Speaking truth to power. That’s a good thing. Needless to say, it gets rather complicated when it is in the form of an official statement or formal speech. In fact, speaking truth to power is not something you expect to hear at the highest levels of government. However, from time to time, there are those in power who actually do try to make a difference. In “Weapons of Mass Diplomacy,” we have a graphic novel that is a hilarious political satire and gives us the heroic story of the French Foreign Minister attempting to prove the pen to be mightier than the sword.
Tag Archives: Middle East
How ironic if “Jerusalem” were not to receive wide recognition given that it is helping to set the standard for the relatively young literary art form that we know as the graphic novel. The general public is still getting to know it, compare it, and see what it can do. Let them read “Jerusalem,” the new graphic novel by Boaz Yakin and Nick Bertozzi.
“Jerusalem” provides a rich and dense texture to a narrative that invites a thorough reading. You can jump around and check it out but you’ll soon see that this is a multi-layered tapestry. It follows the pace of a good novel without the pretension. It also brings to mind the beautifully melancholy films of François Truffaut. Yakin and Bertozzi bring the colossal subject of Jerusalem down to a basic human level that we all immediately recognize and relate with. The story begins and ends with Motti, a little boy who only seeks love and understanding in his life. You don’t have to worry at all about the history. What you need to know it presented for you in crisp and concise ways.
This is a story of family. It is these characters, connected by blood ties, that we rely upon to provide us with some truth, something to hang on to, as we witness the chaos and bloodshed that ensues. Compared to its 5,000 year history, Jerusalem was occupied by the British Empire for only a blip of time. But it was what came from that blip that continues to haunt us all to this very day. It was after World War I that Great Britain took control of land from the Ottoman Empire that was to become Palestine. Our story begins with the British Mandate, on the wane in 1946, giving way to a UN Partition Plan in 1947 that gives way to civil war and the Arab-Israeli War of 1948. The British occupation of a land and people it had no interest or understanding in was a powder keg just waiting to ignite.
In Motti’s immediate family, he has three brothers who all respond to the times with fervor. There is Avraham, the war hero, who becomes a Communist. There is David, who works the system to help Jews enter Palestine. And the is Ezra who is compelled to resort to terrorism. Motti is but a boy lost in the shuffle. His father is extremely distant, as present as a ghost. His mother is so stern there is little evidence of tenderness. And he has a sister, Devorah, very quiet and afraid. If not for a cousin, Johnathan, there would be no real friend for Motti. And this is not an easy friendship to maintain since Motti’s father, Izak, is at odds with his brother, Yakov.
Nick Bertozzi has a drawing style that is at once gritty and warm. But it’s more than that. Bertozzi has honed a style that looks effortless and conveys something of the human soul even in his most simple depictions. Whether it is buildings, or people, or specific characters, there is much to admire about his vigorous, expressive, yet well controlled, style.
Boaz Yakin’s script gives a human face to the conflict that arose as the State of Israel came into existence. We find characters compelled into action. There’s a very touching scene, for example, where the children gather to perform a wedding ceremony between two of them. They do this instinctively, from a need for love and order.
Motti, you will come to see, steals the show even though he appears to forever be pushed to the margins. He’s the little boy full of spirit and a willingness to fight. Just the sort of character you’d find in a film by François Truffaut, the creator of many wonderful films about misfits. There is magic in his films and there is magic in this graphic novel.
The graphic novel, of course, has made enormous strides over the years. We are moving past citing a select group of works as landmarks. The general public is working its way to looking forward to the next great graphic novel in the same manner as comics insiders do. “Jerusalem” has that special temperament about it, not self-conscious, not forced, just there to get the job done right. It is a quality that all readers will appreciate.
Hollywood welcomes sending a message to the world. That is why “Zero Dark Thirty” is a formidable contender for Best Picture. But, the night I went to see it, I had a man next to me perpetually munching on popcorn, even during the waterboarding scene. How do you munch your way through popcorn during something like that? You have to wonder if that may say something about our collective confusion over 9/11 and its aftermath. Anything can be turned into entertainment. “Zero Dark Thirty,” despite boorish popcorn munchers, is a different kind of entertainment. It is the kind of activist entertainment intended to spur action and thought, in the same spirit as “All The President’s Men.”
Director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal are up to the task of presenting to the world the hunt for al-Qaeda terrorist leader Osama bin Laden and what happened along the way to finding and killing him. Just as they captured the sense of what was going on in the U.S. invasion of Iraq with “The Hurt Locker,” Bigelow and Boal again give shape to recent history with the powerful medium of cinema.
In order to make better sense of a complex issue, the film focuses on two CIA officers that represent the Central Intelligence Agency through this process. There is Dan, played by Jason Clarke, who vigorously pursues “enhanced interrogation techniques,” in other words, torture, to gain information. And then there is Maya, played by Jessica Chastain, who transitions from torture to a better way, in other words, persistent detective work. The film has its share of controversy. Complaints have come from U.S. senators and the CIA, that the film inaccurately shows torture as resulting in useful information towards finding Osama bin Laden. Perhaps the CIA felt that torture had its place.
The fact is that this film objectively shows Dan and Maya essentially failing with the torture route. If it coughed up any information, it was insignificant. It’s enough to make a red meat true believer like Dan decide it’s time to quit. “You don’t want to be the last one holding the dog collar when the oversight committee comes,” he advises Maya. Maybe to hedge its bet, the film implies that any specs of info that Maya gleaned off the backs of detainees may have helped to narrow down her search for the legendary mystery man, the infamous “Abu Ahmed,” the trusted courier of Osama bin Laden. But, more to the point, the film gives human error its own title card for playing the role of inadvertently suppressing vital information, information that could have been found without any torture in the first place.
If there is too much of an air of ambiguity for the first part of this film, you could hear a pin drop and not one munch of popcorn when we get down to crunch time. We reach zero hour about two thirds in once bin Laden’s compound in Abbotabad is confirmed: the skeptics at the White House are satisfied, special super secret choppers are untethered at Area 51, and SEAL Team 6 is assembled, locked, and loaded. The definition of “zero dark thirty” is a military term describing a time between midnight and dawn. While it is a unspecified time, it inspires certainty and resolve. The good guys are moving at a sure pace under the cover of dark. The chopper will, at first, fail, as we all know. There will be casualties. But, on that fateful night in Pakistan, despite the Pakistani air force ready to fire in retaliation, the United States regained much lost ground and turned a page of history. It’s enough, for that moment, to keep the popcorn untouched.
As we mark another anniversary of the tragic events of 9/11, there is a new book out that helps to provide perspective on relations between the U.S. and the Middle East. It is a graphic novel that goes a long way in helping to explain how the pieces fit in the puzzle of geopolitics.
“From the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli…” The words to the United States Marine Corps hymn may sound obscure until you dig deeper. For our purposes, let’s consider the shores of Tripoli. This refers to the United States at war with the Barbary pirates. This is also the point of departure to an engaging and informative book on the relationship between America and the Middle East, the graphic novel, “Best of Enemies: A History of U.S. and Middle East Relations.” Take a look at the curious cover: FDR and the king of Saudi Arabia, Abdul-Aziz Ibn Saud, perched amid a tangle of oil pipeline. The ironic and determined tone is set and maintained throughout by two masters: historian Jean-Pierre Filiu and cartoonist David B. Many readers will be surprised, even shocked, by what they find here.
But before our history lesson on the pirates, we are treated to the mystical tale of Gilgamesh and his war with the gods. This dovetails into a big leap forward of 4,600 years with a quote from Donald Rumsfeld, circa 2003, straight out of a fairy tale but sadly part of the war in Iraq: “During a war, the kind of ‘evidence’ people are looking for usually doesn’t exist.”
With that in mind, we proceed to the first fumbling steps into another eerily similar war. A newly formed United States of America must confront the terrorists of its day. This would lead to America’s first military encounter on Muslim soil. It would take the new country on a wild ride, from paying tribute to full-on military engagement. The die had been cast. Way before there were any neo-cons, the idea was already alive that the power that ruled in the Middle East, would rule the world. It was in 1902 that American officer Alfred Mahan, a theorist of the projection of power, coined the term, “Middle East” and fostered the mindset that would come back to haunt us all.
It would not be until World War II that the ties that bind would become so apparent: oil. It would be a match made in heaven, so to speak, when the leader of the free world, President Franklin Roosevelt, no stranger to riches and splendor, was able to win over the Saudi family and its oil drenched country. Unfortunately, the thirst for oil is insatiable and not even the Saudis could satisfy it alone.
One of the big hits at the San Diego Comic-Con this year was an interactive digital graphic novel based on Operation Ajax, the covert operations conducted by the U.S. and the U.K. to topple the leader of Iran in 1953, all for the sake of oil. While this is not top secret news today, it can still shock. In this book, the coup of Mohammed Mossadegh, the legitimate leader of Iran, simply to secure oil rights, is handled thoroughly as part of a bigger picture. The machinations of intalling a most unlikely leader, the Shah of Iran, are fascinating. Here is someone Peter Sellars would have had a field day with portraying all his cowardice and ineptitude. But even stranger is the fact that FDR’s cousin, Kermit Roosevelt, is Ajax’s Operations Chief, and proves to be a most diabolical villain. Peter Sellars could have handled him quite nicely too.
The approach of the book is refreshing in how the U.S. is placed among all the other players of geopolitics. There is no shining beacon on a hill, per se, and that goes for everyone. There aren’t any real heroes here, except for Gilgamesh and Mossadegh. David B.’s drawings flow with the narrative, literally bending and twisting as needed. This style owes something to 18th and 19th century cartoonists, with their ornate and fluid line and word balloons that floated along like clouds of custard. David B. takes that style and makes it his own giving characters bendy knees, necks and torsos along with all manner of uninhibited ways to fill the panels. It’s a wonderful mix of political cartoonist sensibilities and fine artist sensibilities.
“Best of Enemies” is a two-volume work so we have even more sensitive material up ahead. What we seem to always forget is that misguided policies have very real consequences. Countries can misguide themselves and they can then misguide the public. One bit of misinformation breeds another and so on. We hopefully still have a chance if we’re armed with the facts.
“Best of Enemies” is part of Abrams ComicArts, a Self Made Hero imprint. This 120-page hardcover is 24.95 U.S. Visit Abrams ComicArts.