The reasons the comic book industry has been relatively gun-shy about the war in Iraq are both bewildering and obvious. Bewildering because the conflict seems readymade for discussion and dissection within the panels of comics, the best-selling and most popular of which have always dealt with battles between good and evil, often featuring spies, soldiers, terrorists, villains, madmen, corrupt leaders and dictators.
Obvious because the ongoing war is and always has been so controversial. In an industry that climaxed two decades after its 1930s creation and whose audience has been steadily shrinking ever since the '50s, tackling controversy is always a risky business.
But what's true for the bottom line-watching big publishers -- Marvel and DC, the two giants whose superhero lines dominate the industry -- is rarely true for the scores of indie publishers. Publishers like Blue King Studios/, which was created by City of Heroes video game creator and "Geek Mafia" novelist Rick Dakan. Dakan set up Blue King to publish a comic book adaptation of his City of Heroes game, a monthly comic book series lettered by Neil Hendrick.
By the 12th issue of that series, Hendrick had graduated to writing the story and script, instead of just filling in the bubbles with another writer's words.
Hendrick calls Blue King's set-up "a kind of anarcho-syndacalist collective comic book machine," and Dakan a "visionary;" in other words, it's a perfect place for a ballsy comic book with nothing to lose. Like, say, a slam-bang action adventure comic book set in Baghdad, a book whose story barrels straight at the prickly subject matter of the Iraq War.
And Hendrick just so happened to have such a story to tell. A self-taught student of the Middle East, Islam, and the United States' conflicts there, Hendrick got a firsthand education from his brother, an Army Ranger who served in Iraq. The tales his brother and friends told Hendrick would inform what ultimately became his new comic book series, "The Black Heart Irregulars."
Together with Argentinian artist Ulises Carpintero, Hendrick created a near-future Bagdhad in which the culture of the conquerors informs that of the conquered, and many of the independent contractors paid to fight there are now left over and restlessly looking for work.
His protagonists are the former employees of the firm, Black Heart Security, who are hired by an Arab diplomat to escort him safely into the American embassy, where he promptly detonates himself. Disgraced for their inadvertent role in the massive suicide bombing, the Black Hearts decide to fight terror with terror, and their leader, Mr. Fifty, recruits a team of freelance international terrorists to, as their mission statement goes, terrorize the terrorists.
In the first issue, released in late August, Mr. Fifty recruits his own cell of Islamic jihadis, explaining, "Al Qaeda is a pyramid scheme, and I'm opening up a franchise," right before he seemingly bombs the set of an American reality TV show.
By the second issue, we see the Black Hearts taking the fight straight to the source -- going after Saudi money men. It's a nice bit of wish fulfillment at a time when America's real-life strategy of fighting terror seems particularly confused, but Hendrick's tale is not mere escapism; he slips in a lesson on the true nature of our true enemies.
How did you go from talking to your brother to thinking, 'Hey, there's a comic book series in here somewhere'?
Really, it's inspired by the camaraderie and comedy of my brother and his friends, Army Rangers. The way they talk and the stories they tell, these guys are a tribe to themselves. They aren't really that interested in the history and politics of it all, it's all about their Band of Brothers, a radical devotion to the man next to them.
My brother Ray and I have had a lot of conversations about the terror wars, but his own point of view is surprisingly practical. So the meta-story about Western Culture bleeding into Iraq and terrorism becoming a kind of commodity is my own invention.
Ray had told me about these mercenary companies called "private security details" -- like, for example, BlackWater Security Inc., who are like old west guns for hire -- have gun will travel. They provide personal security for practically every non-military Westerner in Iraq and Afghanistan. They like to hire ex-Army people, who they pay scandalous money to protect contractors and diplomats in the lawless new Iraq. I imagined these guys left to their own devices, shut out into the cold, as angry as unpaid as the radical Islamic fighters that birthed this war, and the Black Heart Irregulars were born.
What does your brother think of the finished product?
He really loves it, and his buddies love it. Sometimes I call him and he will put some kid on the phone who just came back from Iraq to tell me an insane story from "the sandbox." Ray's been privy to all the advance issues, the art and story before anyone else, other than my fellow Blue Kings. He keeps printouts on his coffee table and makes all his guests read it. The feedback is really helpful.
Can you talk a little bit about the other inspirations for the series? It might have simply been a matter of this being a comic book, but the roll call of various specialists at the beginning sort of reminded me of "G.I. Joe," and the military-guys-get-blamed-for-screw-up-and-want-revenge setup reminded me of the DC/Vertigo series "The Losers."
You know, I never read "The Losers," but people have said that it's a little like my comic, so I really need to get it. As far as inspiration from fiction, it takes something from "The Sandbaggers." We can all thank Greg Rucka for introducing us to that great old BBC spy show in his comic, "Queen and Country."
While I was writing, I watched a lot of the HBO show "Deadwood," which depends so heavily on dialogue and is so rich in profanity that it was about the only fiction out there that matches the foul-mouthed profusion of real-life military people. I'm also a big fan of Warren Ellis's comic book style. It's the kind of stuff you can draw courage from when you are wondering, "Am I going too far here?" You can never go too far.
You guys definitely tackle some tough, nebulous topics. What sorts of research did you have to do in getting ready to write this series?
I have been, for some time now, deeply entrenched in reading on the Middle East, Iraq and Islam. It is a fascinating subject that I never knew much about, despite being a history buff and amateur anthropologist. I started with just reading the news, and, of course, talking to my brother and his friends about their experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan.
I listened to NPR whenever there was the remotest connection to the Islamic world, watched C-SPAN and BookTV for interviews and authors. There's great stuff out there and one of the most influential books was "Terrorist Hunter," by Anonymous, who turns out to be a researcher for the SITE Institute. I don't read conspiracy theory books about how Bush is evil and in league with the Saudis, that stuff is obvious. I just look for things that give insight into the Islamic world.
Sadly, I jumped into the Black Hearts too soon and swam too deep and there are places now that I see I could have been better informed or painted a clearer picture. It's a flawed thing, but it's not a documentary so I don't feel too bad about it.
One thing I do feel bad about is that there is a big thing with a particular mosque in Iraq called Abu Hanifa. It is Iraq's principle Sunni mosque and in the past it has been a haven for bad guys. In 2003 it was raided half a dozen times by U.S. forces. Bad things happen to the Black Hearts when they visit Abu Hanifa. These days, I feel like there are people in the Abu Hanifa community who are trying non-violently to participate in building a better Iraq, and I may have maligned them more than necessary. Insh'Allah, they will get out there and prove me wrong.
Why the "near future" setting?
I wanted to have a little more evidence of Western culture seeping into the Baghdad landscape. I wanted Westerners to be able to go for a walk and meet in a public place, which you can't do right now. I think this near-future is almost inevitable, hyper-violence and the onslaught of American style consumerism. Clash of the Titans.
There is an intentional element of iconoclasm, the destruction of traditional images. For example, the third issue's cover has a woman in an abaya (the black robe) dancing like a can-can dancer, hiking her skirts up to reveal Western lingerie. To Iraqi people this would be obscene, and while I don't begrudge them their right to be offended, the truth is that the old sacrosanct ideals are coming under fire from the West, and it is far from clear who is right.
What is more important, the ancient and tribal beliefs, or modern ideals of freedom and individuality? I think that a women's rights movement and a sexual revolution would do a lot for Iraq. Seriously, a culture less dominated by men is less violent. A strange thing now is that Iraq used to be more permissive, women used to be able to wear western clothes, whereas now in many parts of Baghdad, a woman can't walk down the street with her head uncovered.
Obviously getting this out through an indie publisher is easier than it would have been getting it out through, say, Marvel or DC, but did Blue King have any or many concerns about the material?
Concerns, yes. I think I speak for all the Blue Kings when I say that we are all anti-war, pro-peace, and have some anarchistic tendencies. Rick Dakan is a political activist and has some strong beliefs, and while he would probably never write a story like this, he's really supportive of me telling it the way I want to tell it. It's kind of experimental, and in the end imperfect, but I think that the freedom that Blue King afforded me really did a lot for me as a writer.
It seems that, after the initial wave of 9/11 fundraisers and such, the comics industry in general has been skirting around the issue of terrorism and the war in Iraq -- even among the smaller companies, where you see G.I. Joe is still fighting Cobra instead of al Qaeda, or the superheroes stick to fighting supervillains and aliens. Do you feel that you and Carpintero are sort of alone in this genre at the moment?
Isn't that the weirdest thing? But I think that's part of the larger problem of Americans just not being interested in the real details of world culture and politics. Ask yourself this question: What do the terrorists want? Who are they? How did things get like this? There aren't any pat answers for these questions, but we should all be trying to approach an answer.
If you look back in time to World War II, it was comics that led the way for Americans to look at the Nazis as villains. People were surprisingly sympathetic to the Nazis in 1939, and American business was deep in bed with Hitler. It was Jewish comic book writers and artists who, at a time when comics sold 25,000,000 copies a month, led the public defamation of the Germans.
The genre of war comics, like pretty much everything that doesn't fall into the superhero genre in the American comics industry these days, has long been waning. Do you consider "Black Heart Irregulars" a "war comic," fitting into the traditions of the genre? Is Mr. Fifty the 21st-century Sgt. Rock?
Good question. It really is a war comic, but I manage to slip in a lot of high concept and thinky moments. Sometimes I think I am putting in too much dialogue and not enough action, but I never wanted to make a superhero comic. I hope to be in the company of "V for Vendetta" and "Queen & Country." I'm not in that league, but I think it's something different. Though Mr. Fifty would love to be compared to Sgt. Rock.
Do you worry at all about the idea that this book might, even though indirectly, be profiting from real-life death and destruction, given that it's an entertaining work of fiction, but deals with such real, deadly serious issues?
Profit? It's an indie comic book, there really isn't any profit to be had, but even if I were somehow to profit, I am a big believer in fiction. Fiction helps us understand the world, it gives us a view on the world, and I think that people haven't seen this point of view before, so it can only be for the good.
There's a really striking section in the second issue, where Mr. Fifty talks to Mysterious C.I.A. Type Guy in the park, and they discuss the true nature of al Qaeda and terrorism, distinguishing it from Wahaabism. Do you think a majority of Americans understand those distinctions?
No, people don't get it, and this stuff is so important. I did my best in this scene to give a thumbnail sketch. This thing has more sides than spaghetti, so no one page of a comic can do it justice, but it's a start. It ignores the whole Iranian connection, Hezbollah, pan-Arab unity and a whole host of other things. You gotta start somewhere, and the money connection is the best place to start, and that points right at the Saudi government.
As the series progresses, how much can we expect the real world to interact with the characters. There are references to Lyndie England and Abu Ghraib by the second issue, for example; could we see the Irregulars going after Osama bin Laden at some point? Will real American political figures appear or be referenced?
No real American political figures, though we do get to meet Abu Musab al Zarqawi, the Emir of Al Qaeda Mesopotamia.
When Joe Sacco's "Palestine" was re-released a few years back, he told me he found comics journalism to be rather subversive because for so many people, the medium of comics is still a kids' medium or a medium for light, fun stuff, and it gives an extra punch to something dealing with the real world in that format. Do you see comics dealing with these sorts of heavy issues as subversive still, or do you think the medium, industry and readers are so used to 'serious' comics at this point that the subversion's worn off?
It doesn't matter, I think, whether it's novel or old hat. There's no reason a comic can't be serious, but "The Black Heart Irregulars" isn't really that factual. I mean it's a kind of fun crazy story; it just takes place in a serious world. It exposes people to some topical events, people and places... and it's only subversive in the way that Ulises and I are ahead of the curve in dealing with these things as a setting while other people haven't gotten there yet. Honestly, we're probably no more than a few months ahead of the pack, but considering I was writing this script a year ago, maybe we're prophets of a sort. No one can say I'm a copycat, anyway.
If nothing else, you can read "The Black Hearts" and just have your mind on Baghdad. That's enough, I don't need to tell you what to think, I just want to give people a topic to discuss amongst themselves, get your mind on Baghdad, think about Iraq, think about terrorism, think about Islam. Subversive? Me? Read "The Black Heart Irregulars" and tell me what you think -- that's all I can hope for.