Tag: David Axe

Comics for Grownups Episode 11

by on Mar.15, 2013, under Comics

Comics for Grownups Episode 11 with Alex Rothman is now available on iTunes. RSS link for Android users here. Special guest: Francis the not-yet-I.

In this episode we discuss:

Joe the Barbarian by Grant Morrison and Sean Murphy

Susceptible by Genevieve Castree

District 14 (Season 1) by Pierre Gabus and Romuald Reutimann

Study Group Magazine #1

Farm School #1 by Jason Turner

Nemo: Heart of Ice by Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill

Everybody Loves Tank Girl by Alan C. Martin and Jim Mahfood

Army of God: Joseph Kony’s War in Central Africa by David Axe and Tim Hamilton

Alex’s propagandizing to children with Nick Sousanis

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Oil and Water

by on Nov.15, 2011, under Comics

In the decade and a half or so since Joe Sacco invented long-form “graphic journalism,” not many authors have tried to do anything like it. Guy Delisle, to a certain extent David Axe, Dan Archer. But more and more seem to be picking it up, and in Oil and Water journalist Steve Duin and artist Shannon Wheeler show why it has such great power when done right.

Like Sacco, Duin and Wheeler take us inside a tragedy that’s already been covered extensively by traditional news outlets: last year’s terrible BP oil spill. And like him they do it by focusing on individual stories, giving humanity and voice to people who we’ve otherwise met only in three-second soundbites at best, giving local color to the news’s dispassionate accounts.

Comics are an especially good medium for this, I think. Text alone doesn’t give the same effect of a person’s face speaking directly to you, and filmed documentaries must either hope their subjects are eloquent and charismatic or else edit their interviews extensively. Graphic journalists can clean up what people say and make them even more magnetic than they are in real life.

The frame for the reporting here is a trip to the Gulf taken by a group of about a dozen Oregonian environmentalists a few months after the spill. They are there to “bear witness,” they say, and it’s unclear what else they’re doing. There’s no attempt in the book to find a point-of-view character or to investigate very deeply what any of the visitors think about what they see; they are merely recording eyes who occasionally voice opinions. I don’t know if that will work for every future tragedy or even for every reader of this book, but it worked just fine for me. The book as a whole has a clear, angry point of view and it’s one I share. I’m a birdwatcher. The mass deaths of birds they describe upset me a lot. I don’t need that dressed up with characterization.

The only thing I wish were different is the art. Wheeler has opted for an almost impressionistic style in black and white, basic line figures shaded with ink brushwork. In a few panels this is quite effective, notably in some overhead landscape views of the Gulf or of towns. Much of the time, though, I found myself wishing for more detail. Since the event itself takes center stage, I wanted to experience it more fully, to see real individuality in the people who spoke and particularity in the lands around them. I wanted drawings that were more realist, in other words.

Even so, Oil and Water is a real achievement, both as a political statement and as a marker in the development of its subgenre.

PDF preview here.

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More Memoirs: How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less and War is Boring

by on Nov.05, 2010, under Comics

The very existence of Sarah Glidden’s How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less makes me angry, but at least it serves to illustrate the complaints I was making recently about the proliferation of memoirs. If graphic memoirs weren’t the hot new thing I don’t see how this book would ever have gotten published.

Here’s the story in a sentence: Liberal American Jew with sympathy for Palestinians goes on a Birthright trip to Israel and questions what she thought she knew.

Honestly, that’s not even a memoir. That’s an extended, excruciatingly detailed “How I Spent My Summer Vacation” essay. Since I agreed with Pat that some people might be allowed to write memoirs, and therefore I’m making the rules, let me extend them: If the most memorable experience of your life is a package tour taken by literally 200,000 other people to date, you don’t get to write a memoir. Instead, you must write fiction or nonfiction in which you do not appear as a character.

(I get that Glidden is using her Birthright trip as a scaffold on which to hang broader musings about the history, present, and future of Israel. It’s a bad scaffold.)

A more interesting case is War is Boring: Bored to Death, Scared Stiff in the World’s Worst War Zones, by David Axe and illustrator Matt Bors. From 2005 to 2009 Axe was a war correspondent, drawing his main paycheck from Defense Technology International, a weapons trade magazine, while freelancing for the Washington Times and CSPAN, among others. During those years he went to Iraq, Lebanon just after  the Israeli invasion, East Timor, Afghanistan, Somalia, and finally the Darfurian refugee camps in eastern Chad.

Axe freely admits that he went to all of these places for a “war fix,” because his life back home in America was too dull to tolerate. His problem is that he doesn’t find the excitement or deeper meaning he’s looking for by touring these war zones. Instead he experiences more boredom, punctuated by terror. (“You’d spend months chasing the tiniest scraps of excitement,” he writes. “But, oh God, what scraps they were.”)

Finally, after nearly getting killed in Mogadishu, he lazes around Detroit until he decides he needs to do something that isn’t for himself, which is how he ends up in Chad: he wants to help the Darfurian refugees there by publicizing their plight. But even there he can’t help himself, rushes out when he hears gunfire in the street for reasons he can’t explain, and nearly gets killed.

Axe basically presents himself as a miserable man with a death wish. The experiences he recounts from war zones are all of seemingly unmotivated violence—nowhere does he discuss the backgrounds of the conflicts he visits like tourist destinations, or tell us anything about the cultures or personalities of the people involved in them. Which is all the more strange because as a reporter, surely he must have learned a great deal about them.

I find this appealing. One often finds accounts of self-loathing in memoirs, but it’s usually been conquered by the time the author sits down to write. In War is Boring Axe lays his continuing self-loathing bare.

At the same time, though, he holds back a lot of information about big developments in his story. He tells us that the idea to go to Mogadishu came to him in the shower, but doesn’t tell us any of the reasons that Mogadishu was attractive. His girlfriend breaks up with him after going to Somalia with him and coming back, and all we hear about it is “I crashed with Daria until she dumped me.” After that, in Detroit, he mopes around for a few pages, then circles the world “Darfur” in the newspaper and is packing to go.

It’s possible that Axe, while not censoring material that makes him look bad, may be skipping over things that could make him look better, or at least more sympathetic. Another pitfall of memoir: it’s hard to present yourself fairly and completely.

Still, it’s kind of refreshing to read a memoir with essentially zero uplift. Here’s how he leaves it in the Afterword:

The more of the world I see, the less sense it makes. The more different people I meet, the less I believe in their humanity. The older I get, the less comfortable I am in my own skin. We are a world at war, sometimes quietly, often not. We are the cleverest monsters, and we deserve everything we’ve got coming.

Everything falls apart. Everyone dies in time. In the great, slow, reduction of our lives and history, the things we can believe in shrink into a space smaller than our own bodies. To preserve them, for as long as you might, arm yourself, and be afraid.

Stephen Colbert for President.

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