Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Graphic Novel Review: The Blog of War

(Review of Dan Goldman and Anthony Lappe, Shooting War, November 2007)

One of the most buzzed online web comics of the year finally got a hard copy release this side of the pond last month. It's called Shooting War, and it's made waves over at Smithmag.net since May 2006, when uber-Geek (that's hard ware and binary, not math rock and horn rims) bloggers Boing Boing blew the roof off it with a throw away casual link. It threads terrain typical of graphic novels, reaching into a future dystopia to stick some allegories about the present up our ass for awkward digestion.

The setting this time round is a 2011 Iraq, sectarian tensions are spilling into overdrive, rumors of an Iranian invasion from the south abound and President McCain's only exit strategy is a re-alignment with what's left of his old friends in Saddam's Baathist party. There's a My Lai massacre a minute, a McDonalds on every block and mortars are raining down on what's left of the Green Zone like it was Saigon '75.

Enter Jimmy Burns to the fray. He's your penny dreadful Brooklyn blogger churning out anti-corporate rants all over the east coast but has no mass movement market to hitch his ride to. One day he's doing a story on the new enclosures brought about by eminent domain. It's a nasty piece of legislation allowing re-distribution of your property to corporations that find a more productive use. Next thing a terrorist bomb goes off in a Starbucks behind him and he's got the exclusive.

Suddenly stuck for footage, mega media bad guys Globalnews steal his video blog feed, turning him into an insta-celebrity and selling him to the world like a new brand of toothpaste. Forced to dance a line between his DIY journalism and corporate cash, he's shipped to Iraq as one of only four American war correspondent's left there.

It's nothing but a slight stretch to guess the novel comes from the direct experience of Lappe. The blokes traveled to the Middle East several times on assignment and produced Battleground: 21 Days on the Empire's Edge, picking up some awards for it along the way. Alongside this peeled back re-imagining of his own jaunt through bombed out Baghdad, there's visual gimmicks and vocab from activist sub cultures for a sprinkling of further credibility from his years with the Guerrilla News Network.

The comic panels are a combination of drawings and photographs, some look like they've been automatically fed through a few Photoshop filters, and there's a neat stylistic use of web feed uploads and network TV graphics framing pages. Anything from a soldiers perspective angles at you like the screen of a first person shooter.

It's in imagining the incidentals of future war and the political props of our own evolving dystopia that Shooting War rocks most. There's the jihad group that's cornering the call centre market with its throat cutting labour standards and the use of a dirty bomb to neutralise competition in the hi-tech squalor of Bangalore. Their leader, a maniacal Guevara stereotype bent on the Koran, delivers standout Bond villain lines to steal the show: “we are the Sword of Mohamed. We are not some sons of rich men hiding in caves and releasing videos to the internet like 13 year old girls.”

Back home a video game called Infidel Massacre rises up the charts, both a manual for terrorism and a sharp riposte to military recruiting freebies like today's real America's Army. The US military has harnessed civilian technologies and next gen consoles to exploit skilled self-trained gamers that control robotic gun-bots engaged in asymmetric warfare straight out of one of Mike Davis' urban terror-scapes.

Sadly Burns becomes completely divorced from his inception as the netizen every-man, used by mainstream news networks with faces battered from the blogging storm. He takes on this paper cut out April O'Neil as Naomi Klein routine that starts to grate.

Much will be made of the novel's politics of the media. Really the authors pass up poking around at the consequences of Web 2.0. If you are going to name check Negri for kudos, then picking at the immaterial slavery of uploaders and bloggers generating free content in wageless legions for major players in the media market might be a thought.

At heart there's just a raging cynicism dying to be proved wrong for once. The shits and giggles come from predictable across the board ironies, its all a flue of outraged liberal steam before the story arc can end with a final affirmation that our governance by a capitalism with the personality of "Godzilla on crank" really is just an issue of a few bad men. In that way its quite like Brian Wood's Jenny One series - Shooting War shares his concern with the media but in a much more disturbingly plausible mode.

In comic book land it'll never end up a classic like Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis or more obviously Joe Sacco's brilliant account of his photo journalism in Palestine. That said, with history unfolding on our screens, context free and maybe, just maybe, sometimes analyzed with tones reserved for a Britney Spears outburst - Shooting War nicely drops us in boiling pots of speculation for the crime of complacency.

Ye can check it out online at shootingwar.com and this A.D: New Orleans After the Deluge might be worth a gawk. This article was originally destined for the Village.ie website.

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