"THE DAY I BOMBED
THE PENTAGON"


Terrorism may be the major preoccupation for the world at large, but it's a subject that's barely addressed by comics. Chris Ekman returns to Ninth Art, with an examination of comics' failure to get to grips with terror.

 
Why aren't 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.)

No, 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.

I 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".

 

HUMAN 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.

This 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.

Further, 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.

There 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 Explosives'.

He 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.

What 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. Right?

 

Not 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.

In 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 by it.

 

Don't 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, from NBM.

As 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.

Lindh, 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.

I 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.

Milligan's 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 them.

Maybe 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.

TROUBLES THEY'VE KNOWN

 

Are 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 isn't fiction.

The 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.

The 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 collude.

This 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.

TROUBLED 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.

JUST 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.

This article is Ideological Freeware. The author grants permission for its reproduction and redistribution by private individuals on condition that the author and source of the article are clearly shown, no charge is made, and the whole article is reproduced intact, including this notice.


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