War is chaos for all involved, a constant struggle to marshal enough resources, weapons and manpower to survive another day. It’s also great cover for stealing, killing and blackmail.
The weirdest part of reading The Sheriff of Babylon, set in 2004 Iraq after the fall of Baghdad, is the whiplash at how America’s engagement with terrorist forces has become more complicated. Eleven years ago, it might have seemed that successful elimination of key targets would lower threat levels and restore some sense of safety to the Western world. But the world we live in now is proof of anything but.
This comic — written by Tom King, with art by Mitch Gerads and NIck Napolitano — doesn’t seem like it’s going to be a commentary on the never-ending War on Terror or the US government’s foreign policies. But it can be read as a sort of fractured portraiture of the way lives get ruined and an intimate need for vengeance gets stoked in places where asymmetrical warfare has raged for a while.
Sheriff of Babylon invokes many of the conventions of noir storytelling: readers’ first viewpoint character is a faded-glory former lawman still trying to save lives, it’s got a femme fatale who services powerful men and her own hidden agenda and features a once-happy family ravaged by secret misdeeds. But King’s plot subverts most of these tropes in compelling ways.
Take Sofia, for example. The young woman doing murderous dirty work for various functionaries of the local power structures is hypnotically seductive despite being covered in head to toe in swaths of black. Her allure comes from the ability to access blocked-off social tiers, not because of flesh-bearing sex appeal. She stand in contrast to Nassir and Christopher, the male main characters in Sheriff of Babylon. The former is a bereaved middle-aged Iraqi man who once upheld the law, while the latter is a white American former cop who’s been doing training meant to turn Iraqi nationals into a police force. Christopher’s attempts to engage with a possible suicide bomber get overrun by overwhelming military response and Nassir’s contact with American soldiers attempts to use blood to erase his survivor’s guilt. The right thing? It’s different for everybody in a place like this.
Gerads’ art shines here, achieving a matter-of-fact notional distance that makes the gory shootings and grief-twisted faces even more chilling. As in the sci-fi political drama of Omega Men, King’s past as a CIA counterterrorism operation officer clearly informs the details here. But Sheriff of Babylon doesn’t have any laser guns or alien races to make readers comfortable. It’s fiction that must have been pulled from actual war-wrecked souls. As you read it, you can only hope that things like this don’t really go down in the real world, while knowing all the while they probably do.