I didn’t read many comics growing up. My pocket money was very limited and if I had a spare dollar, I was far more likely to spend it on a used fantasy or science fiction paperback than a comic book. It wasn’t that I didn’t like comics, it was simply a matter of practicality. A paperback would give me a couple of days of entertainment while a comic would only last an hour.
What comics I did read were never of the superhero variety. I liked grittier stuff like Sergeant Rock and Eerie. And of course every straight male adolescent growing up in the 1980s liked to sneak a peek at Heavy Metal.
Now that I’m older and have more spare cash, plus a kid getting into comics, I’m beginning to learn about a vast field of literature I’ve missed. Superheroes still don’t interest me (or my son) but I’ve found some really good stories set in the real world.
One of the best is The Sheriff of Babylon, published by Vertigo. A collection of the first six issues is out now.
The setting is Baghdad in 2003, as the American occupiers scramble to reorganize the country. Former police officer Christopher Henry has taken a lucrative contractor job to help train the new Iraqi police force. When one of his recruits gets murdered along with his entire family, Christopher tries to investigate the killing. He enlists the aid of Nassir al Maghreb, a former police investigator from Saddam’s regime who everyone from the CIA to a shadowy militia seem to be after. He also joins forces with Saffiya al Agani, a female Iraqi politician who spent most of her life in exile in the United States and has returned to join the interim government. Soon they find themselves in over their heads trying to make sense of Iraq’s Byzantine politics and warring factions.
Writer Tom King worked a brief stint in Iraq as a CIA operative and brings an insider’s knowledge to the story. Artist Mitch Gerards knows his subject too, and fills the larger panels with telling details.
I’ve spent 25 years working and traveling in the Middle East (although not for the CIA!) and the series rings true for me. The Americans are mostly well meaning but in completely over their heads. The Iraqis aren’t much better off. There’s so much infighting and secrecy that even the best informed local isn’t sure who is behind anything or why. Networks of honor, obligation, and self-preservation intersect and clash, and the Iraqis are all jostling to get into a good position for the day when the Americans inevitably go home.
I like the little details too. The Green Zone has a tourist market where Iraqis sell kitsch items like “Bomb Saddam” t-shirts while cheering any soldier who passes by, thus ensuring that the invaders only see what they want to see. Crowds of curious young boys cluster around the troops, begging candy or hurling insults. Exhausted contractors hide in the Green Zone bar getting trashed. Stolen artifacts crop up in the hands of people who have no appreciation for them. Jittery Americans draw their guns at the slightest provocation.
It is, in short, one giant mess. There is no heroic liberation, no true gratitude, just more chaos. While I had a few quibbles (I didn’t buy the easy friendship between Christopher and Nassir’s wife) I look forward to reading the rest of this series. This story is just begging to be turned into a TV show.
Can anyone suggest any other comic titles along these lines? I still know very little about the field so anything you suggest is probably something I haven’t read. Smart comics that are appropriate for an eleven-year-old would be welcome too!
Sean McLachlan is the author of the historical fantasy novel A Fine Likeness, set in Civil War Missouri, and several other titles, including his post-apocalyptic series Toxic World that starts with the novel Radio Hope. His historical fantasy novella The Quintessence of Absence, was published by Black Gate. Find out more about him on his blog and Amazon author’s page.