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Slouching Toward Bethlehem

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Today, in the aftermath of Fort Hood, I once again feel like I am swimming against an unstoppable tide of Orientalist-Islamofascist-Clash-of-Uncivilizations-War-on-Sanity-ism. The more determined people are to murder each other, the more being an American Muslim feels like an irreconcilable contradiction. If I couldn’t spend as much time as I do in the hinterland of fiction, I’d probably be curled up in a corner, numb with self-loathing. As it stands, I’m very lucky to be one of the people who are paid to imagine something (God, anything) better.

Re-imagining war through fiction is one of the oldest forms of catharsis. Human beings have tried to make sense out of violence through storytelling for millennia—witness the Iliad, the Aeneid, and the Mabinogi. It’s not surprising that today, in an age of borderless ideological conflict, war is a common theme in comics. Two of the most lauded ongoing war comics—DMZ and Unknown Soldier--are written and drawn by my bros at Vertigo. I started following each of these out of friendly professional interest, but as the world continues to go to shit, they’ve taken on a greater meaning for me. The way each series processes violence, idealism, and the murky terrain of right and wrong reflect the preoccupations of our culture as a whole.

Much has been said about the politics of DMZ, some of which—most notably the subplot involving the election of Parco Delgado—have uncannily prefigured real-life events. DMZ takes place in a world of profound moral ambivalence: countrymen become enemies; enemies become allies of convenience. It’s telling that the most frequent complaint against DMZ mirrors the most frequent complaint against 21st century American politics: the bad guys are never clearly defined. DMZ reflects the mores of a country with an increasingly complex attitude toward war. Gone are the days of glorious light brigade charges and ‘dulce et decorum est pro patria mori’. Americans are in the midst of rethinking their own history and identity, whose heroes are not always as squeaky-clean as one might wish. The reaction of the Right against such self-criticism is evidence of how deeply the average citizen is unsettled by our political identity crisis. DMZ tapped into this vein of national angst long before the 2008 election cycle made it apparent. In the series, characters with diametrically opposed goals and ideals claim the word ‘patriot’. In living, breathing America, things are not much different.

Unknown Soldier takes place on the other side of the world, but tackles many of the same themes. Set in Uganda at the height of violence between government troops and the Lord’s Resistance Army, a Christian fundamentalist militia, Unknown Soldier takes an unflinching look at what was undoubtedly one of the most horrific conflicts in modern history. Once again, the enemy is unclear; evil seems to arise spontaneously whenever anyone picks up a rifle, regardless of his politics. For some, religion motivates astonishing acts of mercy and courage; for others, it becomes the rationale for rape, murder and mutilation. There is no clear path to peace. Like DMZ, Unknown Soldier suggests that abstracts like democracy and justice are just that—abstracts. Real justice is the purview of the individual, who is forced to define his own ethics in a world of relentless moral gray.

A deep distrust of institutionalism runs through both DMZ and Unknown Soldier. It’s echoed in many other current war comics: Army@Love, even Haunted Tank. At some point, it seems we decided that since war is institutional peace must be viral, breaking out as individual acts of altruism slowly alter hearts and minds. In today’s war comics, there is no tidy prescription for a better world--but even at the most gruesome moments, there is never a shortage of hope.

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  • Steve Kanaras

    Steve Kanaras Nov 10, 2009 at 1:10pm

    Right on about the quality and message of current war comics. What scares me most however, is that comics and literature are losing the battle of sales to video games, which still have a glorified depiction of war, crime, assination etc...

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