The region now known as Afghanistan has been given the monicker “graveyard of empires” for a very specific reason. Throughout its history, many foreign forces have tried to invade and control it, including the Greeks, Arabs, Soviets and British. Each conquering wave, however, in its own way failed. None were able to secure a lasting foothold or legacy there, anyway, and in the end, they left little behind besides their dead. Hence: graveyard of empires. That’s some cheery shit, wouldn’t you say?
Now, regardless of where you fall on the war debate (and that’s not really an issue I want to get into too much here ... although it may be unavoidable), it’s arguable that the same struggle is currently ongoing in Afghanistan, with the (admittedly these days more subdued - at least on the surface) presence of the American military. And that’s exactly where this book takes off, with the terrors of today ... followed closely by those of yesterday. But they come later.
The premise that writer Mark Sable works with here, despite employing a historically interwoven, character-rich story, is actually pretty simple. An American military outpost in rural Afghanistan tenuously “keeps the peace” with the local population, and within its own increasingly-mutinous ranks. This is all before the small company of soldiers and its surrounding populace is set upon by the reanimated corpses of thousands of years of fallen soldiers, from as far back as the 4th century B.C. Really, they could have called this book “The War in Afghanistan vs. Historic Zombies.” Mayhem, death, biting and lots of bullets, as I’m sure you can imagine, ensue.
It’s cliche to say something like, “this is not your classic zombie story,” especially in the post-Walking Dead world we inhabit. However, very much like Kirkman’s opus, this does feel different. Much of that has to do with Graveyard’s treatment of characters and the messy politics of war; in this case, both with the undead and, more terrifyingly, with ideas.
Although it’s sometimes easy to get lost in all of the names, ranks and raisons d'être of his cast, Sable does a great job of establishing a sinew throughout his widely diverse retinue of characters. Just to take stock for a moment, the personalities that people this book include, but are not limited to, a trigger-happy racist sniper with a soft spot for puppies, an explosive disposal engineer who’s more interested in scoring smack than he is in doing his job, a local translator who also happens to be a raging pedophile and an Afghani doctor who has turned to sewing I.E.D.s inside (and in aide of) Taliban suicide bombers.
Just as important as these individual characters, of course, there are the townsfolk and other soldiers living within this fractured culture, ripped as it is on one side by governmental tyranny masked by religious fanaticism and on the other by governmental tyranny masked by freedom through military involvement. I just thought of another name for this book: Graveyard of Ideologies. But maybe I’m getting too heavy.
What’s great is that, while Graveyard does have a slight lean in favor of its characterization of the West, it does a suitable job in showing the problems inherent in the systems of belief maintained by both sides. There are very few redeeming qualities, for example, in any of these characters, much less in their jaded viewpoints ... and that’s what makes this story and its characters so relatable, yet unlikeable. It’s so damn human. It also shows the irony of how each side’s actions directly effect the element they have “sworn to protect” - the local citizenry.
This conflict is best exemplified in the measured frustration of a local farmer, who simply wishes to provide for his family, but is too busy playing a convoluted three-shell game with the forces that would govern him - alternately being told to grow opium by the Taliban (against his morals as a Muslim) and wheat by the American forces (against his nationalist ethics as an Afghani). And this is all before the tension that comes with fucking zombies starts to sink in...
When the dead do rise - and they do, thickly and in the droves you would expect from millennia of bloodshed - they feel like more of an afterthought than they do even in the aforementioned Walking Dead series. To me, they represent another layer within an already smothered conflict, or, as it turns out, yet another Man-made weapon of mass destruction to confuse and escalate the situation. At the same time, they represent the old adage that “those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”
It may be a loaded term elsewhere, particularly when applied to the hostilities in this region, but when the zombies appear, what Graveyard of Empires becomes is a definite “clash of civilizations,” since the present is forced into combat not only with the bodies that once fought the great and terrible wars of the past, but also with the mistakes they represent, which these forces are currently doomed in repeating.
Herein, Graveyard is spliced from its main narrative thread with snippets showcasing the bloodier side of the history of Afghanistan, specifically in how all of these dead warriors got there in the first place. Moreover, it explores the personal history of the shadowy figure who rises in the third act as the catalyst for the returning dead.
A venture capitalist who personifies the apathetic greed behind black market arms dealing and privatized security forces, he is selling (ironically, to a modern-day conglomerate of some of the forces that previously failed capturing Afghanistan in the past) their own reanimated dead back to them in the form of weaponized zombies. You have to give him credit for going all-out with the gladiatorial flare he presents to his buyers: nothing quite like pitting military men against their recently zombified brothers in arms.
Throughout this entire conflict, especially when this third force rises up to undermine both the Taliban and the American forces, I found myself waiting, if not hoping for that “we’re all in this together” moment, where former enemies reluctantly, but with purpose, join forces to destroy their mutual enemy. That moment does come, but it does so not with a warm, brotherhood-of-man vibe, but rather as blasé and bloody convenience; an exploitative means to a horrible end. The words are not resounding or inspiring, but empty, pathetic and unfortunately, all-too realistic. After all, there are almost as many pacts, agreements and treaties buried in Afghanistan as there are dead warriors.
Graveyard of Empires ends as most war tales in Afghanistan’s history do - in an exodus, with as hollow a death rattle as any conflagration. In so doing, Sable wraps up what was, in my opinion, a fantastic, fresh perspective on conflict within a location that has been saturated by the stuff. His dialogue is harsh and grizzled, but organic and natural ... as sad as it may be.
Azaceta’s art accomplishes the admirable task of being expressive without being overly detailed, and pairs gorgeously with the story. His style is a bit like Aja’s stuff in Hawkeye or Walsh’s turn on Comeback, but with perhaps deeper grooves and longer shadows. He takes double duties in the trade’s additional story at the end called, appropriately, “Circle,” which sees a young, disgruntled local boy taking out his aggressions on his situation before his life is destroyed by the coming zombie plague - a damn decent ancillary piece.
Wilson’s colors, meanwhile, complement effectively, operating under a generally muted palette, almost like that incorporated in the national dress of Afghanistan, or the worn fatigues of the armed forces. This is punctuated sparingly, yet arrestingly, by the bright red of a poppy flower, the explosive encounter between human flesh and heavy artillery or the bloodshot eyes of the recently revived dead.
Altogether, this team has accomplished something terribly unique in Graveyard of Empires: an introspective look into the nature of modern conflict, using the past (in the form of zombies) to illustrate the incessant and inevitable march of Struggle. These concepts never feel too leaden, though, as its points of levity, exemplary pacing and easily engrossing narrative and visual styles come together to make it a wholly enjoyable read, even if all you really get from it is a war story in the Middle East with zombies.
Either way, you should definitely pick this one up.
Writer: Mark Sable
Artist: Paul Azaceta
Colorist: Matthew Wilson
Publisher: Image Comics
Release Date: 5/1/13
Writer/Artist: Paul Azaceta