New books from Joe Sacco, G. Willow Wilson, Lat and Anthony LappéAmerican literati are shirking their duty to chronicle the nation's angst. The Iraq war is nearly five years old, and I've seen only two decent books of literary fiction on it. But comic books about the Middle East and Islam are a growing sub-genre. "Pride of Baghdad," "Exit Wounds," the long-running "DMZ" and the self-published series "Jobnik!" do what literary fiction doesn't: tell stories about what's troubling us.
Two new graphic novels and one notable reprint do this too. The new edition of "Palestine," written in the early '90s, includes an essay by author Joe Sacco; happily, it still has the original introduction by the late scholar Edward Said.
In "Palestine," well-armed settler boys parade the streets with Mr. Natural's keep-on-truckin' stride, but they're not peddling free-spirited hoopla; they're paranoiacs on patrol. Sacco is influenced by R. Crumb, but in place of Crumb's sexual unease, he shows his discomfort at being a First-Worlder amid Third World poverty.
Honesty about ignoble things is a staple of underground comics, and Sacco brings that to his evolving view of the Middle East. "They get me sick," he says, showing his frustration at Palestinians. "Their big, sad eyes. . . . Their empty pockets. . . . I want to kick them." This says as much about the West as it does about Palestinians.
G. Willow Wilson's lyrically beautiful "Cairo" is a modern fantasy that draws equally on Egyptian folk tales and current cultural tensions. Her complex plot begins when a drug smuggler steals the home of the Djinn, or spirit, who protects the word meaning "East." To resolve the crisis, a young American training in Egypt to become a terrorist must learn to be a hero.
The author converted to Islam in her early 20s and is married to an Egyptian, but her novel's structure is pure U.S. superhero comic book. The relationship between the American and the Djinn is that of pupil to master. "Fear is never a noble weapon. Ever," the Djinn tells the would-be suicide bomber. The beautiful Israeli soldier Tova owes a bit to "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" -- and a bit more to superheroes Black Canary and Kitty Pryde. Yet M.K. Perker's art has none of the stiffness (or bulging muscles and breasts) associated with comic book characters but, rather, the sweet looseness of the girlier side of hip-hop illustration.
"Shooting War" by Anthony Lappé and illustrated by Dan Goldman is a political satire. "I'm a liar, a fake, and a fraud," says video-blogging journalist Jimmy Burns, speaking into a WebCorder as he's about to die on a Baghdad roof. Sen. John McCain is president, Iraq is in ruins and only a few journalists remain. The book has two villains: the high-tech occupying troops, who fight remotely using video-game controlled robots, and a Muslim mastermind who, sadly, looks slightly recycled from some James Bond movie. The "aha" moment comes when our antihero realizes that his convictions, or really the lack thereof, don't matter at all.
The exaggerations in "Shooting War" feel scarily unlike exaggerations. "The great capitalist experiment is dying here in the cradle of civilization," Burns declares. "Marx is dead. Instead you gave us [philosopher Thomas] Hobbes. Which would you prefer?" Sounds like something I wish I'd said.
Given the silence in prose fiction, I hope comic books are up to this challenge. They might be. Comics require terse language describing larger-than-life circumstances. (Speech bubbles are small; Ming the Merciless is over the top.) This fits the mess in the Middle East. The terseness cuts through the doublespeak -- lies hide better in 1,000 words than in 20. The extreme descriptions fit the chaos. Funny how it's literature that is escapist and comics that are facing things head on.
Laurel Maury is a New York-based writer and critic.