‘Rubicon’ Could Have Been The Best War Comic of The Year

Seven Samurai applied to the Afghanistan war is pretty good, except when it’s taken too literally

‘Rubicon’ Could Have Been The Best War Comic of The Year ‘Rubicon’ Could Have Been The Best War Comic of The Year

Uncategorized September 17, 2013 0

Mario Stilla art ‘Rubicon’ Could Have Been The Best War Comic of The Year Seven Samurai applied to the Afghanistan war is pretty good,... ‘Rubicon’ Could Have Been The Best War Comic of The Year
Mario Stilla art

‘Rubicon’ Could Have Been The Best War Comic of The Year

Seven Samurai applied to the Afghanistan war is pretty good, except when it’s taken too literally

Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai is widely regarded as one of the best war films ever made, if not the best film ever made, period. The story has been retold many times, perhaps most notably in the spaghetti western Magnificent Seven, replacing the samurai with gunslingers.

Here’s the latest version. A creative super-team made up of comic writer Mark Long, screenwriter Chris McQuarrie, Navy SEAL Dan Capel and Italian artist Mario Stilla have reimagined the story again in Rubicon, a graphic novel that moves this familiar tale to the war in Afghanistan with elite Navy SEALs taking on the role of the samurai.

With such a wealth of talent and experience, the book had so much potential. Long is the writer behind The Silence of Our Friends, an excellent graphic novel focusing on the civil rights movement in Texas during the 1960s based on his father’s experiences as a journalist covering it. McQuarrie wrote The Usual Suspects. Capel was one of the original members of SEAL Team 6. The book is published by Archaia, the multiple award winning publisher of the phenomenal Mouse Guard series.

Unfortunately, Rubicon fails to live up fully to that potential, delivering a book that is merely okay. We’ll start with what it does well.

Firstly, Seven Samurai’s core story transfers well to this setting (with one very notable exception, which we’ll get to later). Instead of bandits raiding the village, it’s Taliban. Instead of taking rice, they’re taking opium. The awkward revelation that the villagers had killed samurai is replaced with the awkward revelation that the villagers had previously helped the Taliban kill American soldiers. The philosophical questions of Kurosawa’s masterpiece resonate here as loudly as they ever did.

In too many stories, special ops fiction gives the familiar scene of the stoic operator kissing his perfect wife and kids goodbye as he’s suddenly called off to a mission. In Rubicon, we instead see the team leader Hector Carver getting into a bitter argument with his ex-wife about his failings as a father. Though experienced, none of the SEALs are invincible or infallible — at least most of the time. The strain of war is palpable, and constantly having to be ready to ship out at a moment’s notice puts a strain on the warriors and their home lives.

When the story moves on to Afghanistan, we see the consequences of bad intel and the mistakes that are so often made in the fog of war. There’s a deadly friendly fire incident that is jarring in its swiftness and its severity.

There’s also a fairly entertaining dynamic between the SEALs and the two Army Special Forces soldiers at a forward operating base (clearly stand ins for the characters Katsushiro and Kikuchiyo from the film). Though members of a Special Forces group, the two are support staff rather than field troops, leading to teasing from the operators. Rodney Bolton, the loudmouth signals intelligence soldier with a Ranger tab, a super high-tech rifle with all the gizmos — and no combat experience — is the very portrait of a “fobbit.”

The writers also tell the story of Afghan villagers trying to survive and make ends meet while being caught in the center of seemingly endless fighting. They are unsure who to pledge their loyalty to, with every battle claiming more and more of their people. Though the writers could have given the villagers a bit more personality, the effort is there to make them into characters you can sympathize with.

Italian artist Mario Stilla’s pleasantly rough-around-the-edges art evokes the rugged beauty of the Afghan countryside and effectively establishes a sense of place. It can switch from bright and colorful to stark and moody depending on what the story demands. This succeeds more often than it doesn’t.

There are, however, some serious flaws with the book that keep it from shining. The Taliban chiefs look like they’re riding with Genghis Khan’s army with fur hats, earrings and colorful robes instead of the simple black turbans they are famous for. There are also some nitpicky problems with how they handle equipment (something explained in the back of the book by deadlines, and by Stilla’s lack of firsthand experience compared to Capel and Long’s military backgrounds).

The dialogue is uneven. Though there are some genuinely entertaining exchanges, there also some moments where the SEALs become clichéd tough guys. Also, the characters don’t get much room to develop. Other than Hector’s family problems and Bolton’s journey from wannabe to warrior, we don’t really get a chance to connect with many of the characters.

With as many changes to the source material as were made, there was one element of Seven Samurai that really should have been taken out. In the original story the relationship between the young samurai Katsushiro and a village girl named Shino is an important subplot. You can see where this is going.

In Rubicon, young Cpl. Martin Jenkins has an illicit affair with the village chief’s daughter Afsoon. This is conspicuously out of place and wildly inappropriate for the setting. It also does little to advance the story and — if anything — breaks the pacing. It doesn’t help that Afsoon’s dialogue and demeanor are painfully corny and contrived, with that subplot ultimately ending with a whimper, glossed over and forgotten.

McQuarrie is reportedly hoping to make Rubicon into a movie (and many readers may notice a more than passing resemblance the character Bolton has to Vince Vaughn). Hopefully the second time around the story can more ably live up to its potential and be as good as it deserves to be.

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