Books: Imagining Iraq in 2011

A suicide bomb rips through a Brooklyn Starbucks, sending a plume of smoke into the air visible from midtown Manhattan, as the endless war on terror continues to strike America inside its borders. The year is 2011. President John McCain, war-weary and reportedly sinking into depression over the abduction of his son Jimmy by Islamic extremists, grasps for a way out of Iraq, now eight years after the invasion. Recession grips the U.S. economy. An oil embargo imposed by the Iranian mullahs, who teamed up with the Islamic junta in Nigeria, and Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, has sent gas prices to $8 a gallon. A suitcase nuke detonates in Bangalore, India, spreading radiation across the continent and disrupting worldwide business by knocking out 24-hour customer support call centers. Tom Cruise has just divorced Mary-Kate Olsen.

For this horrifying vision of the future we can thank journalist Anthony Lappé and graphic artist Dan Goldman, co-authors of "Shooting War," (Grand Central Publishing) a stunningly rendered graphic novel that manages to stick a red-hot skewer into the war on terror, Islamic jihad, the mainstream media and the antiestablishment blogosphere in one fell swoop. Eighteen months after it made its debut as a serialized Web comic, "Shooting War" hits bookstores this week as a 192-page, full-color hardcover book. Lappé, a documentary film producer and freelance writer, began kicking around the idea in 2005 for a fictional project about the war on terror. His independent media company, Guerrilla News Network, had just finished producing the video for Eminem’s “Mosh”—a biting assault on the handling of the Iraq War—and his satirical juices were flowing. He toyed with the idea of doing a screenplay, and thought about writing a novel, but he knew he didn't have it in him. He had a general story line: young blogger gets sent to Iraq as a big-media war correspondent.

Lappé's friend Jeff Newelt, a New York publicist, suggested he do it as a graphic novel. Lappé soon hooked up with graphic artist Goldman, and in May 2006 they began serializing the story on Smithmag.net as a weekly Web comic. It quickly gained a regular audience of more than 100,000. The story follows über-hipster/video-blogger Jimmy Burns, who happens to be filming a segment on eminent domain for his 31-part series "The Corporate Takeover of America," when the corner Starbucks goes kaplooey. Burns achieves instant celebrity for the graphic footage he posts on his blog and gets hired as a war correspondent by Global News Network, which, in the words of Lappé, mixes Lou Dobbsian nationalism with a constant thirst for hardcore, supergraphic footage of the terror fight.

The Baghdad that Burns drops into is a ruined, war-torn landscape dotted with footprints of American consumerism. There's a W Baghdad Hotel, and a McDonald's and a Starbucks around every crumbling corner. The U.S. military presence has been drawn down to about 10,000 soldiers ("the baddest of the bad, guys who have reupped for like their ninth tour"), and most media outlets have pulled out their reporters. Burns encounters a wily Dan Rather, who, ever in flak jacket and helmet, serves as an Obi-Wan Kenobi of sorts, helping Burns navigate the dangerous, sectarian Baghdad underworld, all the while muttering his infamous Ratherisms, including his constant motto/battle cry: "The frequency is courage."

It wasn't long before Lappé's comic came to the attention of Jaime Levine, an editor at Grand Central Publishing. "We're very happy with how this all happened," says Lappé. "To have done this the way we did, to have of flown under the radar as a Web comic and been totally free of censorship, it allowed me the freedom to write some deeper political and philosophical things about the nature of this clash." Lappé points to the problems that film director Brian De Palma has had in getting an uncensored version of his Iraq war film "Redacted" to market.

"Shooting War" is an example of a growing industry. Over the last five years the graphic novel market has more than tripled, with sales of book-format comics growing from $100 million in 2001 to $330 million last year, numbers that are noticed in a publishing industry that has been flat over the last several years. "The market for graphic novels has exploded. There aren't a whole lot of categories that have shown that kind of growth in decades," says Calvin Reid, a senior news editor at Publishers Weekly who has covered the comics and graphic novel industry since the 1980s.

Though they are now gaining a wider audience, literary or nonfiction graphic novels have a long and celebrated history. Will Eisner's "A Contract With God," which is seen as the first of its kind, was published in 1978 and told the disjointed stories of the inhabitants of a Bronx tenement set in the Depression-era 1930s. Art Spiegelman's "Maus," a memoir of his father's survival of the Holocaust, won a Pulitzer Prize in 1992, 20 years after he'd started it as a serialized comic strip. Marjane Satrapi's "Persepolis" series of graphic novels, which depict her childhood in Iran after the Islamic Revolution, have been used as history books in classrooms and adapted into an animated film.

Journalist and illustrator Joe Sacco is perhaps the most prolific graphic novelist when it comes to literary nonfiction subject matter. His book "Palestine," about his time as a reporter in the West Bank during the early '90s, won the American Book Award in 1996. Still, even with the acclaim, Sacco says sales of "Palestine" remained dismal. "The problem is that it was only in comic book stores," says Sacco. Long bastions of the über-geek cult of the superhero-comic-book fan, comic book stores have a unique place in American culture, largely catering to what is the definition of a niche audience: teenage boys and grown men, 35 going on 14, who are more interested in the world of the fantastical and mythic than in current events. They're certainly not looking for a nonfiction piece about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But as graphic novelists like Sacco have begun to get better book distribution and catch the eye of large, mainstream publishing houses, things have started looking up. "People are beginning to realize that comics can tackle serious issues," says Sacco.

Indeed. In 2006 Hill and Wang, an imprint of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, published a graphic adaptation of the 600-page 9/11 Commission Report, which in just over a year has sold more than 100,000 copies. According to Thomas LeBien, publisher of Hill and Wang, some of the book's strongest sales have come in the student market, as high-school teachers and college professors have used it as a textbook. Next year "Shooting War" artist Goldman will collaborate with political journalist Michael Crowley on a graphic novel about the 2008 presidential campaign, titled simply "08." "People have always thought of comics as a genre. But it's not; it's a medium all to itself," says Goldman, who in 2006 co-founded Act-i-vate, an online gallery of sorts that features a rotating display of original, serialized works from 25 comic artists. Goldman thinks of it as a group gym, where artists take turns on a rotating stage. "The Internet is changing the world of comics immensely. It's lowered the point of entry, and the beauty of the Web is there's room and bandwidth for everyone."