UNLIKE SOME GRAPHIC NOVELS, which might invite the reader to dwell over a particular image and lose himself in the world of the story for a moment, Shooting War permits no such leisure. Its narrative is intense and relentless. It could not be more gripping if animated arms of super-hero muscularity arose from the pages as you opened the book and clasped the sides of your head in place. To begin on the first page is to know, with certainty, that you will be turning the last page about eighty minutes later, deaf to the exhortations of ringing phones or pleading spouses. It is not exactly impossible to linger upon one of Dan Goldman's hyper-colored images, which often mix photographic realism (literally using photographs for the backgrounds) with impressionistic blurring effects and hand-drawn characters. But, as beautifully rendered as they are, they are composed more like storyboards for a film than traditional comic panels, and each panel delivers its full information content almost instantly. This is in stark contrast to, say the classic Swamp Thing or Sandman comics of the 80's and early 90's, whose finely detailed ink-work compelled one to "read" the image as closely as the text. Lingering upon an image in Shooting War for its own sake, however, would be superfluous, and even counterproductive - like hitting "pause" on a suspenseful movie you're watching for the first time. And in those moments when one does in fact cease the relentless charge onwards from panel to panel, page to page, it is less a matter of wanting to savor a particular moment, as it is an inability to not linger - as happens, for instance, when driving past a brutal traffic accident. No Sunday drive to the park is Shooting War; it's speeding and rubber-necking all the way through.
This is the story it tells: In the year 2011, well into President McCain's disastrous first-term, a hipster-activist-blogger named Jim Burns happens, by pure luck, to capture on live-streaming video the moment and the aftermath of a terrorist bombing in a Starbucks right in the heart of his neighborhood; the hipster enclave of Williamsburg, Brooklyn. As an example of Lappe's dark humor, evident from the very beginning, the video camera is at that moment trained upon the store because Burns is filming an expose of the city's use of eminent domain to hand local properties to corporate buyers - a frightening prospect in itself that is nonetheless rendered moot when the front door of the establishment suddenly turns into a blast furnace, disgorging metal debris and the smoldering limbs of latte-drinkers. Right from the beginning, Lappe's intentionally over-the-top dialogue tells us what kind of story this will be. "My whole life had just been blown to bits," deadpans Burns, "which were scattered on the street in a pool of body parts, blood, and mocachino mix." Yup. It's Sheen in Saigon all over again, and it retains this tone throughout.
Thanks to his uncanny "luck," Burns and his left-wing website are granted instant, world-wide fame. But fame, of course, is not without its pitfalls, and for Burns, an inhabitant of an America just one small notch closer to being a corporate dictatorship than is our own, the pitfalls are nearly instantaneous. Recruited by an executive from the Fox-like Global Television, who butters him up by dressing him down ("You're hooked now. You need the action. And you're not going to find it wasting your life away whining about evil corporations at I'm-a-Jackass-dot-com.") Burns becomes the celebrity journalist du jour, sent on a mission to Iraq to report on "history, as it is made." Traveling with his producer - a Western-educated Iraqi woman named Sameera, whose parents were both killed by Saddam's regime for their membership in the Iraq Communist Party - and followed at one point, during the nadir of his catastrophically ineffectual reportage tour, by a horrifyingly bubbly and opportunistically randy female reporter from New York magazine, Burns stumbles through the violence and the rubble of the still war-torn Iraq, unable to land a scoop, always in the wrong place, ever suspecting himself to be a fraudulent creature of circumstance. His ratings plummet, his former fans consider him a discredited sellout, and the New York profile on him turns out to be a merciless hit-piece.
Burns' only hope for redemption is to land the story-of-a-lifetime by uncovering the workings of a mysterious Sunni terrorist group advertising itself as the Sword of Mohammed. Their tactics begin with the usual beheading snuff-film circulated on the internet, and quickly evolve to methods far in advance of even Bin Laden's 9/ll in both terror and bloodshed. I won't spoil it for you - suffice it to say that Lappe's narrative takes the satirists' usual practice of portraying "good guys" and "bad guys" as one-and-the-same in nature to somewhat preposterous extremes. Specifically, the obvious parallel is drawn between those who profit from fearing terrorism, and those who profit from creating terrorism. (I can tell you, without giving too much away, that I was reminded of the drug-lords portrayed in the film Traffic, whose advanced, corporate-modeled methodologies were hinted at to chilling effect).
This is far from the only genre cliché to be found in Shooting War. As one would expect from a political satire, nearly every character here is over-the-top, and resides in a scale somewhere between "unlikable" and "contemptible." As is also common in political satire, there is one angelic diamond-in-the-rough figure for us to sympathize with; in this case, it is Sameera, the worldly, emotionally scarred producer. Furthermore, in a move played too earnestly to be satirical and which is therefore rather cheesy, Dan Rather shows up as a pivotal, heroic character towards the end of the narrative, which brings up yet another well-worn convention; at the heart of every sharply-fanged satire, there is a cozy, Capra-esque sentimentality. They are two sides of the same coin. Shooting War, quite conventionally, produces not just enervation and despair, but thanks to Mr. Rather a certain yearning for small-town decency. As a piece of writing, then, it is fundamentally conventional, unerringly hip in its anti-hip-ness, reveling in the sensationalism it condemns, and aspiring to little more than giddiness, suspense, and a predictable dose of outrage.
But, I realize now that I seem to be trashing it. I am not. I come back to the point I started with - I could not put this book down. It is spellbinding. While Shooting War may have very little to offer in the way of originality, it is a masterpiece of narrative construction. Writer Anthony Lappe is a journalist by training, known for his investigative articles and his work as a producer of documentary films for Guerilla News Network. His single most-important task here is to steadily ratchet up the suspense as the story unfolds, to keep the reader afloat on pure tension. This he does expertly, with a journalists' knack for careful organization, and a screenwriter's sense of timing. His writing does indeed produce the same visceral thrill of a cracklin' good investigative article, more than it does a work of futurist fiction. And yet one of the more delightful aspects of Shooting War is the way it unassumingly lets loose plausible details about life in the year 2011 at unexpected moments, the kind of details that are crucial to world-building of any kind. My favorite occurs when, in one single panel depicting a global newscast more than halfway through the story, we learn of a major U.S. political splinter party called the Republican Patriot Caucus, and at the same time discover, thanks to a graphic at the bottom of the TV screen, that in 2011 TV networks will spell the word "reacts" as "reax." Lappe's humor, and his innate sense of narrative, is more often than not strong enough to overcome his two-dimensional characterizations and his sometimes wince-inducing dialogue.
Dan Goldman's cinematic illustrations are richly hued and compelling. In a style sometimes reminiscent of Matt Wagner's Grendel comics from the late 1980's, they often place illustrated characters in front of photographic backgrounds, which here lends them vulnerability. This sense of soft humans in a hard world is further heightened by his use of muted flesh tones and chiseled features, drawn with unusually thick lines. Goldman's background as a commercial designer and illustrator has afforded him an impressive versatility. When it comes to depicting movement, for instance, Goldman's visual bag-of-tricks seems almost inexhaustible. Whereas a typical comics artist might be happy to use one blurring technique to depict motion, Goldman seems to have invented at least six, each depending on the moment. He uses heavy black lines to delineate shapes, but allows colors - blood, halogen light-beams, sunlight, etc. - to glow in watery, soft-focus patterns where appropriate. He moves freely from realism to expressionism, often within the same frame. His artwork is best defined not as a single style, but as a series of warring techniques that clamber over one another, yet finding harmony and balance when necessary.
I won't fault Shooting War for any conventional defect in execution, but I can't help wondering if its likely readership is being challenged, or simply entertained. Will the hipster-reader see in himself the same wise-foolishness that defines Jimmy Burns, or will he simply get a good dose of Schadenfreude? More importantly, does it provide any real insight into its characters, the world they inhabit, or the world we inhabit? I'm not sure that it does. The plot is a construct to make what is ultimately a simple and obvious point about propaganda and "the media." I agree with the point, and was entertained, as always, to see the mainstream narrative - including the hipster-leftist mainstream - satirized. But it must be said that this story never gets past the immediate environment it wants to knock down. Burns remains a transparent stereotype, as do the terrorists. Shooting War does nothing to illuminate Iraq, or even to contradict its one-dimensional image in the U.S. media as a place of tribalism, fanaticism, and endless suffering. The much-maligned mainstream of American society never surfaces either.
Despite its estimable success at providing entertainment and satire, Shooting War ends up suffering from audience conciousness - it feels like a story made by hipsters, for hipsters. It blows up their corner store, but despite its long expedition to Iraq, never really gets them out of the city.
M C R
This work is copyrighted by the author, Andrew S. Taylor. All rights reserved.