Futuristic Web Comic Echoes Reality

It's the year 2011. John McCain is our unpopular president, the war in Iraq rages on, gasoline is $10 a gallon, and Tom Cruise and Mary-Kate Olsen have just called it quits. When videoblogger Jimmy Burns captures on camera a suicide bomb blast that rocks a Brooklyn Starbucks (destroying his apartment above), he's immediately hired by maverick network Global News and packed off to Iraq.

That's the eerie world of "Shooting War," an arresting web comic from author Anthony Lappé and artist Dan Goldman. Only a half-dozen chapters of "Shooting War" have been published on SMITH magazine since May 15, yet this episodic series has already become a prescient commentary on the future of warring Iraqi factions, globalization and citizen journalism's struggle against mainstream media.

"The world of 'Shooting War' is half where I think things are headed and half satire," Lappé told me by phone. As executive editor of Guerrilla News Network, Lappé identifies with Jimmy Burns' dilemma in working for the ficticious Global News.

"Burns is a vulnerable hero with aspirations of fame and money, but his politics are grounded," Lappé explained. "So does he sell out to reach a wider audience?" According to Lappé, Global News is akin to Al-Jazeera (and for that matter, political blogs), in that it prides itself on being uncensored.

Jimmy Burns 2
"Shooting War
"Shooting War" was born out of Lappé's own experiences in Iraq. In the fall of 2003, Lappé filmed "BattleGround: 21 Days on the Empire's Edge," a documentary that recorded the onset of the Iraqi insurgency. "I was standing in the Sunni Triangle," Lappé said, "when it occurred to me that this war is so surreal because you have teens raised on Play Station 2 who know nothing of Iraqi culture, yet are trying to create an infrastructure and government." While Lappé initially conceived "Shooting War" as an animated film, he realized that developing it as an electronic graphic novel might be a better way to reach the younger generation.

Like Lappé, illustrator Dan Goldman recognizes his audience's proclivity for video games, and has even subtly acknowledged this penchant in the narrative. During a U.N. press briefing in Chapter 5, a bored NBC reporter is seen playing a PSP videogame fighting Iraqis. "We're trying to keep things very meta," Goldman says with a laugh, "though we want to keep the story line very realistic. When I'm drawing this, my satirical bones are definitely twitching."

Goldman already had a couple of graphic novels under his belt before "Shooting War." Prior to the 2004 presidential election, Goldman co-wrote "Everyman," in which the last two presidential elections were swindled through faulty Diebold voter machines. What was uncanny about "Everyman" -- aside from basically predicting the outcome of the 2004 election -- was that it featured a rising third-party candidate with a surprising resemblance to Barack Obama, even before Obama delivered his famous address at the Democratic National Convention.

Both Lappé and Goldman regard web comics as a sub-genre with endless potential. "The format of an online graphic novel is so exciting," Lappé said, "because there's built-in anticipation of turning to the next screen, the next panel, the next chapter." "Shooting War" has already explored some of the new possibilities afforded by a medium traditionally found in print. A gritty Flash trailer depicts animated scenes from Chapter 1 set to a soundtrack Lappé recorded in Iraq, and Lappé and Goldman have made their series even more interactive by creating a "2011 Headline Contest" on their blog for fans.

Jimmy Burns 3
"Shooting War"
"Technology has changed the way we tell stories," says Larry Smith, founder and editor of SMITH, the reader-generated online magazine that presents a new episode of "Shooting War" each week. "While we didn't invent web comics, "Shooting War" is an electronic graphic novel with universal appeal." Smith, along with Lappé, Goldman, and artist Dean Haspiel, believes web comics are invaluable for their ability to establish a fan base and generate early buzz even before sending the graphic novel to a print publisher.

Haspiel, who's collaborated with Harvey Pekar and Jonathan Ames, among others, said, "There's an immediate gratification to web comics, and they cost nothing to create except time and talent." Haspiel and Goldman helped found ACT-i-VATE, a virtual studio collective of 12 web comic artists. More and more, web comics are becoming an essential stepping stone for graphic novelists to attain the coveted print medium level and beyond. Recent graphic novel successes like Derek Kirk Kim's "Same Difference" and Mom's "Cancer" by Brian Flies both began as serialized web comics and grew by word of mouth.

Meanwhile, Lappé and Goldman dream of turning "Shooting War" into a film or TV series. "This is an evolving storyline," Lappé pointed out. "Iraq could be just one destination for Jimmy Burns, especially since he's working for a network that covers terrorism worldwide."

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