Well, this is something of a first for the What The Author Says – we have a writer (and reporter) discussing their new work, which is what we usually do of course. But in this case we’re discussing an engrossing, not too mention disturbing, graphic novel which so far accessible to most of us via the web; it’s a digital webcomic right now – hopefully it will go to print as well (any publishers reading this, please take note). We have talked on here before to a creator with a webcomic, although in that case the webcomic was in addition to the print version, basically an expansion of the characters and also a gift to readers by Batton Lash, creator of the excellent Supernatural Law.
This, though, is the first time we’ve had an author on who hasn’t hit the comics printing presses yet. Last week I mentioned Shooting War, an online graphic novel by Anthony Lappé and Dan Goldman, set in a near-future where current events in the War on Terror have escalated to make Vietnam seem like the teddy bear’s picnic with a Door’s soundtrack. The comics medium seems to be addressing these events a bit more directly now – DMZ is a case in point – but in Anthony’s case this near-future story has increased verisimilitude since he is also drawing on his own first-hand experiences as a reporter in Iraq. Like Joe Sacco he draws on those experiences for the comic and his use of a blogger as a central character echoes the increasing use of blogging for reportage of events not necessarily covered by the mainstream press – not least the brave souls in Iraq such as Salam Pax or Riverbend with her Baghdad Burning blog who reported from the front lines.
I don’t want to give the impression that Shooting War is a holier-than-thou lecture on world affairs though – it isn’t. Although it has messages throughout it doesn’t preach to the reader, it simply presents aspects of our world and let’s the reader draw their own conclusions. And it can also be enjoyed as an exciting story of course – as author Jaspre Bark commented here a few weeks ago, there is a guilty pleasure in tales of war and violence. Besides, although there is action it is, as with writers like Richard Morgan, action written with intelligence. But enough of my (not very) humble opinion, let’s hear directly from Anthony:
On Shooting War
A new online graphic novel by Anthony Lappé and Dan Goldman
Exclusively on Smithmag.net.
Shooting War is the story of an indie media heartthrob named Jimmy Burns. Set in the dark near-future (2011), the Brooklyn-based videoblogger gets his big break as he happens to be uploading a live rant in front a Starbucks when a suicide bomber blows the coffee joint to kingdom come. He becomes and overnight mainstream media star, and is snatched up by a new controversial, no-holds-barred network (Global News: “Your home for 24-hour terror coverage”). The network makes him and offer he can’t refuse – a shot reporting from civil war-torn Iraq, where the situation is so dangerous most of their competitors have pulled their star reporters. Burns’ greatest dream (to be a war correspondent) becomes his biggest nightmare as he nearly loses his mind in the paranoia, chaos and destruction of the spiraling civil war.
The strip is in part inspired by my own reporting in Iraq for a documentary I produced for the Guerrilla News Network (with my partner Stephen Marshall) called BattleGround: 21 Days on the Empire’s Edge. We traveled across the country just as the insurgency was beginning to gain strength, trying to understand the various forces that were fueling resistance to the coalition occupation. Near the end of our trip, we found ourselves smack in the middle of the Sunni Triangle interviewing Lt. Col. Nate Sassaman; the cocky former West Point quarterback had become a legend among his men for his aggressive attitude and tactics. After vehemently denying allegations locals made to us that his unit beat up old ladies, shot pets and hauled off innocent young men in midnight raids, a frustrated Sassaman blurted out, “My life is a surreal movie. Everyday I wake up, and it’s a surreal movie.” (Sassaman later resigned in disgrace after trying to cover up the killing of an Iraqi teenager by two of his men. Tom Cruise has just optioned his story; you can read more about this on the Guerrilla News Network here).
Sassaman’s comment stuck with me. And as soon as I got home, I began crafting a storyline in my head to try and capture the former college football star’s moment of clarity. All war is to some extent or another inherently surreal, but Iraq will surely be the most surreal of our lifetime. The utterly avoidable conflict has turned into a Hobbesian war of all against all – thrusting hundreds of thousands of jacked-up PS2-reared American ass-kickers, most of whom who can’t find Iraq on a map, let alone explain the difference between Shia and Sunni, into a cauldron of centuries-old hatred and conflict.
I set Shooting War in 2011 as a sort of thought experiment, to take today’s headlines and extrapolate where we might be headed. Of course, my future ain’t pretty. Imagine today’s rash of bad news. I mean there’s a shitload of really bad news right now – but multiply that by ten, maybe eleven. I freely admit it’s a dark vision of the worst-case scenario of where the Bush agenda is leading us. There’s a global oil crisis, the U.S. economy is busted, and the Middle East has devolved into regional strife. And, of course, in Iraq, a full-on civil war is raging, but our allies are not who you think they’d be. Americans overwhelmingly want out, but President McCain is trapped, like the leaders who sent him on that doomed mission over North Vietnam, in a war he can’t figure out how to end. The image of a Vietnam vet president bogged down in another Asian quagmire is just too rich in irony. And, tragically, probably the most likely scenario I envision to come to fruition.
In 2011, both American political parties are morally bankrupt, and everyone knows it. The faithful are faithless. With Bush’s unceremonious exit in ’08, Fox News loses its luster as the voice of the right. Global News steps into the void with a hyper-nationalist, uncensored brand. They promise to show the reality of the global war on terror to the American public. No more blacking out of brutal images, no more sugarcoating reality. All terror, all the time.
Jimmy himself is in some ways not unlike Sassaman – a classic cocky American who’s always had it easy – girls, friends, constant praise. But in Iraq, like Sassaman, he’s faced with challenges he could never imagine, and Jimmy’s confidence begins to erode as he realizes he may not be equipped to handle being a correspondent in the most deadly war ever for journalists.
My literary inspirations for Shooting War come mainly from non-fiction journals, magazines, war films and novels. I have never been much of a comic or graphic novel reader until this year. I only recently read Joe Sacco’s amazing illustrated dispatches, for instance. And I’ve actually tried to avoid reading too many comics that might influence. I’ve only glanced at the very excellent (looking) DMZ and Transmetropolitan.
I grew up on Spy magazine, a quasi-satirical defunct magazine in the spirit of the UK’s Punch, and I’ve always loved Granta. My heroes were William T. Vollman, Hunter S. Thompson (predictable, yes) and the Polish war correspondent Ryszard Kapuscinski (The Soccer War, Imperium), who captured the culture of war with incredible subtlety and precision. My favorite “war reporter” film was Oliver Stone’s directorial debut, Salvador. I had a special connection to the film growing up. The Father of one of my school friends was John Hoagland, the famous left-wing Newsweek photographer who was gunned down in a firefight between FMLN rebels and the army when we were 13. John Savage played a character based on him in Salvador, which came out a couple of years later. You might say I grew up with abnormal admiration for someone willing to die to tell the story.
I found Shooting War artist Dan Goldman, fittingly, through a web job listing. We immediately clicked, and when I read Everyman: Be The People, the political graphic novel that Dan wrote with his brother Steven, it was apparent that Dan was the only one to illustrate this story. He’s not just an artist, he’s a fantastic writer with an impeccable story sense and a unique juxtaposition of twisted irony meets in-your-face earnestness. He has made creating Shooting War a blast. The team is rounded out by the catalyst for the entire idea of doing it as an online graphic novel, creative consultant Jeff Newelt, and editor Larry Smith, whose online magazine SMITH is on the leading edge of the personal media revolution, celebrating, analyzing and spreading it.
Dan and I love this comic form — and this new webcomic form we’re exploring — but ultimately our goal is simple: tell a great story.
SHOOTING WAR creator and writer Anthony Lappé is Executive Editor of GNN.tv, the web site for the Guerrilla News Network. He is the co-author of their book True Lies (Plume) and the producer of their award-winning Showtime documentary about Iraq, BattleGround: 21 Days on the Empire’s Edge (now out on DVD). He has written for The New York Times, South China Morning Post, New York, Vice, and Salon, among many others, and has been a producer for MTV News and Fuse. He is a frequent guest on Air America and other radio stations across the country. His blog, The Bunker, can be found on GNN’s site.