Aaron and Ahmed: Love Conquers / by David Anderson

"Aaron and Ahmed: A Love Story" sounds pretty much as you would expect; it is a love story about two people name Aaron and Ahmed. However, the title, in conjunction with the cover art featuring barbed wire and entwined hands, hints immediately at territory many Americans would find themselves loath to cross of their own free will. The very combination of this simple imagery with these words might evoke layers of political angst, something unique to the medium of comics.

It was only a few years ago, after all, when American senators toured Guantanamo Bay and came back to the halls of Congress gushing at how clean and humane the facility was. It was only after several leaked documents and whistle-blowers came forward that we found out that perhaps things were not so rosy in the extrajudicial prison camp we had all come to love.

“Aaron and Ahmed” is the story of Aaron, an Army psychologist working in ‘Gitmo’, experimenting on prisoner torture techniques supposedly to find information on how to fight Al Qaeda. It is just as likely, though, that the prison staff are merely punishing their captives, trying to vent their own grief and anger over 9/11. Aaron certainly has motive; the woman he loved, Carol, died when her plane smashed into the World Trade Center. Who would fail to understand his desire to see these prisoners suffer? This question is one of the main themes of the story, at least in the beginning. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

Ahmed is a prisoner in Guantanamo. Military intelligence is pretty sure he is a valuable source of important information, and it is Aaron’s job to coax it out of him. His psychological techniques are experimental, though; instead of merely beating him into unconsciousness, he attempts to gain Ahmed's’ sympathy; in his words: “I will try to make him love me”. Odd that these “experimental” techniques seem so radical; just as the authors want it.

In fact the very fact that Aaron calls them experimental is a commentary on the travesty of modern interrogation techniques, because treating prisoners civilly is demanded by the Geneva convention (and that includes terrorists), and there is plenty of history to back that notion up. In World War II Nazi prisoners were treated humanely according to the law of war. German soldiers would brag to American soldiers that they would spend the rest of the war wining and dining in American prison camps. German intelligence agents obtained valuable information from US prisoners, and it became the subject of a few movies. The authors were clearly aware of this precedent when they wrote the story.
The debate over this subject is soon eclipsed by the action element of the story, however. Aaron’s methods work, and soon he begins to find himself wrapped up in an attempt to infiltrate a terrorist organization supposedly descended from the Hashashin, the ancient conspiracy that spawned the term “Assassin”. The impetus for this infiltration operation comes from Doctor Negreponte, Aarons’ superior, who becomes convinced that men become terrorists because of “memes”, or cultural genetics- the things we say and do that create culture. The idea that that these memes, like diseases, infect their hosts through the spoken and written word to convince the audience to do the bidding of the speaker/writer. This theme dominates the rest of the story and turns it into an action thriller, one in which Aaron finds himself progressively losing his mind.

The art style errs on the side of reality, though characters will sometimes have low resolution details. The faces are soft or wrinkly and nobody here is built like a GI Joe figurine. Just as well; it shows that everyone here is human. This isn’t a war between Saturday morning cartoon factions, this is war between men and their views of the world.

The color palette, for the most part, is dull. There aren’t a lot of vibrant colors to be had here- this is a drab, depressing environment, whether it’s the grey corridors of Gitmo or the brown, hostile cliff faces of Afghanistan. There is no joy to be had here. Shadows are soft, and spaces are frequently very small, focusing more on characters than on setting. The entire style is devoted to creating a grim reality.

Empathy and truthfulness are two major themes in the writing. We don’t know for sure until near the end the actual motives and objectives of Ahmed. We never really know if Aaron is losing his mind either- does being infected with a meme cause you to do things against your will? Is it even a remote possibility? Are there other explanations? The great thing about the writing is that the causes of Aarons’ paranoia are open ended- there is no one point of origin, and so the reader can make up his mind whether to believe the hypothesis of Doctor Negreponte.

I really like the fact that the authors delved deeper into the motives of terrorists, which is where their theme of empathy shows up. Ahmed’s not a maniac hell bent on destroying the US because of Burger King and MTV, and this is an extremely salient point to make, because anti-US terrorism in the Middle East has been motivated by US foreign policy, not cultural differences. People frequently assume Bin Laden’s objectives are the same as long-gone Ayatollah Khomeini’s- that the US needs to be destroyed in order to wipe away their sinfulness- but Bin Laden’s declaration of war against the US was rooted in foreign policy, condemning the US for everything from the eradication of the Native Americans to Hiroshima and beyond.

Knowing why Al Qaeda fights us, as the writers show us through Ahmed, is critical to figuring out how to defeat them- and we will lose if we don’t understand how our own actions cause people to turn against us. Knowing them not just as fighters, but human beings with their own ideas of right and wrong, helps more than beatings can, according to the authors.

Femininity is another interesting theme that dominates the writing. There are only two female characters in this entire work- one whose death causes Aarons’ grief, and another whose death triggers the events that will lead to Aaron’s insanely risky infiltration mission. Aaron tries his best to have Ahmed assume the role of a female in their relationship, spiking his food with estrogen, but Aaron frequently assumes a feminine role in the relationship as well. He is not aware of it at first but much of his actions are an attempt to find a replacement for Carol. Homosexuality plays a role here, but the relationship is almost completely platonic. Still, you won’t see any fundamentalist Evangelicals picking up this comic and smiling. Or any fundamentalist Wahhabists, for that matter. Still, the relative “edginess” of the comic is not what makes it great- it is the character development and the plot.

Their love, so strongly hinted at in the beginning, seems natural by the end. It isn’t a physical lust, but a fulfilling of emotional needs that they could not find after seeing what they lost. It is probably the most interesting and abstract take on “Romeo and Juliet” that I have ever seen. By the end of the comic you wonder just who can be called “the good guys” anymore- the terrorists represent an obvious threat, but can you fight for a country that is willing to go to the same lengths as terrorists to protect themselves?

At the risk of sounding like a giant literary snob, the ending reminds me of the conclusion to Voltaire’s Candide- after traveling the world and seeing such horrible things, what would be more preferable than to tend your own garden and be done with the world?

“Aaron and Ahmed: A Love Story” is written and drawn by Fabio Moon and Gabriel Ba, and published by Vertigo Comics.  If you’d like to read “Daytripper”, check out your local comic book store, or help us out and buy it from Amazon.