The Best Retelling of the Iraq War Story Is a Comic Book

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Photo: MItch Gerads/DC Entertainment

As an Iraq War veteran, I’m kind of demanding when it comes to war stories. Movies like American Sniper, which was based on the best-selling memoirs of the late SEAL sniper Chris Kyle, might be interesting as psychological portraits of individual — and elite — troops, but audiences don’t really learn anything about the broader war in Iraq. Or it might be more accurate to say that the perspectives of most war stories are so skewed in the direction of the American experience that they seem crippled by myopia — self-referential and self-reverential all at once.

Zero Dark Thirty, while thrilling if not entirely accurate, gave audiences something like a bird's-eye view of the American intelligence community's hunt for Osama bin Laden. And one of the better books to come out of the war, Ben Fountain's Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, which was recently adapted into film by Ang Lee, perfectly captures the alienation veterans feel when they return home from combat to a society that doesn't quite understand their experiences. These aren’t bad movies or crappy books, mind you, they just feel incomplete — like a close-up detail of a much larger picture. The truly bad war movies are so riddled with technical inaccuracies that anyone in the know is too distracted to make higher-order criticisms.

What I’ve been looking for since I left the Army six or so years ago is a story about the war that provides both granular accuracy and a bird’s-eye perspective normally unavailable to me, an American who is confined in many ways to an American perspective, even (especially?) as a soldier. Iraq is, after all, more than just the name of a region where American military ambitions are exercised and foiled. Iraqi people were part of the war, too, and just as American history doesn’t begin with 9/11, the contemporary history of Iraq doesn’t begin as a blank slate with the American invasion. I always desired a story that would acknowledge and defy these artificial parameters in order to convey the complexity of the American invasion of Iraq. In essence, I was searching for an Iraq War version of War and Peace. I did not expect to find it in a comic book.

Sheriff of Babylon, written by Tom King, illustrated and colored by Mitch Gerads, and published in July by DC imprint Vertigo, is, in my opinion, the most comprehensive war fiction of our generation. It’s a political story. It’s an unmasking of violence. It’s a noir mystery. It’s a complex rendering of an entire ecosystem of squalor, hope, and delusion. It’s also accessible and, almost as a bonus, very cool. If you put a John le Carré novel, season five of The Wire, and Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s masterly nonfiction expose Imperial Life in the Emerald City into a blender, what would come out would resemble Sheriff of Babylon.

Excerpt from Sheriff of Babylon. Photo: MItch Gerads/DC Entertainment

This praise won't come as a surprise to anyone who's plugged into the comics scene. King’s work on previous series like The Omega Men and Grayson has been widely celebrated, and Vulture's Abraham Riesman wrote of King's Marvel title The Vision: "It’s one of the most acclaimed titles in the industry — and with good reason." King's narrative bona fides are well-established, but it takes more than a top-notch storyteller to craft a competent war narrative. Usually, it takes firsthand experience or loads of meticulous research. King brings both to the table: Back in the earlier days of the American occupation, King worked for the CIA, which included time actually in Iraq.

“I worked the Iraq issue from the States, from abroad, and from Baghdad itself,” King told me during a phone interview. “I don’t have simple thoughts about it. I don’t think, ‘Oh, it was a good thing’ or ‘Oh, it was a bad thing.' I know Saddam was a horrible person and it’s better that he’s gone. I also know that what came after was worse than what had happened before. But those thoughts don’t seem to add up to a cogent whole. I knew I wanted to write about that — how you could have two conflicting thoughts in your head at once. That’s a lot of what Sheriff is about: the idea of the invasion not being a good thing or a bad thing but a thing my entire generation had to go through.”

That moral duality is the beating heart of Sheriff. It shapes the story and moves through the characters like a powerful but invisible energy. Normally when giving a plot synopsis I’d give a heads-up for spoilers, but that’s not necessary with Sheriff. The story is only six issues long so far, with more to come early next year. There’s nothing to really spoil quite yet. King and Gerads leave us in a place where we are just beginning to understand enough to be able to ask questions. To hope for answers seems like asking too much.

The story begins in Baghdad, February 2004, with the murder of an Iraqi cop. Two American soldiers stand around the corpse, which has clearly been shot in the head execution style, and argue over what to do with the body. “Orders is orders. They say keep the place clean, you clean it,” a soldier says, to which the other responds, “I’m supposed to pick up garbage. Is this garbage?” The rest of the series unwinds from around this initial murder, with the lives of three main characters bound together like a triple helix, each distinct identity responding in kind to the social and political fissures revealed by the murder.

Excerpt from Sheriff of Babylon. Photo: MItch Gerads/DC Entertainment

Refreshingly, only one of these central characters will be familiar to American audiences. Chris Henry is an ex-cop from Florida who has come to Iraq to help train its rebuilt police force. It’s the body of his cadet that was found by the squabbling American soldiers. Chris isn’t a covetous mercenary who came to Iraq solely for the paycheck. He’s looking for something deeper and more elusive. Nasser, the second of the primary trio, is a Shi’ite former chief of police who worked under Saddam — not out of any true sense of loyalty, but simply in order to survive. In the post-American (dis)order, Nasser is seemingly just another unemployed chain-smoking ex-Baathist. The final main character, Sofia, is a Sunni expatriate returned to her homeland, a representative of “these sort of Chalabi-esque figures who came into the country and were suddenly leading the country despite not having grown up there,” King explained.

“I really didn’t want to write a book where a white dude goes to a land of brown people and finds out something about himself and becomes a better person after some torrid epiphany," he continued. "Because that story’s been told, and it’s simplistic and stupid. I wanted to do something that would both show the hopes of Americans and the hopes of Iraqis." It’s not just this multiplicity of perspectives that’s missing from many American war stories, but how the individuals behind them interact — the ways they influence and shape one another.

If the plot sounds like Graham Greene mixed with Dashiell Hammett, that’s pretty accurate, right down to a murder as the inciting incident. Sheriff is unquestionably a noir. More specifically, it uses the format of the noir, but reaches further than traditional stories of the genre, and is both politically and psychologically more complex than any conventional gumshoe narrative. As King said, “The investigation of the murder provokes reactions that the characters can’t predict and creates situations that they can’t understand. That’s sort of symbolic of our time in Iraq. It seems so simple in the beginning. There’s a bad guy doing bad things — take him out. So we went in and did that, and then encountered reactions we didn't anticipate or understand. I wanted to use that format of the noir — something familiar that falls apart — since that's precisely what it was for us in the war.”

Excerpt from Sheriff of Babylon. Photo: MItch Gerads/DC Entertainment

Being that this is a comic, the full story is constructed using more than just words. Mitch Gerads's art is stunning in its accuracy. It isn’t uncommon for me to watch a movie about Iraq and be driven to distraction by weird visual inaccuracies: too many clouds, for example, or men wearing shorts. Gerads’s art achieved the opposite: It helped to immerse me in the story. When I asked him how he achieved it, he responded, “I’m exhaustive about research. It’s a fictional story that takes place in a very real time, in a very real location, so it’s very important to me to get that as right as possible. Otherwise, I feel like I'm doing a disservice to a number of people. I’m doing a disservice to the Americans who were there, I’m doing a disservice to the Iraqis, and I’m doing a disservice to the place and the architecture. And I’m doing a disservice to the reader.” He later told me a story about researching Iraqi phones for half an hour before realizing that they’re the same kind of phones that we have in America. But it isn’t just his accuracy in rendering objects. Gerads’s faces are live and expressive: In a scene where Chris is drinking with Nasser’s wife, I had the image of her laughing in my head for days. I can still picture it.

Truth be told, I wasn’t much of a comic-book fan before reading Sheriff. I always tried to read them like books, skimming the dialogue and forgetting to slow down and take in the art. But as the critics say, the best art teaches you how to read it as you engage with it. Sheriff taught me how to read comics. It’s also given me new insight on a war that I was a part of, and provided something I believe we as a country have needed for some time: a sense that our perspective was just a part of a much larger whole.