Comics Review: Sarah Glidden’s Rolling Blackouts

Every now and again, I take a break from writing about Doonesbury to review comics that I like. If you’re a creator of web- or print-based comics and you’d like me to write about your work, drop a line on Twitter (@readdoonesbury) or through my contact page.
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I don’t like you, but I will tell you my story.

A woman wearing a headscarf faces us directly and says “I never liked you … I not like your government, I not like EVERYBODY … [but] I will talk about my story.” It’s 2010, and the woman is an Iraqi refugee living in Syria. She is a refugee because of the instability that gripped her country following the American invasion of Iraq in 2003. Her story, the stories of many people who share a fate similar to hers, and the challenges faced by journalists who try to tell her story to American readers, are the subject of Rolling Blackouts, an outstanding work of comics journalism by Sarah Glidden, published by Drawn and Quarterly Press (shout-out to my hometown of Montreal!!). In 2010, independent journalists Sarah Stuteville and Alex Stonehill travelled to Turkey, Iraq, and Syria to document the situation facing Iraqis whose lives were upturned by the war and subsequent unrest. Glidden accompanied them so that she could “make a comic book about how journalism works.” More than a look at the inner workings of reporting, Rolling Blackouts explores the disconnect between the severity of the tragedy experienced by the Iraqi people following the invasion and Americans’ fundamental disconnect from, and ignorance of, that tragedy. Stuteville’s generation’s understanding of the Middle East “has been defined by the conflict of the past ten years,” but as the war receded from the headlines Americans began “looking inwards” and not paying attention to the lasting consequences of the invasion: for those left behind, notably the Iraqi refugees in Syria that are the main focus of the second half of the book, the situation endures.

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The disconnect between Iraq’s central place in American foreign policy and its virtual absence from American public consciousness is revealed in Glidden’s sense of distance from military life. Before going to Iraq, Glidden’s only real connection to the war was marching in opposition to it. That said, for all Americans, a particular dimension of the war is part of the background noise of daily life as an unquestioned ethos of “supporting the troops” has become a cultural touchstone, one acted out in quotidian settings such as airports and sporting events. Yet, Glidden notes, she has “never had much contact with the troops. They were always far away.” Glidden’s alienation from a defining aspect of American identity, the military, is evident in the first stage of the group’s trip. Also on the trip is Dan O’Brien, an Iraq war vet; Stuteville hopes to write about how O’Brien can come to terms with his experience in Iraq. Glidden waits at the airport, sitting under a sign that reads SUPPORT THE TROOPS and acknowledges that Dan’s military experience makes him something of a novelty to her. As she observes Dan, Glidden confesses that she “[…didn’t] know what [she] was expecting an ex-Marine to be like in the first place.”

Many Americans have little connection with the men and women who fight their wars, but at least the media make it a point to tell soldiers’ stories. Yet while the media regularly remind Americans of the bravery of, and sacrifices made by, those men and women, Iraqis are rarely granted their basic humanity in American reporting. Stuteville, Stonehill and Glidden set out to show us how the Iraqi people live lives that are “steeped in politics and difficulty.”

As these people’s lives are “steeped in politics and difficulty,” the are also steeped in history, a dynamic that does not figure strongly in how Glidden and her companions engage with, understand, and tell the stories of the people they encounter. The narrative arc of the book begins, essentially, with the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003: absent is virtually any mention of how, dating back to the fall of the Ottoman Empire after the First World War, Western powers (first Britain, then the United States) used political pressure and mass violence to maintain access to the one thing that makes Iraq relevant to them: oil. There is one moment where the book hints at that long and horrible history. As Glidden and her companions drive through Iraqi Kurdistan, Dan notes that ultimately, Iraq is simply “a piece of land with borders someone drew on a map.” I read Rolling Blackouts alongside a collection of essays by the radical historian Mike Davis. In “The Ungrateful Volcano,” Davis details exactly how bloody the process of drawing those lines on a map was for the Iraqi people. As the British took responsibility for the Mandate of Iraq, they, like the Americans a century later, believed that they would be warmly greeted as “liberators,” freeing Iraqis not from Saddam Hussein, but from the Ottomans. A general uprising against British rule put the lie to those beliefs. The British response is shocking in its brutality. Winston Churchill, the Colonial Secretary, deployed ground troops, poison gas, and aerial bombardments of civilian populations to quell the anti-colonial rebellion. British administrators hanged political prisoners while RAF planes “machine-gunned women and children as they fled from their homes.”

The Iraqi people understand their situation in terms of that longer history, but it is largely from Rolling Blackouts. This observation is not meant as a criticism of Glidden’s work: she did not set out to write a comics history of the region. Rather, I see the absence of a deep engagement with the region’s history as something that underlines one of the book’s key themes: everyday Americans, the soldiers they send to fight their wars, and the journalists who report on those wars have a severely limited understanding of a place where America and its allies have inflicted, and continue to inflict, massive levels of violence. Dan’s experience as a veteran is central to this dynamic. He’s an educated man who spent substantial time in Iraq, but he seems to have no real understanding of the people, their histories, or their cultures, saying that he doesn’t “have much of an idea of who they are, what they’re like.” The system he was part of, of course, made it unlikely that he would have been able to come to a better understanding of the region and its people. America’s disengagement from Iraqi history and politics is inseparable from its failure to bring peace, stability and and prosperity to the country. As Dan notes, he and his fellow soldiers were clueless about the effects of their actions on Iraqis, and they never had the chance to learn more. “If any of our actions negatively affected Iraqis, and I’m sure they did,” he notes, “we didn’t stick around long enough to see it.”

This sense of detachment from the larger political and historic dynamics that shape the daily realities of the people they set out to write about is shared by Dan’s companions. On the drive to Sulaymaniyah in Iraqi Kurdistan, the group notices what “must be the Kurdish flag”; their uncertainty about basic facts about the region is made apparent. A few pages later, a long and complicated history of two peoples sharing a political space is condensed into an uncertain analysis: “Arabs and Kurds don’t get along, apparently.” It’s crucial to note, however, that Glidden fully understands that she doesn’t know enough about Iraq and its people. She is embarrassed because she quotes an article about Iraq that she had read on the flight as though she was an expert; she later admits, after an interview session, that “the history of the Kurd’s displacement is still a knot of confusion” for her.

If Americans are so disengaged from the people whose lives are so profoundly and painfully impacted by American military aggression, it’s in part because contemporary journalistic practices and institutions make it very difficult to get the kind of stories that might change things out into the public sphere. As Glidden draws our attention to America’s failure to care about, understand, or even acknowledge the existence of the people whose lives were torn apart by the invasion of Iraq, she also reveals the challenges faced by the well-intentioned journalists who are working to bring those people’s stories back to American readers.

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Stuteville’s struggles with the complexities of her industry are a key theme of the book.

Stuteville and Stonehill are often racked with self-doubt and frustration as they seek to find a balance point between their desire to tell stories that could make a difference and the economies of attention and money that determine which stories get published and read: As Stuteville notes, she sees her role as being “to get people excited about journalism and then show them how conflicted and shitty it is.” As compelling as the stories of the Iraqi people may be, and as much as they might change how Americans understand the Iraqi people, they will be competing with an unprecedented amount of journalistic output clamouring for readers’ time. As Stuteville asks, how can a reporter ensure that her story is the one thing that a potential reader dedicates to the little free time they have available? This dynamic goes a long way in determining what stories end up getting told, because “people are looking for things they can already relate to.” In other words, we don’t, as readers, don’t have the time to embark on a learning curve that challenges our received wisdom about a complex situation on the other side of the planet. Moreover, the economic realities of contemporary journalism mean that the stories that most need to be told – the ones that would force Americans to more directly confront some of the worst consequences of their country’s policies – go unpublished because publishers “don’t want to overwhelm their audience with too depressing a story.”

At one point, Glidden shows herself transcribing interviews and musing that her methodology for this comics journalism project is different from her usual work creating comics memoir. Rolling Blackouts actually straddles the two genres. On the one hand, it brilliantly documents a number of interconnected stories about war, its effects on people, and how we understand those effects. On the other hand, Glidden often centres her own reflections on her experiences in ways that help us better understand the person telling these stories. By sometimes making herself the subject, even with short comment in a caption, Glidden helps the reader better understand how challenging it is to make sense of a situation like post-invasion Iraq.

It’s impossible to read this account of a trip to Syria without thinking about the ongoing Syrian civil war and its associated humanitarian dimensions. While Rolling Blackouts is set before the outbreak of the current conflict, Glidden foreshadows the possibility of its emergence. As their trip begins, she notes that they are in a region that is “absorbing refugees and struggling with new resource conflicts. (As Jackie Roche and Audrey Quinn reveal in their comic about the origins of the Syrian civil war, climate change and access to water were central to the outbreak of hostilities.) The book ends with Glidden watching news of the uprising; she believes that, to a certain extent, the work she had put in researching Rolling Blackouts has been overtaken by events; she writes that her “original question seems far less important than all of this.” In future posts I’ll be looking at works of comics journalism that take more recent events in the Middle East head-on. But while the Syrian civil war created refugee flows and human tragedies that may seem to dwarf the situations that Glidden writes about, the experiences of the people who suffer most in the conflict to be understood in the larger context of the humanitarian costs of post-9/11 American aggression in the Middle East. Moreover, we need to think about how the media that we trust to keep us informed about the region grapples with substantial challenges as reporters try to get us to understand the human costs of American policy. America is going to continue relying on violence as a primary means of shaping outcomes in the Middle East, and the media is going to continue to struggle to make Westerners understand how that affects the human beings who live there. For these reasons, as well as for being a beautifully-drawn and written, and deeply thoughtful and moving book, Rolling Blackouts is a must-read.

Comic Review: Stark Plug

Here’s my second attempt at writing a comics review; you can read the first, on Tailsteak’s Forward, here. If you’re a creator of web- or print-based comics and you’d like me to write about your work, drop a line on Twitter (@readdoonesbury) or through my contact page.

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A while back, I received a copy of Stark Plug Book, a comix collection by Steve Chappell, aka Chap, a Madison, Wisconsin comics creator. I could say that Stark Plug is a somewhat absurdist humour comic following the adventures of a corporate drone, which it is, but it’s so much more than that. Stark Plug is a prime example of a contemporary creator working within the aesthetic developed by the comix creators of the 1960s and 70s and revealing the extent to which that approach to graphic narrative remains fruitful, while marking out his particular vision of the genre’s possibilities.

Chappell claims that Stark Plug isn’t a political comic, calling it “pure entertainment,” a way to “get people away from the perils of their life.” I read the book a little differently. There’s an escapist feel, but Chappell’s depiction of what Stark is trying to escape from – the mindless drudgery of work in the capitalist system – is deeply political. We never learn what Stark does for a living, nor what “the plant” where he works produces. That’s what makes Chappell’s critique so effective: it’s not really about any one job or sector of the economy, it’s really about all of us. People cling to jobs they hate and in which they are “doing very little to better humankind” for the sake of the benefits package and “maximum vacation time.” Instead of doing work that brings people a degree of pride and satisfaction, people follow a daily rhythm of work that is boiled down to a manic boss yelling at his workers to “Increase production! Work faster! Quicken the pace!” with the underlying threat that if they don’t, “No raise for you.” Even Bernie the Banjo Bum, the homeless street musician who longs for a simpler time before cell phones and digital media pushed into a “rush-cession” of accelerating work and consumption, takes checks and credit cards; the logic of capitalism prevails even on frozen-over Midwestern sidewalks.

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Superimposed styles break the reader’s sense of narrative flow and continuity. Also, there’s a great contrast of dynamism and immobility here.

The use of absurd humour as a way to engage in social commentary while providing readers with a fun read is a staple in the comix tradition; another comix touchstone that Chappell explores is the use of self-referential humour and commentary as a way to disrupt the relationship between author, characters, and reader. From the very first page, where Stark reminds his boss that as an “inanimate cartoon character,” he is unable to work harder, the book is full of instances of characters breaking the fourth wall and making observations about themselves, the pages within which their story unfolds, and the creator drawing them. This self-referential tendency is a key dynamic in the book’s central story, in which Stark quits his job at the plant to fulfill his dream of starring in a daily newspaper comic strip. Stark’s ensuing experience as a lead character in Memphis and Harry reads as an extended ode to the comics/comix replete with references to classic tropes and characters. I’m especially a fan of Memphis, a cartoon kitty whose love of fun, revolting excretory habits, and hippie wisdom are clearly a tribute to everyone’s favourite graphic feline, Fat Freddy’s Cat.

Chappell is a block print artist (some of his prints are reproduced in one sequence of the book), and while some of his comics work reflects the heavier lines and more static feel that one (…or at least I) associate with that style, his style is dynamic and marked by sometimes-dramatic and sometimes-subtle aesthetic shifts to suit the moods he wants to convey. Chappell may favour a relatively simple drawing approach, but his drawings do complex things as he uses different visual narrative techniques, notably superimposing contrasting styles on a single page or in a single panel, to occasionally disrupt the narrative flow and the reader’s sense of being grounded in a definable reality. This is especially true in the sequence “Stark Walks,” which strongly evokes the “messing with your head” approach that was a key part of the underground comix, and in the “play within a play” sequence about Stark’s time as a character in Memphis and Harry, both of which, in different ways, bring the reader to a place where the rules of the straight world don’t apply anymore.

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Breaking the fourth wall backstage at a strip within a strip. Memphis’s wisdom and fun-loving spirit clearly evokes Fat Freddy’s Cat.

It in was reading the Memphis and Harry sequence that I came to understand what this book is really about. Stark Plug is a comic book about comic books; from the depictions of office politics to jokes about how disgusting cats are to the ads for novelty products on the inside back cover, the book is full of references and in-jokes that any comics lover will appreciate, written in loving tribute to the medium. Chappell sets out to remind us of the amazing and unique possibilities that exist in the space between drawings and words and does so in way that draws deeply on the comix tradition while expressing his own artistic vision. Do yourself a favour and order up a copy.

Comic Review: Tailsteak’s Forward.

Note to readers: While this project is meant to be a comprehensive look at fifty years’ worth of Doonesbury comics, I also want to take the opportunity to write about other comics that grab my attention. Here, then, is my first attempt at reviewing a webcomic, one that I think is well worth checking out. I’d like to do more of this, and I’m always looking for cool new comics to read. If you are a comics creator, either web- or print-based, and you’d like someone to write a critical review of your work and maybe gain an eyeball or two in the process, drop a line to: readingdoonesbury@gmail.com or DM me at @ReadDoonesbury.

 

Recently, one of my favourite webcomics, Leftover Soup, written and drawn by Tailsteak, wrapped up after a one-thousand-strip-long run. I’m not sure how I discovered the strip in the first place – I believe it may have been when Tailsteak wrote a guest strip for Jeph Jacques’ Questionable Content – but something about the strip resonated with me from the get-go, and it became one of those webcomics where I would invariably find myself hitting “Refresh” on my browser when an update was due.

Leftover Soup was part slice-of-life comic focusing on the friendships/relationships/sex lives/work lives of a community of twenty- and thirty-somethings; part murder mystery; and part inside-jokes-about-roleplaying-games comic. I’m going to leave the murder mystery aside for the sake of avoiding spoiling a good story, and, not being a gamer, the RPG stuff didn’t really resonate with me. But, when he wasn’t making obscure jokes about dice rolls, Tailsteak’s explorations of questions facing us today, especially those having to do with gender, sexuality and alternative relationship models were thoughtful and thought-provoking. Tailsteak populated his strip with people who embrace a broad spectrum of approaches to creating relationships, from those who are monogamous for religious reasons to relationship anarchists who valorize sexual hedonism while maintaining core values of respect for their partners. Then he allowed these people to talk to each other in a considered and respectful manner in a way that advanced a simple but important argument: at a time when fundamental assumptions about sexuality, gender and relationships are increasingly being questioned, there are no “right” answers beyond being true to one’s own values and always prioritizing honesty, openness and care for the people one is involved with. In many ways, then, the underlying and unifying theme of Leftover Soup is the question of ethical conduct, both towards one’s self and to others.

Last fall, Tailsteak launched his new project, Forward. Going on four months in, we’re still spending a fair amount of time outlining the world in which the strip is set, a process that can take a frustratingly long time in the format of a once-a-week four-panel comic strip. Tailsteak’s strengths as a cartoonist, namely his strong, dynamic visuals, and his ability to craft dialogue that does the grunt work of world-describing with a natural sense of flow punctuated with sharp humour go a long way towards making the process of learning about this world downright enjoyable, instead of, as it often is speculative fiction, a process akin to reading a crappy history textbook. Clumsy exposition is the enemy of good science fiction – and even more so, in my experience, of fantasy writing.

Science fiction is as much a way to talk about the present in which it is written as it is to explore a future that doesn’t exist. On this count, Forward is, so far, delivering. There are a few themes that Tailsteak has focused on that speak to present-day social dynamics: the economic and social effects of advancing technology; isolation and alienation in an increasingly atomized society; the moral implications of the development of Artificial Intelligence; and the questioning and undoing of the categories and limitations we have built around gender, sex and sexuality.

Forward is set in 2167, the year when, if all goes according to plan, your faithful scribe will be celebrating his 200th birthday. Technology has made massive leaps, bringing about fundamental changes in economic structures. Most jobs are now performed by robots and computers, so “work” as we know it is largely unnecessary; people’s needs are instead met through some sort of universal basic income program. This, however, does not necessarily the paradise we may expect it to be. Our story begins with our lead character, a woman named Lee Caldavera, having a session with an AI therapist. Lee has all of her material needs met and enjoys access to unlimited entertainment, but she exudes a sense of ennui and alienation – both from herself and from the world around her. Unable to get out of the apartment and meet people, she stays home, immersed in her hardcore fandom for a fantasy-based TV series. While its pretty clear that Lee’s emotional struggles are particular to her, one theme I’m going to explore in this review is the question of how what we see in the tiny fragment of Forward’s world that Tailsteak has given us reflects broader social dynamics. One thing I’m really curious about, then, is the extent to which Lee’s unhappiness reflects a wider social phenomenon resulting from the fact that people no longer have jobs as a way to define themselves.

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Lee’s AI therapist isn’t buying her shit. Forward, 11 November 2017.

Another encounter with AI opens the door for further explorations of the social, economic and political dynamics of this post-work technotopia. The second AI we meet after Lee’s therapist is Zoa, an “autonomous nonspecified service provider” who responds to an open invitation for companionship and conversation that Lee posts on the suggestion of her shrink. Zoa’s interactions with Lee allow Tailsteak to pursue ideas about sex and gender that played out in Leftover Soup. Hands down, the most interesting character in Leftover Soup was Max, a pan-sexual relationship anarchist who was an evangelist for sexual freedom, challenging everyone she met to follow a sexual ethos in which exploration and fulfilment were closely tied to a strong culture of consent: “Do what you want, as long as it doesn’t hurt anybody” was a bedrock rule that she strove to live by and get her friends and loved ones to embrace. Though Tailsteak has yet to show us the world outside Lee’s apartment, from her interactions with Zoa, it looks as though Forward is set in a world where the Maxes of our time – genderqueer people, polyamourous people, and other folks who are challenging patriarchal and heteronormative identity and relationship models – have won the battle for public morality. It seems to be the case that the pursuit of sexual pleasure for its own sake has been largely de-stigmatized and the relationship between biological sex and gender norms has been pretty much blown up.

Lee is a woman, but she has a penis; the “nonspecified service” that Zoa is most eager to provide her is oral sex. Zoa has a self-described “fifth sense” for what Lee is “packing” and responds to Lee’s open call for companionship with the offer of a blowjob. While Zoa does point out that, “legally,” she’s a vending machine, indicating the possibility that the law still frowns upon the idea if commercialized sex, there seems to be nothing inherently shocking about her offer. Assuming that what goes on between Lee and Zoa is meant to be a window onto the larger world, Tailsteak is showing us a world where 150 years or so from now, it is, at least to some degree, socially acceptable for a woman with a penis to get sexual satisfaction via the services of a sexbot.

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Zoa and Lee discuss the economic complexities of a technotopia. Forward, 1 January 2018.

Yet if Forward depicts a world in which people have guaranteed access to a decent standard of living and are more able to express their gender and sexual identities free of socially-imposed moralistic restraints, there are ways in which this world is less progressive than one might hope for. In Questionable Content, AI and robots are fully accepted into human society as equals; they friends with the human characters, and the possibility of human-AI romantic relationships is at least strongly hinted at, if not (yet) portrayed as a fact.* In Forward, AI might fulfill fundamentally human roles, freeing us from wage slavery, but they do not enjoy the same rights as human beings. There are social, political and economic reasons behind Zoa’s offer to exchange a blowjob for money, reasons that are rooted in society’s refusal to see her as being fully a person. Lee may enjoy a guaranteed standard of living, but Zoa has to beg Lee to let her hook up to Lee’s state-supplied electricity supply and data stream. As Zoa reminds her potential client, “some of us aren’t legally people [and therefore] don’s receive basic income from the government or get our essential services covered.” Instead of reacting sympathetically to Zoa’s desperation, she gives Zoa a lecture on personal responsibility, much in the way a present-day conservative might lecture a poor person who had to choose between paying rent or paying for health care: “You should be budgeting your power usage more sensibly than that,” Lee says. Moreover, when Zoa informs Lee as to why she is unable to make ends meet – she must make enough money doing sex work and other odd jobs to cover her maintenance and insurance costs while paying fees to a corporation that has some unspecified power over her – Lee seems totally disinterested. This might be because Lee is a particularly insensitive person, or simply ignorant of the situation facing AI like Zoa, but I imagine that Lee’s insensitivity reflects typical attitudes towards people on the wrong side of the human/AI divide.AI might do all the heavy lifting for us, be entrusted with our deepest emotional issues and be available for our sexual pleasure, but they aren’t worthy of receiving the same rights and privileges as us.

I recently showed a writing student a Forward strip as a way to illustrate the maxim of “show, don’t tell.” In the first few months of Forward, Tailsteak has done a difficult thing very well: he has introduced a new world that has complex and compelling economic, political and social dynamics without letting a fun and funny narrative get bogged down with a boring history lecture. There’s a lot to chew on in what Tailsteak has given us so far; I’m looking forward to his continued slow reveal of this world, and, more importantly, to the stories he’s going to tell within it. Go read his comic.

*Admit it, you’ve shipped Bubbles and Faye.