The New War Comix

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Let it be known that one of the first books about the war in Afghanistan came from a cartoonist. Ted Rall's "To Afghanistan and Back" (NBM Publishing; 112pp.; $15.95) describes itself as a "graphic travelogue" but belongs in the milieu of war-torn foreign correspondence trail blazed by Joe Sacco's "Palestine" and "Safe Area Gorazde." Unlike those carefully rendered books, however, Rall's has come out quick and dirty, like a dispatch from the front lines of an on-going war. Rall, a syndicated political cartoonist whose weekly "Search and Destroy" appears in alterna-papers, felt the only way to discover the truth of the conflict in Afghanistan was to go there himself. Made up of both text and comix, "Afghanistan" treats us to an inside look at the life the Afghani people and the journos living among them.

It seems utterly miserable. Rall reveals that "contrary to the propaganda back home, the U.S.A.F. bombed anything and everything," even though "the last thing [Afghanistan] needs is more bombs. Bombing is redundant..." Reasoning that the odds of being hit are slim, people learn to disassociate the sound of bombs from death. Instead they worry about the gangs of heavily-armed thugs who rob and murder with no recourse. Rall's interpreter explains that having someone killed would cost $100 if you bargained well. "Would anybody care?" Rall asks. "Why would they?" is the hard-boiled reply. Even through his limited experience as an visitor, Rall's story opens a window on the Afghani's life. As a product of near constant war and strife, they have created a culture of near-instantaneous adaptation and opportunism.

"Afghanistan and Back," also makes for a fascinating look at the life of the foreign press. Sleeping on vermin-infested mats in freezing bungalows, Rall describes how they all became walking ATMs, dolling out $120 a day for translators and $800 for ten-minute car rides. But who's exploiting who in such an impoverished country? When a Northern Alliance leader tells the journalists at the front, "If you stay after dark some of my troops will rob you. And maybe worse," it becomes a "commuter war," complete with parking attendants. Even under constant threat of bombs, robbery and murder, the international press felt most oppressed by the boredom of a front without any "action."

Fast and crude, Rall's drawing style perfectly matches the urgency and tone of the book. Boxy, flat characters with both eyes on the sides of their head inhabit environs with only the barest of detail. The cartoons function strictly as a way to efficiently set the place and action. As a result the fifty-pages-long comic in the middle of the book makes much of the prose chapters redundant. It does seem like the speediness of this book's appearance comes at the price of cohesiveness.

"To Afghanistan and Back," makes a fascinating contribution as both comix and journalism. Though Ted Rall's relentlessly snarky editorialization limits his usefulness as a historian, he takes full advantage of the medium's strength as a you-are-there tool. With this book Rall finds news in the world and a new kind of comix journalism.

"To Afghanistan and Back" is available in regular bookstores and comic stores, and their online counterparts.

Hardcore fans of TIME.comix can tune in to CNN on Wednesday, May 29 between 6:15 and 6:45 AM EST to see your favorite journo yak it up about "comix."