By Molly Jane Kremer. It can’t be easy to write about a polarizing subject like the Iraq War. It took place little more than ten years ago, yet most Americans still aren’t exactly sure if we should have even been there, or if we “won”, and, if we “won”, what exactly were the spoils. Writer Tom King – who spent time in Iraq as a CIA operative himself – makes the intelligent decision to avoid writing about the war itself or its politics. In the new Sheriff of Babylon, the time he spent there is instead used to inform a noirish crime drama set within 2004’s wartorn Baghdad, effectively making it one of the year’s best debut issues.
A relative newcomer to comics, Tom King has injected a surprising amount of depth into what can be widely considered to be standard superhero fare, in books like The Vision, Omega Men, and Grayson. Moving into the mature-audiences realm of Vertigo, his work fits remarkably well next to thematically-similar masterpieces like Scalped and Pride of Baghdad. (Time will tell if those comparisons remain valid, of course, but it’s likely they will.) Though many first issues are oversized now, King and Gerads have created a well-constructed and streamlined twenty-two-page first issue that contains everything needed to leave a reader thirsty for the next issue. It packs quite a punch, and makes for a helluva first chapter.
Artist Mitch Gerads has already established himself well in the military, espionage, and police-procedural genres, with exceptional runs on The Activity and Punisher. He’s perfectly suited for Sheriff, and the high amount of research put into the art is immediately apparent—and is one of the reasons the comic envelops the reader so quickly. The detail in his establishing shots are rendered beautifully, and the more tense sequences have amazingly effective angles and perspectives. His coloring is excellent as well: flat, with rich browns and tans, making the occasional splashes of blood even more eye-catching against the desert backgrounds. The consistently warm, almost sandy tones switch to deeper reds and cooler greens and blues when the action increases. Little expressionistic details—like Sofia’s red nails and purse, and the brushy “THANK USA FOR FREEDOM” graffiti—allow for added resonance. Nick Napolitano’s lettering forwards the narrative and action well, and the switching of fonts for the Arabic dialogue is subtle and functional.
Babylon offers no interior monologue or narration to introduce us to its main characters. There’s Christopher: a white American contractor training Baghdad’s new police force; Sofia: a returned Sunni ex-patriate orphaned by the regime of Saddam Hussein, now a tribal leader/crime-lord; and Nassir: a Shiite former police officer in the old regime whose life has already been decimated by the taking of Baghdad. Three concise, telling, and beautifully symmetric introductions bring them into the narrative. Each section depicts the character in some form of negotiation, employing the same six-panel layout to punctuate the segment with bullets: visually, it’s superb.
Painting an honest, thought-provoking picture of an overwhelmingly chaotic time and place, Sheriff of Babylon gives you more than the usual lingering gazes at the gorey bits. Where other comics of the genre (movies and TV shows as well) might relish in the depiction of a head-shot’s splash of brain matter, Sheriff goes for more subtly brutal violence, switching instead to a pitch black panel, completely empty save for a chilling “BANG.” Though it is decidedly fiction, the story’s realism and honesty is tangible, and it does an incredible job avoiding politicization of its setting in favor of a literate and lyrical interpretation. This is undoubtedly the strongest series Vertigo has right now. It’s a series that seeks to honor Vertigo’s great and storied legacy.
Written by Tom King.
Art by Mitch Gerads.
Letters by Nick Napolitano.
9.5 out of 10