Iraq 2011

A graphic novel shows an Iraq in chaos


One of the grim consolations of political fiction is its ability to show us how things can always get worse, and soon, and in sadly believable ways. That's part of the appeal of the new graphic novel Shooting War, written by the freelance reporter and TV producer Anthony Lappe and drawn by the online comics pioneer Dan Goldman.

Set in 2011, the book is one of the first science fiction stories about the war in Iraq. Like most political fictions, it feels embedded in a viewpoint even if the authors are clever enough not to state their views didactically. And although the world it presents is harrowing, the viewpoint in Shooting War is strangely comforting. The geopolitics of 2011 are pretty screwed up, in ways ranging from monstrous to tasteless; so are the ways in which wars are reported.

But a recognizable modern life goes on, with no apocalypse apparently imminent.

The story stars a left-wing video-blogger named Jimmy Burns, who wins media notoriety by accidentally live-vlogging a terrorist attack on a Brooklyn Starbucks (while trying to expose the corporate gentrification of his neighborhood, natch). Flush with fame, Burns is hired by the "Global News Network" to report gonzo-style from Iraq, where the U.S. occupation staggers on with little success and Dan Rather is once again a big media player on the scene.

In an afterword, the authors say they hope their work of "political satire" will evoke a "chuckle." They misread the tone of their own dark and ultimately serious work, unless you think the suitcase-nuking of Bangalore is a knee-slapper. Rather's role is pretty much the only amusing part.

Anyone eager to consume a grim tale of near-future Iraq is likely craving a "we told you so" lesson, but to the work's credit that isn't easy to come by here. You certainly get the impression the authors think the Iraq war was a bad idea, but the novel provides fodder for other conclusions. Part of why things are going so badly in this future might not be inherent in the invasion itself but in President McCain's decision—improbable for those of us familiar with John McCain beyond his fading roseate glow of media affection—to reduce American troops to 10,000 and recruit reformed Ba'athists to fight against jihadists in Iraq.

Guerrilla journalists like Burns are even more important in this media world, since no one trusts the Pentagon as an information source after it was caught hiring Pixar to create fake news. And the latest jihadist menace on the scene, a gang that drives the novel to its scary, so-crazy-it-just-might-happen climax, are terrorists who finance themselves through call centers at madrassas. The hidebound mullahs of Iran, they think, are as big a threat to a truly effective resurgence of Islam as the infidel invaders.

It might be formally appropriate that a graphic novel dealing with media work in a chaotic, horrific near future should sport this book's off-putting computerized art style: a bricolage of digitally altered photos, cut-and-paste cartooning, and beards that look like the random up-and-down ballpoint pen scratches one would idly make to deface a magazine photo. The general aesthetic is redolent of the old lefty comic book World War III Illustrated, updated for the age of computer tools.

Formally appropriate or not, the style is distractingly ugly at times, and it often gets in the way of the storytelling that cartooning is best for. The graphic novel's look—created, as the book flap proudly announces, with "a combination of photography, vector illustration, and digital painting"—is very now. It's the sort of "now" that will almost certainly look very dated and oh-so-2007 soon enough.

The novel's theme, though, seems fated to become increasingly relevant as time goes on. Shooting War tells us that an imperial America's interactions with the rest of the world are apt to get more and more messy, in unpredictably weird ways, and that our techniques and styles of communicating about it will continue to evolve in reaction to those constantly changing circumstances. While "but think of the reporters!" is probably not our first sympathetic reaction to foreign policy disasters, the novel makes us feel their pain.

Senior Editor Brian Doherty is the author of Radicals for Capitalism (PublicAffairs) and This Is Burning Man (Little, Brown). A version of this article appeared in the New York Post.