Bringing the War home
Among the mail waiting for me when I returned from my break this week was something rather special – a sampler from Weidenfeld & Nicolson (part of the Orion group which also includes the excellent SF imprint Gollancz); inside the sampler the first chapter of the print version of Anthony Lappé and Dan Goldman‘s Shooting War. Now regular readers of the blog will know that I’ve been raving about Shooting War since coming across the online version on Smithmag.net last year and indeed picked the webcomic version as one of my favourite comics of 2006; I make no apology for this enthusiasm, I thought it was a brilliant piece of work. Dan Goldman’s art impressed me from the get-go – I liked his mixed-media approach of illustration, montage and frequent use of photographic backgrounds and details. That can be a difficult mixture to pull off without jarring the reader, but Dan pulls it off with panache; far from jarring me instead I felt totally drawn into this near-future War On Terror (WOT?), into the combination of realism and surrealism, the tragic and the absurd, the normal and the extraordinary; as with some news reports I felt adrift in a story which was both real and fictional at the same time (which may be an indicator of how our media works today and how our media-trained perceptions interpret the messages they give out; McLuhan’s head would probably explode if he were to write his famous book today).
(the finished cover for the W&N edition of Anthony Lappé and Dan Goldman’s Shooting War)
Actually, although visually different in appearance, in some ways this approach reminded me of one of my favourite works, Dave McKean and Neil Gaiman’s beautiful Signal To Noise, where Dave really pioneered a mixed-media approach which I felt enveloped me into the feel of the book, like being wrapped in someone’s dream, submerging me into the feel of the story in a way more traditional comic panels and dialogue alone never would have. Although if I’m wrapped in a dream here it is more of a nightmare as the near-future of Shooting War shows us what everyone fears now – that events will get worse rather than better, that no matter who is in power they seem to lack the will or ability (or both) to sort the mess. If it is indeed still fixable; both the fiction of Shooting War and the reality (and sometimes unreality) of news from Iraq (and Afghanistan and attacks here and elsewhere) tend to remind me of Yeats: “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere The ceremony of innocence is drowned; The best lack all conviction, while the worst Are full of passionate intensity.” Yeats, writing so long ago, could, sadly, be discussing current events or even supplying a quote for the cover of this book.
(Jimmy Burns introduces himself in Shooting War)
Dan captures this disparity between a surface impression of normality juxtaposed with sudden, shocking events very well, his art sometimes portraying a perfectly normal scene such as downtown USA then throwing the reader into a hideous event like a terrorist bombing with shocking force while for some scenes, especially the later ones as our blogging hero Jimmy Burns reports from Iraq for a Fox-like network which sees such atrocities simply as multi-channel news fodder (“Global News, America’s number one home for round-the-clock terror coverage. The Terrorists don’t sleep and neither do we.”) he sometimes employs even more radical (and effective) art techniques such as he uses on Kelly (not quite as wonderfully psychedelic as Kelly can get though) to suggest the disorientation and unreality of events. Jimmy’s journey from innocence to witnessing horror and carnage recalls countless earlier young men forced into similar journeys from normalcy to the hideous – and often utterly, sometimes almost comically absurd and surreal – nature of warfare, from the real-life characters from Vera Brittain’s Testament to Youth through to Full Metal Jacket’s Private Joker and Dan and Anthony take us right along with him.
Remarkably Anthony had never penned a script for a comic before Shooting War; in fact he told me last year that he had never really been much of a comics reader let alone writer (he had only just found the works of Joe Sacco, which have obvious relevance to a work like Shooting War). Despite this I thought he did a hell of a job – and what a heavyweight subject matter to tackle for your first venture into comics storytelling. The fact that Anthony is a reporter (he’s an executive editor at Guerilla News Network) and has actually been out to Iraq to cover the conflict (you can glimpse some of this in the documentary he shot there, Battleground: 21 Days on the Empire’s Edge) for me adds authenticity to the storytelling and also, importantly, makes it more difficult for critics to ignore it because it may conflict with their political views (although to be fair on that count the guys do their best not to preach at people, which I admire), although I’m sure some on the right may still accuse them of being nothing but biased (somehow I can’t see Fox News loving it). The story also takes in the cost for reporters in covering such conflicts – along with a hideous number of civilian and military casualties a large number of journalists from many countries have fallen victim to the events they were recording (recall Britain’s own revered war reporter John Simpson’s convoy being bombed by friendly fire). In Anthony’s 2011 the major agencies have mostly pulled out their famous reporters, which is why rookies like blogger Jimmy get offered the chance to suit up and head over; like the Poor Bloody Infantry of every war he’s a semi-disposable asset deployed here by an editor rather than a general – come home and you are a hero (and maybe also a villain), die and we’ll give you a nice eulogy and show a flag at half mast, then send the next rookie out into a situation that confuses even the experienced veteran:
(real live as reportage in Shooting War; if it ain’t been reported, it ain’t real)
“The strip is in part inspired by my own reporting in Iraq for a documentary I produced for the Guerrilla News Network (with my partner Stephen Marshall) called BattleGround: 21 Days on the Empire’s Edge. We traveled across the country just as the insurgency was beginning to gain strength, trying to understand the various forces that were fueling resistance to the coalition occupation. Near the end of our trip, we found ourselves smack in the middle of the Sunni Triangle interviewing Lt. Col. Nate Sassaman; the cocky former West Point quarterback had become a legend among his men for his aggressive attitude and tactics. After vehemently denying allegations locals made to us that his unit beat up old ladies, shot pets and hauled off innocent young men in midnight raids, a frustrated Sassaman blurted out, “My life is a surreal movie. Everyday I wake up, and it’s a surreal movie,”” Anthony Lappé sharing his thoughts on Shooting War last summer here on the blog.
My enthusiasm for the work aside (and the print version will be greatly expanded from the webcomic – Dan and Anthony tell me that having read the online version doesn’t mean you will know exactly where the print version will go) there are other reasons to be happy at this upcoming publication. Firstly it is great to see a couple of creators making a stir with a webcomic (a medium still evolving), so much so that the non-comics media such as the Village Voice covered them. Secondly it is pretty heartening that here in the UK we have not a comics publisher but a mainstream, major and respected publishing house prepared to take on the print version – I think that speaks well of how some graphic novels works are being increasingly well received in the English-language world (at last!) in both traditional comics specialists and mainstream bookstores. And thirdly it is terrific to see that publisher getting solidly behind this book – a recent trade catalogue from Orion gave the work a double-page spread to enthuse booksellers who may not have come across it, the full-colour, glossy sampler I received is both a teaser for readers (and bookstores buying departments) and a statement of support – those aren’t cheap, so producing them and sending them out sends a signal. And with W&N lining up interviews and appearances for the creators when the book comes out it should be publicised well beyond just the traditional comics media – I’ve felt all along that the mainstream media, especially newspapers like the Guardian which have given good support to graphic novels in the past, will love this. And that sort of coverage isn’t just good for promoting one book, that sort of interest promotes our entire genre, often to new readers who may not have picked up comics since they were kids and are unaware of just how powerful and mature an artform they can be. And that has to be good for everyone who loves the medium. Shooting War will be published in the UK by Weidenfeld & Nicolson in hardback this November and is available to pre-order right now.