seem that Fallout may be a part of a bandwagon to which most of the world is unbeknownst. The history of the self-described “graphic history” is a relatively short one. A natural off-shoot of the also-overly-used term, “graphic novel,” it has become something of a gold rush in a struggling book industry. Their accessibility and palettability makes them ideal for classroom and other educational settings… they appeal to young and old alike, etc. In a saying that seems as tacky as it is unlikely to the everyday cynic, graphic histories make learning fun.
But they also, often, make learning simple. Simplistic. Too simplistic. In fact many ‘graphic histories’ that have come out recently appear to be about topics by which the authors themselves don’t even appear to be highly engaged or inspired.
But, that is not this comic book.
Title: Fallout: J. Robert Oppenheimer, Leo Szilard, and the Politics of the Atomic Bomb Writtenby: Jim Ottaviani Artworkby: Various (including Janine Johnston, Chris Kemple, Steve Lieber, Vince Locke, Bernie Mireault, Eddy Newell, and Jeff Parker) CoverIllustration by: Jeffrey Jones Published: 2000 by General Tektonics (GT) Labs, as a part of a series of books about science and scientists
Originally printed in 2000, making it a bit ahead of the graphic history game, Fallout documents the Top Secret rise, gritty enactment of, and perhaps also the fall–if not materially, then politically, and above all morally–of the Atomic Age. It is a part of a larger series released by the publisher, GT Labs, of books that popularize (and perhaps humanize) science and the history of science to those not in the ‘know’.
Blending first-hand accounts and quotes with hypothetical dialogue–deemed at the preface of the book to be true “science fiction”–Fallout takes you from the inception of the atomic bomb, as it was first simply a theory in the minds of a handful of scientists–many of whom were struggling to escape the grip of fascism in Europe. An prime example is the physicist Leo Szilard, one of the Manhattan project’s founders, who barely escapes Germany as a refugee in one of the last trains out of the country (he explains that he avoided scrutiny by traveling first class).
It is in this climate that scientists begin to do what would otherwise be unthinkable: keeping their work Top Secret, not publishing their findings, enlisting not only the funding but considerable control of scientic research through the U.S. military. It was all for a greater good: to defeat the rise of Nazi Germany and to one day, possibly, hopefully, end the War–to end all wars. For in the scientific mind, if it were in fact a given that the world is ruled by reasonable men–what man would there be who would begin a war against a country with a nuclear bomb? The book is rivetting not only in its ability to explain the scientific basis of how a nuclear reaciton works (something that has never made sense to me) but also in seeing how these men, who were all more or less geniuses and culturally enlightened intellectuals, could be led to believe that this project was not only a good idea, but an absolute necessity.
The read is intriguing, even gripping (the first test of a nuclear chain reaction being recorded on the panel with the “click” “click” “click” “click” of the counter–the sound we all now associate with radioactivity in fallout zones–kind of gives you this ‘lightbulb over your head’ moment… “Aha! So that’s what each ‘click’ represents!”). You can tell from the narrative that the book is not only painstakingly researched, but done so by someone who believes in the need to know and understand the story. Perhaps this is an obvious requirement for all books of quality, but one that I would never take for granted in the category of a “graphic history”.
I would give this book the highest of recommendations. It is everything I hope a graphic history to be when I open it for the first time. And although I began this piece talking about the medium, an exceptional graphich history will in my opinion, pull you into talking about the content as much, if not more, than the form.
In 2013, we are all so familiar with bite-sized pieces of atomic energy–from nuclear power plants to the trademark mushroom cloud, the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Chernobyl and the meltdowns in Fukushima. But the introduction of such power into the realm of what was humanly possible was just as explosive, in the 1930s-50s, for everything from international Geo-politics to the limits philosophical and moral dilemmas that one human being can handle. In the words of Edward Teller:
“I made the great mistake of feeling relieved of my responsibility… the chance to show the world that science can stop a terrible war without killing a single person was lost.”
Title: Devil Dog: The Amazing True Story of the Man Who Saved America Author: David Talbot Illustrator: Spain Rodriguez Published: 2010 by Simon & Schuster (Pulp History Series)
It’s almost impossible to fathom the life of Smedley Darlington Butler. He began his military career at 16 (in 1898, in response to the supposed Spanish attack on the U.S.S. Maine off the coast of Cuba), and spent the next 34 years rucking and getting shot at in China, the Philippines, Central America and the Caribbean. He would also serve in WWI, being deployed in France.
If that were not enough, consider that in Butler’s final years he was among the country’s most decorated veterans and fiercest critics. Just 5 years before he died, he wrote a book called “War is a Racket” about the nature of the U.S. military industrial complex—a slogan that still gets used today in the anti-war movement.
Unfortunately Smedley Butler’s incredible story fades with each generation. The idea that “War is a racket” became at risk of becoming just another dusty and out-dated slogan of protest.
What “Devil Dog” brings to the table is a remix on a story that’s too good to forget in the past and too important to leave on the fringes.
Staying true to the look and feel of its “Pulp History” series, Devil Dog is actually a book of prose dotted with vibrant comic art by the wonderful Spain Rodriguez, in addition to press clippings and other contemporary visuals- art, photographs, etc.–all of which lends to the “Pulp” nostalgia that the series is shooting for. It is, much to my pleasant surprise, a very artfully written piece—you can tell Talbot is engaged by the story and wants you to feel it, too—with each chapter feeling like its own self-standing story of adventure, suspense, romance. Spain’s illustrations, especially with the Technicolor palette choice, really give the book the feel of an old pulp adventure comic.
More importantly, Smedley’s anti-imperialist politics aren’t editorialized by the book’s creators. In fact David Talbot goes out of his way to illuminate much of Butler’s military adventures (even prior to his anti-war awakening) as campaigns of corporate adventurism. He has probably taken a cue from Butler’s own memoir-styled book, where he is looking back on everything that he did with mature hindsight.
I would recommend this work to anyone interested in American war / anti-war history: it truly is a gem. The narrative is one that works well for being told aloud—if it weren’t for a few passages of sex and violence, it would be an amazing story to read to kids.
If you want to know more about the work, S&S actually made a trailer for their Pulp History series- and you can check that out here:
Just came across this last night… it’s from one of my favorite–generally non-political–comic books, BlackSad, by Juan Dias Canales and Juanjo Guarnido from Spain. Amazing artwork, great film-noir style plots with all the twists and turns… and all with cats, dogs, foxes, toads, birds, and all other manner of anthropomorphic folk.
This one hit home, and given its angle, I thought I’d share with the folks who follow my Political Comics Review. All work (c) Canales and Guarnido. Enjoy, (and get a copy of the full book here).
Titles: Palestine and Footnotes in Gaza Author: Joe Sacco Published: Palestine was originally published in comic book form in 1993, before being released as a full volume by Fantagraphics in 2001. Footnotes in Gaza was released in 2009 by Metropolitan Books
The downside of attempting to read timely political comics in order to write timely reviews is that you’re often pushing yourself to digest a lot of heavy material in a short period of time. I’ll be honest; it’s really difficult to be going back and forth from Gaza in my newsfeed to Footnotes in Gaza–which largely focuses on events from half a century ago. The idea that this reality is not only constant in that part of the world, but has more or less continued this way for five decades, is mind-boggling.
The first time I read Palestine was back in 2003, and I spent a good 2 months wading through the pages, studying the history and references, appreciating the attention to detail in the art (I had time to admire Joe’s artistic rendition of fabric the most–all of the middle-eastern apparel, I thought, from kufiyehs to shawls, seemed destined to be drawn).
This time around, after going through Palestine again, in addition to Sacco’s relatively new release, Footnotes in Gaza, I feel like I’ve been punched in the gut. Obviously, this isn’t the best thing you want to read in a review… I assure you, there’s a lesson to take in from this. Maybe it’s the combination of the books the real-time video I’m seeing of Gaza on Aljazeera and Russia Today. Maybe it’s the incinerating atmosphere on social media, where people dangle baited commentary like matches over their hot-headed opponents.
I’ll keep what I have to say relatively short. Frankly, this post is more about showing folks looking for political titles that there are comic resources out there for those looking for more information on Israel and Palestine –and as a veteran comics journalist, Joe Sacco is an excellent place to start. From there, I’d just assume that you’d rather spend your time reading those titles than reviews of them, right?
I will say this, with a special focus on those of you reading this who think a “comic interpretation” of Israel and Palestine is tantamount to insulting… quite the contrary. The irony is that Joe does not cynically summarize the arguments of those on the front lines of this conflict, as anyone with more than a mild opinion on the matter is guilty of doing at least once. In the times when the conflict heats up, our detailed portraits whittle away just when readers and viewers need them the most in our media… the Israeli who hates his government but can’t reconcile the ingrained notion that Jews constantly face an impending doom… the Palestinian who, in the words of author Norman Finklestein, must face the challenge of being both “principled and reasonable”, when that is essentially an impossible thing to do. More than anywhere else in the world, and with any other conflict, complexity here dissolves into a simplified belligerence. Israelis become crusaders for the ideals of the western world, or madmen screaming about terrorists. Palestinians become the front-line fighters in a global struggle against the forces of imperialism–or madmen screaming about Zionist snakes.
Of course, I have my opinions… but the irony is that Joe Sacco, a professional cartoonist, does not indulge our cynicism with these caricatures. In fact, as a comic journalist (a profession whose total validity gets challenged on the regular for him 2 decades into his work), he is perhaps more diligent than any other dispatcher in Palestine to portray an unedited picture. You won’t find anything like it in the political cartoons of your newspaper’s opinion section… nor on CNN or BBC, or Aljazeera.
As I finish writing this, the Telegraph reports that Israeli Deputy Defense Minister, Matan Vilnai, has vowed a Palestinian “Holocaust” as a result of the rockets fired by Hamas in Gaza. Yea, he just went there. I imagine that Joe Sacco began this project of documenting the lives of Palestinians because he felt we weren’t getting their story in the West. My response to that now, in 2012, is that we easily hear more about the situation of the Palestinians… and yet it doesn’t matter. Israel acts like a monster that no longer cares to hide it (see, I just KNEW I couldn’t get through this review without making a generalization), and the West supports them while pretending that their hands are tied.
Lastly, I come back to my own mental state right now, after reading these volumes. My lesson is, naturally, to not do what I just did. Take time to digest what you’re reading and looking at… and come to your conclusions in time. No cause is properly furthered by uneducated followers. The last thing the conflict needs are more caricatures.