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Drawing Fire

Strong artwork saves two otherwise flawed graphic novels about war

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A panel from David Axe and Matt Bors’ War Is Boring.


War is Boring

By David Axe and Matt Bors

(NAL)

Greendale

By Joshua Dysart, Cliff Chiang, Dave Stewart, and Todd Klein

(Vertigo)

War is Boring, the memoir of a war journalist in graphic novel form, and Greendale, a graphic novel about an eco-conscious activist with mystical powers, offer very different reading experiences. One book is cynical, the other idealistic. One is about how wars are fought, the other a call to end them. But they unfortunately share one characteristic: in each case, the drawings compensate for an otherwise flawed narrative.

War is Boring (NAL) is the brainchild of journalist David Axe and editorial cartoonist/illustrator Matt Bors. Axe, a former City Paper contributor, covers conflict areas—from Iraq to East Timor to Afghanistan—for media outlets such as The Washington Times and C-SPAN, as well as numerous military publications with names like Warships International Fleet Review. His memoir touches down in seven countries. Along the way it tells the story of Axe’s addiction to the adrenaline and excitement of conflict while also laying out his disillusionment: War, it turns out, is not as much fun as he thought it would be. There are long stretches of inaction, infuriating bureaucratic obstacles, and endless scenes of tragedy.

Axe conducts the kind of self-examination that takes guts. His cartoon self wonders if he is drawn to war because covering it makes him feel special or because he has a death wish. He loses his taste for living a normal life—along with his job, his apartment, and his girlfriend—and hates himself for it. In the end he is so destroyed that he writes, “The more different people I meet, the less I believe in their humanity.” It’s a tale that should be absorbing, but Axe exposes such a dark side that it’s hard to root for him. He’s an asshole to his girlfriend, he takes a job with a magazine that he admits is “basically an editorial extension of the weapons industry” just for the corporate credit card, and he continues to crave the rush of war after witnessing things that are unspeakably sad. Plus it’s difficult to sympathize with his near constant discontentment given the plight of the people he is covering.

Bors’ crisp, clean drawings draw you along, however. Though the panel arrangements are fairly static, the artist occasionally uses Axe’s camera lens or a half-open eye as a frame. Details are provided with a nice economy of style: a page depicting men running down an alley, for instance, features an inset of a sandaled foot stubbing a toe on a rock. And certain scenes, such as one from a mosquito’s point of view, have a pleasing cinematic feel. But if you want an absorbing, well-drawn graphic novel about war journalism sans the self-indulgence, go read Joe Sacco.

Greendale (Vertigo) has much more in common with a traditional comic book. The illustrations are full-color, some of the characters have superpowers, and there’s a clear sense of good and evil. The book was executed by no less than four people: writer Joshua Dysart, artist Cliff Chiang, colorist Dave Stewart, and letterer Todd Klein. But it was originally conceived by Neil Young. In 2003, Young released a concept album of the same name, and subsequently performed it live as a rock opera—followed by a companion book, a feature-length movie, an off-Broadway musical, and the graphic novel.

Greendale, as conceived in all these genres, is a fictional town in Northern California of “20 to 25,000” people. The story centers on the Green family, particularly a teenager named Sun Green. (Some of the other characters: Sea Green, Misty Alder, Sola Locust. You get the picture.) The graphic novel follows Sun’s discovery of her superpowers—which all the women in her family have had—and her awakening as an environmentalist and political activist.

Throughout the book, the war in Iraq hovers in the background: in newspaper headlines, TV broadcasts, “Support Our Troops” phrases on church billboards. Not coincidentally, headlines about drilling for oil in Alaska and the evils of an oil company called “Powerco” also appear with regularity. In none-too-subtle contrast, Sun is a creature of the forest. She derives her strength from the towering redwoods, and her powers have to do with harnessing nature. Early on, an evil character—a Neil Young look-alike—appears. He walks through walls and brings death, and only Sun can see him. She eventually summons the powers of nature to foment activism, which will presumably conquer him—evil incarnate?—and the oil barons and the warmongers. It’s all a tad heavy-handed, and would be insufferable if the art were not so mesmerizing. (Hard-core lefties, ardent Neil Young fans, and those still clinging to the ‘60s may disagree.)

The colors in Greendale are from a lovely muted palette, as if the book has yellowed with age. The illustrations themselves range from sprawling landscape shots to the evocative, restrained portrayal of a sex scene. Some pages really are breathtaking. On one, Sun lies under a tree on a sunny day. The panels show the dappled shadows falling on her, but the backdrop behind the panels is from her perspective, of brilliant washed-out light and dark leaves. If only visually, Greendale is a beautiful, complex world.

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