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