Monday, July 15, 2013

The History of US and Middle East Relations as Realized in the Visual Astonishments of David B.

SelfMadeHero is a newish (to the U.S.) U.K.-based publisher of original graphic novels, and they seem to have a pretty good mix of projects in their still young catalog. I decided to randomly try out two completely different graphic novels released by the publisher in the past year, today reviewing last year's Best of Enemies by Filiu & David B. Tomorrow I take a look at INJ Culbard's Lovecraft.

Best of Enemies - A History of US and
Middle East Relations, Part 1: 1783-1953
by Jean-Pierre Filiu & David B.
Translated by Edward Gauvin
Futuropolis 2011/SelfMadeHero 2012
First up is David B. and Jean-Pierre Filiu's Best of Enemies - A History of US and Middle East Relations, Part 1: 1783-1953, originally published by Futuropolis in France. David B. (Pierre-Fran├žois Beauchard) is an accomplished cartoonist and author of several acclaimed graphic novels; Filiu is an renowned diplomat, educator and historian of the Arab region, who has published several well-received books on the decidedly complex subject.

And complex doesn't scratch the surface of U.S.-Arab relations. Filiu does a remarkable job of presenting an illuminating overview of the subject. After a brief prelude covering the historically analogous Epic of Gilgamesh, Filiu dives into the early and formative - and drawn out - conflicts involving the young American country and the Barbary pirates. The United States was not the only country dealing with the scourge of Barbary piracy of the era, and it proved to be one of the America's first forays into non-defensive military actions halfway around the globe. Eventually the American government would actively seek to overthrow the government in Tripoli for its own benefit, using back-channels and guerrilla tactics and straight-out warfare to do so.

Things don't look much rosier in the second half of the book in the chapters "Oil" and "Coup d'Etat." Around the two world wars, as oil became increasingly important a resource for allied interests, the United States took an increasingly active role in the interests of several countries in the region, most pointedly Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Egypt, again manipulating the political outcomes of countries half way around the world. Filiu is clearly drawing a through-line between America's meddling in the middle of the century and our current plight today, a line likely to be closed in the second volume. Key agents of American political and military-industrial will are painted as the manipulator and the aggressor in these chapters (particularly Kermit Roosevelt), but it is made clear that there ware parties on the other end happy to have America in its corner.

And while it's nice to have Filiu's highly expert summation giving structure to the proceedings, it is entirely David B.'s consistently breathtaking art that drives the work. Not content to simply adapt, what is in essence, a richly detailed Cliff's Notes lecture on the Middle East into basic illustrated prose, Beauchard takes the story and setting provided by Filiu and gives us series of visual astonishments, every panel an incisive political cartoon more akin to ancient historical tableaus. In so much of Best of Enemies Beauchard gives us physical beings subsumed by weaponry, linked personages melting into each other, disproportionate presentations of the human form repeatedly falling into glorious, illustrative, and completely appropriate representative abstraction. And this is no neutral rendering of historical events, Beauchard has a visual agenda as Filiu has a sociopolitical one but both play all sides evenly.

I went into Best of Enemies (Filiu and Beauchard should just get it over with and call it Frenemies) with an eye towards some small amount of enlightenment about a complicated and important subject, and while I certainly learned a little more than I knew before about the Middle East, it was David B.'s electrifying artistic tour de force that livened the dry prose and put the work into a different creative stratosphere. And make no mistake, what David B. accomplishes here is quite extraordinary and worthy of note. I can't wait for the second volume.

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