This is Propaganda, I’m Richard Bruton and this is what I’ve been reading lately:
First, a mention of three books that didn’t make it to the list this year, but will very probably make the 2008 best of list. All three have been briefly perused and all three look incredible. Two of them are unread merely because they’ve been snatched from my grasp, wrapped and placed under the Christmas tree; Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neil’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Black Dossier and Posy Simmonds’ Tamara Drewe.
The third unread great this year is a difficult one to actually admit to. Because it’s been sitting on my reading shelf for at least 6 months, waiting for me to free up the time I reckon I need to fully absorb and enjoy it’s brilliance. It’s Alice in Sunderland by Bryan Talbot.
I’ve dipped in and out enough to realise it’s a wonderful work, but kept saying to myself I’d free up time to really devote myself to it. Alas, it’s nearly 2008 and time has not been kind. But enough of what I haven’t read, here’s the Propaganda 2007 list:
Two of my choices were easy ones and for those that know me, pretty obvious ones. Something by Warren Ellis and a Grant Morrison book would usually be right up there in my faves for any year to be honest; such is my enjoyment over the years of the work of both writers. I’ve written before of my possible inability to realise either writer is really capable of a bad piece of work, but this year Warren tested that idea to breaking with the awful Doktor Sleepless (reviewed here) and I still haven’t been bothered to pick up many of Morrison’s Batman comics or finish reading Seven Soldiers. But the two books here are classic genre works. Ellis’ Fell is just a great police procedural deliberately written to strict formatting rules whilst Morrison and Quitely are redefining my long held belief that Superman is a dull, washed out character with beautifully controlled stories exploring the full potential of the icon that is the big red S.
The other three are from new writers, if not to the medium, at least to me. Fluffy was a sheer joy to read, powerful, emotive and both heartbreakingly sad and wonderfully uplifting. Exit Wounds and Shooting War approach the subject of our troubled modern times in two very different ways. Rutu Modan looks at life in Israel through the eyes of normal, everyday people and gives us an intriguing and unsettling view, exploring the concept of identity and family along the way.
But Shooting War was the absolute revelation of the year. Coming out of nowhere, this book is a jaw-dropping portrayal of American aggression in the Middle East, a mix of political satire, war reportage and near-future science fiction. But it’s no bland treatise on the evils of US imperialism either. It’s a sharp political satire and a fast paced action adventure tale with a message as deeply embedded as the reporters involved. Quite brilliant.
And worst of the year? Well, I thought it was going to be Stephen King’s Dark Tower, beloved by everyone but me it seems (I didn’t even like the original novels, but I was in a minority – Joe). But last weekend I had the misfortune to waste 2 minutes of my life on The Ultimates. A spectacular new low (see here for that review). Expect reviews of all five of my favourite works here on the blog over the next few days, but for now let’s delve into the number one choice, Shooting War:
Written by Anthony Lappé
Art by Dan Goldman
“In a time of universal deceit – telling the truth is a revolutionary act”. George Orwell.
After reading this for the first time I knew it was going to be one of the best graphic novels I’d read this year. And on the second reading I knew it was the best. It really is that good.
Shooting War features Jimmy Burns; a young video-blogger, full of youthful bravado and stylish beyond measure, who just happens to be filming his latest anti-corporate rant outside a Starbucks when he manages to capture the suicide bombing that not only takes out the Starbucks but Jimmy’s upstairs flat as well. His life is gone, replaced with fame after self titled “extreme news” network, Global News, uploads his video feed across the nation. Jimmy is an instant celebrity journalist and is offered the posting of a lifetime – straight into downtown Baghdad into the middle of a conflict that’s become a shameful embarrassment to American administrations post Bush.
(the aftermath of the Starbucks bombing on the street and on the feed via Global News, “your 24-hour home for terror news”)
Jimmy is initially reluctant, but as the network head explains:
“Bottom line. There’s nothing left for you here. Your apartment has been napalmed. Your gear is fried. By my watch your fifteen minutes are just about up.”
“I know you. I saw it in your eyes. You’re hooked now. You need the action.”
So Jimmy ends up in Baghdad. Smack in the middle of a disaster, in a war that’s been going on for far too long, with an occupying American force sitting in the middle of an increasingly confused civil war, allegiances blurring on all sides and chaos reigning.
The authors have taken today’s events and extrapolated them forwards a few years. It’s 2011, John McCain, a current Republican candidate, is a President struggling to cope with the “intractable quagmire” of a war he’s inherited from previous administrations. There’s a global oil crisis, gasoline is $10 a gallon, the Americans are increasingly aware they’re fighting a pointless, un-winnable war and the enemies seem to change almost every day.
Through the course of his posting in Iraq, Jimmy Burns grows to realise not just the insanity of his situation, but the subtle combination of both tragedy and farce that are keeping the war going. He finds himself a pawn of the terrorists, hated by the more corporate media and tolerated, barely, by the American forces.
The plot is a complicated web of wargames, lies and deceits on all sides as Burns uncovers and is manipulated by, a new type of terrorist; the Sword of Mohammed group, who fund their activities through call centres, web hosting, bot-nets and video games and will think nothing of using a mini nuke to remove their commercial competition in India. But if the terrorists are driven fanatics verging on madness, the same can be said for the Americans. Indeed the same could be said of anyone who gets involved in such an insane situation. As the insanity levels increase and the Global ramifications of the war in Iraq become clearer, Burns questions his motivations for being there, starts to doubt his place in the world and eventually makes a fateful decision to change the course of the war.
(new citizen journalist meets one of the few respectable Old School practitioners in the form of veteran reporter Dan Rather, dispensing Yoda-like wisdom to Jimmy Burns)
Shooting War was initially published online as a Smith magazine webcomic, but this print version is a vastly expanded and altered version of the original. The authors have taken the freedom of print and created something very powerful; an achingly sharp political satire on the Iraq War, corporate America and the increasing impact of “civilian journalism” in response to corporate controlled traditional media.
But despite all of the satire, this is no dry political treatise on the ills of war and the mistake that is Iraq. Lappé crafts a very fine action adventure amongst the satire, incredibly fast paced and genuinely exciting (even if the excitement leaves you a little guilty after a while).
To pick out any particular set piece from the work is almost too hard, there’s just too much going on that warrants mention, but a particularly effective piece to emphasise the delicate balancing act between action and satire comes some way into the book as Burns is trapped in Baghdad, watching with horror as a small army of US military robots trundle through the streets pounding all hell out of the neighbourhood. A quick cut away reveals the robot’s control room, where bank after bank of Dilbert like cube dwellers play warfare via Playstation and watch their kill scores beamed live onto big screens. Two pages later Burns is inside a hospital walking through wards of men, women and children brutally mown down by these wargamers (sadly some news sites have recently carried pics and descriptions of very similar robots being developed right now; the future is closer than we think – Joe).
“Is this another US military murder or just more unfortunate collateral damage?” asks Burns.
“When does it become a war crime? Is an objective war correspondent not supposed to ask that question?”
It’s an eerie, disturbing moment, perfectly illustrating how fine a line between telling a story so well and reporting on events the authors have had to tread. That the images and the plot stays with me even now is testament to how well they’ve managed it.
What gives Shooting War the legitimacy that any book of this sort usually lacks is the impeccable resume of the writer Lappé. As an experienced war journalist, Lappé went out to Iraq in 2003 to film the documentary Battleground: 21 Days on the Empire’s Edge for the Guerrilla News Network. His experience shows in the sense of realism throughout this wonderful book (you can read some of Anthony’s thoughts on Shooting War back when it was still running online here on the blog – Joe).
Of course, something this good needs an artist to match and Dan Goldman delivers a perfect artistic accompaniment to the story. He’s working in a mixture of photography, computer generated art, illustration, montage and computer FX is worked together to make one seamless whole, capable of driving home the terrible events in the story with violence and power. Goldman’s lush visuals embed the reader into the story in the same way Burns is embedded in Iraq; we’re together experiencing the horrors, the confusion and the madness first hand. It’s an impressive trick and Goldman pulls it off with aplomb.
Even as I was writing this review I found myself reliving the book. It’s now had the third reading and is just as good, just as exciting, just as incendiary as the first time round. It’s quite simply the book of the year.
Shooting War is a full-colour, 192-page hardcover graphic novel published by Grand Central Publishing (US) and Weidenfeld & Nicolson (UK) by Anthony Lappé and Dan Goldman. It started as a serialized webcomic and online community on SMITH Magazine.