Tom King & Mitch Gerads Dissect the Muddy Aftermath of War in The Sheriff of BabylonComics Features The Sheriff of Babylon
Tom King and Mitch Gerads’ The Sheriff of Babylon reveals its greatest conflict in its title. A cutting, meticulously considered snapshot of Iraq during the winter of 2004—two months after Saddam Hussein was captured during Operation Red Dawn—the 12-issue miniseries enmeshes a trio of protagonists in a clusterfuck of interests. The titular sheriff could be Chris—a tortured ex-cop training Iraqis to govern their freed homeland. Or it could be Sofia Al Aqani, a diplomat and contractor returned to her homeland from America to solve, often violently, the quagmire that’s grown over her birthplace. Nassir rounds out the human trio, a former cop under Hussein with some very dark secrets created under empathetic circumstances. Or it could be all three—or none at all.
An American symbol of cowboy diplomacy and binary morality, the sheriff is an antiquated concept on these battlefields. No villains or heroes exist in this historical fiction of tangled multilateralism; only good intentions that often lead down destructive paths. And it’s made for the best comic of the year so far.
King calls upon his experience as a former CIA agent who spent four and a half months in Baghdad, instilling a realism and sensitivity in every panel. Gerads, whose brother served in Iraq, matches that devotion with researched landscapes of vast highways and vacant diners. The city may stand as the most memorable character, a land perpetually promised relief that’s never received.
Paste spoke with the creators to discuss how much they’ve injected themselves into this tale, the effort taken to recapture the memory of Baghdad and the fluctuating truths of its reconstruction.
Paste: Tom, like protagonist Chris, you spent four months in Iraq and, in a previous interview, you mentioned that you feel a sense of cognitive dissonance over leaving Iraq when it was still in a state of flux. That sentiment mirrors some of the resentment Chris describes over feeling responsible over 9/11 in his drunken conversation with Fatima. How much of yourself is mirrored in Chris?
Tom King: I feel reflected in every character I write. It’s hard to say that one is closer to me than the other. I try not to push characters too close to myself because they get harder to write, but as a writer you try to find odd little personal experiences that you hope are universal, or think might be universal. I think one of those experiences is this odd guilt I felt after 9/11. Even though it was due to historical forces that are way beyond my control, I was responsible for it and had to pay the price for it— almost like our country was responsible for it and we had to pay the price for it. Not in an actual way, but just in a weird guilt way. Something big has happened and I have to change with it. And I put that guilt and response into Chris. When 9/11 happened, we all wanted to do something. Anything. That impulse might not be a good thing, because as Chris is finding out, his impulse to do good seems to lead down some dark paths.
Paste: And Sofia, her character and one liners are so stirring. What a strong, unique character. Where did she come from? Did you encounter any contractors like her?
King: She’s a combination of some very strong women over there who were put into positions of power you wouldn’t expect them to be in. But she also has a little bit of my wife in her, a little bit of my daughter and a little bit of myself, hopefully. And she also reflects…that hardness to her, and that toughness is something I found in all of these Iraqis who had gone away and spent the years outside trying to get back in, trying to fight Saddam any way they could. And they found themselves in this victorious position after the war.
I think a little bit of that bravado, that toughness—she has her flaws, too. She’s not a flawless character. And that bravado isn’t as strong as she thinks it is. And with those people who came back to the country saying, “I conquered this country, I understand it now,” I think Sofia is finding out she doesn’t understand it as well as she thought she did.
Paste: Mitch, your style is incredibly calculated and realistic, and going back and looking at panels featuring restaurants and highways, it appears that there’s an incredible amount of time and effort in conveying a sense of place. What was the process of capturing the soul of Iraq during this violent transition?
Mitch Gerads: I’m obsessed with research. There’s a lot of visual research. But I do know a lot of people who were there, and were there around the time that our book takes place. I got to sit down and talk to them—my brother being one. My oldest brother, Steve, was in Iraq during that time, but not in Baghdad, but he can still convey a lot of the things I was looking for. I have a good friend, Kevin Maurer, who’s a writer. He co-wrote No Easy Day, but he was there at that time, too, along with a lot of photojournalists. He put me in touch with some people. It’s talking to people and the visual research and the intellectual research, influenced by books and movies I’d read. I’m just trying to get it as real as possible, because in America we see everything though that TV lens. Some of it’s accurate. Some of it’s not. I do my best to make it as accurate as possible. It makes a better book. If you do the Hollywood Iraq, that’s not really the heart of the book.
Paste: What were some of the most challenging set pieces to convey that might not have had available resources to reference?
Gerads: It’s crazy, but it’s such an important time in our history and it’s not even that long ago. It’s still fresh in most people’s minds and most of the readers’ minds, but finding images and even information from that specific period is really hard for some reason. I can find a lot of current pictures of Baghdad, but a lot of those places have changed or are different. In issue one, the Green Zone cafe that Chris finds himself in, that’s an actual cafe and I’ve talked to people who have stories from eating there. But shortly after the timeframe of our book, it was late 2004, that specific cafe was blown up by a suicide bomber, I believe. So it doesn’t exist. There are very few pictures of it. I had to go pretty deep to find actual photos from inside that thing.
Paste: Looking at your coloring, I feel like I’m going to break into a sweat, but you also play with greens as well. What was your process for conveying the heat and terrain?
Gerads: That’s my biggest goal—it’s kind of the opposite of what I was saying before. I’m trying to almost Hollywood it up a little bit, and do some techniques where every scene is color-coded, so you have this visceral reaction to a scene already, just because of the color palette used. So I really wanted to convey that heat and that dust from the outside in certain scenes, so you get those dusty browns and hot oranges. And then that cool nighttime, but unsafe, feeling. So instead of using a lot of blues, I’ll make those scenes more green. And then the scenes that I want to feel more safe, give the reader a little bit of breathing room, I’ll use more blue at night. A lot of thought goes into the color process. It’s my favorite part.
Paste: This feels like the antithesis of a superhero comic—thus far, there’s such a marginal degree of escapism or resolution. Things are only becoming more complex and morally ill-defined. Did this book require a different approach or process compared to other more mainstream superhero properties you’ve worked on?
King: For me it works the other way. I’m writing Batman now, and I’m coming off this trilogy of books—The Omega Men, Sheriff and The Vision. All of them are very muddy. None of them exist in ideal worlds and none of them offer easy answers. And the Batman story I want to tell, I want to tell superhero, super cool, action movie, diehard [stories]. I want to stretch those muscles, and give some people some escapism because the world has gone insane, right? That feels like switching gears to me. Sheriff falls along in the work I’ve done for the last few years.
Paste: You’ve also said that this book is designed to entertain. It’s certainly a quality book or we wouldn’t have called it our favorite comic of 2016, but that wouldn’t be the first adjective I’d use to describe it. Are there any personal or ideological objectives here? It seems to come from such a personal place.
King: No, there’s no goal. I don’t believe in writing for goals or else I’d write essays. I studied philosophy in school, and I thought, Why don’t literature people just write philosophy? Why do I have to take the time to read a piece then dissect it to find what Tolstoy’s thinking? And then I realized that literature was trying to get at a truth that philosophy couldn’t get at. That’s the whole point of literature—you can’t just translate it into an essay and find out what the writer said, that the writer is trying to convey something that’s inside of and beyond language. So I’m trying to tell this story, I’m trying to tell it from a personal point of view, but I’m not trying to make a point. I want people to take the story as it is and interpret it and bring what they can to it, come to their own conclusions, and those conclusions are just as valid as mine.
Paste: In The Vision, there’s one line that stood out to me in relation to Sheriff: “He liked Iraq better—the lies there were easier to see.”
King: Officer Lin says that. I served in both wars. I did some time in the other one, too. That’s the observation of dealing with those two different cultures. At least when I was dealing with a lot of Iraqis, lies were constant; people constantly lied to you. It’s a part of their culture. They wanted to please you so much, they were willing to lie to you to please you. And we were willing to do the same thing. We were willing to lie to them to please them. It was almost like we were willing to lie to ourselves to please ourselves. So we entered this tangle of lies.
Afghanistan, Pakistan, that sort of south Asian area, at least that tradition didn’t stick out to me as much. Iraq was all about the lies, and because everyone was lying, it was easier to see the truth. Afghanistan and Pakistan were a little more complicated than that. There was more truth mixed in with the lies. It became more muddled. It’s hard to say, but that came from this observation of being in both of those war zones.
Gerads: I think that’s Chris’ biggest foil throughout the story, is that he’s just trying to get an easy answer, and nobody’s giving him easy answers and it’s driving him a little mad.
King: I think that’s well-put.
Paste: That corresponds perfectly with that one page where he asks various Iraqi police-in-training if they’re familiar with a deceased soldier, and each one questioned replies no, but he’d been training with them a month.
King: And then [their trainer] says, “Yeah, but the reason they’re lying is because they don’t want trouble, and not wanting trouble isn’t lying.” If they said yes, if they said they knew who he was, that wouldn’t at all be a reflection of truth. Nobody would actually say that, because that would be bringing trouble into their lives. By telling a lie, they’re more truthful to themselves. That’s Iraq in one line. And you get that with Saddam… Oh yeah, of course I have weapons of mass destruction. And we just believed a lie and rushed in.
Paste: Has the process of writing or drawing this book made you look at these events in a new way? Have you surprised yourselves?
King: I think sometimes you go through an experience and you don’t feel the impact, especially in a war experience, until way past it. And sometimes when I’m dealing with Sheriff, I have… I don’t know. Not psychological pangs, but there’s something deep in me that gets stirred. I’ll say, I didn’t know that this was painful for me. We had the torture issue, I wrote that and it’s not real torture and I was fine. I was fine writing that and I was totally normal. When I read it over and I got it in letters—where you could see Mitch’s pictures with my words on them—it really hit me emotionally. I couldn’t look at it. Psychologically, I just couldn’t put myself in that mindset anymore. It’s my own writing—I made this stuff up and it shouldn’t hurt me or affect me in some way, but somehow I couldn’t deal with it. It brings me closer to those days than maybe I would like to be. But you got to do what you got to do.
Gerads: For me, it’s not so much the nitty-gritty of that kind of stuff, but the book has opened my eyes in that when my oldest brother was in Iraq, I was in college and kind of in my own little world. I had this brother in Iraq—it really didn’t click with me very well. I think doing this book and just learning more about the place and the culture, it made me want to sit down and talk with my brother. When you’re younger, you’re kind of wrapped up in your own world. I have a family member who’s doing this crazy thing in a crazy place, and I’m worried about what party I’m going to go to on the weekend. So I think this book has opened up a lot of that for me.