Page 45 Review by Stephen
"Are you an alcoholic, Mr Wild?
"If not, you soon will be."
Guy Delisle fans of the overseas absurd are going to lap this up! It's an autobiographical scream from start to finish.
And I do mean finish, for on his bizarrely circuitous way back to France - having managed to not get abducted in Afghanistan - Nicolas Wild stops off in Dubai, then Moscow where he discovers a souvenir shop selling Soviet propaganda posters from the 1930s.
"How much for the 'Death To Capitalism' poster?"
"Can I pay in dollars?"
Indeed Guy Delisle was so enamoured that he wrote its introduction. It's pretty effervescent.
Coming from the critically acclaimed creator of the similarly wit-ridden travelogues PYONGYANG, SHENZHEN, BURMA CHRONICLES, JERUSALEM (as well as HOSTAGE), that is the most massive endorsement, and I'd also recommend this heartily to those who've enjoyed Riad Sattouf's ARAB OF THE FUTURE VOL 1 and VOL 2 and Brigitte Findakly & Lewis Trondheim's POPPIES OF IRAQ, all of which manage to incorporate warm-hearted humour while they explore the customs of their countries of origin or migration.
The sly difference is that Wild goes one comedic step further to mess with our minds with a few minor, mischievous embellishments. That they're embellishments will be clear either during or immediately after their deployment, but each serves to make exceptional salient, satirical points to make you stop and think. Otherwise, all of this happened, and I love to learn loads from first-hand accounts which humanise and bring much closer to home what can otherwise seem like overly distant struggles being endured by others a long way away when, jeepers, we're all human beings and every life matters.
As the comic kicks off, it's early 2005 and Nicolas Wild has been crashing at the flat of fellow French cartoonist Boulet (NOTES: BORN TO BE A LARVE) without paying any rent or bills. The rent and bills become due. Wild is without money or inspiration (or, impending: a home) when what should pop into his in-box but an email offering him a full-paid job and a pad... in Kabul, Afghanistan.
Afghanistan in 2005 wasn't the safest place in the world: they were still in the process of building their own army after their most recent war.
The gig is a couple of months' contract with a private communications agency called Zendagui Media founded by two French folk, chain-smoking Valentin and perpetually skiing Edouard, who are in equal measures charming, disarming and infuriating; and Diego, an extreme adventurer from Argentina:
"That table is the graphic design department. We'll clear some space for your laptop... That's Quentin's desk - the logistics department. The Civic Educational Theatre Department," says Valentin, gesturing right. "And that desk's the radio studio."
"So which drawer's the toilet in?"
Nicolas is introduced to Tristan, the grumpy guy he'll be joining along with Harun in creating a series of comics to educate the country's population on its most recent Constitution and therefore their human rights. One of those rights is to a free education rather than illegally enforced child labour, but since 80% of Afghanistan's population is effectively illiterate, they wouldn't be able to read those rights and thereby acquire that education without comics. The medium of silent comics is an international language so perfect for this project. (See also: passenger airplanes' laminated safety instruction cards and Ikea's self-assembly range of Mission Impossibles.)
They have six weeks to create these comics from scratch, so no time to leave the office to make preparatory sketches. Edouard lends them his external hard drive full of photo references instead, but mostly they're of him holidaying in Bamiyan, Salang and Wardak Province etc.
"I bet sending this hard drive to France would've cost less than flying us out to Kabul."
"Dubai looks cool!"
Over the course of a nine-panel page Tristan explains to Nicolas and Harun another shortcut they can use via a graphics tablet:
"We'll only draw each character three times: full-face, profile and three-quarter views. Then we can copy / paste them as much as we like."
"Aren't you afraid it'll be obviously fake?"
"Nah. We'll be clever, by flipping the image horizontally, for example."
"Or we can throw in a detail from time to time, to cover our tracks. Like hats for example..."
It was only when Tristan thinks, on the final panel, "I've got a cramp in my finger" that I realised he'd been pointing at the computer screen all the time; that he, Nicolas and Harun had been drawn in full-face, profile and three-quarter views from the start; that they had been copied and pasted throughout; that the image had indeed been flipped horizontally in one panel and - oh look - they're now wearing hats!
They might just get away with it.
The Afghan Constitution is a pretty hefty tome and Tristan advises Nicolas to read it on his first night back at the guest house shared by all of Zendagui's English-speaking expats. ("So what architectural style is this?" "Dunno. Soviet Swiss Chalet?") They only get electricity every other day, the pipes have burst from the cold, and Nicolas's bedroom is heated by a Bokhâri stove. It's neither lit nor fuelled and there is an exquisite sequence, when the temperature drops to -15 degrees Celsius, as Nicolas searches his suitcase for some flammable paper, finds none, then spots the Afghan Constitution, glances as the stove, then eyes the Afghan Constitution again, desperately.
He should probably have got the guard to light it, using Kerosene.
Zendagui has 4 guards, 3 drivers, 2 cleaning ladies and 2 very enthusiastic cooks. For some reason there's a boot and a spider in the fridge. Nicolas wakes up and takes to the terrace, wrapped in a blanket. There's the melodious sound emanating from a mosque of Muslims being called to prayer... followed by the beating blades of five military helicopters.
"Goooooood morning, Afghanistan!!!"
Later you're treated to a day in the life of a street in Kabul:
Early a.m. is for the herding of goats, holding up traffic.
Midday means buses and kids flying kites.
By mid-afternoon it is overrun by gun-mounted, armoured jeeps.
There are some seriously beautiful buildings on offer, but on the whole Wild's cartooning is flamboyantly fun, some of the eyes reminding me of Simone Lia's until a single page, after Zendagui's communication skills have been commandeered to help the Afghan government recruit civilians for its army, and Nicolas is taking photos of men of all ages in training.
"Poor guys. To think that some of them will be sent to the front to fight the Taliban..."
The style shifts abruptly, haltingly into fully fledged, highly individualistic portraits, the last one looking quite young and more than a little worried.
Later it transpires that some of their claims, the lures being used on their recruitment posters, aren't entirely true: wages aren't being paid on time or in full for a start...
So equally my own claim that this was "an autobiographical scream from start to finish" isn't entirely true, either, especially when one Clementina Cantoni, working for the Care International NGO helping Afghan widows to reintegrate into society, is kidnapped. Then a very sobering curtain comes down and a curfew is imposed as Nicolas Wild and his co-workers begin praying she is freed, start contributing to that campaign, and hope that they are not next. Diego announces that the company has gone to Security Level 2. Wild provides a diagram:
"Security Level 1
"Afghanistan's a cool place. You can even go out in the streets to buy cigarettes.
"Security Level 2
"Yikes, the situation in the country's kinda rough. I'd be better off staying at home and the sending the guard for cigarettes.
"Security Level 3
"We all stay at home and pray to God that nobody's touched the Level 3 cigarette supply. The worse thing about all this is that, the higher the Security Level, the less you want to quit smoking.
"Security Level 4
"In theory, you should already have been repatriated to France. The tobacco shop was probably bombed anyway, and the guard's been temporarily laid off."
Sometimes you have to find your comedy where you can.
Things I learned:
Azerbaijan actually exists. Until now I had presumed it was merely an imagined Eddie Izzard punch-line. Apparently Timbuktu is real as well. My geography is appalling.
Azerbaijan seems almost identical to Bratislava, of which I have first-hand knowledge, in that its suburbs remain semi-Soviet and its population abrasive bordering on hostile. Wild gets stuck there for a whole week while waiting for Kabul's airport to be cleared of snow. So that's something else I learned: Afghanistan is not perpetually arid. There is seasonal snow, and it globs gloriously across the page so that you can almost reach out and touch it. One woman wears ear muffs over her hijab. Why would you not?
Cell phones are a ubiquitous annoyance wherever you go, and your friends' will go off at the precise moment you need to ask them an urgent question the most, possibly after you've just asked it.
The Afghan Constitution had a lot of less liberal predecessors. Its writers / rulers from 1964 are paraded in front of you in a history of revolving-door revenge and reprisal very similar to POPPIES OF IRAQ's.
Religious self-flagellation is alive and well. Related: Muslims take and commemorate their Prophet's suffering a lot more seriously and with a lot more sympathy than most Christians do theirs at Easter. It's a long time since we carried wooden crosses down the street, but it's not that many years since my last Easter Egg Hunt.
According to the Persian calendar, 2005 was actually the year 1483. This explains which the internet never worked in Afghanistan. Chairs are a lot less common there, making room for more floor space.
I already knew of the self-defeating stupidity surrounding America's arming of various, successive opposing factions, but if you didn't, it's here, along with the astonishingly absurd way Afghan voting slips attempt to sell various candidates to a population, 80% of whom wouldn't be able to identify them by name. You'll have to buy the book.
Lastly, I learned how to surprise a "SUR-PRISE!!!" party. I hope one day to use it myself: that's worth the price of admission alone.