Friday, May 26, 2006

Review: War Fix

"I don't care about politics. I'm there to get shot at. I'm there to live in a hovel and eat bad food and be scared all the time. I'm there to see interesting things and meet new people and do something hard." -- David Axe

War Fix
By David Axe and Steven Olexa
Published by NBM Comics Lit, US $15.95

A journalist looking to break out of the doldrums of covering local news stories, David Axe spent his life savings on body armor and a plane ticket to Iraq. Axe actually went to Iraq six times, starting just before the first Iraqi elections in 2004, in search of the “big story” and hoping to both make a name for himself and see the war firsthand. Axe’s sparse monologue makes for a quick read, but where I came in expecting a war journal along the lines of Joe Sacco’s Palestine or Safe Area: Gorazde, what I got instead was a very disturbing account of a young man in search of something he himself doesn’t fully understand.

Axe is clearly fascinated with people’s inability to distinguish reality from fiction. The book opens with a sobering scene with Axe, as a child, seated in front of the television riveted by war footage from the first Iraqi War. But what is Axe’s statement here? It’s not, I think, that people don’t understand the difference between reality and TV, because on some level of course we do. But rather, I think what Axe touches on here is the fact that whether it’s CNN footage of planes crashing into the World Trade Center, or the latest episode of 24, both are experienced by the majority of Americans, alone in the safety of their homes, totally detached from any real emotional connection to the events unfolding on the screen. War Fix is a statement on our TV-obsessed culture, and the idea (evidenced by the stellar rise of “reality TV”) that if we could only put ourselves inside the screen, we might feel something, anything, rather than the numb indifference we feel alone in our homes.

War Fix, as the title itself implies, represents a growing number of Americans who romanticize war and ‘get off’ on violence. As rational readers, the majority of us understand that flinging oneself into a war, with no firsthand knowledge or experience, despite Axe’s proclamations of how “cool” it feels, is tragically stupid. Axe’s ‘addiction’ is a particularly sad one, as we watch, like voyeurs, as he slowly unravels his life in search of a ‘fix,’ knowing full well what a hopeless endeavor this really is. It’s even more painful to watch Axe lying to his girlfriend, abandoning his job and family, and dismissing human tragedy as “kind of cool,” so much so that I honestly felt like crying after I finished the book.

But at the same time, Axe’s lucid self awareness is part of what makes this book so compelling. Axe recognizes his own disconnect between the reality of war and his own romantic notion of it, and does not try to justify his actions or present himself as a sympathetic hero. The book’s climax shows Axe greedily snapping photographs of an Iraqi woman who’s just lost a family member from a stray bullet, and is literally cradling the lifeless body on the ground. One can imagine the mix of emotions that must have consumed a “war addict” like Axe at that powerful moment, when on the one hand, he has found exactly what he came searching for: the perfect “cover shot”, a portrait of real human pain (the kind that sells millions of newspapers, despite the fact that it appears so often we are almost completely desensitized to it), yet on the other hand, he is virtually overcome with guilt at his own selfishness and monstrous disinterest in the tragedy before him. Indeed he is so overwhelmed, he drops his camera, and stares as if seeing the war for the first time. It’s an intense scene, and one that benefits even further from a clever visual metaphor executed flawlessly by Olexa, who in a single panel, swaps the camera he is pointing at the poor woman for a gun - its statement powerfully clear.

Steven Olexa’s art is strongly reminiscent of J.H. Williams III, (Promethea, Desolation Jones) in both character design and unconventional, dramatic page layouts (double images, inset panels, etc). Having won the prestigious Charles M. Schulz Award in 2002, Olexa’s definitely a talented artist, though the constantly varying page layouts, while interesting and I’m sure fun to draw, seem as if they were laid out somewhat at random. Much like an MTV video (perhaps this too is an intentional technique by the writer?) we are barraged with a lot of random war images at once. To be fair, the script doesn’t really lend itself to much sequential panel to panel action, as it’s primarily an introspective monologue calling for character close-ups and action montages. Olexa uses gray scaling, opacity fading, and other Photoshop filtering effects to give his black and white pages a much more textured look. It’s effective and greatly enhances the artwork overall, though again, in a few spots it felt a little experimental and overly varied.

What makes the great works of war journalism stand out is that they put a human face on the violence. In that sense, War Fix falls short. It’s more of a portrait of misguided youth than a war journal, as David Axe rarely lets us outside of his own head to show us what’s really going on. Unlike Sacco, Axe never fleshes out any of the interesting people he meets into sympathetic characters. Even his girlfriend is relegated to a minor role at best, though in single-minded pursuit of his fix, this may well have been how he actually saw the people he encountered.

But in another sense, I think Axe has achieved exactly what he set out to do: present an honest political statement about the damaging effects of our culture’s insatiable appetite for endless entertainment. That such a thing as “war addiction” could exist is surely a sign of the depressing times in which we live, the bloodiest century in history. War Fix is one of the most depressing books I’ve ever read, yet it’s fascinating at the same time, and in some ways, I think Axe has brilliantly captured an unflinching portrait of his generation.

War Fix is a book I definitely recommend, and would even go so far as to call it outstanding, but I’m not sure I actually liked it.

Grade: 4.5/5

Some good further reading on War Fix:
Combat Junkie: David Axe's War Fix (Publisher’s Weekly)
Sample Pages fromWar Fix (NBM)

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