My curiosity was piqued upon first learning of The ‘Stan when I noticed Blue Delliquanti, whom I most associate with O Human Star, attached as the artist and I wondered what about a project dealing with war stories might have attracted their attention. After reading these true stories based on the reporting of freelance war correspondent David Axe (as well as Kevin Knodell and several others) during his time spent in Afghanistan I think the answer is clear: these seventeen stories aren’t about war; they’re stories about people during war time.
David Axe, as he mentions in the book’s foreword, a political liberal and self avowed pacifist. At this point I was intrigued because we had two things in common. My pacifism came about as a direct result of the Vietnam War during my youth, specifically from ages 9 to 14 (1967 to 1972), and events such as a Buddhist monk’s protest by self immolation (still seen years after it occurred), the Kent State shootings, and AP photographer Nick Ut’s “Napalm Girl” photo which shocked the entire world. Axe goes on to write: “For better or worse the Afghanistan war had made me who I was and am. I treasured that.” Such a curious and, according to Axe, selfish statement seemingly at odds with a pacifist whose career in journalism began by covering county government for the local paper in Columbia, SC. Then again, Axe begged his editors to send him to cover the Iraq war and he resigned and began his freelance war coverage when the editors refused. It’s these sorts of contradictions that potentially make for compelling storytelling…if it doesn’t kill you.
While all of the stories reflected insight into the human condition under stressful and traumatic situations, a few stood out a little more for me. A simple act of kindness by a mother and her children feeding a soldier while he and his battalion search for enemy troops in a remote village has unexpected and profound consequences serving as a reminder that “not everyone [in Afghanistan] is a bad person…They’re just human. They’re just trying to live.” A fundamental truth like this is far too often suppressed and forgotten during war as soldiers become emotionally and psychologically numb or dehumanize people as the other. Another story relates the bad turn of fortune that befalls an Afghan soldier serving as translator to Americans that forces him to flee for his life and start over in a strange culture where he feels only alienation and homesickness.
War can also be absurd, especially if it’s America’s longest war to date with no end in sight and seemingly no other purpose than for super power posturing, a point Axe makes and with which I agree. One story highlights the Sisyphian efforts of the 71st Cavalry is forced to resort to using a single donkey to haul a 300 pound generator up a mountain to a military outlook. Most people do what they can to stay on top of their credit card bills. Imagine working on a special assignment for the CIA and being tasked to restock a major cache of weapons damaged in a helicopter crash. Thankfully, Uncle Sam gives you a major bank credit card with a credit limit so high you can buy nearly half a million dollars worth of new weapons from a Pakistani arms dealer. That’s a huge amount of money that could be better spent in so many ways, but I digress.
Anyone with an empathetic heart will have it broken by a young family’s immigrant plight in Left Behind. The cover of an Afghan interpreter named Sami is blown during the wedding of his fiancee Yasmin’s brother. When word of this reaches the local Taliban, the young couple are forced to marry quickly and flee to Turkey where they lived in a refugee camp and became a family with the birth of a daughter. Longing for a better life than the camp miserly doles out, the young family and other refugee Afghans undertake the torturous journey on foot primarily to Germany. Life is better but still problematic as German officials move them about and Sami yearns for his family to know freedom. The story concludes without definitively answer to the family’s situation. Unfortunately I can’t help but wonder that xenophobia and nationalism would rear their ugliness and make such a worthy family feel unsafe and unwelcomed.
The magic of Delliquanti’s art here is the rendering of the human body and particularly the face and expressions. On the style spectrum with hyper-realism on one end where a drawn face is distinctly unique and on the opposite end a face which can stand for everyone is rendered as the most basic cartoon. Of course, Scott McCloud posited this much more eloquently. Delliquanti’s style that falls somewhere in the middle allows, coaxes even, the barrier between self and other to become permeable. The reader is more prone to seeing the characters as more relatable, more empathetic. Applying the same approach to de-emphasize the various implements of war is a subtle way to reinforce the focus on the people in these true accounts. In short, Delliquanti makes you feel their humanity.
I confess my initial expectation of The ‘Stan before even opening to the first page was an essay in the might makes right brand of patriotism and was prepared to hate it. Instead, The ‘Stan asks us to look beyond our hubris and political and cultural differences and instead to reflect on the human condition.
Look for The ‘Stan at your local comic shop (Diamond order code JUL181750) or your local book store or purchase from Amazon.