Aaron and Ahmed Vertigo 2011.jpg

Jay Cantor seeks to make a bold statement with “AARON AND AHMED.” For the celebrated author who has explored the life of Che Guevara, the sex life of Ignatz and Krazy Kat and gone the distance with the 700 page Boomer saga, “Great Neck,” there is no doubt that he wanted to make a definitive comment on our post-9/11 world with this book. The question is whether the result is mostly thought provoking or just provocative.

In a sense, Cantor can have his cake and eat it too. This graphic novel is very provocative. However, there are many good things going on in it that it would spark the hoped for heated discussion in a book club or classroom setting. Cantor’s narrative is pretty minimal but that’s not always best for a comic book format. The fact is that, like any other literary form, you can treat comics any way you like and get a wide spectrum of results. Some creators come to it with limited goals and others seek more. That’s why I hold Cantor to a higher standard. That said, Cantor seems to rise and fall as he makes his way through this book.

There’s a rush to get to the premise, as well as to get to each point in the story. At the start, we very briefly see the main character, Aaron, as he makes his rounds at a stereotypical “hell hole” VA hospital. Then we quickly jump to a one panel mention of the love of his life, his fiancée, Carol, as we jump right into his viewing the 9/11 tragedy unfold on TV, with Carol on one of the planes. We get a heavy-handed rendition of the explosions and terror quickly followed by Aaron deciding he wants to be an interrogator at Gitmo. That kind of abruptness, kills off a lot of relating with the character to begin with. We then jump through some disjointed scenes of torture. All for the sake of the payoff: the set up for a most unlikely coupling: Aaron, this very patriotic soldier and, Ahmed, a terrorist suspect.

Aaron and Ahmed Vertigo DC Comics 2011

Things pick up once Cantor has gotten a chance to introduce to readers meme theory. It is memes that Cantor suggests are at the root of what makes someone a terrorist. Memes are supposed to be ideas that act much like viruses, infecting one mind after another. Think of catch phrases or jingles that “get stuck” in your head. Or, more heavy duty, think of the damage wrought by the ideas coming from organized religion. Now, it doesn’t take a PhD to write an excellent comic but Cantor, who has a PhD, gets so caught up in meme theory that it pulls you out of what could be a better story. Even a concept-driven story still needs the right amount of hooks.

It seems as if the art of James Romberger follows along with Cantor’s peaks and valleys. The characters are not really the most important things going on here. Our first looks at Aaron and Ahmed do not draw us in. They are rendered sparingly and without much blood running through them. As the action progresses, they become more fleshed out. By the time we have our first discussion on meme theory, the whole comic seems to come to life. And once the story has a chance to blossom a little, there are some very good moments. There is a beautiful passage, for instance, featuring “The Old Man of the Mountain,” a god-like phantom that guides Aaron once he has infiltrated a jihadist training camp. Just don’t expect any thrilling actions scenes like out of the pages of “Batman.” Even when US agents are in mortal combat with members of a terrorist cell, it remains a restrained scene.

Jay Cantor Aaron and Ahmed 2011

“Aaron and Ahmed” is detached and academic and so be it. There is a lot to admire here. What is most important to Cantor is to express his view that we’re all screwed. The puppet masters, whether corporate or religious, whatever side of the War on Terror, wield the memes that are lobbed at us vulnerable humans. Not a bad idea, or meme, to wrap a story around.

“Aaron and Ahmed” is published by VERTIGO, a DC Comics imprint. Hard cover, in color, 144 pages, $24.99 US.
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