Page 45 Review by Stephen
Sarah Glidden and her fellow journalists are on a train travelling through Turkey on its way to Tehran. They're making friends in its dining car which has become the train's social hub. One young Iranian who is affable and far from brainwashed (having already disavowed much of what Ahmandinejad proclaimed) shows them his mobile phone.
This isn't fiction.
"This is my wife."
"Oh, she's very pretty! Do you have any kids?"
"I don't want to bring children into a country that could be bombed by America."
In his mind the possibility that America could bomb Iran is so strong, and so very real, that he's forgoing the pleasure of children lest that joy turn into bereavement.
There's a great deal of bereavement in this level-headed, searching, thought-provoking and richly informative first-hand account of Glidden's two months in Iraq and Syria in 2010, for most of those whom she meets are in one way or another displaced refugees, all eager to tell their individual stories, previously unheard because no one has cared to listen.
They're interviewed by her companions, Sarah Stuteville and Alex Stonehill of the Seattle Globalist independent collective, for what would turn into fourteen different published features - some of them very high profile - even if they weren't entirely sure what they were looking for initially. Glidden's role in the form of this substantial graphic novel is to document that journey - geographical, personal and professional - and the crystallization of their ideas and angles through former contacts and chance encounters as they all wrestle with discoveries, self-doubts, set-backs, successes and the very notion of what constitutes ethical journalism.
Invaluably humanising the de-humanised and abandoned (sometimes left for a decade or more in what are always intended to be temporary, transitory refugee camps), this is measured, well researched, but increasingly sobering stuff. However, I believe above all that you'll be surprised.
For a start, this is a very beautiful book.
I can quite easily conceive that many may buy it purely for the joy of bathing in Glidden's delicate but warm, full-colour washes over confident, clean lines. There are so very many striking landscapes with wet-wash horizons, and she captures the spirit of place in extraordinary detail for such compact panels. There's Damascus both old and new; the epic open road to Kurdistan's Sulaymaniyah with its golden plains and distant indigo mountains; the extraordinary and unexpected spectacle of vast verdant parks in Sulaymaniyah itself, dense in trees, built on what used to be training grounds for Saddam Hussein's troops.
But essentially this is 300 hundred pages of talking heads told in that most accessible of structures which is the three-tiered, nine-panel grid. It's immaculately composed and it is riveting, partly because its subject matter is so fascinating, partly because those whom she meets are so compelling, partly because its editing from hundreds of hours of tapes is so judicious and - to no small extent - because Glidden has made every single page beautiful to behold and utterly clutter-free without demanding you stop, stare and acknowledge that. Instead you move swiftly on to the very next nugget of eye-opening observation and recollection.
They're joined on their journey by Dan, one of Sarah Stuteville's childhood friends and a former Marine who for a year was deployed in Iraq during the aftermath of the invasion whose cataclysmic side-effects - in the rise of the militia - displaced most of the refugees whom they meet later on in Syria. Dan is there to make blogs of his own, but also as part of Stuteville's project: she interviews him on each stage of their travels to see if - no, in the hope that - his initial equanimity with his role as a soldier might falter.
It's is an odd thing to want for a friend, but it's that sort of a warts-and-all account.
Dan was in many ways one of those least likely to sign up. His parents were "classic Seattle hippies", his mother co-founding an organisation called Families For Peace who campaigned to end the sale of violent toys like plastic guns. Dan even joined the anti-war protests and is still adamant that the invasion should never have occurred. However, Dan joined once he saw the resultant carnage - the militia's bombings and kidnappings and murders - in order to help put an end to it. He believes he made a concrete, constructive difference, so feels no guilt. He also maintains that he's suffered no lasting trauma in spite of what he experienced. And that increasingly frustrates Stuteville. I'll leave you to learn how that pans out.
One of the party's main focuses in Sulaymaniyah are the prisons and abandoned barracks now repurposed as residences for poverty-stricken Kurds from Kirkuk who lost their livelihoods, houses and cars when they fled their homes for fear of the killings. They refuse to return because of the violence, but won't be helped by the KRG government until they do so, because the KRG government wants to use their presence in Kirkuk to lay claim to its oil fields.
Their other focus is Sam Malkandi whose full history, once revealed, is extraordinary. They discover the heartbreaking details gradually in a series of interviews for which they've only a certain amount of allotted time. One of the chief tensions in ROLLING BLACKOUTS is whether the journalists will ever achieve the breakthrough moments which will turn their investigation into a complete, verifiable or at least credible, sellable story. So I'm going to allow those most of those astonishing details to unfold naturally as you read, but essentially Sam went from carefree drama student in tree-lined Baghdad to fleeing frontline duty in the Iran-Iraq War, to a relatively happy reprieve in his hometown of Sulay with his newly-wedded then pregnant wife... to fleeing Iraq for Iran to escape door-to-door searches for Kurdish deserters... thence Pakistan before finally making it to America. Along the way he experienced destitution, desolation and oh, I can't even tell you. Awful. But he also made a critical mistake in one of those applications, was visited by ridiculous misfortune while rebuilding his life in America at which point that initial mistake came to light and... unbelievable. Involves terrorism in America.
Sam's love of America is undiminished and his English is excellent so there's no need for translators. When they are employed, Glidden cleverly superimposes the interpreter's speech balloons over the interviewee's, leaving just a little 'shadow' over the original behind it.
In Syria they need interpreters almost everywhere and the love of America is abruptly lost as we begin to understand exactly what has happened to the two million Iraqis who fled the country following America's (and Britain's) illegal invasion of this tyrannically ruled country on deliberately falsified grounds (my statement, not Glidden's; let's keep this clean) - on top of the 1 million Iraqi civilians estimated to have been killed because of it.
First, through a former Ba'athist colonel, there are introduced to a sitting room full of teachers, doctors, dentists and lawyers. As Glidden notes:
"Since the invasion 80% of the middles class - precisely those who the US hoped would rebuild a new Iraq - have fled the country."
They are now stranded in Damascus having escaped the violence between the Sunni and Shia and, in doing so, lost everything:
"I lost my pharmacy, I lost my house, I lost my opinions.
"I lost everything. I lost my life."
Another woman lost 25 family members in a single day.
They're living in city apartments rather than tents and their children receive free education up to secondary school but nothing beyond. In addition they aren't allowed to work legally, so become increasingly impoverished. They are without hope, especially for their children who cannot finish their education and won't be allowed to work either. Their disgust at America is so strong they refuse to be resettled there and the final interviewee that night is so blunt that even Dan is unsettled. But wait until you meet those who aren't middle class.
Glidden captures every nuance in their expressions - their anger, desperation and dignity - and in Sarah Stuteville's pained receptiveness too. It is delicately done.
I've run out of time, which is a shame because I have another page of notes on their discussions about journalism itself, which occur throughout their mission. What one forgets while cheering on these committed investigative reporters - whose ethics are so strict that they will never promise help nor even to spread their subjects' stories unless they know can - is that the wider industry is held in such contempt. Journalism is apparently the second-most hated profession in the US, just after lawyers but, astonishingly, before politicians. I foresee that being reversed shortly. Stuteville:
"There are so many things that are contributing to the decline of journalism as we know it. And much of that has to do with the internet and economic models and so forth.
"But a lot of it has to do with elitism and arrogance and people losing trust in journalists and news outlets. Obviously the lead-up to the Iraq war didn't help with that.
"And the rise of cable news and their style of gotcha journalism, and journalism being really politicized so here's Left outlets and Right outlets...
"There are a lot of reasons it fell apart and most of them don't reflect particularly well on the industry."
She concludes with a statement which reflects my own view distinctly separate view of the US/UK comics industry and medium:
"But I feel like that's the industry, not the profession. It's hard for people to make that distinction, but it's important."
Like I say, I have another page of notes on journalism alone and what I've covered in other areas is but a small fraction of this 300-page graphic novel: things they discover like women reporting domestic violence being consigned to prisons full of criminals because there are no safe refuges for them; the wonderful work of the Iraqi Student Project run out of a couple's apartment in Damascus, providing further education for a handful of youngsters to gain internationally recognised certificates and then university places outside of Syria.
Nor is this just about their interviewees, but also about the roaming quartet later joined by fellow journalist Jessica, their relationship as it develops over the two months and the practicalities of recording and the not inconsiderable effort that must go in to securing an outlet for any proposed feature.
Glidden is never judgemental except about herself, and that extends to her art. Her visual portraits could so easily have been judgemental, but they're restrained, almost neutral without ever being bland. Her palette is exquisite on every page: lots of cool-colour backgrounds so often warmed by Alex's and Sarah S's auburn hair. But her night scenes are truly extraordinary in their depth and detail, like the one depicting their travel by taxi from Beirut to Damascus, counting the vainglorious portraits of chinless death-dealer President Bashar al-Assad, all spot-lit even all the way out in the rich brown countryside.
The greatest compliment I can perhaps pay to ROLLING BLACKOUTS is that Glidden - along with the Globalist - furthers the work of Will Eisner in fiction and Joe Sacco in reportage, in giving a voice to those otherwise without one and that, like Marjane Satrapi in PERSEPOLIS, Art Spiegleman in MAUS and Belle Yang in FORGET SORROW, Sarah Glidden's book is decidedly non-didactic for you're learning as they're all learning - and I Iearned loads.
Maps provided, you'll be pleased to hear.