By Tom King & Mitch Gerads
One of the reoccurring motifs of Tom King’s compelling series The Sheriff of Babylon has been the contrast between appearances and reality. For example, there is Sofia, navigating a sea of competing interests. Having returned from exile to Iraq in the wake of the U.S. invasion, she is dedicated to reclaiming her family’s once prominent position in the country. To do so requires juggling the interests of U.S. military offices, local strongmen and her own political ambitions, to say nothing of her more private desires. For each faction, she has presented a different aspect of her personality, which taken together form a fascinating character. Variety of perspective can create confusion, such as the fog of conflicting authorities that surrounds Baghdad. Yet, it can also allow for the complexities of human nature. King avoids simplistic stereotypes in order better understand the deep currents of emotion surging through the Iraqi capital.
Issue #8 opens with a powerful expression of this idea. The sequence illustrates a vacation which Nassir once took with his wife and three daughters. Artist Mitch Gerads depicts the Iraqi family engaging in the familiar rites of family trips: exploring historical sights, clowning around, smiling for the camera and relaxing on the beach. Far away from the stresses of police work, Nassir is calm. Gerads’ art emphasizes the tranquility of these moments, especially in one scene where Nassir floats in the sea, letting the water guide him without a care. It is a powerfully affecting portrait of the contentment which may be found within family life. Such peace however, is also fleeting; readers know that the Allied invasion will accidently bomb his home, killing all three children in the process.
Yet, that is not the only additional layer to the sequence. King overlays the vacation scenes with a speech by Franklin, an American agent of some anomalous variety. Nassir spent issue #7 in U.S. custody for suspected terrorist ties. After aggressive torture, Franklin is offering Nassir another chance. Sophia has stepped in for him, despite a complicated history. Nassir did not simply work security for the old regime, but he was an enforcer as well. Years earlier Nassir participated in the “interrogation” of Sophia’s family, the type of interrogation which results in formerly steadfast loyalists abjectly confessing to being traitors and being executed. Sophia survived by the luck of being overseas for schooling. Yet, as the invasion approached she worked with Nassir, who fed her information for the Allied bombers about which targets were military and which were civilian. Too bad there was the snafu about Nassir’s home. Later Nassir would take his revenge by executing three random American soldiers.
King’s words and Gerads’ art combine to create a richly evocative tapestry. Happiness once held is now gone. Betrayals are built on other betrayals. Each participant nursing their own deep sympathetic grief. Is Sophia responsible for the daughters’ deaths? Does it even matter? At some point, do cycles of blood and vengeance become self-perpetuating? Recently this seemingly endless conflict also claimed Nassir’s wife, Fatima, when soldiers mistook her for a terrorist. A split-second decision is all it takes to shatter a person. Is it ever possible to return to the peace found drifting in the waters of vacation?
The issue closes with the burial of Fatima. It is unofficial, witnessed only by Nassir and Christopher, the series’ U.S. protagonist. The scene takes place in an abandoned pool room, previously the setting for a late night conversation between Christopher and Fatima. The ghost of their stumbling attempts at understanding adds another element of regret to the moment. Gerads baths the scene in the deep greenish blue of twilight, as starlight shines through the damaged roof. Then in a two page series of panels, Gerads shows Nassir preparing his wife for her final resting. Tears streaming down his eyes, he kisses her goodbye one last time. It is a moving, universal depiction of grief.
Another one of Sheriff’s motifs has been the need for empathy, as well as the limits of being able to achieve it. As an expression of this idea, King has filled his series with complex characters who are also relatable. There are no simple answers to who they are, any more than there any simple answers to the larger political/social conflicts swirling around them. That is both the beauty and the tragedy of this excellent series.