When Words Collide: The Fragments of War: Axe & Hamilton's "Army of God"

Mon, February 25th, 2013 at 12:58pm PST

Comic Books
Timothy Callahan, Columnist/Reviewer

"Army God" examines Joseph Kony's war in Central Africa

The PublicAffairs (all one word) edition of "Army of God," gained some notoriety well before its release date because it led to accusations of terrorism toward Brooklyn artist Tim Hamilton. This is the Tim Hamilton from Malibu's late-1990s "The Trouble with Girls" with Gerard Jones. This is the same guy who would follow Jones to DC and Marvel, hopping into fill-in slots for comics like "Green Lantern Corps" and "Wonder Man." The Hamilton who worked on the Ultraverse line for a bit, and did a wonderful job adapting "Treasure Island" for Puffin's doomed literary "Graphics" line a few years ago. Oh, he also adapted Ray Bradbury's "Fahrenheit 451" into a stark graphic novel and co-founded the online ACT-I-VATE collective.

That Tim Hamilton. Suspected of terrorism.

The ridiculous misunderstanding arose because David Axe and Tim Hamilton collaborated on a journalistic graphic narrative about Ugandan rebel leader Joseph Kony, and when the publisher sent them their advances, the money was seized by the U.S. Department of the Treasury. The government saw the "Army of God" title, and the connection to Kony, and assumed Axe and Hamilton were laundering money for the terrorists.

One look at the book would have told the Treasury otherwise, because "Army of God" is no sympathetic portrayal of Kony and this haunting mosaic of "Joseph Kony's War in Central Africa," as the subtitle states, is in the journalistic tradition of thousands of feature articles from hundreds of magazines about atrocities committed in foreign lands and the chilling truth of which most Americans remain unaware.

That the very title "Army of God" and any connection with Joseph Kony -- even in a journalistic capacity -- would have triggered such an immediate reaction from the U.S. government proves, with not just a hint of irony, that one of the theses of the book is correct: awareness of Kony, and the violence committed under his leadership, has grown, and the United States has spent the last few years dedicated to eradicating the threat.

Speculation on whether or not they will ever be successful is the subject of Axe's epilogue in the book. But there's little doubt that the U.S. is interested in stopping Joseph Kony. And David Axe went to Congo to find out why. Not why they wanted to stop Kony, necessarily, since by the time Axe traveled to Africa, Kony and his forces were already a known menace. But why Kony and his followers did what they did. "I wanted to map the emotional and spiritual landscape of the group," writes Axe.

Ultimately, Axe fails in that task.

"Army of God" provides anecdotes that help map the "emotional and spiritual landscape" around Kony and the rebels-slash-terrorists called the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), but Axe's investigations never get him to the heart of Kony or the LRA itself. He knows the context, and he provides a sense of the chaos and fear and inhuman brutality suffered by the victims, and Axe also provides a clear timeline of the political interests involved, and the humanitarian attempts to help, and the campaign to raise awareness on a more global scale. The story of Jason Russell and the Invisible Children organization becomes an important chapter.

The book examines the conflict's violence but doesn't fully grasp the characters

But though Axe gets inside the setting of the story he wants to tell, he never fully grasps the characters. Or he isn't able to convey that sense. Kony and the members of the LRA largely remain mysteries. Why they do what they do is explained via the context of other events, but we never get to hear their story. Maybe they don't have one, beyond their continued, violent, deadly struggle for survival. That's all we learn about them, really, even as Axe probes deeper into the connections between the macro and micro level of the way the LRA seems to behave.

"Army of God" is more like a primer on the Joseph Kony situation than an in-depth study. It's a survey of the landscape it attempts to explore.

If it were merely Axe's reporting, it wouldn't be worth a second look. But "Army of God" isn't just prose -- though it begins and ends that way. It's a comic book. And artist Tim Hamilton gives it the kind of emotional depth and vivid stylistic flourishes that the script by Axe seems to lack. Hamilton paints the comic with black-and-white brushwork and subtle gray tones. Though he primarily operates in a realist vein in the book -- capturing real-life personalities like Hilary Clinton and priest Ernest Sugule and schoolteacher Fidel Mboligikpele and, of course, Joseph Kony -- he bursts into moments of impressionism a few times, and those fragmented panels convey the power and history of violence and chaos more chillingly than any words Axe can muster.

Hamilton chronicles real-life events, but in an often weird and unsettling way. There's more than a hint of Richard Corben horror comics in Hamilton's telling, and it works to make "Army of God" more than just a journalistic chronicle.

Unfortunately, the PublicAffairs version of the book is far from its ideal presentation.

I have an advance reader's copy of "Army of God," so I only have to assume that the actual printing of the book will be crisper, and the low-resolution lettering version on the pages before me will be replaced by clean lines and deep blacks, but even when that happens, the format of the project seems misguided. It's sized to fit alongside other nonfiction books at what is basically a 6x9 format. It won't look out of place on your shelf next to prose Kony chronicles like "First Kill Your Family" by Peter Eichstaedt or "Girl Soldier," by Faith McDonnell. But that's not how "Army of God" was originally conceived. It's a well-intentioned reformatting, I'm sure, but it's a reformatting nonetheless, and it's one that may have been done by Hamilton himself, but it doesn't do justice to the way the art was originally presented.

Originally serialized online, the printed version has some formatting issues

"Army of God" was first serialized online, at Cartoon Movement. In its original serialization, Hamilton's art was presented in a square format at 4:4. Hamilton often played with, or against, the symmetry of that pages' shape by including a regular meter of four panels per page and then breaking it up when the story demanded a more dramatic telling. Or, at least, that's how he started. He veered from the four panel layout more often than not in the end, but he always maintained a harmonious design on every 4:4 page in the online serialization. For the PublicAffairs printing, the square pages are stacked on top of one-another, mostly, although some pages are redesigned completely with panels enlarged or contracted for pacing reasons. That leads to two problems: the artwork looks less balanced (some lines are blown way up or shrunk way down as the panels are adjusted to fit the new format) and the overall size of each panel shrinks in the new version. Because the book is a relatively small 6" x 9", with the equivalent of two online pages crammed into one smaller page, the scope of the story shrinks. The effect is diminished. Hamilton's art loses some of its power, and "Army of God" seems even more like a survey from afar.

We are pushed away from the events of the book because what's inside has been shrunken and now seems farther away from us. Less significant. More noise and less of a clear signal.

It's not a catastrophically poor presentation of the material, but I imagine a world in which Hamilton's original page layouts remained intact and a 9" x 9" square book was released on thick paper stock with bold printing. That's an "Army of God" that would have mattered even more.

I realize that "Army of God" is a book meant to open our eyes and give us an understanding of some terrible events that continue to occur. But it's a comic, and why present it as a comic if the art isn't treated with the respect it deserves? I guess that's an age-old question in the comic book industry. PublicAffairs isn't known as a comic book publisher. Yet they've fallen into the same old trap.

In addition to writing reviews and columns for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the author of "Grant Morrison: The Early Years" and editor of "Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes" anthology. More of his thoughts on comics can be seen regularly at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.

TAGS:  when worlds collide, publicaffairs, army of god, david axe, tim hamilton

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