Se­cret Army

You rarely stum­ble across such com­mit­ted, coldly an­gry comics as Alan Moore’s Brought To Light. Not of­ten enough, thinks Matt Bielby

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Heav­ing with sub-heads – “a graphic docu­d­rama”, “two books in one” and, no­tably, “30 years of drug smug­gling, arms deals and covert op­er­a­tions that robbed Amer­ica and be­trayed the Con­sti­tu­tion” – Brought To Light is that rare thing: an unashamed, ag­gres­sively po­lit­i­cal comic-as-doc­u­men­tary that doesn’t look am­a­teur­ish or over-wor­thy, but is in­stead built around a thrilling, state-of-theart piece of work by two top cre­ators at the peak of their pow­ers. Never reprinted and largely for­got­ten now, it re­mains a po­tent back-is­sue box re­minder of just how ex­cit­ing comics seemed in the late ’80s, when a new gen­er­a­tion of cre­ators started to take ad­van­tage of the grow­ing in­de­pen­dent mar­ket to tell sto­ries the medium would ear­lier have fought shy of.

Brought To Light was orig­i­nally to have been pub­lished by Warner Books, but when they got cold feet Eclipse Comics stepped in. It was put to­gether on be­half of The Chris­tic In­sti­tute, an Amer­i­can pub­lic in­ter­est law firm founded by the guys who’d won Karen Silkwood’s fa­mous case against the Ker­rMcGee Cor­po­ra­tion. The Chris­tic In­sti­tute later pros­e­cuted KKK mem­bers, rep­re­sented vic­tims at Three Mile Is­land, and un­cov­ered the Iran-Con­tra af­fair, but didn’t sur­vive the law­suit at the cen­tre of that scan­dal. It has since re­grouped as some­thing called The Romero In­sti­tute, with a sim­i­lar mis­sion. Al­ways with an eye to gen­er­at­ing pub­lic aware­ness, the ev­i­dence it brought against the Rea­gan govern­ment was also pre­sented to the gen­eral pub­lic in the form of this unique graphic novel, de­tail­ing the shock­ing ex­tent of Amer­i­can wrong­do­ing abroad.

There will be blood

Brought To Light is a flip­book, in the ’80s graphic novel for­mat. One side is taken up by a straight­for­ward 32-page tale called “Flash­point: The La Penca Bomb­ing”, de­tail­ing how a press con­fer­ence was bombed dur­ing the Nicaraguan civil war; the sup­posed tar­get, Con­tra leader Edén Pas­tora, sur­vived, but seven died, many of them jour­nal­ists. This piece was writ­ten by Joyce Brab­ner and drawn by Swamp Thing’s Tom Yeates, based on info from those in­volved with the case; it firmly points blame at the CIA – al­though, it has to be said, ev­i­dence since makes this hardly a safe con­clu­sion.

The other “side” of the book, how­ever, is why we’re here. “Shad­owplay: The Se­cret Team” is a re­mark­able 30-page piece by Alan Moore and Bill Sienkiewicz at the height of their abil­i­ties. Moore had just com­pleted Watch­men, and was about to em­bark on the ill-fated Big Num­bers with Sienkiewicz, who’d him­self re­cently fin­ished the great Elek­tra: As­sas­sin.

Rem­i­nis­cent of the best the­atri­cal re­lease doc­u­men­tary films – Fahren­heit 9/11, say, or An In­con­ve­nient Truth – mashed up with the work of a par­tic­u­larly hal­lu­ci­na­tory Oliver Stone, this his­tory of the covert work of the Cen­tral In­tel­li­gence Agency, cov­er­ing Viet­nam, Bay Of Pigs and, yes, Iran-Con­tra, is told in a smokey, night­mar­ish bar to a stunned ev­ery­man fig­ure by a drunk, re­tired “com­pany” op­er­a­tive. The tale rock­ets along, Moore do­ing bril­liantly to keep hit­ting us with strik­ing de­tails while keep­ing the nar­ra­tive on track, but Most Valu­able Player is surely Sienkiewicz, pulling out all the acid trip stops in much the same way he did on the Elek­tra book, but here yet an­grier and more in­tense. There are lyri­cal mo­ments, but they’re few and far be­tween, and this is an in­tense, chaotic ex­pe­ri­ence in the main – there’s scratchy car­toon­ing, wicked car­i­ca­tures and bold let­ter­ing through­out, the

whole thing gen­er­at­ing a dark, blurry, nau­se­at­ing tone, all this glo­ri­ous vis­ual noise rammed into an ap­prox­i­ma­tion of Moore’s favoured nine-panel grid.

It’s Sienkiewicz who al­lows “Shad­owplay” to be much more than just a paper ver­sion of Stone’s JFK or Adam Cur­tis’s The Power Of Night­mares: this is pure comics, do­ing things a film or doc­u­men­tary would find dif­fi­cult, start­ing with the fram­ing se­quence – for this CIA man isn’t some booze-ad­dled, cold-eyed gent in a Govern­ment-grey suit at all, but rather a six-foot, an­thro­po­mor­phic Bald Ea­gle, the liv­ing em­bod­i­ment of the proud beast from the CIA’s em­blem.

“In WW2 we wuz the Of­fice o’ Strate­gic Ser­vices. Le­git­i­mate war­time en­ter­prise. Glory days, right?” he be­gins. “By ’45 we had a per­fect covert war­fare oper­a­tion. Seemed waste­ful to shut it down just cuz we weren’t at war any­more. Be­sides, maybe we’d fought the wrong guys?”

By page five we’re told of the mas­sacre of some 20,000 people – “aver­age body holds a gal­lon. Big swim­ming pools hold 20,000 gal­lons. So imag­ine a pool filled with blood” – and from here on the re­sults of Amer­i­can in­ter­ven­tion are mea­sured in these pools, lit­tle graph­ics ap­pear­ing at the bot­tom of rel­e­vant pan­els: five swim­ming pools dead in South Korea, 11 in Laos, eight pools across Cen­tral Amer­ica and on and on.

The world has moved on since the spe­cific pol­i­tics de­tailed in Brought To Light – more wars, fur­ther hor­rors – and few know or care much about La Penca any more. But gen­eral aware­ness in the dirty tricks and moral dis­as­ters of the Cold War and be­yond is surely higher than ever, and Brought To Light is comics’ most po­tent con­tri­bu­tion to this new cyn­i­cism.

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