Aaron and Ahmed

There have by now been many American novels that in some way mean to address the 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States as they took place in New York—and I use that clumsy phrase because all the shorthand buzzwords that almost immediately took over the event seemed at worst to trivialize it, at best to return it to the known and the predictable, to a realm in which everything was obvious and understood. As writers sought to address what happened—or to incorporate it, make sense of it, to express honest or contrived emotion, to wring wisdom from the horror or preen before it, to in some deep sense bear witness to the event or, for that matter, merely take off from it—they failed in inverse proportion to their subject. It was just too big. It was not reducible to the telling detail. It could not be rendered whole. It could be approached sideways, or backwards, as with Don DeLillo's Falling Man, which along with James Marsh's weirdly time-scrambled before-and-after documentary film Man on Wire, about Philippe Petit's guerilla highwire walk between the towers in 1974, before they formally opened, a coup that came off the screen like a terrorist operation, caught something of the uncanny in the fall of people from the towers and then the towers themselves. But the thing itself escaped.


The first shock of Jay Cantor's and James Romberger's comic book Aaron and Ahmed—one could say graphic novel, but the about-the-author sketch of Cantor ripping open his shirt to reveal a Superman costume makes comic book the way to go—is seeing the planes fly into the towers. Across four appalling pages everything happens, both at once and in stop-time, here too fast for the eye or the mind to follow or for memory to enclose, there too frozen, almost, to allow the viewer to return to the story that is taking shape. And this is because, along with one Aaron Goodman, an Army psychiatrist in a VA hospital in Kansas, you are not bearing witness; you are witnessing. You are an innocent bystander at the biggest traffic accident-cum-St. Valentine's Day Massacre ever dreamed up.


In the story, while Aaron tries to win his patients' trust so he can get them to take their medication, he sees the first plane hit the first tower on the commons room TV just as his beloved girlfriend Carol calls: "She was flying from Boston to L.A. that morning." She's on the second plane: "'Hi*acked *man with * boxcu*er*'" her voice breaks up. Aaron instantly realizes what's going to happen: he's going to watch her die. And you do.


From a vantage point in the room with Aaron, but ten feet farther from the small TV monitor, suspended hospital-style near the ceiling, in the comic book you first see a second, tiny plane nearing a second, tiny tower. One patient holds his hand over his mouth, others are oblivious, Aaron's mouth is open in a silent scream as his body jerks. Then you are inches from the TV, everything is bigger, and in two confusing overlapping images, with blue sky, grey building, white plane, and yellow explosions, the plane seems to go straight through two towers at once. A panel shows Aaron holding his cell phone to his ear, his blue eyes crying blue tears as the scream in his mouth still won't leave it; a small cut-in, easy to miss in the visual noise of the page, shows a red Carol in a green plane as she clutches her phone to her ear, and then, in a pinkish red, even though your perspective is from the foreground of the action, where the building is closer than the plane, the plane smashing into the tower appears at least twice as big as the tower itself. That is the second, right-hand page of a two-page spread. You think you've seen what happens.


You turn the page and you realize you have seen nothing. Even if, in your own real life, you saw what happened, you didn't, not as writer Jay Cantor, illustrator James Romberger, and here especially colorist José Villarrubia, make it happen. Faced by a right page where the dominant color across seven small panels is a blindingly bright yellow, a left page, its image pushing past the spine of the book onto the first inch of the right, shows what is now the enormous, unstoppable, hell-fire red plane entering a far bigger but defenseless building in an image that is at once inescapably pornographic and at the same time nothing more, and absolutely nothing less, than the historical event it depicts. And now you do see what it depicts in its smallest details and all at once. 


All the rest of Aaron and Ahmed has to do is get out from under this sequence and live up to it: a frightening challenge. It does so, first, by moving the action to Guantanamo Bay. Aaron volunteers: "There had to be a war to make the monsters who would do such things suffer," he thinks as debris is still falling, "and I … I had to be a part of that war." In darkness, we see the barracks going up. In a barbed wire enclosure, as if from a looming guard tower, we see hooded, naked prisoners. We see casual torture. We see waterboarding. But then the ante is upped: a man is strapped to a torture wheel. There is a kennel; cages perhaps three feet by two feet by two feet alternately hold dogs and men. "This is where I started a combination of sleep deprivation, followed by hypnosis. And severe operant conditioning," says one Negroponte, a scientist in charge of interrogation and Aaron's mentor and boss. "It takes nine months to turn a man into a dog." It's a reverse birth; the definiteness of the statement is chilling, but not nearly so scary as what Aaron and we see next. There are two men kneeling on the floor of the kennel, in orange jumpsuits, who are dogs. But the experiment is meaningless, Negroponte explains: "You can make a man salivate at dog food this way—but you can't make him blow himself up." That's the question all of Negroponte's, and now Aaron's, experiments are meant to answer: what makes people into suicide killers? How can they be stopped? How can they be used? "For that," Negroponte says, "you need the right memes."


Following The Death of Che Guevara, from 1983, Jay Cantor's second novel ("in five panels"), Krazy Kat, from 1987, featured Krazy Kat up against the wall of post-Hiroshima depression and suffering the cure of Dr. Ignatz Mouse, who substitutes psychoanalysis for bricks—and that's just the start. The book was fast on its feet: a hilarious, startling allegory, never predictable, George Herriman's 1913-1944 newspaper comic strip translated into post-war black humor, but with the souls of cat, mouse, and dog—Herriman's Offissa Pupp—not only intact but infused with post-war sex and money. Cantor's third, in 2003, was Great Neck: a more than 700-page generational saga with a cohort of characters tied so closely to historical events they lumbered through the book as abstractions, even when one of their number, a comic strip artist, turns his compatriots into bestselling superheroes, a kind of left-wing Fantastic Four. With his wife, Marguerite Van Cook, James Romberger has, among other projects, worked on the Papercutz revival of Tales from the Crypt for Marvel Comics, and with the late David Wojnarowicz on the 1996 graphic novel Seven Miles a Second. Both Cantor and Romberger have done memorable work with comics—but compared to Aaron and Ahmed they were working toward comics, not in them. Aaron and Ahmed is a long, deliberate story, told with the comics equivalent of crane and tracking shots, with the elongated, sinister faces of horror comics, the exaggerated gestures and facial expressions of war comics, and something not seen in any comics genre, except perhaps romance: still, silent panels where dialogue fails, time is suspended, and speech balloons would insult the characters.


At Guantanamo, Aaron, who has no real problems with torture except for its uselessness, takes on one Ahmed, as an experiment: to see if he can get him to tell what he knows by treating him decently, as with his VA charges by winning his trust, by initiating a classic psychoanalytic transference relationship, and by giving him lots of estrogen. It seems to work: yes, Ahmed admits, he was Bin Laden's driver. But he had problems with Bin Laden: "They say they're infidel, that we're unclean until we kill them."


Is that where suicide killers come from? Memes, Negroponte explains to Aaron, as Aaron will in a sideways manner explain to Ahmed, who in a direct and unsurprised way will explain back to Aaron, are "viral ideas": like genes, their purpose is to perpetuate and replicate themselves. But if a suicide killer blows himself or herself up, Aaron asks, doesn't that kill the meme, the gene-idea? The carrier dies, Negroponte explains; the meme, the idea, flies over the earth in a million fragments, its virus infecting people everywhere.


Soon enough Aaron and Ahmed are set off on an existential quest, a spy mission, an infiltration, a mystical journey, a conditioning experiment in which Aaron is his own subject, a hopscotch through history that will take them into the lair of the Old Man of the Mountain, who may be Bin Laden and may be Hassan ibn Sabbah of the 12th century, as alive today as he was bent on death then. "The sheiks get the imams to say that God desires a world that's pure and empty, like our desert," Ahmed tells Aaron, and in a training camp in Waziristan, we see it, magnificent and barren, a beacon and a graveyard, an Arabian Monument Valley. This image is Romberger at his pure-comics best, stunning the eye that he has, over the previous pages, trained to expect a conventional graphic narrative of this-leads-to-that, now exploding the concepts he is illustrating; when Romberger blows people to kingdom come it feels as if the phrase was invented for him. Cantor's touch is more subtle, a novelist getting inside the way people talk—"Hormones?" says another Guantanamo doctor to Aaron's insistence on estrogen therapy to protect himself from Ahmed. "You never saw that movie with Charlene what's-her-name? You've never heard of women killers?"—to validate the urgency of the melodrama he will use to keep your breath catching in your throat.


The characters, not only Aaron and Ahmed, but evil geniuses Negroponte and the Old Man in the Mountain, small-part actors, even stooges, walk-ons, and extras, never are insulted; some are ennobled, some are killed off without a thought, some go on to live and kill another day. The ending, after a story that so gains in richness even a sequel would seem like a cheat, is not what you want—an irony straight from the end of Night of the Living Dead, and then a second ending, which you've seen in horror comic before, and isn't what you want either. But more than that, it isn't what the characters want, and by this time, what they want, their discovery of their own ability to know what they want, and their ability to value it, is like the legendary jewel of so many Arabian nights before theirs.

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