Writer Tom King brings his experience in Iraq as a CIA operations officer to Sheriff of Babylon, and this week's #7 marks the beginning of the Vertigo series' second storyline.
Working with illustrator Mitch Gerads — who was just joined King as a DC exclusive creator — King has been weaving a story around an American police officer named Chris Henry who trains the Iraqi police force after the war in 2004. When one of his trainees is killed, he teams up with an Iraqi police officer named Nassir and ends up encountering Sofia, a Sunni warlord who has returned to the country after she was an expatriate for many years.
Newsarama talked to King and Gerads in a spoiler-free interview about the story's direction so far and what readers can expect next.
Newsarama: Tom, I've seen a lot of positive buzz about this book. Have you guys gotten feedback like that?
Tom King: Yeah, on the rating side, where they calculate ratings of Sheriff at No. 1 in the reviews. So we're like, "take that Brian K. Vaughan, comic book legend!" [Laughs.]
And then we get a ton of, just, Hollywood loves it. We get a ton of Hollywood interest.
Between those two things, I think it's going all right.
Nrama: For people who might just now be checking this out, can you give a summary of what this series is about?
King: It's a crime series set in Iraq after the war, so in 2004. The way we like to think of it is the best of premium television — the HBO show, the AMC show that you're addicted to. So this is The Wire in a war zone. Every episode has a major cliffhanger. Every episode is made to blow your mind and to change what you thought about what's going on.
The idea is we're not talking about Iraq in terms of politics or in terms of who did what when. This is about what it felt like to be there, what it felt like to have the sand under your feet.
Nrama: And you would know?
King: I was there briefly, in 2004, when I was in the CIA. And I wanted to write about that, to write about sort of the craziest time in my life, and how everything could go wrong, and did.
Nrama: Mitch, what was your approach when you decided to get on board with this project? There's a real grittiness to your art that seems to capture the feel of that place and that time.
Mitch Gerads: Yeah, I remember when our editor Jamie S. Rich called me up, and I had just finished a long run on a different book.
The whole military genre is kind of in my wheelhouse, and it's something I just have a personal interest in and a personal respect for. So when Jamie called me up and pitched it as Justified in Iraq, I was in 100 percent.
And knowing Tom's background and having read that first script, I went in and tried to give it as much respect as I could. And I knew, right off the start, it was going to be a big project for me, just in terms of, I wasn't going to let myself cheat at all. Every single thing in that book had to be as researched and as right as I could make it.
Nrama: Tom, I think one of the biggest surprises for readers, particularly for me, was the variety of characters — the type of people we meet within this story. It's not your traditional soldier-filled war story. Can you describe some of these people we're learning about as the story goes on?
King: Yeah, I think that's on purpose. I think a lot of people who approach this kind of work, it's a classic story about a white guy goes into a land of brown people and learns more about how to be a better white guy. And I didn't want to tell that kind of story. That didn't interest me. Probably because I didn't become a better white guy from being there, but also because it seems ridiculous and slightly racist.
So I wanted to tell a story that has multiple points of view. And some of those points of view are people of color. We have three different characters.
We have Christopher, who's an American contractor in Iraq. He's there trying to — he has a legitimate goal in terms of guilt over 9/11. He's trying to make a better world and trying to do the best he can while he's there.
And we have Sofia, a Sunni warlord who grew up in America. Her family is a powerful Sunni family who was killed and she grew up overseas, and now she's come back after the war. She sort of represents that sort of Chalabi section of Iraq.
And then we have Nassir, who is a cop, a Baghdad police officer, a Shiite, who has been there and stayed and made the compromises necessary to be a Shiite in a Sunni-run country, and has lived with that and has had that haunt him.
Those are the three main characters, and it's sort of how one's moves impacts the other's lives. That's the theme of the story.
Nrama: Another surprise, I think, is how truly touching it is at times. Not to say there isn't some action. But you really start to care for the characters.
King: Yeah, the whole key to writing anything is empathy. That's basically the number one thing you need to be a writer, is to imagine yourself in someone else's shoes. I have trouble writing myself, actually — I find my thoughts to be entirely boring and banal.
But getting inside the mind of someone else who has a different point of view than me — that's interesting and that seems to write easiest.
And that comes from my CIA stuff. I hate to bring that up again, but part of that job is to understand who you're with and who you're fighting and get as close to them as possible. And hopefully that training gave me some insight into the people I was with when I was over there.
Nrama: Some pretty tough things to read have happened the last couple issues. Without spoiling it too much for people who might be new to the series or might be catching up, can you speak to the fact that it's not an easy comic to read? Is that a nice way of putting it?
King: Well, it's like how it was hard to watch the "Red Wedding" in Game of Thrones, but you wanted to watch the next episodes.
Nrama: Good comparison.
King: Yeah, this is a comic that you're read one page and, hopefully, flip it and it'll punch you in the face, and you'll want to read the next page and see if you can punch back.
Gerads: It's a testament to the characters and the book that it is hard to read, because if you didn't care about the characters or they didn't ring true to you, it wouldn't be hard to read if bad things happened.
But I think because the characters come through so real and so true, that's testament to why it's tough to read some of the events.
Nrama: Can you speak to what's coming up in the title?
King: Yeah, we finished first arc. The first trade will be out in July, which is entitled "Bang, Bang, Bang." This whole thing starts with a murder mystery — investigating the murder pushes against all these forces. And at the end of issue #6, you see them push back and sort of start to destroy the lives of these three characters.
So we start issue #7 with those lives being destroyed, and these guys lying on the mat. And the second arc will be them getting off the mat and trying to put things back together. And we're going to see whether that effort is productive or not.