In ‘The Sheriff of Babylon,’ Iraq Is a Crime Scene
Tom King's graphic novel is one of the best comics about a bad war
There’s a corpse in the street and no one wants to claim it. The body rots under the Hands of Victory in Baghdad, Iraq. It’s 2004 and, according to Pres. George W. Bush, America has achieved victory.
The body was once an Iraqi named Ali Al Fahar who worked for the Americans. He was training to be a cop but now he’s meat. The only person who can identify the body is the guy who was training him–an American contractor named Christopher.
Christopher is determined to find out what happened to Ali. That decision leads him into a world he only barely understands in a country filled with liars, thieves, fanatics and opportunists. Along the way he meets Sofia, a powerful political figure returning to her homeland to clean up Saddam Hussein’s mess.
He also meets Nassir, one of Saddam’s former enforcers.
Christopher, Sofia and Nassir’s journeys cut through the heart of occupied Baghdad and leave everyone changed — and not for the better. It’s a comic book called The Sheriff of Babylon by Tom King, available now in a complete collected edition.
It’s one of the best stories about the war ever told in any medium. Writer King knows what he’s talking about. He was there.
As with so many of us, 9/11 interrupted King’s life. He had interned at Marvel and DC comics in the years before. When the towers fell he joined the CIA’s counterterrorism task force. By the time he finished training, the United States was in Iraq, so that’s where he went.
He spent five months in the country and five more years in the CIA. He left the CIA when his first son was born and returned to the world of comics.
King got started writing superhero comics but The Sheriff of Babylon made him famous. “For obvious reasons, I couldn’t write about the spy stuff I did in the CIA, so instead I framed it as a crime series,” King wrote in the introduction to the deluxe edition. “Someone gets hurt, someone tries to help, and something gets lost along the way. It seemed like a good metaphor for whatever it was we were doing over there.”
King’s experience brings an authenticity lacking in a lot of fiction about the work. Most of the movies and books about the war fall into two categories — soldier focused melodrama such as American Sniper and Taking Chance or anti-war political polemics such as Body of Lies and Shock and Awe.
The Sheriff of Babylon isn’t like any of those. It charts its own path and becomes a strange and beautiful crime story that’s got more in common with Chinatown than it does
The Sheriff of Babylon is one of the only works of fiction I’ve seen about the war that treats the Iraqis as actual people. There’s complex interactions between the Shiite, Sunni and Kurds. The Iraqi dialogue is distinct and different from the Americans, as if written by someone who understands the nuances of Arabic and the humanity of its speakers. When Nassir or Sofia says “God willing,” King writes it as “God willing” instead of “Inshallah.”
To talk too much of the story is to ruin it, but there’s tragedy and action and madness. An American and an Iraqi sit in the bombed-out pool of one of Saddam’s palaces and talk frankly about 9/11. NCIS spooks with twisted smiles seem amoral at first, but falter when confronting their actions.
Towards the end, Sofia — who spent so many years in exile asking the United States to bring its military might down upon Saddam — faces down a jihadi in a suicide vest. “You and your people fire your mortars and try to scare people by killing grass,” she says. “Your people take empires? With these little bombs here and there? My God. I aimed the greatest army in the world at my enemy and wiped him from the earth. Brother, I am shock and awe.”
In the end, when the mystery is solved and the dust settles, there’s no peace for anyone, just another body to dump below the Hands of Victory. This time though, the soldiers don’t have to carry him to the morgue themselves. They can call a car.
That, they say, is progress.