SHERIFF OF BABYLON #5
Written by Tom King
Art by Mitch Gerads
Published by DC Comics
Release Date: April 6, 2016
Interlude in Iraq. Christopher and Fatima share a drink or two in the middle of the night, and truths about 9/11, a paucity of batteries, and a surplus of cats all come out in the wash.
War stories used to be the biggest thing once upon a time, right up there alongside super-heroes and westerns. When exactly did that change for the American audience? As late as the early 1980s, Sgt. Rock was a top seller for DC Comics, but something… changed.
Perhaps it was the retirement of comic creators who lived through (and fought in) World War II. Passing on the reins to creators who came up in the Vietnam War era, these writers and artists might have been the last ones to see war as a heroic — albeit tragic — effort. And once America hit the first Gulf War under the first President Bush’s command, it was over for the genre.
It’s upon this barren landscape that Sheriff of Babylon rises, and with it brings as deep a complexity to the heroism and tragedy of war that Easy Company brought once upon a time — but whose players are not nearly so black and white as in the so-called “Great War.”
It’s easy of course to talk about those who perpetrated 9/11 as monsters. Not so easy to talk about those they swept up in their wake. The Americans left behind as the ash fell from the sky — Muslim and non-Muslim. But also, the country of Muslims thrown into chaos by an administration looking for someone to blame. And it was chaos, something our government was smart enough to keep off the television screens the way Vietnam-era American military wasn’t.
King and Gerads have laid down that sense of chaotic ambivalence with Sheriff of Babylon in general, and distilled it even further with this week’s issue #5. It’s practically a microcosm of the entire series and an entirely new way to look at war comics for a post-9/11 (but not rabidly jingoistic) readership. The focus down to two characters — Christopher and Fatima — as an unlikely pairing is so revelatory, even as they begin to slur their words and squint as the sun comes up.
King’s development of Fatima as a player equal to, and even somewhat smarter than, her husband Nassir isn’t just creative license. The women of Islam are consistently underrepresented and infantilized by Western media, and Fatima, like Sofia, isn’t extraordinary so much as representative. She is nuanced. She is discerning. And she is every bit a match for the conflicted Christopher, who it seems came to Iraq out of some twist of fate arising out of misplaced guilt.
It’s to King’s credit that Christopher has become such a confused, although deeply empathic character, and not a Sergeant Slaughter wannabe ready to tear up a country already torn to pieces by his predecessors. But the true gift of issue #5 is rolling the dice and throwing these two characters in a room (albeit a really big room with a swimming pool) and seeing what comes of it. And what comes of it reveals more about the horror and unintelligibility of war than any explosions or crack of a sniper rifle ever could.
Gerads’ delivery of what is essentially an entire issue of talking heads is so perfectly executed, not simply for keeping the pacing moving, but for slowing the book down for detail we can appreciate too. It’s funny, because it wasn’t King’s dialogue that clued me in to the nature of Christopher and Fatima’s conversation — it was Gerads’ handling of the hand signal.
One hand pointed, then curling to a fist, hitting the other hand.
So much is said in this motion. And it gives me pause to think that all of this, an entire country put into ruin and disarray, over boys flying planes. And as terrible as that was, and as terrible as what came after was, there are still two people, from opposite sides of the world, coming together to drink. And laugh. And understand.
The color palette Gerads has pulled throughout this issue, taking place in the space of a single night, is just so lovely. In particular, the sea green tones cascading in the pool space makes it feel like a lit pool of chlorinated water was reflecting the moon, when in reality, all that’s there is a bomb crater and rubble. It’s a fantasy of sorts, but one told entirely through color, and one that fades so slowly and subtly as the sun rises in the sky. As the cats come back out in the Green Zone.
It’s poetic, and one of the best character studies I’ve seen in a comic in ages, but the true victory for Sheriff of Babylon #5 is the ability to take a deeply complex moment in history and distill it down to two people who have no business being friends, but can share a drink in solidarity, if not understanding. Not antagonists. Not lovers. Not political allies. Simply players in a game they can only try to impact in little ways. It’s a truly lovely issue, and one worth picking up whether you’ve read #1-4 or have not. Because, trust me, once you finish #5, you’ll be in for the entire experience.
The Verdict: 10/10