In Tom King and Mitch Gerads' "The Sheriff of Babylon" #6, things fall apart. On every page after the first, there's a sick feeling as the wrongs pile up, ranging from the wry sourness of misplaced priorities to the spectacular injustice of the death of an unarmed civilian.
King begins the comic on a peaceful and even jovial note, with Chris and Nassir sitting together like two guys on a summer porch, talking about America and their hopes for the future. This sets up a poignant contrast to the injustices that follow.
Sofia's conversation with a condescending, blustering American general is a brilliant sequence with a Kafkaesque feel to its depiction of bureaucracy. Sofia says almost nothing, yet her few pointed questions and her eyebrows are enough to puncture the general's macho, pompous air, revealing his impotence. Exquisite details -- like the faint condensation on the rim of a glass -- add texture to the background. Gerads' simple nine-panel grid offers a steady point of view on both characters. The general shifts uneasily in the spotlight of Sofia's steady, uncompromising gaze, and his facial expressions and body language tell the reader as much as the dialogue does. It's an interesting touch to show Sofia against the backdrop of the American flag, while the general sits in front of the Iraqi flag. It adds to the topsy-turvy implications of a place where authorities have neither knowledge nor power to do what is right.
In the next scene, Gerads signals to the reader that Bob is bad news with his smarmy manner, bright teeth and fake grin. Whatever he's about to sell, it stinks. King's dialogue quickly reinforces the impression of distaste. The rest of the scene unfolds like it's in slow motion, moving inexorably towards tragedy. Gerads' white-on-black "Bang" panels increase the dramatic tension. By keeping the violence off-panel, the pacing stays taut even when it's obvious what is happening.
While much quieter, the next scene reinforces the disgust created by what has happened to Nassir and his wife. "The Sheriff of Babylon" #6 describes many of the horrors of post-Iraq American activities, but none so grotesque as this one: that, after the fall of Iraq, controlling America's image in the media was more important than the real work of rebuilding. King and Gerads show how the appearance of being "liberators" was more important than the real thing.
The last three pages flip back and forth between Sofia and her brother and fragmented scenes of violence. Hassan's playful but half-serious line of thought gives the ending of "The Sheriff of Babylon" #6 a poetic but paradoxical feel, like a Zen koan.
"The Sheriff of Babylon" #6 is a dark story. Its pleasures are in its truth-telling. King and Gerads show how disorganized bureaucracy and misguided notions are a peculiar and toxic mix, even given some measure of good intentions. Nassir's fate and -- to a lesser degree -- Chris and Sofia's experiences speak eloquently on the tragedy of America's massive military power combined with its lack of insight into Middle Eastern culture, religion and history. Likewise, Gerads' pale, sandy palette is evocative; the reader can practically smell the dust and the blood, and this only reinforces how far Iraq is from America.
This is not a story just for military history buffs. King and Gerads show the horrors created by ignorance, self-importance, fear and lack of tolerance, without ever explicitly telling readers what to think. They acknowledge the humanity of the characters who behave badly, without excusing the damage they do.
If "Sheriff of Babylon" #6 fails in any sense, it's that the story isn't structured or packaged to catch a broad audience. That's not an aesthetic failing, but rather more of a tactical one. Chris Henry's accessibility as an American Everyman is an attempt to mitigate the distance, but alienation is still an emotional leitmotif of "The Sheriff of Babylon." Reading this series feels like a first step on a bridge, because its truths are universal.