Tag: James Romberger

Comics for Grownups Episode 5

by on Nov.30, 2012, under Comics

Now available on iTunes! Direct RSS link here. Still working out bugs on the audio, but this week I blame Kanye, who kept trying to wiggle free and grab the mike. We discuss:

Last Days of an Immortal by Fabien Vehlmann, art by Gwen De Bonneval

Wizzywig by Ed Piskor. Online at wizzywigcomics.com.

Heads or Tails by Lilli Carre. Preview available.

White Clay by Thomas Herpich.

Post York by James Romberger. Accompanying hip-hop single by his son Crosby online at postyork.com.

Smoo Comics by Simon Moreton.

The End of the Fucking World by Charles Forsman. You can read issue 1 at charlesforsman.com.

Diary Comics #4 by Dustin Harbin. Online at dharbin.com.


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Aaron and Ahmed: A Love Story

by on Apr.09, 2011, under Comics

Jay Cantor and James Romberger’s Aaron and Ahmed is a confounding book. It asks a big question on its inside flap—What Causes Terrorism?—and then gives an answer that makes sense from certain angles, and that from others seems utterly mistaken.

Aaron Goodman’s wife is in the second plane to hit the World Trade Center. Motivated by revenge he transfers from his post as a VA psychiatrist to the interrogation unit at Guantanamo, where he oversees the torture and degradation of prisoners. Since these methods aren’t reliable in getting the information his superiors want, he experiments with a prisoner named Ahmed, one of the camp leaders. He doses Ahmed with estrogen and is nice to him, hoping to trick him into forming a bond.

And the two of them do bond. Ahmed reveals that the terrorist cell run by The Old Man in the Mountain (as Cantor names bin Laden, just as he calls al Qaeda suicide bombers Hashishiyyin) uses infectious “memes” to turn men into martyrs.

Memes, as you may already know if you read the internet, are a concept invented by Richard Dawkins in the last chapter of his great The Selfish Gene. The idea is that just as genes should be considered the unit of biological evolution, rather than the organisms that carry them, so “memes,” or reproducible units of thought, might be considered the functional unit of social evolution. Genes succeed if they induce the organisms that carry them to pass on more copies of themselves; memes succeed in the same way, by being passed on.

Aaron is so intrigued by this possibility that he reads between the lines when a general tells him not to pursue it, breaks Ahmed out of Guantanamo (absurdly easily), and together they make their way to Pakistan, to join a Hashishiyyin training camp.

Now, meme theory and murderous fanaticism do make an interesting combination. Or they could. But Cantor immediately starts treating this whole “meme” idea like a religious version of The Manchurian Candidate. Martyr trainees pray together, smoke hashish, and are programmed with trigger words and images that make them want to blow people up.

Aaron and Ahmed then return to New York as part of a cell charged with a mission they don’t yet know. Aaron wants to escape to the Army and share with them the terror brainwashing secrets he’s learned. Ahmed too wants to stop the new attack, but is afraid the U.S. will simply appropriate these mystical mind-control techniques and use them to program their own suicide bombers.

Aaron comes to believe that his “meme” infection has transmuted into a physical virus, and he’s therefore now a walking pathogen. Ahmed tries to tell him that this is the most powerful meme of all that’s taken hold of him:

They want you to think your body’s unclean because you want to fuck. Or you want to fuck the wrong sex. Or you eat pork. Or you don’t eat pork.

(By this point, by the way, Ahmed has confessed his love for Aaron, and they’ve kissed.)

Like I said, from certain angles this makes great sense: terrorist ideology is fueled, ultimately, by the idea that our bodies are unclean. I don’t think that’s an adequate explanation for what makes a terrorist, of course, since body shame is common to all the Abrahamic religions and few religious Jews, Christians, or Muslims turn into terrorists. But it’s a rich possibility, and I wish it could have been the focus of the story rather than being introduced at the end, as it is. For example, what if it turned out that terrorism was merely ancillary to the self-perpetuation of the body-shame meme? That would have been interesting.

Instead, memes are treated as these brainwashing tools, and we wander through a Manchurian Candidate scenario that ultimately doesn’t lead anywhere. It would have worked better if that brainwashing, rather than being a mystical, half-remembered experience that implanted an idea of infection, could have been more explicitly about what Ahmed says:

Religion, it’s the disease, Aaron. It’s the one and only viral meme. These priests and rabbis, these mullahs and imams, they make you think your food’s dirty, your body’s dirty, your appetites are dirty—and tey have te only way for you to feel clean again.

Still, all things considered I’d rather have this book, aiming for big themes and landing close, than another less ambitious one.


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