I haven’t really talked about comics much here, before – though I have music, games, dance and, obviously, theatre – but as comics are more and more a part of my life these days (film and TV; meh), it was pretty inevitable that one would drive my fingers to the keyboard at some point.
Ready yourself for some minor spoilers (nowt more than you’d get from the blurb on the back, and no major later ones, I hope).
I just finished reading a comic called ‘Aaron and Ahmed‘. It was recommended to me by my mate Andy whose judgement in comics (except for the men in tights kind) I trust implicitly. But, unusually, I struggled with this one. Andy said it had him in tears, and so I fully expected to be in pieces afterwards, but instead I just felt kind of… silent.
I think I want to talk about a flaw in the work, though I’m not sure. Like I said, I really struggled to read the comic; I just didn’t move past the first few pages.
The writer offers you a once-broken man; an army psychiatrist saved by the love of a good woman, only then to lose her in the attack on the Twin Towers; seeks out employment in Guantanamao Bay. That’s the opening premise, Aaron before we meet Ahmed. We watch him walk into the Guantanamo.
And that’s when I leave. Because my disbelief refused to be suspended the moment we traipse the halls and dusty grounds of that detention camp. Detention. Those little neat words like hospital corners. Place of torture; that’s what we see in Aaron and Ahmed. Aaron sleepwalking around rooms where different horrific tortures are inflicted on detainees. Victims? They’re certainly portrayed like that. Right then I’m lost to the main character, right then I can’t possibly walk by his side.
What stopped me at that first page I saw a man being tortured was like the feeling of a seeing punch to the stomach of someone I love further away than I could reach them. I wouldn’t walk by it, not even as narrative companion.
This story doesn’t fit in my head. My mind said. But it fits in my world, it’s one of the pieces; it fits together with the piece I am a part of. These acts or ones like them are committed by a culture I buy into. My government is implicit in tortures like these.
Here is what interests me about the work; it’s close, recent stuff, this. How could I possibly be asked to suspend myself? It doesn’t have the historical/generational distance of Maus or Ethel and Ernest, the ‘not-here-but-somewhere-like-here’ of something like Habibi, or the personal ‘true story’ nature of works like Fun Home or Persepolis. I felt rudely present throughout the whole. And maybe that’s right; that I feel my body – my mind – present. That I see how they might or might not be implicit in a story; this story. That I see both me, and story, and the places they both vanish, because that’s where things sometimes get dangerous. Like the kinds of stories, the memes which the story goes on to talk about (still, I felt, pretty heavy-handedly). The stories we (cultures, societies, religions) tell ourselves about the world. The stories which always have to rearrange the world to fit into our heads. Sometimes these stories should bear unfolding. Sometimes we should trace the creases.
It is the first few pages which cause me to trace the creases. I didn’t really rate the stuff in the middle, but then at the end, the main character’s final conclusions ring true; there, Aaron finds me again. It’s an idea (meme) often repeated, by many people. Here’s one from 403 years ago:
Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O no! it is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Yeah, horrifically well known Shakespeare, I know. It’s been running through my mind, that, recently, though. No one is ever lost to the night sky; it is only ever obscured from view.
Sometimes love burns with disappointment, or regret, or too much weight, or it is obscured, lost. Sometimes you might fly on it, it might suddenly be in the face of a stranger, or stoop with you to pick someone up when they least expect. I couldn’t walk with Aaron past those people being tortured. And when I realised what this meant to me, several hours after finishing the comic, my eyes were wet.