Shooting War is the story of an indie media heartthrob named Jimmy Burns. Set in the dark near-future (2011), the Brooklyn-based videoblogger gets his big break as he happens to be uploading a live rant in front a Starbucks when a suicide bomber blows the coffee joint to kingdom come. He becomes an overnight mainstream media star, and is snatched up by a new controversial, no-holds-barred network (Global News: "Your home for 24-hour terror coverage"). The network makes him and offer he can't refuse—a shot reporting from civil war-torn Iraq, where the situation is so dangerous most of their competitors have pulled their star reporters. Burns' greatest dream (to be a war correspondent) becomes his biggest nightmare as he nearly loses his mind in the paranoia, chaos and destruction of the spiraling civil war.
The strip is in part inspired by my own reporting in Iraq for a documentary I produced for the Guerrilla News Network (with my partner Stephen Marshall) called BattleGround: 21 Days on the Empire's Edge. We traveled across the country just as the insurgency was beginning to gain strength, trying to understand the various forces that were fueling resistance to the coalition occupation. Near the end of our trip, we found ourselves smack in the middle of the Sunni Triangle interviewing Lt. Col. Nate Sassaman; the cocky former West Point quarterback had become a legend among his men for his aggressive attitude and tactics. After vehemently denying allegations locals made to us that his unit beat up old ladies, shot pets and hauled off innocent young men in midnight raids, a frustrated Sassaman blurted out, "My life is a surreal movie. Everyday I wake up, and it's a surreal movie." (Sassaman later resigned in disgrace after trying to cover up the killing of an Iraqi teenager by two of his men.)
Sassaman's comment stuck with me. And as soon as I got home, I began crafting a storyline in my head to try and capture the former college football star's moment of clarity. All war is to some extent or another inherently surreal, but Iraq will surely be the most surreal of our lifetime. The utterly avoidable conflict has turned into a Hobbesian war of all against all—thrusting hundreds of thousands of jacked-up PS2-reared American ass-kickers, most of whom who can't find Iraq on a map, let alone explain the difference between Shia and Sunni, into a cauldron of centuries-old hatred and conflict.
I set Shooting War in 2011 as a sort of thought experiment, to take today's headlines and extrapolate where we might be headed. Imagine today's rash of bad news. I mean there's a lot of really bad news right now—but multiply that by ten, maybe eleven. It's a dark vision of the worst-case scenario. There's a global oil crisis, the U.S. economy is busted, and the Middle East has devolved into regional warfare. And, of course, in Iraq, a full-on civil war is raging, but our allies are not who you think they'd be. Americans overwhelmingly want out, but President McCain is trapped, like the leaders who sent him on that doomed mission over North Vietnam, in a war he can't figure out how to end. The image of a Vietnam vet president bogged down in another Asian quagmire is just too rich in irony.
Jimmy himself is in some ways not unlike Sassaman—a classic cocky American who's always had it easy—girls, friends, constant praise. But in Iraq, like Sassaman, he's faced with challenges he could never imagine, and Jimmy's confidence begins to erode as he realizes he may not be equipped to handle being a correspondent in the most deadly war ever for journalists.
My literary inspirations for Shooting War come mainly from non-fiction journals, magazines, war films and novels. I have never been much of a comic or graphic novel reader until this year. I only recently read Joe Sacco's amazing illustrated dispatches, for instance. And I've actually tried to avoid reading too many comics that might influence. I've only glanced at the very excellent (looking) DMZ and Transmetropolitan.
I grew up on Spy magazine, a quasi-satirical defunct magazine in the spirit of the UK's Punch, and I've always loved Granta. My heroes were William T. Vollman, Hunter S. Thompson (predictable, yes) and the Polish war correspondent Ryszard Kapuscinski (The Soccer War, Imperium), who captured the culture of war with incredible subtlety and precision.