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The Past & The Future

The 10th anniversary of the terrorist attacks on America on September 11th has brought a plethora of media coverage through articles, books, documentaries on TV and radio and other artistic responses. When it comes to interpretations in comics, I already covered American Widow by Alissa Torres and Sungyoon Choi here, while this year America’s cartoonists are collectively confronting this subject today in their Sunday newspaper cartoons and comic strips which are also on display at MoCCA in New York and online.

Amid all of this in-depth, if not overwhelming, focus on what many claim to be an historic world-changing day, I’ve decided to look at two brand new comics, one a short 12-page story by Joe Sacco, the other a 118-page album co-written and drawn by David B. Two of the world’s most perceptive and original graphic historians have taken arresting and contrasting perspectives on 9/11 and its roots in the past and repercussions into the future. In Les Meilleurs Ennemis (The Best of Enemies) from Futuropolis, David B. sets out to explore and explode the distant origins of the conflicts between the USA and the Middle East. In the anthology of comics and commentaries entitled 12 Septembre: L’Amérique d’après (12th September: America After) from Casterman, Joe Sacco offers a chillingly farcical forecast of where America may be heading. These latest comics are both in French and so far untranslated, but plans are afoot to bring David B.‘s book into English next year. I am sure Sacco’s story will surface sometime soon in English and will update this as soon as I know.

David B.‘s album is the first part of two analysing the history of relations between the United States and the Middle East, co-written with historian Jean-Pierre Filiu and covering 1783 to 1953. What may come as a shock to many readers, certainly to me, is that these complex relations and antagonisms date back as early as the 18th century and the birth of America itself. The first ten-page chapter, ‘An Old Story’, takes us back to Iraq 2,400 years ago and the reign of Gilgamesh, who with his friend Enkidou attack the land of the cedars where the demon Humbaba lives. The story of Gilgamesh is one of the oldest texts ever rediscovered and here Filiu and David B. cunningly subvert this tale of invasion in the name of security and liberty and of the consequences of death and destruction by putting into the mouths of Gilgamesh and Enkidou the statements made by George W. Bush and Donald Rumsfeld in 2002 and 2003. They comment, “As if the warning about the disasters of a war, pronounced more than a thousand years ago in the very region where the current drama takes place, had not been heard.” The chapter ends with this striking parallel, showing a Sumerian stone found in Iraq and on display in the Louvre in Paris, known as ‘The Stele of the Vultures’. This shows the winners piling up bodies of the vanquished to form a monument to victory. The panel below shows the chilling recreation of this same triumphalism in Abou Ghraib where American soldiers forced prisoners to lie down on top of each other as if in a pile of bodies. “Plus ça change…”

From here in the second 48-page chapter ‘Barbarity’, Filiu and David B. chart the long, tortuous history of Christian and Muslim conflict in the Mediterranean region. Once America became an independent state, its ships were no longer protected by the British fleet and in 1785 the Algerians captured a number of American trading vessels, piracy that shocked public opinion. America was barely born as a new country, when it found itself already in conflict with distant states. Peace of a sort could be bought at a price, however, as other nations had found already, so Congress allotted $80,000 to bargain with the “barbarian lands” of Morocco, Algeria and Libya. Thomas Jefferson and John Adams in 1786 met the Libyan representative in London but negotiations collapsed. Relations in this area continued to complicate and are brilliantly dramatised and clarified in this graphic history lesson.

‘Oil’ is not surprisingly the title and focus of the third chapter. The authors point out that it was the American officer Alfred Mahan, a theorist about the projection of power, who coined the term ‘Middle East’ in 1902, and affirmed that any power who controlled the ‘Middle East’ would control the world. David B. illustrates these turbulent machinations, ideologies and wars with great panache, incorporating the potent symbolism and techniques of political cartooning and poster art, while also recording key figures in realistic portraits. On this page, he turns the vital pipelines into a device for dividing panels on this page, the oil physically pouring out of the Saudi leader and into the gaping maw of President Wilson.

The fourth and final part, ‘Coup d’Etat’, deals with more recent and more familiar history of the Cold War and the regime change which brought the Shah to power in Iran, but is no less riveting and revelatory, and an indictment of the British as much as the Americans. In ‘Operation Ajax’, the unlikely named Kermit Roosevelt emerges as a sinisterly effective manipulator of the masses. The book ends with Britain gradually being removed from the region: “The time of colonial powers is over, now come the time of the United States.” As important as it is today to look back across ten years to September 11th 2001, it is perhaps even more important to look back much further still and try to understand the bigger picture behind so much of the issues and conflicts still igniting the world today. The Best of Enemies achieves this with compelling clarity and should be required reading in school history classes everywhere.

It is also important to look further ahead from 9/11 than the decade we have already lived through and in Projet Nostradamus (Project Nostradamus) Joe Sacco makes some surprising predictions about what America will be like in 40 or 50 years time. Sacco told me, “It was a relief to do something satirical and SF-ish.” A scientist gives a senior Presidential adviser a helmet plugged into box which enables him to see the future. At first, Washington in 2060 looks like a utopia, until he spies the White House, surmounted by a gigantic Pepsi logo. The old party names are gone, replaced by the name of whichever corporate donor gives the most.

Sacco shows how U.S. society has separated into an enclosed elite and a former middle class has become an oppressed mass of workers, slaving on assembly lines, with no job security, and rioting to get hold of the slightest hours or minutes of work available. Their nutritional health has plummeted but is judged satisfactory according to the ‘KFC Law’ which makes fast food vending machines obligatory on every street corner. The White House politician asks whether America is still in Afghanistan. The scientist answers “Yes and no.” Robot or mercenaries now fight there - “we end up hiring foreign armies, then entire countries to fight our enemies.” And as for the terrorist threat, “we still have an attack now and then” and Sacco shows protestors with banners saying ‘Fingerprint Me Again!’ and demanding new limits to be imposed on their individual freedoms, even though everything that could be suppressed has been done so long ago.

Darker still are Sacco’s ideas of brand loyalty, as science makes consumers’ bodies reject rival corporations products, so for example if you change your brand of washing powder, you will break out in horrific body sores.  Gang warfare erupts between loyalists to competing brands, with battles between Apple and Microsoft recalling the Burger Wars Judge Dredd storyline in 2000AD, in which tribes of McDonalds and Burger King consumers battled against each other. This satire sparked complaints from the companies and so can never be reprinted. Sacco shows that there is yet another even more deprived sector of the population who barely survive and ironically are still attached to ancient customs and cults built round obscure idols from the past. Sacco shows them workshiping an idol of George Washington.

In the story’s final twists our man in the White House is so shocked by the future he has witnessed, he winds up at the Lincoln Memorial and tries to tell it all to an actor dressed up as Abraham Lincoln, who is selling the chance for tourists to have their photo taken with him. The Lincoln look-alike replies, “We had our hour of glory and people will remember us.” As Lincoln says, “People still speak about Ancient Greece, don’t they? Its famous citizens Sophocles, Plato and so many others haven’t been forgotten. We still debate their ideas.” To which, our stunned politician can only answer, “But who talks about Greece today?” Welcome to the America of today, or the day after tomorrow, “a nice resort to visit”, “a place for tourists”.

Posted: September 11, 2011


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Featured Books

Projet Nostradamus
by Joe Sacco
12 Septembre:
L’Amérique d’après

Les Meilleurs Ennemis
by David B.
with Jean-Pierre Filiu