There are all too few moments when it’s as easy to adore Jean-Pierre Filiu and David B’s Best Of Enemies as it is to admire it. As the first volume of a three-book history of the relationship between the Middle East and America since 1783, it’s an undeniably timely and enlightening primer. From the U.S.A.’s post-Revolution set-tos with the Barbary Pirates to the CIA-sponsored Iranian coup of 1953, Best Of Enemies carefully lays out how America’s interventions began long before the first Iraq War. Yet the problem with the book isn’t with its clarity or accuracy, but rather with Filiu and B’s efforts to deliver all that information in the form of a comics history. Filiu’s decision to focus on events in a concise, impersonal, chronological fashion is understandable in a historian out to explain such a complex and contentious subject. But with so little attention paid to the characters of those presented on the page, and with so little of Filiu’s own personality on show either, Best Of Enemies soon becomes mired in a sequence of one damn thing after another. Spigelman used family history to discuss the Holocaust in Maus, and Gonick put satire and an absurdist’s good humour to work in order to bind and drive his cartoon chronicles. But Filiu eschews any such empathy-encouraging narrative devices, and inexorably pursues his theme of history as Realpolitik with little concern for nuance, personality or variety. Instead, in a just-the-facts, one-after-the-other approach, he presents us with one ultimately stultifying example of political self-interest after another. As a description of events, it’s hard to argue with, for all that it’s by necessity an over-simplified business. Yet hammered home in panel after panel, page after page, all that pitiless inhumanity soon becomes a soporifically repetitive business.
David B’s undeniably exceptional artwork conspires with Filiu’s words to depict the period as an unrelentingly nightmarish one. Taken as individual panels and pages, B’s pitiless, expressionistic art is as aesthetically impressive as it’s disturbingly informative. Drawing from influences as varied as 18th century political cartoons and noir cinema, the artist’s pages are fiercely individual and consistently intriguing. But as with his collaborator’s contributions, B’s ghoulishly surreal cartooning is, for all its inarguable invention and energy, ultimately repetitive and thereby alienating. There’s little but stupidity, dishonestly, malice and avarice for him to depict, and it arrives on every page and in most every panel without nearly enough variation, contrast or subtlety. Indeed, B’s style is so consistent and idiosyncratic, and Filiu’s script so metronomically one-paced and emotionless, that Best Of Enemies seems to all too often be repeating the same note in only slightly different circumstances. As such, what reads as a triumph of ingenuity and craft in relatively small doses emerges as a progressively lethargic and ultimately depressing slog over 114 pages.
Yet the book’s very first chapter shows what Filiu and B can achieve when all that knowledge, artistry and admirable sense of purpose in grounded in a compelling narrative structure. In what’s a breathtakingly impressive appropriation of the Epic Of Gilgamesh, writer and artist thrillingly portray the culture hero debating with gods and battling with monsters in a way that smart-mindedly evokes post-Millennium American politics. Adding an invigorating edge of satire to the brew, Filiu allocates lines uttered by Bush and Rumsfeld in the invasion year of 2002 among his ancient cast. As always, B’s art is wonderfully canny, evoking Mesopotamian styles without ever seeming to disconcertingly break from his own. But the progression of Gilgamesh and Enkidu’s quest, and the tragic, all-too-human consequences which conclude it, ensure that B’s work also feels varied, characterful and compelling. In avoiding the remorseless, flat delivery of fact, and in snaring the reader with emotion and wit, Filiu and B’s tale shimmers with life in a way that it rarely again approaches.
Pick any page of Best of Enemies and it’s likely that you’ll be as impressed as you are informed. But try to read those pages one after another and all that unarguable skill and achievement becomes obscured by the fundamental clash between form and content. History may well be one damn thing after another, but try representing that in the shape of a graphic novel and the lack of storytelling nous over the long-run will soon become obvious. A host of brilliant moments following one after the other matched to a sequence of undeniably pertinent points don’t necessarily add up to a satisfying whole. With Best Of Enemies, quite the opposite is true. As such, most of us will learn a great deal from Filiu and B’s work if we just persevere with it, but that’s not as easy a proposition as might at first appear.
“Best Of Enemies: A History Of US And Middle East Relations” by Jean-Pierre Filiu & David B is published by SelfMadeHeron.