On Love.

my copy of Aaron and Ahmed

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.

If you want to buy the book, at all, I recommend getting it from the lovely guys at Page45, you can reserve stuff via Twitter and everything.

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2 Responses to “On Love.”

  1. Dan Hill January 8, 2012 at 2:21 pm #

    I’ve been on the fence about reading Aaron and Ahmed but this has certainly piqued my interest and it kind of got me thinking about ‘distance’ and being taken out of the narrative and so on.

    The post reminded me in a way of how I felt at a certain point when reading ‘American Widow’ by Alissa Torres. This work doesn’t have the ‘distance’ of the comics you mentioned, being written 7 years after 9/11. It’s a ‘graphic memoir’ (the blurbs term, not mine) detailing the grief and experiences of a 9/11 widow in the aftermath of the attacks.

    We’re drawn into the narrative as we see the beginnings of the relationship between Alissa and her soon to be husband, their courtship, falling in love, marriage, pregnancy, their arguments and then that fateful day arrives. Torres and Choi choose to show the fallout in terms we can relate to. The shock at learning someone close to us has died unexpectedly, the bureaucracy surrounding the most mundane and morbid of tasks (identification, arranging the funeral) and lack of closure over someone. We may not have experienced events like these directly but they’re things on our periphery or of those we know.

    We follow Torres through the next year or so of her life and all the hardships and small victories it brings. Then, towards the end of the book, Choi and Torres choose a very stark image that is so tightly interwoven with the myth/meme of 9/11 it stops you in your tracks or gives a feeling of being ‘rudely present’ as you put it. Then you turn the page to a double page spread and there are no comic panels, just photographs. Suddenly you’re plunged back into the very personal (more so than at any other point in the book) and, by golly, it works.

    Maus did something similar but I think due to that historical distance it’s not nearly as effective as it is here.

    I think it works in American Widow because that initial image is a ‘shared meme’ as it were. Its an image that all of us who remember that day saw or experienced in some form either during the event or after it (I’m being purposefully vague). But rather than front load the image they choose to save it, leading us to it via the prism of a very relatable experience–grief, loss and so on.

    With Aaron and Ahmed then the ideas of torture, Guantanamo and the events surrounding it are so far removed from the purview of us regular folk that seeing it, rather than just hearing about it, forces us to be present, forces us to think about the things done in the governments name, our name. But then, using a meme we can all relate to (love and the notions surrounding it) Cantor and Romberger bring it back around and manage to wiggle inside your mind. It’s like an expanded version of those three pages in American Window. It just took longer to lead you back onto the path.

    Or, I don’t know what I’m talking about. :)

    It didn’t get me teary though strangely enough. The only comic to do that is Daytripper. But that’s a whole other post/comment entirely.

  2. Hannah Nicklin January 8, 2012 at 2:30 pm #

    @Dan you win a prize for lengthy and carefully conceived commenting. A rare thing on t’internet these days. Thanks, and yes, I follow what you say here. I haven’t read American Widow, but if my budget and disposition can bear it I shall definitely look out for it in February. I loved Daytripper (gave it to my dad this Christmas, in fact) but I felt a tiny bit about that as I did about The Road (veering into non comics) – it was affecting, sure, but it felt like the story was asking me to forget myself in a way I couldn’t as a woman. They didn’t feel like universal tales. Daytripper much less so and more forgivably than the Road, but I felt like it was getting at something father/son that I didn’t quite have the key to. So I stayed on the other side, but still walked with it. I think it’s less that these personal stories shouldn’t be told, but more should be told of the non-dominant ones…

    I think I’ve forgotten the point I was making now. Wait, there it is.

    Thanks for commenting. Daytripper is ace. Will look up AW. :)

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