Baghdad, 2003. Florida Police officer turned military contractor Chris Henry is tasked with training a new Iraqi police force. When one of his trainees ends up dead, Chris is forced to team up with Nassir, the last remaining cop in Baghdad. Pulling the strings to bring them together is the mysterious Sofia, an American-educated Iraqi who has returned to take control of the city’s criminal underworld.
Written by Tom King with art by Mitch Gerads, The Sheriff of Babylon is a gritty and brutal look at the Iraq Green Zone through the lens of a crime drama.
I got a chance to talk to Tom and Mitch about the series, their collaboration and how accurate the series is.
Graphic Policy: I think it’s best to start at a simple question for those who might not be familiar with the series. Where did the concept of The Sheriff of Babylon come from? I know it’s partially based on your experiences in the CIA Tom, but where did the idea come from to infuse it with a crime drama?
Tom King: I wanted to write about Iraq, but I can’t write about my story in Iraq… because… they wouldn’t let me, and they’d come and arrest me. It didn’t interest me for two reasons. I don’t like writing about myself, and I don’t think my opinions are too interesting. Number two, reliving those years are tough, and doing it more direct wouldn’t help that. So I wanted to write about that experience and that bizarre place that was the Green Zone in 2004 and as a writer, the easiest place to go to is the crime drama, the murder mystery. That’s the basis of Watchmen as an example. We’ve created this strange world, how do I explore it? The first thought a writer has is there’s a murder and someone has to solve it, so your detective goes from place to place to solve it, it’s an easy plot.
I started there and thought it was a cliche, so I thought how can I work with that cliche and went “what if that it’s almost a facade and the murder mystery starts off the book and how people react to the murder mystery is what it’s actually about.”
GP: Mitch, how’d you come on board for the series?
Mitch Gerads: I got a call one day, and had an issue or two left of Punisher and got a call up about being pitched a few books at Vertigo. I was being very selective at the time. I had turned down a few different things because I was waiting for something that excited me. And I got the Sheriff pitch which was described as Justified in Iraq. And I was told Tom was writing and I said stop trying to sell me. I’m in. And I did some character sketches, Tom approved them, and we were off to the races.
GP: With the art aspect, you’ve done a lot of military themed comics in the past. How do you go about it as an artist to get all of the details from the uniforms to the weapons to the Green Zone itself down?
MG: Research, especially with this book is really important to me. It’s a real place, full of real people, and real tradition, and we came over there and we’re real people. It’s a very real time and I wanted to get as much perspective as possible. So heavy in the research, every street corner, every nook and cranny, are all real places, and nothing is made up. I spent a half hour researching what kinds of phones they have in Iraq. It turns out, the same phones we have here. But that’s kind of the deep rabbit hole I went down.
I have a lot of friends in the military or were in the military and they always talk to me about how much they love comic books and movies, and how easily it is for them to be taken out of them when things are blatantly wrong. They’re brought up trained with these tools and everything. I take it all seriously. I’ve take classes on how to move with a firearm. I’ve taken classes on culture and stuff like that. It’s all super important to me and I find it important. More than that I find it interesting which is really fun for me. This book is right in my wheelhouse.
GP: How accurate is the comic to life in Iraq and living in the Green Zone?
TK: Yeah, pretty much everything takes place in some place. I don’t any research at all, I lived it, so I do all my research from memory. I try to remember places. I’m also the luckiest writer in comics where I have an artist who can catch me if I’m falling, I don’t have to tell them that type of stuff. To me, it’s scary accurate. In issue six, when they’re in front of those bunkers, trailers, whatever you want to call them. They’re almost perfectly accurate. It feels like a place I’ve been. There’s one location, I won’t say where it is, where I totally made it up. I needed it for plot. Mitch drew it really well, but I’m afraid someone will call me out on it and say that place doesn’t exist, it’s not entirely accurate. But, I’m not going to say which location it is. 98% of locations are true:
GP: Do you have to run each issue through the CIA to check off?
TK: I do. I do. Every issue I have to run through the CIA. And they approve it.
GP: Has there been an instance yet where they haven’t allowed it? Or asked you to change something?
TK: No. No. I’m very serious about that stuff. I have no desire to talk about what I saw when I was in the CIA. They entrusted me with secrets I should and will keep. So I’m pretty good in knowing what to put in and what not to put in. We haven’t run into any of that stuff. I hope they see the book is respectful and doesn’t try to use hyperbole to make them look like crazy people because they’re not.
GP: The story I think is interesting in that it deals with a real world issue, real world politics, but there doesn’t feel like there’s a political agenda. It doesn’t skew left or right. It’s just “we’re there” and here’s this crime drama. Is that something you’re intentionally doing?
TK: It’s completely intentional. I in no way wanted this to be a screed about politics. I think when you read a comic book and you can immediately translate what that person would say on an issue on Twitter, you’ve failed. A comic book isn’t meant to be a code to my political views. I’m not thinking of an essay in my head and I’m translating it into a comic book and then you read it. Hopefully by writing something that’s true, we can get beyond those words, beyond the essay in my head, the essay of my opinions that aren’t that interesting, but my experiences of every day of it, the experiences of these characters could be interesting. So I try to stay away from that stuff because I don’t think it’s worth anybodies time.
MG: The military guys I know, who have served or are serving over there, we’ve had these conversations. I think one of the greatest things about Sheriff is that it stays away from that political stuff. I talk to these guys, very few of them if any of them, are thinking of the political. They’re there doing their job and they’re there to protect the guy next to them. That’s their day to day. And I think that’s important to show, just the day to day.
GP: Going back to the look of the series. The color palette is very limited so far. How’d you decide on that? Was that something you two discussed or did it naturally happen?
MG: My biggest thing, color is my favorite part of the process. It’s where I get to make people feel things, where line art becomes atmosphere. So I wanted it to look hot, dusty, and people to finish an issue and need a glass of water.
And then there’s kind of a cool story too. I met a fan at a convention and we began talking, and we started to talk about color. He was a Marine and he was in Iraq. He battles with PTSD and he remembers those moments in color codes. For example the first time he was shot, the color would be blue. The memory is a blue world. That really struck me. I went home and when I thought about Sheriff that’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to give every scene a color code that seemed to be created with a specific tone.
GP: Issue five I think is one of the strongest comics I’ve read this year so far. The images tell the story as much as the words do. A subtle look or movement, or small detail, they all add to the story. How much of that is in the script and how much of that is you Mitch?
MG: I don’t think Tom points it out, but I think it’s in the script. I can see that conversation taking place. So at that point it’s my job to show that to the reader. And take actual weird little shrug. I try to give every character their own little ticks.
TK: I think it’s all Mitch, that issue especially. I remember, I turned in the script and I was so proud of it. Conversation and then more conversation. And I got the art back without the letters, I realized my words aren’t as good as the pictures. I sent an email to my editor that I was going to redo a lot of the dialogue, because he’s so much better than me and I can’t let him show me up. So, that issue in particular, Mitch has nailed the characters moves and everything, I needed to make sure the words were up to par. He killed it with that thing.
MG: Like I do with a lot of method, I just drank throughout the entire issue.
GP: Speaking of the storytelling, the series has been expanded. How’d that impact the story?
TK: You can see it in issue five and issue six. In my original outline it was supposed to be one issue. In my head it was always a twelve issue mini. And when I got it green lit they said it’d have to be eight and we’d see with sales, so I shortened it with eight. Then with the DC exclusive, it was timely and came my way. When people were talking about Batman, I went into Dan (DiDio)’s office and said “what do you think about twelve issues?” He said “done.” He was incredibly nice about it, but that came through because of the support of fans.
GP: Once this wraps up, will see more of your experiences in Iraq or your experiences with the CIA in general? Have you said what you want to say with this?
TK: It’s an ongoing series and hate to spoil what issue thirteen will be… This story ends, all the mysteries are solved, there is a resolution, kind of like how Omega Men ended. This is Sheriff of Baghdad, the next will be about the Sheriff of Babylon and the Middle East and War on Terror that I experienced. I wasn’t just in Iraq, I was all over the place. I want to continue with that theme.
GP: I’m wondering about some of those themes and always wonder if we as readers read too much into things. Particularly I’m thinking of who this series’ Sheriff actually is. There was the issue that explores the regional history as far as that title, I think that was issue four. Issue five it references it in another way. Is that something as a writer you think of and you purposely work in this thematic storytelling?
TK: I try to put that stuff in there and point to symbolism. I never get it in my head “this is exactly what it means and I hope they figure it out, and they solve the mystery that is the heart of Sheriff.” I’m just trying to go beyond words with a story and find some truth. I want to try to dig at those things. I don’t want to put a label on them, because when you put a label on it, it becomes totally banal. That stuff is in there. I’m trying to say something with Babylon, the Bible, and the Sheriff. What I’m trying to get across is something the reader has to come to and we have to come to together. And once you do that, you find the truth. It’s interaction.
GP: What type of feedback have you two gotten about the series, especially from those that have served or experienced this life?
MG: I have a few people who I know that are in the service and read it. They’ve gotten back to me and they love it. They dig it’s something they remember. They dig that it rings true. They dig that it’s not preachy. That dig that it’s anti-them. The idea of evil Generals, and all that drives them nuts. The response has been great, both military and those involved in that aspect and comic book readers. Comic book readers love that they know this rings true, but they don’t know it themselves. They’re getting a peak at this world that exists that thye don’t anything about. Even for me that’s my favorite thing, learning more, learning about this culture and people that are out there somewhere and we’re getting it through a different lense.
TK: After all that, what’s amazed me on the total nerd level, the Hollywood reaction. The fact we get producers, these writers, they want to do a tv series and all that stuff. That’s entirely new to me and I’m just sort of nerdily excited about that as a guy who watches too much tv.
GP: I want to thank you both for the time.
And for readers that are interested, check out a preview of issue seven below which is out June 8.