Consider Game of Thrones. (Doesn’t everybody?) In HBO’s epic fantasy and the George R.R. Martin book series A Song of Ice and Fire upon which it is based, there’s a pervasive sense that the vaguely medieval-English society of Westeros is “normal,” while the multitude of cultures across the sea on the sprawling continent of Essos are … something else. Arguments have been made that the (mostly) darker-skinned peoples of Essos are depicted as savages versus the lords, ladies, knights and peasants of Westeros, where the bulk of the action takes place — but the bulk of the action is itself astonishingly savage and gives lie to the idea that the castle-dwelling, armor-wearing Anglo analogues are morally or culturally superior in any way to the shirtless horsemen and bare-breasted barbarian women who reside in the fictional world’s Orient equivalent.
Yet the taint of Orientalism still clings, and I think it comes down to the fundamental stuff of storytelling itself: language. The speech of the people of Westeros is peppered with archaisms, yes, but it’s basically recognizable as English in grammar and syntax. It’s the speech of the Mongol-like warriors of the Dothraki Sea, the decadent lily-white aesthetes of Qarth, the curly-haired slave traders of Meereen and so on that gives them away as “other.” They use pronouns differently, or not at all. They speak in unfamiliar idioms. Their speech tends toward the flowery, whether it’s flattering or threatening. They simply sound foreign, and our mind’s eye paints the rest of the picture.
The genius of David B.’s comics about violent conflict between cultures and faiths — and Best of Enemies, his collaboration with historian Jean-Pierre Filiu, is very much in that tradition, alongside the war-story sections of Epileptic or the heretic fables of The Armed Garden — is that he Otherizes everyone. To flip through this volume, which traces the history of the United States’ dealings with the Middle East from the fledgling democracy’s conflicts with North Africa’s Barbary pirates at the turn of the 19th century through the CIA overthrow of the Mossadegh government in Iran in the 1950s, is to encounter a panoply of fantastical figures, whether they’re wearing turbans or tricorner hats.
B. is one of contemporary comics’ true visionaries, the speaker of a visual language of his own devising. Despite personal, cultural, and surface-visual connections (all that high-contrast black-and-white) that might make it look otherwise, as an image-maker he has much more in common with, say, Jack Kirby than with Marjane Satrapi. This gives everyone and everything he depicts a hyperreal aura, and in Best of Enemies he goes full-throttle on it. The headdress of an imperious ambassador becomes a globe the pirate ships whose attacks he permit circumnavigate. A stand-in for the WWII-era British government becomes a three-faced Janus-like figure, issuing contradictory proclamations about the future of the region out of every mouth. The chronically bedridden Mossadegh becomes a disembodied set of pajamas, wielding a scimitar against the floating Sauron-like eyes of British spies and provocateurs. America’s chief goon in Iran, spymaster Kermit Roosevelt, is a virtual gremlin, his rictus-like grin affixed to his diminutive frame as he hides beneath a blanket to conduct clandestine meetings with the Shah. Bought-off officials open their jaws like Hungry Hungry Hippos to swallow American dollars. Even as familiar a figure as FDR himself has his eyebrows transformed into a cigarette to demonstrate the gravity of his banning smoking while negotiating with the Saudis.
Beyond individual portraiture, B. has created a method of depicting violence and combat that presents warfare as a horrifying force of nature that, once unleashed, naturally devastates anything in its path. Sword-wielding hands emerge from a pirate ship in every possible direction; beautiful pellet-like cannonballs cover the air so thickly they seem like wallpaper; barely differentiated America, European, African, Arabian, and Persian armies or mobs saturate the page like one of those interlocking Escher grid-type things where the birds become fish. To get back to A Song of Ice and Fire for a moment, for B. war is indeed A Storm of Swords. It’s a disfiguring, deforming infection, too: The substitution of weapons for body parts — sword mustaches, gun-turret faces — is second only to multiplicity as B.’s visual metaphor of choice for belligerence. (“I am become death” indeed.)
All of this is done in one of the most pleasant-to-look-at drawing styles around, it’s important to note. B.’s thick, slightly wavy line, his curves, his superhuman proficiency with blacks — they make even his most rapacious, hollow-eyed killers and blood-drenched acts of savagery a joy to view, and his most obvious, didactic symbolism connect where B.-like hordes of political and editorial cartoonists have fallen flat. Only the opening section, in which the epic of Gilgamesh is juxtaposed with quotes from Bush and Rumsfeld from 2002 and 2003, has that choir-preaching effect that enervates even the best-drawn political comics, though to their credit Filiu and B. admit the “mischievous” nature of the gimmick and thus cushion the bellyflop. (I’d imagine that in their native France, where quotes like Rumsfeld’s immortal “known knowns” who’s-on-first routine are likely less familiar than they are to American audiences, the section felt less hamfisted.)
Filiu’s fealty to the facts can hurt him as a storyteller, hard as it is to blame him for it. America went a long time with virtually no relations with the Middle East at all, and the disappearance of decades from the narrative only for it to take up again in the middle of the massive global catastrophe of World War I makes for a jarring reading experience. The tendency to explore minutiae of the main relationships and conflicts but relegate unrelated issues with which they intersect to as little space as possible — the War of 1812, for example, takes up a single panel in the middle of page after page of pirate-fighting — leaves sections feeling lopsided, too.
Yet even this can function as a strength at times. Take the coup in which the CIA helped overthrow the democratically elected socialist-leaning prime minister of Iran and installed the Shah, the disastrous ramifications of which still drive much of the world today. We normally hear about this cloak-and-dagger operation in descriptions not much longer than the half-sentence I just wrote about it. But Filiu gives us all the ins and outs, forever adding players to the game: Americans, Brits, communists, fundamentalists, the army, the police, the media, actual protesters, fake protesters, organized crime, the Shah, the Shah’s power-behind-the-throne twin sister, Mossadegh, Roosevelt, and on and on. With each participant memorably depicted by B., the sheer size and scope of the effort behind even history’s footnotes is compellingly communicated. It was long, hard work to make short work of America’s enemies.
The fact that all these competing and allying factions — political and religious, military and civilian, Western and Eastern, “great men” and faceless mobs — intersected to produce history is B. and Filiu’s big tell. None of the participants regarded their cause as unjust or the philosophy/theology/politics behind it as unsound. By juxtaposing Wahabbi fundamentalism and Nazi antisemitism, American “manifest destiny” and Israeli zionism, British imperialism and Communist internationalism, and by drawing adherents of each as gods and monsters straight out of an ancient epic, B. and Filiu point out their commonality without necessarily resorting to moral equivalency. Greed, fear, pride, faith, patriotism, justified moral outrage, and unjustified blindness to one’s own moral outrages: They drove the pirates who stole American ships as much as they drove the Americans who stole the Iranian government. It may not have looked like it to the players on the field, but when you sit back in the stands as B. and Filiu do, it’s clear that they’re all playing the same deadly game. No matter the accent, violence is the universal language.