Considering how much ink is wasted on how comics have grown up (there's an NPR think piece about it every year), it's very rare to see a story truly intended for adults. You of course have your bodily fluid splattered, self-consciously dark comics of the sort Vertigo often publishes, but their lurid approach to sex and violence is obviously juvenile. You also have, of course, your art house, experimental pieces with surreal art and no story to speak of, but these are more often than not self-indulgent and flat out pretentious, enjoyable mainly to connoisseurs of the comic storytelling form itself. And then you have Sheriff of Babylon, a dramatic story with a straightforward plot supporting subtle character and complex real-life issues. In other words, Sheriff of Babylon is both a very good comic and one intended in a very real sense for adults. Sheriff of Babylon is a murder mystery, and, though I have read far too many murder mysteries recently, it manages to feel fresh and different through its setting. In 2004 Iraq, after the invasion, Chris is an ex-cop training Iraqis to become police officers in Baghdad. When one of his trainees is found murdered, Chris realizes there is not police force to investigate and takes matters into his own hands. He is aided by Sofia, an American-born Israeli girl who is working as a fixer and Nassir, an ex-cop and possible war criminal. In the manner of all detective stories, the case starts simple and unravels a larger conspiracy, but the raw immediacy and bluntness of the post-war city elevates the story into something more. Iraq looks like a world so fallen apart and accustomed to death that Chris' crusade seems pointless.
In a book where the setting is so important, it's no surprise that the art needs to be evocative. And while I have no way of knowing if it looks like 2004 Baghdad, Mitch Gerads provides some excellent work here, creating a dusty, sometimes beautiful shell of a city. The review copy I have is of a very low quality, but even so, I can attest to the beauty of Gerads colors and simple panel work. When you use a photo-referenced styles, you run the risk of making your characters and setting look stiff and awkward, but Gerads has a great grasp of body language and action that allow Tom King's script to become minimal in places without losing the momentum of the story.
And King's work here is subtler and more complex than it has been on his superhero books. The characters struggle with a sense of powerlessness in the face of military action that engenders hate and further violence. King's too smart to make a moral statement about the war itself, but he gets across the unnatural horror of war in small, personal moments that stick with you--like Chris offering a suicide bomber a piece of chocolate or Nassir's wife reminiscing about her lost children. King displays his usual sharp sense for clever storytelling tricks like repeated panels and silent visual beats making for a book that moves quickly and expects the reader to keep up.
The one, and frankly only, place that Sheriff of Babylon loses me is in the minutia of government and bureaucracy. My eyes tend to glaze over a little whenever I see a word balloon that references regimes and the names of military movements and events. I don't really think this is a fair criticism to lob at King as I simply don't have enough patience to put these pieces together but it does make a few small portions of the book drag. But that's a minor complaint that did not for a moment stop me from considering this book on of the best I've read all year. I'm anxiously awaiting the second half of the story which promises to be wrenching and smart as anything on stands.
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Sheriff of Babylon vol. 1: Bang, Bang, Bang Writers: Tom King Artist/Colorist: Mitch Gerads Publisher: Vertigo Comics Price: $14.99 Format: TPB; Print/Digital