In today’s post: A brief digression on post-Cold War conflict, sensationalism, and statistics. Also, a list of recommended war comics and graphic novels situated in post-Cold War conflict settings.
Turn on the news these days and it looks like the world is going to hell in a handbasket. One gets the impression that significant portions of the planet have been in a constant state of war since at least the beginning of the century with no end in sight. The incessant stream of broadcast and online images of war, terrorist attacks, and masses of refugees fleeing conflict seemingly confirms the assertion that the world “is more dangerous than it has ever been,” as US Army General and then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey claimed in a 2011 Senate hearing. Look past the political rhetoric and the narrative foisted upon us by a 24-hour news cycle that is increasingly dependent on the use of sensationalist reporting to drive advertiser revenue, however, and a different, more complex picture emerges.
While the past few years have seen an uptick in global fatalities from state conflict (i.e., a conflict between two organized armed groups, at least one of which is a state government, which results in at least 25 deaths in a year), non-state conflict (i.e., conflict between two organized armed groups, neither of which is a state government, which results in at least 25 deaths in a year), and one-sided killings (i.e., violence committed by a state government or organized armed group against civilians which results in at least 25 deaths in a year), recent figures are still well below the peak post-Cold War numbers driven by the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Additionally, the Uppsala Conflict Data Program (UCDP) asserts that overall, the Cold War era (1946–1988) and the years immediately after the Cold War (1989–1995) were significantly and consistently more violent than recent years in terms of the annual number of deaths arising from state and non-state conflicts and one-sided killings.
In other words, as bad as things appear now, we are nevertheless living at a time when the odds of dying a violent death are at a near-historical low: We aren’t so much living in a state of constant war as we are in a state of relative peace punctuated by spikes in armed violence.
Obviously, such statistics offer little solace to those affected by conflict. The human cost of war and terrorism is terribly high regardless of the scale of the conflict—even just one death or one displaced person forced to become a refugee is one too many. But it is also important to keep in mind historical context and the trends that point to our shared future, and to stay wary of the demagogues and unscrupulous media outlets who would exploit the general public’s fear and anxiety for their own political and economic ends.
If the media establishment is complicit in the creation of the current climate that allows for the rise of populist fear-mongers, it can also be argued that many of its better representatives have given the public the means to empathize with those affected by war and terrorism and better understand the roots and effects of specific conflicts. For example, the comics industry has produced a number of notable works that challenge readers to critically reflect on war, its causes, and its consequences.
Politically nuanced and socially aware war comics are nothing new, of course. EC Comics’ Two-Fisted Tales and Frontline Combat offered a counterpoint to the jingoistic pap offered by many publishers in the decade following World War II, as did Warren Publishing’s Blazing Combat in the aftermath of the Korean War. The Joe Kubert-helmed Our Army at War published by DC Comics used World War II-set stories to wrestle with the ethical questions raised by America’s involvement in Vietnam during the late 1960s and the early 1970s. The 1980s saw writer/artist (and Vietnam War veteran) Larry Hama creating a surprisingly sophisticated (and wildly popular) G.I. Joe comic that introduced its primarily preteen readership to the moral and political issues posed by armed conflict alongside two other acclaimed 1980s war comics in Doug Murray’s The ‘Nam and Don Lomax’s Vietnam Journal.
It is only with the relatively recent spread in popularity of the graphic novel format, however, that the war comic has come into its own in the mainstream literary world. Properly applied, sequential art techniques can imbue the war comic with a sense of impact and immediacy that can rival, and even exceed, that found in the best war prose. Below, I’ve listed eight post-Cold War conflict-themed comics that I’ve found to be especially notable for various reasons:
Fax from Sarajevo by Joe Kubert (1996, Dark Horse Books)
Arguably the most influential American war comics artist of all time, the late Joe Kubert helped codify the genre with his work as an illustrator, writer, and editor on DC Comics’ Silver Age war anthologies (most notably on the Sgt. Rock serial in Our Army at War). Fax from Sarajevo—based on a series of faxes sent to Kubert by SAF Comics founder Ervin Rustemagić chronicling his family’s attempt to escape the violence during the height of the Bosnian War—is perhaps Kubert’s greatest contribution to the genre. A heartbreaking and often chilling true-to-life account of the conflict in the Balkans from a civilian perspective, Fax from Sarajevo helped pave the way for the more observational, documentary-style war comics to come in the subsequent decades.
Safe Area Goražde by Joe Sacco (2000, Fantagraphics)
A collection of vignettes based on on-site interviews conducted by Joe Sacco with Bosniak refugees towards the close of the Bosnian War, Safe Area Goražde is a more journalistic alternative (or companion) to Fax from Sarajevo, although it is by no means any less affecting.
Deogratias: A Tale of Rwanda by Jean-Philippe Stassen (2006, First Second Books)
Jean-Philippe Stassen’s Deogratias: A Tale of Rwanda tells the story of a young ethnic Hutu man coping with the guilt over his involvement in the genocide of Rwanda’s ethnic Tutsi population, one of the worst cases of mass slaughter in recorded history. Originally published in French by Dupuis in 2000, the book is most notable for being one of a handful of Western comics publications to address the Rwandan genocide (We could speculate on the reasons why such a terrible atrocity received little comics coverage relative to concurrent conflicts, but that is a topic perhaps better discussed at another time.) Compact almost to a fault, this graphic novel is at its most effective when supplemented with readings from a book like Genocide in Rwanda: A Collective Memory (1999, Howard University Press; John A. Berry and Carol Pott Berry, editors) or Roméo Dallaire’s Shake Hands with the Devil (2003, Random House Canada).
Pride of Baghdad by Brian K. Vaughan and Niko Henrichon (2006, Vertigo)
The story of a pride of lions freed from a Baghdad zoo by an errant American bomb, Pride of Baghdad couches the debate over the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq as a modern-day fable. Surprisingly nuanced in its use of allegory and the “talking animal” conceit.
Special Forces by Kyle Baker (2007, Image Comics)
Inspired by the true story of how US Army recruiters signed an autistic teen to a cavalry scout contract in the military in order to meet their recruitment quota, Kyle Baker’s four-issue miniseries Special Forces is an over-the-top satire that frames George W. Bush’s Iraq War as an absurdist, slapstick comedy of errors. Outrageously irreverent and brilliantly illustrated.
Unknown Soldier by Joshua Dysart, Alberto Ponticelli, and others (2008, Vertigo)
Real-world conflict crosses over with comic book fantasy in this 25-issue series that has DC Comics’ Silver Age quasi-superhero the Unknown Soldier reimagined as a sleeper agent tasked with killing Lord’s Resistance Army leader and noted war criminal Joseph Kony. Dysart uses the premise as a means to explore the humanitarian crisis wrought by the long-running Lord’s Resistance Army insurgency in Uganda and its neighbors.
The Activity by Nathan Edmondson and Mitch Gerads (2011, Image Comics)
Writer Nathan Edmondson has been a controversial figure in the comics industry as of late, but that doesn’t change the fact that The Activity, co-created by artist Mitch Gerads, is a technically well-executed work. Featuring a contemporary focus on character and tastefully decompressed storytelling, the comic updates the traditional war comic for modern sensibilities—imagine Sgt. Rock or G.I. Joe updated for the Tom Clancy generation. Relatively light on the politics compared to the other titles on this list, but that works in the comic’s favor as it allows the reader to freely superimpose his/her own interpretation of the comic without undermining its military/espionage thriller remit.
The Sheriff of Babylon by Tom King and Mitch Gerads (2015, Vertigo)
Hindsight, it is said, is 20/20. A hardboiled/detective tale set in post-invasion Baghdad, The Sheriff of Babylon is a gripping murder-mystery with a fully-realized, multifaceted main cast. Its greatest strength however, lies in its reflections on how the occupying US forces’ misreading of Iraq’s history and its deeply ingrained tribal and sectarian divisions led to a political and military morass that has lasted through two American presidents (over a combined four presidential terms!) and the rise of extremist armed organizations which threaten to eclipse the deposed (and dead) Saddam Hussein’s own appalling record of brutality against the Iraqi people.