By Tom King & Mitch Gerads
Empathy is a difficult virtue under the best of circumstances. During wartime, it can feel like a downright impossibility. Yet, this important quality is the focus of the latest chapter of Tom King’s portrait of Iraq in the aftermath of The Second Gulf War. The previous issues had focused on a variety of personalities in order to create a tapestry of life under the American occupation. #5 does something different, as King dedicates the entire installment to one late night conversation between two characters. The result is a humane portrait of individuals grappling with how to connect and make sense of their lives.
The setting is the Green Zone, the fortified headquarters of American forces in Baghdad. Series protagonist Christopher is unable to sleep. Stepping out for fresh air he meets the Iraqi woman Fatima, to whom he is providing shelter along with her husband, Nassir. She too needs some head clearing. At first, their conversation displays a bit of stiffness, especially from Christopher who is understandably concerned with misreading what Fatima is saying. Fatima is simply at the end of a stressful day and craves unwinding. She proposes a drink, which takes them on a trip to the canteen. King uses the scene to provide a bit situational humor courtesy of a drunk and his Atkins diet. Christopher leads Fatima more off the beaten track to a place where they can drink in peace.
Christopher and Fatima spend the remainder of the issue in what was (or so they say) one of Saddam Hussein’s pool houses. Whether the local legend is true or not is impossible to ascertain as it was stripped bare in the looting which followed the Fall of Baghdad. Even everyday fixtures such as faucets were carted off. At first this degree of scavenging might seem absurd until Fatima talks of how during Saddam’s regime, what she wanted most was batteries. Fatima explains that she had no love for the dictator, agreeing “one-hundred percent” with America on the subject. So, why should she suffer with all the loyal flunkies and collaborators? Where is the justice?
Justice, like empathy, is a virtue much harder to achieve than they teach in school. As Christopher and Fatima sit in the ruins of Saddam’s excess, taking swigs from bottles of vodka, they are able to find common ground with each other. They speak of “planes” as the cause of their suffering. For Christopher this is an explicit reference to the events of 9-11. As a cop, he even had a brief run-in with one of the future hijackers, though, of course, the significance of the meeting was lost on him until after the fact. Thus, he came to Iraq, volunteering to assist training Iraq’s newly formed police force. He is seeking, in more than one way, a method for putting the past behind him. He wishes that his good deed might wipe the slate clean, allowing him to say “Done and done! Goodbye, 9/11!” This type of declaration naturally does not solve any problem, yet it can be cathartic. Fatima joins in as they both lead a drunken expression of their wish.
This sense of comradery flows organically from King’s dialogue which achieves the tricky balance of acknowledging what is different about their background while still highlighting what is universal. In addition, King draws their connection platonically without resorting to the easy short-cut of sexual attraction. Arguably the standout character of the previous issues had been Sofia, a multi-faceted woman who denies easy stereotypes. The same may now be said of Fatima who gradually emerges as a fully formed individual. Her conversation naturally transitions between the somber and the humorous; for example her observation that she sometimes wishes she had been piloting one of the hijacked planes since she is such a horrible driver. Surely she would have missed the target? Such attempts at finding release in laughter strengthen her appeal.
At the same time, however, she represents the limits of empathy. She never explains to Christopher why she blames planes for her evils and immediately changes the topic when he asks after her children. Readers know that her children died in the bombing of Baghdad and that Nassir has murdered men as vengeance. Marching through the rubble of war, it is quite difficult to walk far in another person’s shoes.
Mitch Gerads’ art is great in matching the mood of King’s script. He does an excellent job of setting the atmosphere of the story. His sparse interiors and somber coloring emphasize the isolation of the characters. They might sit through the night together, finding passing solace in the companionship and the booze, yet it is only temporary. The next day dawns without any greater sense of clarity. After Christopher relates his encounter with the future hijacker, Fatima asks him what it signifies. When he admits to not knowing, Fatima replies that it should mean something. “Sure,” Christopher echoes with resignation, “It should mean something.”
Empathy is essential, yet it is also limited. We can only understand so much. Our duty, though, is to grasp as much as we are able.