Graphic Novel: Hipster in a Hail of Bulletsby Aaron Leichter
Anthony Lappé and Dan Goldman, Shooting War (Grand Central Publishing, 2007)
Hollywood has probably already bought the rights to Shooting War, by Anthony Lappé and Dan Goldman. After all, the book made one leap already, from free web-comic to hard-bound graphic novel. Plus it’s a natural sell to the popcorn-eating, 20-something male demographic—an action-adventure set in 2011 Iraq where a hot young blogger has a hand in ending that military debacle.
Like the book itself, Shooting War’s hero, Jimmy Burns, has made the jump from web phenomenon to real-world journalist. When he happened to film the suicide bombing of his local Starbucks, he parlayed his resulting fame into a Baghdad assignment with GNN (Global News Network). But now the feckless Williamsburg hipster is out of his depth. His network bullies him for covering Arab Communists instead of press conferences; a terrorist cell uses him as a cat’s-paw to broadcast a series of beheadings and assassinations; and a nutso fundamentalist lieutenant nearly shoots him for catching a neighborhood massacre on camera.
These threads come together in a way that allows Burns to play the hero and affect American policy. While it’s hard not to criticize the implausible twists and two-dimensional characters that bring the book to an explosive climax, they’re so in keeping with the pleasures of comic book adventure (and its close cousin-genre, American movies) that it’s impossible not to get swept along. Shooting War is a perfect fusion of modern leftie politics with the sheer joy of American genre-storytelling. Thus, the Iraqi terrorist compulsively explains his political philosophy, a sort of Islamo-anarchism, in Bond-villain rants. And the inevitable role of Yoda-like mentor goes to Dan Rather, whose Texan gumption provides many of the book’s best lines.
But while the story is rip-snorting fun, the key to Lappé and Goldman’s book is their vision of the near future. The book depicts the disastrous occupation with unflinching realism, while imagining horrifyingly plausible events like a pocket nuke destroying Bangalore or a robotic army mowing down Arab neighborhoods. Most impressive, however, is the sympathy shown towards President McCain, who, like LBJ, recognizes his abject failure and refuses to run for a second term.
Lappé, a graduate of the Columbia School of Journalism, spent several months in Baghdad during the first year of occupation and seems to disdain how the mainstream media has covered the war. He’s found that graphic fiction offers a better lens than conventional reportage. Aiding him is artist Goldman, who conjures 21st-century Baghdad vividly by drawing over photographs, which adds to the realism and, somehow, the suspense. And his photoshopping of brand names gives the book a satiric edge by showing how American imperialism moves through capitalist franchising as well as military might.
Smart, topical, and entertaining, Shooting War exemplifies an exciting direction in comic books. It’s understood but not wholly accepted that comic books have reached an adult level of sophistication in the last thirty years. Some of this decade’s smartest works have been by graphic fiction writers like Brian K. Vaughan (Y: The Last Man, Ex Machina) and Jason Aaron (Scalped), who use the comic medium’s pulpier thrills to dissect our era of politics, violence, and media sensationalism. They’re also deeper and more fun than the Hollywood war movies that keep combusting instead of blockbusting. The catch with Shooting War is that it’s so current, it may be out-of-date with tomorrow’s headline. Don’t wait for Hollywood to catch up—after all, the movie is never as good.