Comic Book Review – The Sheriff of Babylon Volume 1

The Sheriff of Babylon Volume 1: Bang, Bang, Bang
By Tom King and Mitch Gerads
Purchase the book here!

2015-12-03-sheriffofbabylonFlorida cop Christopher Henry has a new job training the law enforcement forces in Baghdad. It’s 2003, and he is in the heart of the Iraq War. There is the standard level of chaos and violence in the city but things get personal when one of Henry’s Iraqi trainees is found murdered. Henry teams up with Nassir, an ex-cop still hanging on in the city. In the background is Sofia, an Iraqi-American who has come back to the city to help with the rebuilding process while attempting to take control of the organized criminal underbelly. This is the tv series HBO wishes it had the budget to make.

The Iraqi Occupation has been the topic of numerous films and documentaries, but Sheriff of Babylon is clever in its genre-mashing, bringing the detective noir into play. And it works better than you might expect. The instability in Iraq has blurred the lines of authority and no one can be trusted, not even if they do wear a nice shiny uniform. Between the various sub-groups with the American military, privately contracted forces, insurgents, politicians jockeying for power, and a myriad of other factions Baghdad is an incredibly confusing and scary place.
If you are a regular reader of this blog then you know I love Tom King’s work. I’ve previously read his run on DC Comics’ Omega Men and am still enjoying his work on Marvel’s The Vision. This was the first work I’ve read of his that wasn’t within in the superhero genre, though those previously mentioned titles aren’t superhero stories in the traditional sense. King was an intern under writer Chris Claremont for many years before joining up with the CIA in the wake of 9/11. He worked for seven years in counterterrorism which is very apparent in the detailed storytelling present in Sheriff. The series is written with a level of knowledgeability that doesn’t get too jargon-filled and is still comprehensible to a civilian. The story perfectly hits the notes a good noir should, especially on the protagonists increasing confusion as he navigates the labyrinth. There’s also great moments where we see the effort towards good turned to a pretty hopeless defbabylon02eat, as all noir needs to have.

The artwork is exceptionally well done. It’s very photo-realistic with human expression and faces, but with a gritty abstraction in the right moments. In an interview, artist Mitch Gerads explained that a fan who is also a veteran of the war said the book captured the feel of the environment in its colors. Everything is colored in earth tones and primary colors only appear when something needs to pop out of the landscape around it. The uniformity of color also perpetuates a sense of confusion because military people purposefully become hard to differentiate.

The Sheriff of Babylon is a 12 issues mini-series so this volume is just the first half of the story. I enjoyed it quite a bit and reminds me of a really quality cable drama. No character is ever a stereotype and layers are revealed over time and at key moments in the plot. If you’re seeking out a modern war comic, something dealing with the more complex and gray areas, this series has a lot to offer.

Director in Focus: Brian De Palma – Redacted



Redacted (2007)

So we have caught up with Brian De Palma’s body of work. Redacted goes back to a lot of the same territory as 1989’s Casualties of War. We have American troops in a foreign land and the sexual violation of a native girl is the crux of the conflict. There’s one soldier who above all the rest is still virtuous. This was one was written by De Palma as well and really shows off his weakness as a writer. However, there are some interesting technical elements to the picture, and it really easy very experimental for De Palma, both in its making and the distribution.

Told through soldiers’ personal video diaries, CCTVs, news footage, and user submitted online videos, this is based on a true story where a squad of American soldiers were responsible for the rape of 15 year old girl and the subsequent murder and burning of both she and her family. The film did not do well upon its release, and in no way is this a great movie. However, many of the criticisms were jingoistic blather about De Palma wanted to imply that all soldiers are evil monsters. The fact that one of the squad members goes to the authorities with what happens must have gone over their heads. Its part of this thoughtless creed of “support the troops” which many interpret as do not question or think critically about the actions of the military. I don’t believe every soldier over there is some sort of sociopath, but I believe the culture that surrounds the military breeds that in people who leaned that way in the first place. That said, De Palma doesn’t present either the villains or the hero of the film in an interesting way at all.

The two vile soldiers who perpetrate the rape and murder are drawn cartoonishly broad. There are even scenes where they cackle like the hyenas in The Lion King. The hero is also without flaws and there’s nothing remotely interesting about him. The type of evil that is most interesting is the kind that comes out of mundane and ordinary people. When you have two characters who appear to be walking cliches they don’t come off as truly intimidating at all. A good filmmaker would make us like these guys, show us sympathy for them, and then reveal their darker nature. It makes us question ourselves. Even Sean Penn in Casualties of War, of which De Palma is really ripping himself off on, was a character I understood. Even though his action were abhorrent I could see what he saw in the world. What I did like was De Palma trying to do more with his camera. His typical POV shots were incorporated as part of the soldier’s diaries and there’s some interesting work done with website video.

Looking back on the films of Brian De Palma I have to defend him as a cinematographer. He may not always be a great all-around storyteller but he is one of the best cameramen I’ve ever seen. The level of tension he can generate in a film is amazing, and its all done through some of the tightest editing around. The moment in the prom scene of Carrie, as Amy Irving is figuring out what the bullies are about to do is such a perfect example of that. So much information is told without words, simply looks and cuts. The museum scene in Body Double should be shown to every wannabe filmmaker of how to tell a voluminous story in a only a few minutes and without a single piece of dialogue. Even watching the worst films of De Palma’s, I always knew he would amaze me with the camera. Sadly, his career has been marred by too many failures in a row. According to IMDB, De Palma appears to be working on a remake of his great rock opera Phantom of the Paradise (seen before I started this marathon), a prequel to The Untouchables sub-titled Capone Rising, and The Boston Stranglers, based on a true crime book about the theory that multiple men were placed under the umbrella of one serial killer. My hope is that De Palma can still find a way to produce good films again, I know he has it in him and I think there’s a strong possibility that he can rally a comeback in the same way that Francis Ford Coppola has been doing.

Newbie Wednesday – Brothers



Brothers (2009, dir. Jim Sheridan)
Starring Tobey Maguire, Natalie Portman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Sam Shepherd, Mare Winningham, Bailee Madison

“Support the troops”. Its a slogan we hear time and time again. Yet, no matter how many yellow ribbons we put up or bumper stickers we slap on our cars, there is a severe situation involving soldiers coming home with Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome. While Brothers addresses this, it fails to create compelling characters and ultimately comes off as preachy, rather than significant.

Capt. Sam Cahill (Maguire) is preparing to ship off to Iraq, and the day before his little brother Tommy (Gyllenhaal) is being released from prison. Cahill leaves Grace (Portman), his wife and two daughters behind and ends up being declared KIA. While, Grace deals with the loss with the help of Tommy, Sam is actually alive and well, being held by Sunni extremists along with a private in his unit. Sam is put under severe torture and starvation and made to commit horrible acts. Tommy finds himself drawn closer to Grace but the two fight their urges to give in. Eventually, Sam is coming home and there will be a falling out.

The film is slow, but that is not a bad thing. The plot involving Sam is very interesting and were the moments of the film I paid attention to the most. The Grace/Tommy story is where the film drags. There is really no chemistry between the two so the hints that they might end up together feels incredibly forced. The relationship is so muted to the point of feeling like a way to kill time till Sam returns home. The most compelling interactions are between Tommy and his father (Sam Shepherd). It seems their father dealt with PTSD upon returning from Vietnam and drowned it alcohol, eventually taking it out on the kids. Tommy ends up being the black sheep of the family, and Sam enlists in the Marines because of his idolization of his father.

The picture ends on a very melodramatic note, though its last 20 minutes are its best. The top performance comes from 11 year old Bailee Madison, who plays Isabella, Sam and Grace’s daughter. She very natural and composed for her age, and is a key part of the conflict in the film. Overall, a decent picture but this director has made much much better films.

Newbie Wednesday – The Men Who Stare At Goats


The Men Who Stare at Goats (2009, dir. Grant Heslov)

Starring Ewan McGregor, George Clooney, Jeff Bridges, Kevin Spacey, Stephen Lang
If you remember the jokingly done reports in the media about prisoners of war in Iraq being exposed to Barney the Dinosaur’s “I Love You” song on a loop, then you have already heard of the writing of reporter Bob Wilton. In a mix of fantasy and reality we get this very suspect account of a secret unit of the U.S. Army, in operation since the Vietnam War. Director Heslov doesn’t deliver a film of any great magnitude, it has its moments, and we end up with a very quirky, very uneven comedy.
Bob Wilton is an Ann Arbor, MI reporter who ends up just outside of Iraq as the war is breaking out. Months earlier he interviewed an odd man who claimed to have been a psychic in the employ of the Army. By chance, Wilton runs in Lyn Cassady (Clooney), the man the interviewee claimed had been the best in their unit. Wilton and Lyn begin a strange journey across Iraq that ends with figures from Lyn’s past reappearing and culminating in an LSD fueled finale.
Jeff Bridges plays a ultra hippie, Bill Django, the founder of the New Earth Army, the unit devoted to using peace and love to combat enemy troops. A lot of these ideas won’t seem far fetched if you know anything about the experimentation the military has done on the paranormal for combat purposes. The film even brings up the infamous MKULTRA experiments done by the CIA on soldiers and civilians alike, where psychotropic drugs were added to water without the subjects’ knowledge and their reactions were recorded.
I never found myself laughing during this film, a few grins here and there, but was never really impressed with anything I saw. The film seems to not know what it wants to be: a satire of the army, a satire of the new age movement, a commentary on the absurdity of this current and all war. Because of this lack of a “thesis statement” the film seems to wander aimlessly with no point at the end. Coupled with very amateurish voice over (a big no-no unless you know how to do it right) and an original score that felt cheap, its a film that could easily be missed without regret.

Newbie Wednesday – The Hurt Locker


The Hurt Locker (2009, dir. Kathryn Bigelow)

Starring Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie, Brian Geraghty, Guy Pearce, Ralph Fiennes, David Morse, Evangeline Lilly
“War is a drug”. That is the part of the opening quote on screen that is highlighted as the rest of the words fade away. While protagonist Sgt. William James takes pleasure in his work of diffusing bombs left behind by the Iraqi insurgents, I don’t know if I would ever equivocate this with a drug. Kathryn Bigelow, ex-wife of James Cameron and an incredibly successful action movie director and producer in her own right, brings us this unusually quiet film about living and surviving in a war zone.
The film follows Sgt. William James, a specialist in bomb diffusion during his 40 day tour with a pair of soldiers assigned to the Explosive Ordinance Diffusal (EOD). There is no villain or A to B plotline, rather a series of episodes centered around different types of incendiaries. While James exudes a smug bravado about the work he does, however Sgts. Sanborn and Eldridge think James isn’t taking the weight of his job seriously. Back home, James has an ex-wife and infant son and his relationship with both exists in a vague “other” state. An incident occurs during a routine mission to recover some stolen mortars that send James into a nervous breakdown. The rest of the film plays this breakdown out in an unexpected way and leaves us with a lot more questions about the nature of war.
I found this film to be addressing a lot of issues related to our understanding of mortality. The men who suit up and walk right up to the bombs to lay C-4 seem so comfortable with death that it creates unease in the men working under them. One character feels so threatened by James that at one point he talks to another officer about how easy it would be to set off an explosive in the sergeant’s face. Despite James being a “wild man”, as one colonel says, there are scenes that illuminate a nurturer. As Sanborn lies prone with a scoped rifle, seeking out the insurgents firing on them, James grabs a Capri Sun and holds it so Sanborn can drink. While he does this he talks encouragingly to Sanborn about his belief in his ability to take the enemy out, like a father cheering junior on at a Little League game. James also develops a relationship with a young boy selling bootleg DVDs on base. It’s his relationship with this child that creates an interesting counterpoint to his seeming coldness towards his own infant son back home.
The Hurt Locker is a Tense movie with a capital “T”. Very few films have me cringing in expectation of some thing bad happening on screen. In so many films and television series we see people working to diffuse bombs and we never feel the urgency. Bigelow manages to squeeze that from us through masterful editing. The Iraqi citizens who watch the procedures from balconies are viewed with suspicion, not knowing if one of them is holding a cell phone used to trigger the bomb being diffused. On the flip side, the film makes sure to state that this is not Blackhawk Down, every person you see is not a secret terrorist. Most people are simply average joes, working to make enough to keep on living and surviving. In the same way, this is why James devotes himself to this line work. He knows nothing else. He knows he should love his wife and son, but he just can’t. All he knows is how to deconstruct these vessels of death and in doing so he defeats his mortality till the next time.