In Jay Cantor and James Romberger’s new graphic novel for Vertigo, Aaron and Ahmed, the author has embraced the idea of memes — cultural concepts or ideas that spread quickly, like a virus — in regard to the American War On Terror. Beginning with the events of 9/11 and continuing through to the prison at Guantanamo Bay, the book focuses on the notion that powerful symbols dictate the fight against terror as much as actions.
In Aaron and Ahmed Cantor and artist Romberger follow military psychiatrist Dr. Aaron Goodman as he becomes an interrogator at “Gitmo” following 9/11. Aaron focuses on Gitmo prisoner Ahmed, working to gain his trust to learn more about the process of creating fanatical terrorists and eventually Ahmed offers to take Aaron back to the source; back to the Pakistan/Afghanistan border regions to see for himself the ritualized process that creates terrorists in the hope of finding an antidote to fanaticism. What results is a mind-bending road trip that examines the fragility of the human mind when faced with relentless power of ritual turned into mental programming.
Cantor is primarily known as a novelist with comic book elements to his work — his 1988 novel Krazy Kat posited what would happen if the classic characters entered the real world, while Great Neck (2003) featured a cartoonist as the main character. Comics have always been high on his to-do list and he got an unexpected chance to make that desire a reality when Pornsak Pichetshote, his former student and at Vertigo, rang him up one day.
“Pornsak wrote a paper for me about [Alan Moore’s] Watchmen,” Cantor said. “Over the years, He’d been reading my fiction. He called and asked if I would like to try doing a graphic novel. It was among the things that I’d most like to do. I’d like to write a situation comedy too, and a Broadway musical, but first and foremost I wanted to try my hand at graphic work and here was the opportunity.”
Cantor already knew what story he wanted to tackle — it was an idea he had had since witnessing the World Trade Center struck down on TV live, years before. Some of the story began in a dream shortly after that and Cantor’s mind began to expand on the images — both in his mind and in the world — that were commanding the range of his thoughts.
“I was thinking about what effect the images had — what I had seen and the effect they had on me, the combination of helplessness and fury that I felt and then I was thinking about how they had contrived an image,” said Cantor. “They weren’t just destroying a building, the people who perpetrated 9/11 intended to create the very image I had seen of our own planes hitting the buildings and the towers going down. In some sense they had probably intuited the effect it had, that it would work to drive us almost insane,” Cantor said.
“The story that was forming in my mind was about the power of images,” Cantor explained. “But I couldn’t see it as a novel because it was about images, so when Pornsak called, I thought, ‘Images, I have just the story.’”
Cantor would have to translate real life situations and people into a comic book story for Aaron and Ahmed, which is the exact opposite of what he did in his novel Krazy Kat. That book featured George Herriman’s classic characters breaking out of their two dimensional prison. Cantor says that imagining such crossovers stem from his childhood, when he spent a lot of time sick and reading comic books as an escape. These daydreams directly influenced his thinking in regard to Aaron and Ahmed.
“The dream of the sickly kid is to be in that world, once you inhabit that world, once you imagine it and really enter it, you think, ‘well, what do they want?’ Of course what they want is the exact opposite [of their comic book world],” said Cantor.
“It’s a paradox. What Krazy wants and what Ignatz wants is ‘what would it be like to age? What would it be like if things change? What would it be like if we had sex? It grows out of that, but they’re linked. You want to inhabit those bodies but if you really imagine what it’s like to be them they want the opposite.”
Central to Aaron and Ahmed is the idea that vivid imagery is transformed into symbolic powerhouses that become viral bits of programming that steer our psyches — in other words, memes, a term coined by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins — and guides our behavior. It’s not exactly like the overt brainwashing in a story like The Manchurian Candidate — a meme as Cantor portrays them is more like something swirling inside you that slowly infects your actions, rather than immediately driving you to a specific one. In some ways they are a psychological and biological reaction to sensory overload — a retaliation to intense symbology.
And because of Cantor’s dense narrative and swirling imagery, Romberger said he tried “open up the layout a bit,” to push the story forward. He called working on the project with Cantor, “a learning experience. I got to tell a very complex, emotional, fully articulated human story. That’s what a Vertigo book does.” Co-creator of the 1996 graphic memoir, Seven Miles a Second (also from Vertigo), the autobiography of the late East Village artist David Wojnarowicz, Romberger is a bit a Vertigo veteran, and worked on Vertigo’s 2010 Bronx Kill with writer Peter Milligan.
Romberger called Aaron and Ahmed, “a full reading experience. It takes you places you’ve only heard about in the news.” Romberger said he had to really search to find source material for his drawings of Gitmo, military torture techniques and his depictions of terrorist training camps. “There aren’t really any videos of it, so I had to read about waterboarding so I could draw it,” he said, noting that “I watched a lot of footage of terrorists; and I found images of the gun market at the Khyber Pass in Vice magazine. There’s only about 5 images of Gitmo online; so even though its in the news all the time no one has seen it. We take the reader there.” Romberger said the book is also a story of “high adventure, so I wanted to give it the scale of the world.”
“When I talk about the power of images or memes, it has to do with the fact that we think of ourselves as always in control,” Cantor said, “but in some ways, no surprise, we’re programmed — programmed by the images we see in movies and on TV, programmed by memes — the idea of brains being washed and rewashed by media seem to link up to me.” In Aaron and Ahmed Cantor presents the actions of torturers as arbitrary and desperate, clueless as to what it is they are up against.
“If they were just banging their own heads against the wall it wouldn’t be torture,” he said, describing the book’s depiction of how “enhanced interrogation” techniques are studied and used at Gitmo. “They’re banging a bunch of other heads against the wall, too, and thinking, ‘well that doesn’t seem to be working, let’s try bricks. Well, maybe the head’s the wrong place to bang.’ Most of them don’t understand that it’s a psychological force that they’re up against, which I think is true. Through the brutality of torture, they think they can whack the body open and find out what’s inside.”
In the book, It’s as if the entire country was physically whacked and everything spilled outside of it — the torturers, as depicted by Cantor, are only trying to blindly do to their victims what was done to them. They were programmed to retaliate desperately, and that’s what Cantor blended into Aaron and Ahmed.
“One response is ‘I feel so helpless, I can reassert my control and strength by being as brutal as I possibly can.’ We were too soon brutal and too late wise and smart,” said Cantor. Reality and psychosis blend in comics and real life — and for Cantor, Aaron and Ahmed has proved a lively, fun way to capture a grim episode in American history that still isn’t quite past us.
“I think part of the jujitsu of 9/11 is that what they actually succeeded with is they drove us a little crazy,” Cantor said. “It doesn’t mean a response to 9/11 with seriousness and some directed violence is not necessary. Maybe not shock and awe. I don’t think the shock and awe was necessarily for the Iraqis, I think it was meant for us.”