Best of Enemies is a beautifully-illustrated story about an area of our world that brings nothing but bad news. Subtitled “A History of US and Middle-East Relations, 1953-1984”, this 100-page volume is written by Middle East expert Jean-Pierre Filiu as a well-designed and detailed presentation of the facts of the almost endless conflicts in the Middle East. It’s a nice quick primer to those turbulent decades, a terrific intro to a deeper study of Mideast relations or a way to become familiar with the grievances and threads that have resulted in so much tension in the world.
For Americans there are lengthy sections covering some of the lowest moments in our history: for instance, Filiu spends a lot of time on Kermit Roosevelt’s endless journeys between Mideast countries in the 1950s in attempts to keep Middle Eastern countries from falling under Soviet hegemony. We also see American’s complicated and sometimes wavering commitment to Israel and the Arab states and witness how that wavering caused even more wars. And most tragically for many of us, Best of Enemies touches on two of the most tragic events for America in that region: the Iran hostage crisis of 1979 and the Beirut Marine barracks bombing of 1983, when 299 American and French servicemen were killed by a group calling itself Islamic Jihad.
This volume would be worth recommending as a great overview even if it didn’t include art, but what really makes it notable is the artwork by the brilliant David B. David is one of the finest cartoonists working in the medium today. His Epileptic, the story of how he and his family dealt with his brother’s epilepsy, is a profoundly moving work that brings the reader deep inside the heads of everybody involved, using a style of art that (as you can see from the images included with this article) are nonformative and symbolic.
David B has produced a number of other graphic novels since Epileptic, including the two volumes (so far) of this fascinating history. His work elevates this presentation from being an interesting presentation of facts into a must-read volume. David’s style conveys the past effectively – when he draws historical figures, they look like themselves, and all that – but his biggest strength in this work comes from how adept he is at presenting the emotional side of the events.
Every page of Best of Enemies shows David creating symbolic takes on these historical moments that show not just what people were thinking but how they were thinking and what that thinking means: a banal giant Henry Kissinger holding a Soviet diplomat in one hand and an Egyptian diplomat in the other as he benignly talks them into staying apart from each other; the beard of Ayatollah Khomeini with feet walking towards Saddam Hussein as he considers war against his neighbor; the victory for Israel in the 1979 Camp David peace treaties shown as cutting the arms and legs off of a tied-up Egyptian President Anwar Sadat.
These are the sorts of images that stick in the mind as the minutia of days and people slips the reader’s mind. These are the sorts of symbols that help to make history memorable, that add a psycho-social element to the abstract events and numbers that are usually taught.
This fact also shows how the work of a master craftsman like David B. can elevate a story into something that nearly resembles fine art. It’s a truism that comics can tell a multilayered and complex story in ways that no other artform can approach due to the way that concepts such as parallel narrative and nonfigurative drawing can add depth, energy and power to a theme.
That fact has been especially true in works of graphical reportage by empathetic creators such as Joe Sacco, Rick Geary and Guy Delisle, who add the subjective to the objective and bring a dimension to our perceptions of history that could only come via the artform of comics.
But David B. takes that transcendence to a different level here. Because his comic art is symbolic rather than figurative, and because his approach is more about the reader sensing the impact of a historical moment, he creates an experience that literally transcends the subject matter, providing the reader with a different way of looking at these events while also being true to them.
Unfortunately, there’s at least one major error that casts some of the other facts in doubt. On page 68, the Iran hostage crisis is discussed. The text of reads “Tehran announces their release ten minutes after Reagan’s nomination was announced.” This is absolutely untrue based on everything that I’ve read. In fact the hostages were released on January 20, 1981, after Reagan’s twenty-minute inaugural address was complete. If the Iranians had announced the release of the hostages after Reagan’s nomination was announced (at the 1980 Republican Convention, on July 17, 1980), the entire 1980 election in the US would have gone differently.
If such a major and well-known fact is incorrect, the reader has to wonder what else is wrong. Maybe something was missed in the translation or proofreading stage of Best of Enemies, but what else was also missed? What facts are incorrect here? It casts a deep cloud over the narrative that Filiu and David set out. (And if I’m the one who’s wrong here, please let me know!)
Best of Enemies is highly recommended for David B’s outstanding artwork. And I’m sure that nearly all of the facts in this book are correct. But for there to be any erroneous facts – especially important facts like this which are easily found – is unacceptable in a work of this scope and ambition.
UPDATE: OUR FRIENDS AT SELFMADEHERO SENT US THIS COMMENT: