Announced as a part of a new wave of Vertigo titles, Sheriff of Babylon (née Baghdad) written by Tom King and illustrated by Mitch Gerads is a rare entry in the military crime genre for mainstream comics. Set only months after the Invasion of Iraq in 2003, the book is the first creator-owned work by King since making his mainstream comics debut with Grayson last year and it draws somewhat on his prior career as an operation officer with the CIA as well as Gerads’ experience illustrating military fiction on his creator-owned book The Activity. I was eager to sit down and talk with them about their book as it’s set in a very interesting point in history; the Iraq War may have started only 12 years ago but it’s still a moment in time that plenty of people aren’t clear on. So we sat down to talk about the personal connections they had with the book and how the experience of working on it has affected them.
Mark Stack for Comics Bulletin: Sherriff of Babylon is your new book coming out soon. How did you guys start working together on it? Did you come up with the idea and then look for someone to work with on it or did you meet and start developing it from there?
Tom King: I pitched it without an artist back in the day. It is a very personal work and it got accepted. It had to be the exact right artist to go forward. It’s the first time I have written about Iraq and I was there, so it had to be the right person. They threw a bunch of names at me and I was like, “No, no, no.” They were getting really pissed at me. And then they threw Mitch and I was like, “Yes! Stop! Stop throwing other names. That’s the exact person it should be.”
CB: Yeah, Mitch, you have a lot of experience with military-based books. You had The Punisher most recently, which was always a great looking book. What have you been looking at for this? What sort of reference photos, documentaries, or anything have you been looking at?
Mitch Gerads: I started off the day that Jamie Rich, our editor, called me. The very night I grabbed my wife and we went out and bought Green Zone on DVD. We watched it just to get my head right. After that actually, Tom recommended the book that that movie was sort of loosely inspired by. I read that. But otherwise, you’d be surprised how hard it is to find reference, images, and information even about that period in time, which was not that long ago. It was fifteen years ago or something.
King: It was eleven years ago. That movie is so old, man.
Gerads: Eleven years ago, sorry. Through my work, it is so important to me to do research and get things right, especially when you are dealing with a real world thing, dealing with that military aspect of people who served. It is a respect issue for me as well as an artist quirk. I’ve gotten really good at finding what I need in Google and Flickr. Getting in there and making sure every sidewalk, little building, etc., nothing is straight out of my head. Even just the tiny little things in the background are something I looked into and it existed or exists from that time period in that city.
CB: Alright, Tom, you’ve said it was a personal work for you. What sort of thinking went into making it set very soon post-invasion 2003? Why that specific era?
King: I served in Iraq. I didn’t want to write about a time I wasn’t there because I wanted to write about what I sort of knew. So it’s as unsubtle as that. I didn’t want anyone to think I was faking it and say, “Okay, that’s not what it was like. It was like this.” So I set it at a time I was there. But I felt like the time I was there (everyone feels this way) felt like a transition period. When I first arrived, we were still like, “Okay, this is about to calm down. This is going to be fine.” By the time I left, we were like, “Okay, we are in a longer period of war that we kind of don’t even understand what the conflict is.” So to write about what happened when everyone was saying, “Mission accomplished” to when everyone was saying, “This is going to take forever,” I wanted to write about that. And it just happened over a few months. It was a crazy transition. I wanted an opportunity to play with those themes.
CB: From the solicit, it sounded like the book has two leads. Is that correct? And what sort of perspectives are you exploring with them?
King: There’s three main characters. They all have totally different perspectives. We start with Chris. He is an American contractor. He’s the audience’s way in. He’s a guy who is not used to this environment. He’s a cop who trains police forces. After 9/11, many of us like myself, had a reason to feel guilty about that, that he didn’t do enough. He wants to do something in the world. He wants to fix it because of that. And for some reason, he ends up in Iraq doing that, like my whole generation I feel sort of went through that transition. So he gives that perspective.
A different perspective is Sofia. She’s a female woman who is the head of an old Sunni Iraq family. She was raised in America. Her family was killed by the Saddam regime. She is returning after a long time to be the head of that family. But she’s very powerful because she’s the head of a family. She’s almost like a crime lord in a way, but a female in a very male dominated society.
And the third perspective is (this is going to get into politics), Nassir a Shiite. You know there is a Sunni Shiite split in Iraq. So this is a Shiite who worked for the Saddam regime, which was a Sunni regime. Think of it like a Jew who worked for the Nazis, almost. So he compromised himself entirely to be a cop under the Saddam regime. Once Saddam fell, he’s finally sort of free of that, but he’s getting drawn back into it. So there are three different perspectives: an American, a Sunni, and a Shiite.
CB: Mitch, how many issues are you into the book drawing? Just the first?
Gerads: Actually by the time the first issue hits, which is the first Wednesday in December, I will have half of the first eight done. So I will be nice and well ahead of the game.
CB: What do you feel you are getting really good at drawing in the book now? What is something that you are like, “Yes, I’ve started drawing this in the book and now I am getting great at it?”
Gerads: I think the three main characters are coming out very naturally right now.
King: It’s Nassir’s mustache, man!
Gerads: Yeah! All three of them, there is no struggle. But the fun answer to that is cats.
Gerads: There’s a lot of cats in the book and it’s been extremely fun to draw them. I am a fan of crazy cats. Tom has a great story for why there are cats in the book.
CB: Would you mind telling the story?
King: Yeah, it’s silly. One of my memories from Iraq is that there were a lot of cats, like little cute cats, around. Someone told me a story that the reason they are around is because there used to be rats everywhere and they couldn’t figure it out. Finally they brought cats in to solve the problem. I don’t know if that is a hundred percent true, but that was the story I was told.
CB: It’s a good story.
King: And it creates good symbolism for what that conflict was about. Sort of like we brought in these cats and it seems like it is something innocent and good and kind, but it is actually something bloody and dark about it. So it’s a good little symbol.
CB: Wow, phenomenal.
CB: So what’s your collaborative and communicative process like? How does the writing and the drawing go with you guys?
King: It’s one of the easiest I’ve ever worked with, mostly because Mikel is so hard to work with at Grayson. That guy sucks! [laughs] No, he doesn’t need a safety net. Sometimes you write and you need to worry about how it is going to come out. But I know Mitch is going to do fantastic. Whatever is in my head, he puts on the page. I don’t know how he does it. I don’t know if he has spies in my room or if he has magical powers, but he does it somehow. So having that worry lifted lets me focus on the words I am putting on the page. Nothing is more fun to write than Sheriff of Babylon. Even though it’s sad and depressing and full of blood, it is fun to write.
CB: Alright. Just pretend Tom’s not here, Mitch. What’s the worst thing that he does in his scripts? Does he have any bad habits that come through?
Gerads: He doesn’t have any bad habits, but…
King: I don’t want to hear it.
Gerads: I am definitely going to need some sort of counseling after I am done with this book because Tom is amazing at getting you super excited to draw the most horrible things.
King: Well, you draw them so horribly well.
Gerads: I know! It’s a little frightening how much fun I have drawing these terrible, terrible moments. That leads to a more serious answer of there is a fair amount of violence. But I have approached it because of the subject matter with respect for why there is violence and I respect how horrible violence is. I have done research and depicted it in a very gruesome, but very realistic way.
CB: Because you owe that to the material.
Gerads: Exactly. It’s not sensationalist. It’s not action movie. It’s real. That’s what a bullet does to a person. I kind of want people to read that and not feel, “Yeah!” but more like “Oh, man…” I want it to hit them.