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Review time! with Aaron and Ahmed

Man, this is weird.

Aaron and Ahmed: A Love Story is a Vertigo graphic novel written by Jay Cantor and drawn by James Romberger, with colors by José Villarrubia and letters by Jared K. Fletcher. It’s a hardcover, so it’s $24.99. Presumably a softcover is coming in a year or two!

Aaron and Ahmed is a strange comic, one that feels like it could be more important or emotionally devastating but never quite gets there. Cantor wants to examine what makes someone a terrorist, but he does it too dispassionately for it to really achieve what he wants. It’s an unsettling book, which is good, but it still falls short of completely selling what Cantor is thinking about.

Cantor begins with Aaron Goodman, who watches as his fiancée is killed during the September 11th attacks (she was on the second plane). Aaron is an Army psychiatrist, and he decides to go to Guantánamo Bay to help interrogate America’s enemies as a way to help the war effort. While there, he sees all sorts of horrible torture inflicted on the detainees, and when he meets Ahmed, he tries a new route: He drugs Ahmed’s food with estrogen, hoping that Ahmed will become more docile and then depend on Aaron more and more, leading him to terrorist cells. Of course, throughout the comic, Cantor introduces doubt about who’s playing whom. Perhaps Ahmed is smarter than Aaron thinks he is.

One of the doctors at Guantánamo believes in the power of memes – viral ideas – to turn people into suicide bombers. He tells Aaron that they need to figure out how people become suicide bombers, not how to stop them once they’re already committed. Through his relationship with Ahmed, Aaron starts to think that memes could somehow turn people into bombers, and he and Ahmed make a risky journey into Pakistan to find out if someone – Aaron, specifically – can be transformed into a suicide bomber even though he knows the “programming” is coming. But I’m not telling what happens then.

Cantor’s main idea – that memes infect people – is interesting, and he follows it to its logical extreme, including when Aaron tries to find the “cure” to it. The book is subtitled “A Love Story,” and that’s what it is, and Cantor does a decent – if not great – job with the relationship between Aaron and Ahmed, whose “love story” is fairly complicated. Cantor is treading a fine line between “realism” and “realistic fantasy” – some of the book moves into a strange world of the fantastic, but Cantor always manages to re-ground it. The problem with the comic and why I don’t love it is that the writing seems strangely antiseptic, as if Cantor is deliberately keeping us distant from his characters. We’re told as much, if not more, than what we’re shown, and the most emotional moments in the book fall short of truly connecting with the reader because Cantor overwrites the scenes and doesn’t lay enough groundwork for them to retain their presumed power. Some of the most effective scenes in the comic are when Aaron and Dr. Negroponte, the “mad genius” of Guantánamo, are discussing interrogation and torture – Negroponte and Aaron are somewhat dispassionate about what they’re doing as they’re passing by rooms where horrible torture is occurring. The juxtaposition of the artwork showing us these terrible scenes and Aaron claiming he’s disturbed by it but still discussing it almost academically is very effective, but once Aaron and Ahmed begin their journey, some of the scenes where Cantor wants us to sink into the experience continue in that academic fashion, with Aaron narrating far too much about what’s happening to him. This robs Cantor’s explanation of the “cure” for the memes of its impact, because it’s difficult to feel what Aaron is feeling. It’s almost as if Cantor, as a professor, is explaining a theory of his and shoehorning it into an illustrated narrative. It’s frustrating, because the central idea is fascinating.

Romberger is a solid artist, although he doesn’t bring a whole lot to the table in this book. In some scenes, he shifts our perception of the page just enough that we understand a bit of what Aaron is going through as he is “programmed,” but those scenes don’t come often enough. When Aaron begins to hallucinate, Romberger can cut loose just enough to offset Cantor’s clinical descriptions, and we get a sense of what the book could have been if Cantor had reined himself in a bit and Romberger had been set free a bit more. I can’t really write much about the art – it’s decent, tells the story as well as it could, and never overwhelms Cantor’s writing. That’s part of the problem, unfortunately.

I’ve read Aaron and Ahmed twice and find it difficult to really write about it, not because I hated it but because it teases so much and fails to deliver. I used it before, but “dispassionate” is the best word to describe the entire comic. Cantor is writing about a raw time in American history and some disturbing concepts that came out of that time, but the book just never feels “real.” It’s a missed opportunity, and that’s too bad.

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