War is Boring

December 2nd, 2010 at 3:39 pm

A provocative title for a slender graphic novel that is boring.

War is Boring by David Axe

It begins formally and dutifully enough. With a dedication.

“For Moqtar Hirabe, gunned down by Somali insurgents in Mogadishu in June 2009 – and for all the other fixers, stringers, interpreters, drivers and guards who’ve risked their lives, and sometimes given them, to help us reporters do our jobs.”

Following this honorable, respectful acknowledgment, Ted Rall’s introduction let’s us know a bit more about this David Axe guy who thinks War is Boring. Axe is an adrenaline junkie with a death wish. He is cynical. He’s not afraid of dying.

But most importantly, David Axe is a war correspondent and with him via cartooney frames we go to Chad, Iraq, and back home to South Carolina where Axe tells us that, sure, War is Boring but Peace is Worse.

And then on to Lebanon, Washington DC, and East Timor where Axe is stricken by a severe bout of contemplation.

“Truth is, I didn’t really know any more what was normal, or, for that matter, what was right, what was wrong, and what was best for myself and those around me. Is war an aberration or the most basic human function, the thing we resort to when all our comforts crumble?

“In choosing war, was I courageously embracing some important, painful truth? Or was I willfully ignoring the real truth? That most people live in peace, comfortably, happily, and have no need for a place like East Timor. Had war chosen me, or had I chosen it? And what did that say about me?”

And on to Afghanistan where we are exposed to corruption and death.


And a second bout of existentialism.

“I should have been happy. After all I’d seen and done, I should have treasured every friendship, relished every beer and reveled in every moment I wasn’t getting shot at, blown up or mortared.

{Yeah, you should have. You’d probably have a more compelling story to tell.}

“But every beer tasted stale. Every conversation was a lie. I still found war tedious. I still found peace worse. I didn’t feel much anymore. What pleasure I used to take in everyday things was replaced with a constant low-grade anger.

“Anger at the millions of Americans who sacrifice nothing while their neighbors fight and die overseas. Anger at the pundits and editorial cartoonists who make their living criticizing wars they know nothing about and are too cowardly to go see for themselves.

{You say War is Boring. I say War is Bad. I don’t need to experience war to know its spoils. I don’t need to have tragedy to know it’s sorrow. I don’t need to have cancer to know that it’s bad.}

“Anger at the assholes who started it all. But mostly anger at myself for thinking that going off to war would make me smarter, sexier, and happier.

{Yeah, that was foolish. And now I’m angry at myself for thinking that your book was going to be engaging, worthwhile, and good.}

“Maybe I wasn’t angry at the ignorant Americans after all. Maybe I was jealous.”

And then on to Somalia.

And on to his girlfriend dumping him and his return home. To Detroit.

In the Afterword, Axe is bleak and crass.

“The more of the world I see, the less sense it makes. The more different people I meet, the less I believe in their humanity. The older I get, the less comfortable I am in my own skin. We are a world at war, sometimes quietly, often not. We are the cleverest monsters, and we deserve everything we’ve got coming.

“Everything falls apart. Everyone dies in time. In the great, slow reduction of our lives and history, the things we can believe in shrink into a space smaller than our own bodies. To preserve them, for as long as you might, arm yourself, and be afraid.”

Ultimately, there are many reasons why War is Boring was an unsuccessful contribution to the canon of storytelling. Perhaps it was a poor choice of form? For a graphic novel from a war correspondent, it is starkly void of stirring imagery. Little action, little plot or decision making. And what a slouch of a protagonist. <See above>

Arm yourself. Be afraid.

Not bad advice. Can’t say as I disagree. And I’ve never even been to Chad nor Iraq nor South Carolina nor Lebanon nor Washington D.C. nor East Timor nor Afghanistan nor Somalia nor Detroit.

I guess I’m disappointed because while it is acceptable for War to be Boring, it is categorically unacceptable for Your Book to be Boring.

I’m disappointed in the book’s tone. It strikes me as immature, glib, and unexamined. Too much time spent with Axe’s neuroses and emotional flailing (which aren’t very entertaining). His actual war reporting I’m sure is stellar and gripping.

P.P.S. David, you have found violent, bloody conflict to be boring. Have you tried drugs? Sex?

MW by Osamu Tezuka

July 21st, 2008 at 5:45 pm

MW by Osamu Tezuka

MW by Osamu Tezuka is a thoroughly entertaining graphic novel. I just finished it and found it to be quite, quite enjoyable.

Soon after setting down MW, I picked up Douglas Wolk’s Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean. So I do not yet have an adequate framework to be much more articulate and informed about how and why MW is so good. Yes, I am that confident in Reading Comics that after absorbing its content, I will be forever eloquent and wise on the topic of comic criticism. Even though I have read Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics, which Reading Comics has already taken issue with on a few finer points of comic lore and craft. So it’s sure to be an enjoyable read of comic nerd in-fighting.

How’s that for establishing your form as a legitimate medium? Splinter into competing sects of disagreeing “experts” and engage in petty and nonconstructive debates. Now that’s a classy, established medium! If only we could get Chris Ware and Alan Moore to engage in a widely publicized tiff, a la Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Mario Vargas Llosa. Then you comic-kazes would know you’ve really arrived.

But back to MW. It’s good. It is.

And don’t just take my word for it. According to the flap copy, Osamu Tezuka is a comic god, the godfather of Japanese manga comics, who spurned his doctor’s degree to pursue the then-considered “frivolous medium” of comics.

The protagonist of MW is a scion of a famous Kabuki family. There’s a secret military cover-up. Finance. Politics. Murder. Rape. WMDs. A public prosecutor. A Catholic priest. And homoeroticism. Don’t forget the homoeroticism. You know how those graphic novelists revel in good old-fashioned sexual obsession.

If you’re looking for even more elements of intrigue combined in a single graphic novel of “sweeping vision, deftly intertwined plots, and indefatigable commitment to human dignity,” I think you’re asking too much. But there’s probably a comic out there for you. Keep looking.

Try starting with Battle Pope.

If one reads McCloud’s Understanding Comics, Wolk’s Reading Comics, The New Yorker’s comics issue, McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern all-comics issue 13 edited by Chris Ware, Michael Chabon’s championing of the medium, or even the Best American Comics series, you will be amazed at the indefatigable lengths guardians and cheerleaders of the form go to in order to establish comics as anything but a “frivolous medium.”

Not to discredit the admirable and necessary actions that have thankfully lifted comics out of the doldrums brought on by a prejudice of childish obscurity and pretentious elitism, to me the debate has already been won. Comics are without a doubt, a legitimate artistic craft worthy of serious reading, and as novels go the way of five act plays in iambic pentameter, comics will burgeon into a significantly dominate form of published entertainment. Turn a couple of these graphic novels into video games, and boom, look out Hollywood. Brilliantly talented nerds: 1. Naysayers: 0.

But this leaves me to ponder what fringe form will next emerge to demand the acknowledgment and serious criticism its proponent’s feel it so urgently deserves?

I’ve already mentioned one: video games?
Fake memoirs?

I personally want there to be an annual competition for the finest fake memoir awarded to the autobiography that best duped the general public and publishing industry into believing that it was absolutely true. Authors will keep their lips sealed until the submission process in which they can then discreetly admit that, “Oh yeah, I made that all up. Hehe. Clever me.” They could call the competition The Big Get and it could be a legitimate genre that authors set out to execute instead of a highly embarrassing mistake.

Alice in Sunderland by Bryan Talbot

June 24th, 2008 at 6:38 am

Cover of \"Alice in Sunderland\" by Bryan Talbot

Alice in Sunderland is technically a “graphic novel,” but an unruly, bursting, whimsical one that makes the experience of interacting with it engaging and fun. It often forgoes the frames of traditional sequential storytelling in favor of busy scrapbook-like collages that reinforce the intricate, intertextual, interwoven, self-referential story about a story about a story (ad infinitum) motif that defines and dominates this graphic novel. It is a reading experience unlike any other you’re likely to have.

With the premise of some bloke wandering into a theater, the reader of Alice in Sunderland is taken on a schizophrenic and tangential trip through the history of England in general and Lewis Carroll and his infamous and influential work Alice in Wonderland in particular.

The book is big (almost a full foot tall and 8 inches wide) and long (319 pages!) and colorful (red! blue! yellow!). It’s a very ambitious work and quite impressive. Its scope would be considered “high-concept” as it consistently squirms away from any one genre or aesthetic or subject like a stubborn kid wiggling away from a smelly aunt. It explodes with tidbits of trivia and random facts with pictures and photographs and drawings of every color and style. It is a veritable kaleidoscope of imagery and ideas and history and culture and art. If it were made into a movie, Baz Luhrmann would have to direct. Maybe Terry Gilliam.

Overall, Alice in Sunderland is a little too researched and too little crafted (or maybe over-crafted) and a lot too much indulged. Many times I turned a page and muttered, “You think you’re so clever…”

But I was quite satisfied with Talbot’s achievement in Alice. The scale and style and ambition of it all are notable. And entertaining. When it doesn’t drag. Which it does sometimes. Especially at the end. I was really ready for it to be over already.

Black Hole by Charles Burns

April 23rd, 2008 at 4:34 pm

As novels go the way of five-act plays written in iambic pentameter, graphic novels have emerged to provide a glimmer of hope. Graphic novels have gained much relevance and respect as a legitimate art form in the past years thanks to the undeniable brilliance of artists like Christopher Ware and champions like Michael Chabon and Jonathan Lethem.

And there just might be some money to be made as well. Graphic novel sales were up 12% in 2007 over 2006.

Black Hole by Charles Burns will not find itself included in the Whitney Bicentennial as a lauded, official Work of Art like Christopher Ware’s masterwork Jimmy Corrigan: Smartest Kid on Earth, but it is just as equally obsessed with sex as every single other graphic novel.

The Salon. Shortcomings. David Boring. Blankets. Sex. Sex. Sex. Sex.

Graphic novelists love them some sex (or are at least fixated on the lack thereof). And unlike traditional writers, they’re not confined to just describing it. They get to show it; in all its awkward, pubic hair-filled glory.

Charles Burns is no different by any means. Black Hole is absolutely full of penises and vaginas. Especially vaginas. And I mean to the brim, overflowing, and maxed out with sex.
Burns’ dramatic black and white illustrations are vivid and stirring; but mostly stirring, vivid images of penises and vaginas. Lots and lots of vaginas. And pubic hair. Don’t forget the pubic hair.

Why are graphic novelists so obsessed about sex?

Because they’re nerds.

Why are graphic novels so popular/successful? Because they’re written by nerds about nerdy things that nerds can relate to. And nerds are the only demographic reading these days. Any cool person is playing a sport or getting laid or getting drunk or getting high or getting paid. The nerds are in the bookstores nerding out to nerdy things like graphic novels.

But nerds run the world. So it all evens out. The true dopes peaked in high school. Poor saps.

I would like to think that graphic novels are also popular/successful, and will continue to be, because they tend to be well-crafted, worthwhile works of artistic entertainment. As their name suggests, they are novels, yes, like any other novel with a decent story, but they’re illustrated so they’re fun and enjoyable to read. And they typically don’t take forever to get through. Even Black Hole, coming in at 400 some-odd pages, only took me a handful of sittings to finish (I don’t know how many pages it is because the pages are not numbered. Those graphic novelists, so artsy with their formalist reinforcements of themes.)

When I was done with Black Hole, that bizarre thing, I was truly confused and disturbed. But I’d prefer to praise Mr. Burns for his marvelous tour de force than reveal my own ignorance of what exactly he was doing with all that weird coming-of-age, sexually transmitted disease, drug, sex, violence, freak show weirdness.

So bravo, Charles Burns!

Reading is sexy, indeed!

Thanks for all the penises and vaginas!

And pubic hair!!!


February 12th, 2008 at 4:16 am

You can tell it’s an Election Year when a scrappy little-brother-of-a-quarterback like Eli Manning comes back to trounce an unbeaten dynasty to win the Super Bowl and an elderly Maverick like John McCain rallies to prominence after floundering in partisan neglect like a melting scoop of vanilla ice cream in a banana split of chocolate and pussy.


It’s an Election Year. The gloves are off. I really should calm down. After all, there’s not as much reason to worry anymore. Romney dropped out. And there probably won’t be a Scientologist candidate for at least 24 prosperous years.

Things really brightened up for McCain didn’t they? It’s too bad he’ll be running against either a Woman or a Black Man in an election in which the populous will be begging for Drastic Change after eight years of stifling, staunch conservatism. No, this one won’t go to McCain. We’re Americans. We watch bad television, eat too much, and vote buffoons into office for two consecutive terms but make up for it with healthy doses of progressivism.

We’re lazy, not stupid. There’s a big difference. Pity the Enemy who doesn’t grasp the distinction. But watch out you Liberals. More than guns, dessert, and sports, America loves an underdog. Right now, John McCain is the Underdog.

So even if McCain won’t be President, he does have a starring role in a graphic novel.

And a book. Twelve is rushing the paperback edition of his Hard Call now that McCain is a serious contender in The Race.

Bravo to Twelve by the way. They only publish twelve books a year. One a month. They strive to publish singular works. Good works. While other houses are selling and branding and advertising and fucking small woodland creatures, Twelve insists that, “To sell the book is only the beginning of our mission. To build avid audiences of readers who are enriched by these works – that is our ultimate purpose.”

You could say that they do it in twelve positions.

Reading is Sexy. Do it Like a Slut.

Shortcomings by Adrian Tomine

January 29th, 2008 at 5:33 pm

Nerds used to exist on mainstream society’s periphery. With the advent of the Internet and its related technologies as well as the growing popularity and legitimacy of Graphic Novels, Nerds have emerged from their mother’s basement to share their own foibles and insecurities with the Rest Of Us. Lucky Us. See Nerds: Who They Are and Why We Need More of Them.

And also luckily for Us, there are many, many graphic novels that are Good Entertainment. Shortcomings is no different and very much in the vein of other contemporary graphic novels with its sexual fixation reminiscent of Daniel Clowes and Christopher Ware. Shortcomings is dark and brooding with a clean black and white artistic style that achieves the same simple poignancy as Blankets.

In Shortcomings, Tomine’s dialogue is first-rate. The character’s speech crackles and pops with authenticity. Though Tomine is fond of using “TCH” in his character’s speech patterns. Does “TCH” represent that pulling of tongue down off the roof of your mouth to make that soft sucking noise like a quick peck?

Shortcomings has great narrative pacing that provides light, breezy entertainment despite the inevitable annoyance of overly self-aware, angsty young adults arguing incessantly about their relationship problems. The book is called Shortcomings. Tomine’s mise-en-scene is top-notch with superb transitions, crisp imagery, subtly rivaling a master filmmaker, and great movement within and across the frames. No difficult task for a static medium.

Best of all, Shortcomings is really pretty funny. Some snippets of my 3 favorite parts:

1. “So she’ll writhe around on stage with a bunch of naked creeps, and she’ll take photos of her piss every day, but kissing me…apparently that’s too disgusting for her!

2. “You’re a good kisser.”
“I know. I’m very orally fixated.”

3. “Anyway, I saw her on campus the other day, and it…escalated.”
“Oh-oh. What does that mean?”
“She started talking shit again, so I kicked her in the pussy.”

Bravo, Adrian.

So read this book. And all the others.