BY RYAN INZANA
In the graphic novel Johnny Jihad, respected political artist Ryan Inzana turns his artistic skill to a controversial figure in the “war on terror” John Walker Lindh. In this work of speculative fiction, Inzana explores what it might have been like to be Johnny Sendel, an American-born, white jihadist.
Sendel’s father, Tim, is a chauvinist Vietnam vet who exercises his rage on his family with frequent beatings. Faced with Tim’s suicide, Johnny’s mother falls into drug abuse, catapulting Johnny into the life of a social misfit. He finds temporary escape from his menial job and stunted school life through his bomb-making, gluesniffing, lock-picking friends. Meanwhile, Johnny’s fantasy of escape grows exponentially. Devoid of trust in the U.S. government and people, he finds understanding in his co-worker Salim and the Koran. From there, the currents of rebellion, camaraderie and fantasy bring him to a jihadist training camp in upstate New York. Johnny is sent on a mission to Colorado, where events lead him to Taliban-ruled Kabul, with 9/11 looming.
Inzana etches out a rugged expressionist world that revels in the stifled New Jersey suburbs and the desperate terrain of Afghanistan. In his scratchboard illustrations, he carves out light and sense from a dark and grave subject. Each panel is intense and richly textured, making the flow substantial and engrossing.
Inzana constructs a cascade of personal and global doom by linking the Vietnam War to the current “war on terror”. The theme of family and love provides a familiar thread amid a geopolitical war entrenched in fanaticism.
The pacing is a bit hurried at points – it would’ve been good to develop Johnny’s life more – but Inzana does an excellent job of capturing a claustrophobic world of political paranoia and rabid ideals. Some of the exposition could use pruning, giving the reader more psychological range to explore. The jihadists and the U.S. authorities are more vessels of ideology and plot than fully realized characters. With politically charged topics, it’s easy to present a contrived rendering that reinforces stereotypes or a political agenda. Johnny Jihad occasionally suffers from this, such as in the simplistic argument that media violence begets real violence.
Critical re-examinations of tragic events often spawn great art. The Columbine shooting was Gus Van Sant’s source for his seminal film Elephant. Paul Greengrass went further with the controversial and powerful United 93, infusing a quotidian reality that’s been overshadowed by the mythology that surrounds September 11. The world of politics is messy to say the least and art can be a distinct voice in the cacophony of rhetoric. Ryan Inzana’s Johnny Jihad is likewise an important addition to humanitarian and political discourse and serves as a base for a potentially powerful genre within comics.