Tuesday, May 9, 2017

"Did that thought go through your head?" Rolling Blackouts review

"The only thing I'm looking for in this story is that dynamism of someone engaging with something and then changing as a result."

It was just over a decade ago that I discovered comics journalism existed; having been brought up primarily on a diet of super hero comics, I was still finding my feet with the wider comics arena. Reading Joe Sacco gave me an appetite for comics journalism and I've sampled what little there is when it appears. This brings me to Sarah Glidden's recent graphic novel Rolling Blackouts: Dispatches from Turkey, Syria, and Iraq, published by Drawn & Quarterly. I had previously bought and enjoyed Glidden's prior graphic novel How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less, so this newer book was something I anticipated delving into. I actually discovered Rolling Blackouts on the shelves because I instantly recognized Glidden's style on the cover and was excited to see a new book by her!

Set in 2010, Rolling Blackouts is a recount of Glidden joining two journalists and a former U.S. Marine named Dan as they underwent a journey into Iraq's Kurdish territory, then to see Iraqi refugees in Syria. As her first true outing as a comics journalist, Glidden is superb at capturing people's personalities through her simple facial expressions and in the simple Herge-meets-watercolours art making up her backgrounds; How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less certainly prepared her for this challenge and she meets it well; the accounts of refugees telling their stories are quite captivating.

Yet there's another story going on here, a story which one of the journalists - Glidden's friend Sarah Stuteville - attempts to tell through the person of Dan, who is an old friend of hers from her teenage years. Dan was against the Iraq War, yet wound up serving in Iraq in 2007 because, as he puts it: "I thought the war should never have happened, but I want to support the cause, even if I thought it was wrong, by contributing a guy with a clear head, I guess." Dan is interviewed by Stuteville at various points throughout the book and these soon become the most tense moments of the book - because Stuteville is constantly seeking to tug on the reins of Dan's story.

Dan seems extremely level-headed, very relaxed even when discussing his time in Iraq: "But my memories of Iraq mostly are of laughing hysterically and being with friends," he states. He repeatedly insists that he has coped well with what happened to him in Iraq: "It's just a luck of the draw thing. Fifty-two cards in a deck, somebody's gonna get pulled out. I was lucky to stay in the deck and be safe." His personal philosophies, by contrast, come from what seems to be a grim assessment of human nature: "Life will go on whether it sucks or not. I guess I see things kind of harshly. I don't see this perfect utopian world where people will all get an equal share."

To this, add his old friend Stuteville. She is convinced there's more to Dan than what he presents in their interviews and continually attempts to draw him out - but he refuses to be led. When Dan isn't around Stuteville confides to the others her own thoughts on what Dan has shared: "I think there's a key incident here that might unlock some of this," she insists. "We have to crack his code!" Although quite aware of what she's doing, Stuteville presses on, despite acknowledging "Frankly, we've kind of heard Dan's story before."

Glidden, being less emotionally invested in Dan and Stuteville's relationship, seems to see the wider picture: "He might not feel guilty at all," she says of Dan 2/3rds of the way through, despite both journalists' belief otherwise. In fact, early on Dan states that what bothers him the most about returning to Iraq is "the narrative people are expecting me to tell." Yet Stuteville doesn't seem to catch that. She also makes Dan upset around that same time when he asks her not to tell people he was in the military, to which she rejoins: "I don't see why you think we should deceive people!" She doesn't seem to believe Dan deserves any agency in the telling of his story.

Instead, Stuteville grows increasingly frustrated by Dan. "To me, the story of Dan is in the things he asserts that aren't true." At times she begins to detect how her frank speeches about the Iraq War are driving Dan away from her, causing her to reflect how they "need to be more careful about what we talk about in front of Dan." And so, Stuteville becomes the most fascinating character in the book - the reporter who has already made up a story in their head and is trying to get the subject to put it into words - only for the subject to be unwilling.

After drawing Dan's attention to two earlier quotes of his which didn't agree with each other, Stuteville goes on to state, "I didn't even ask you if you felt responsible or guilty. I've never asked you that." Glidden inserts herself into the background here, possibly because Glidden is questioning the validity of Stuteville's remark; although Stuteville never asks Dan whether he feels guilty, she does ask him why his sense of guilt "doesn't necessarily extend to what happened to the Iraqis." In this and other conversations Glidden draws Stuteville with expressive furrows on her brow or pleading eyes as she spars with Dan; this particular conversation ends with Stuteville's recording device losing the interview, which causes Stuteville to storm off in anger. It's clear that she's emotionally too close to Dan to objectively tell his story (assuming the story is even there).

Stuteville sums up her "conspiracy" against Dan by explaining how she feels journalism is meant to challenge and change others; when Dan appears unchanged by what he sees in Iraq & Syria, she internalizes this as her failure as a journalist. "Nothing is different," she states of Dan. "If anything [he's] become less honest," concurs Stuteville's collaborator Alex. Yet the idea of life's journey containing these sort of easily-identifiable stop signs seems fallacious to me; some of the moments which changed my own life didn't impact me until a month or more after they'd passed. I often feel I'm only observing my life drift by, not directing it.

So, Dan never undergoes the change which would have satisfied Stuteville. Yet, the book Rolling Blackouts doesn't suffer for this; I'm very much of the philosophy that life is not a novel with its denouements & climaxes. I appreciate the fact that real people are full of contradictions, self-justifications and hypocrisy. But then, I'm not a journalist or a storyteller - simply an observer.

No comments: