David Axe (Story)
Steven Olexa (Art)
NBM Comics Lit
David was a kid during the first Gulf War, and he found it compulsive viewing. Like millions of us, he was glued to the explosions, street fighting, destruction. Eleven years later, now a rookie journalist, he is even more fascinated by the second series, ‘Shock and Awe’. Without running it by his partner, he talks his editor into releasing him. He’s going to Iraq to cover the elections, even if he has to foot the bill. He tells his girlfriend that a man’s gotta do etc., though he’s not too clear why.
He is embedded with a supply unit operating out of Anaconda, the mother of all PXes. He travels with convoys through gauntlets of enemy fire, joins house searches, road blocks and the hunt for insurgents, and he learns war isn’t like in the movies or on TV. It is long stretches of boredom punctured by fleeting burst of mayhem when the adrenalin goes ballistic, hurling emotions from blind terror to stellar exhilaration and back.
The day after the elections David rolls into Baqbah in a convoy of Humvees to collect ballot boxes. All hell breaks loose. He goes into action with his Nicon (sic), clicking at the speed of an automatic rifle, adding more images of savaged civilians to the huge stockpile of film and stills sent to numb the American people. He returns home in one piece to a relieved girlfriend and Geoff, an ex-Army buddy he’s been writing to during his embed.
Geoff has been there, in that place where heads explode beside you and armor piercing bullets ricochet between front and back plates until a man’s insides are ‘like chili’. He realises David has returned unharmed but scathed. He’s got the bug. He’ll be going back.
Such is the plot of War-Fix and I give nothing away, because this disarming story is not about what happens in war. Like the young David, you can see that on your screens. What you don’t see is what happens to men emotionally in war. Why are they enchanted by the horrific violence? How does armageddon become the only time they feel truly alive? What makes war so compulsive, knowing that death is its ultimate high?
Writer David Axe doesn’t answer these disturbing questions. Without comment, he simply teases them from his reporter and the small band of war junkies David brushes against. Each has a warped rationale for their addiction – the Nepalese mercenary can make more in a single tour than his countrymen earn in a lifetime; the convoy commander with a sketch pad whose creative juices gush in the presence of this ‘amazing thing’, war. And there’s Pratt, the man from the Beeb who, after twenty years covering conflicts and miraculously surviving an execution, thrives on flirtations with death while filing saccharine copy to a foreign news desk that doesn’t want to know war’s sordid truth.
‘Being a war correspondent isn’t a job’, Pratt observes, ‘it’s a condition’, and Axe should know. He is also a journalist, possibly this journalist, and has been to Iraq six times. His brilliantly spartan script drags us down David’s cratered road to addiction with the assurety of someone who has the T-shirt. We see little of the war; few long shots. The camera is tight in, focused on the accumulation of small, almost insignificant events and creepy conversations that become milestones in David’s eventual realisation that he is hooked. Even before landing in Iraq, he uses the stop-over in Franfurt to visit the cathedral, pray for protection and ‘a couple of firefights’, and snap the bleeding body of Christ on the cross.
Axe must have worked closely with his collaborator, Steven Olexa. (They live in the same city.) Olexa’s monochrome artwork has its own intrigue, for this is a psychological drama of inflections, where shadows often reveal more than the lit. His visual narrative demands close reading. Beyond illustrating the story, a critique of war imagery and the firepower of photography is being presented. At times double spreads need unraveling, but that’s where Olexa scores points for subtlety or fine detail. Normally an editorial cartoonist, this is his entry into graphic novels. He handles pose, expression and picture dynamics like an old dog relishing new tricks, most of them involving deft application of Photoshop. More’s the mystery why the cover wrap to this hardback is a photomontage.
Considering the West has invaded a developing nation, precipitated an illegal war and racked up a staggering body count with international impunity, it is remarkable there aren’t more comics about the conflict. There are plenty of graphic polemics, overwhelmingly from the States, but to say so many nations are involved, personal stories like David’s are thin on the ground. No doubt Joe Sacco is on it, but War-Fix is in a different ballpark to Sacco’s work, if only because David Axe is so disturbingly honest about his sycophantic role in the war. Sacco trolls through Palestine like an Intifada tourist, bumping into people’s stories. Axe isn’t interested. He’s losing his soul to shock and awe.
8 – An uncomfortably demanding read that rewards.