Writer Tom King was a CIA operations officer stationed in Iraq, witnessing first-hand a side of that war-torn country that most people have never heard about. But in the new Vertigo miniseries Sheriff of Babylon, the writer and artist Mitch Gerads are bringing that setting to life within a hard-hitting, multicultural crime series.
Debuting December 3, Sheriff of Babylon takes place in Baghdad in 2003, when an American police officer named Chris Henry is training the Iraqi police force. But when one of his trainees is killed, he teams up with an Iraqi police officer named Nassir and ends up encountering Sofia, a Sunni female warlord who's returned to the country after being an expatriate for many years.
Part of the Vertigo revival that started in October, Sheriff of Babylon is one of several new, creator-driven titles launching every week this fall. Newsarama talked to King and Gerads to find our more about the series, how it relates to King's experience in Iraq, and what readers can expect from Gerads' visual approach.
Newsarama: Tom, Vertigo saysthat Sheriff of Babylon is informed by your experiences as a CIA operations officer during the Iraq War. Does it deal with that same time frame? Is it loosely based on your time in Iraq?
Tom King: It's not a memoir or anything. Obviously, I can't do that. First of all, that would be illegal, and second of all, I would be uncomfortable doing it.
But it's entirely based on a time that I was there, and it's in a place that I was. Everything in it comes from stuff I witnessed, and the politics I witnessed, and what I witnessed.
So yeah, it's a very personal work.
And it's as true as I can make it.
Nrama: How would you describe the story? And can you categorize what type of comic book it is?
King: It's basically a crime series, but it's set in the Green Zone of Iraq about nine months after the end of the war.
The idea of the series is to explore that time from when we went, from when we thought we sort of won this easy conflict to realizing that this was going to be a much harder battle that's still really not over.
And the way we get to those things is through three characters: An American police officer who's training the Iraqi police, a Sunni female warlord who's returned to the country after being an expatriate for many years, and Iraqi police officer. And they're all drawn together by a murder.
And trying to solve the murder leads them into a world of hurt, which is what Iraq became.
Nrama: Mitch, how did you get involved with the project, and what did you think of it when you heard what the story was about and what you'd be drawing?
Mitch Gerads: I got a call from editor, Jamie S. Rich, and he said he wanted to pitch me a few different Vertigo books. He pitched a couple that I thought were cool. I'd been holding out at this point for what I wanted to do next. I was being kind of picky about it. And then he pitched Sheriff of Babylon to me, and before he was done saying it, I was like, "I'm in!" And he mentioned Tom and I was like, "I'm in! Stop pitching!"
And then I tried to get some character stuff and send it off to Tom. And clearly he loved it. We got to talking, and we both found out that we have this perfect book with the perfect people on it.
King: Oh yeah.
Nrama: Can you describe the style of your art — not just the way you usually draw or your usual influences, but specifically your approach for this project?
Gerads: For every project I do, I try to get into that world and figure out how best to tell that story. And this one felt so dirty to me — and I mean that the air felt dirty and the ground felt dirty. So I wanted to take a very real and also… not messy, but I wanted everything to feel like you can't get that sand out. When my brother came back from Iraq and other people, it's like, no matter how many showers you take over there, you always feel sand everywhere.
I think that's something I mentally slipped into the art. It developed like that.
And then I have tons of influences. Probably my biggest influence in any comic, but definitely on this one, is our cover artist, John Paul Leon. Just the way he handles things; he's a big inspiration on how I approached the book.
Nrama: Tom, is there a character in this story that you most identify with, or that represents you when you were over in Iraq? Or are these truly made up characters?
King: I find, in my own writing, whenever I put myself — I mean, I did it as a young writer. I sort of wrote myself as a character, my own observations. I found it terribly boring and tedious to write. It's hard to explain. My thoughts don't seem that interesting to me.
So I try, as much as I can, to step away from me and look at someone else's perspective.
I mean, that said, there's a character who is an American who is probably my perspective. He probably represents my point of view looking at all this.
The flip side of that coin is I can't write a character without putting myself in it. Like, if I don't relate to a character at all, and I don't see myself in that character, it doesn't work. It sounds contradictory, but I don't know. It's how I write.
So I don't see myself just in the American character, Chris. I see myself in Sofia. And I see parts of myself in Nassir. I try to sort of combine with myself with different things that are interesting and come up with something unique. It's hard to describe.
Nrama: This is a mini-series, right?
King: It's the first season. And it's up to us if we want to do another one.
I very much look on this like the first season of an HBO show. It has to have a huge beginning and a huge ending, but there's a place for it to go afterwards.
But if you read this mini-series, you'll get a complete story. It'll be like a novel.
Nrama: I think what's unique about it is that it is a wartime story, but it's not what you would call a war story. It's more of a crime story within that environment.
King: Yeah. First of all, I was in such a unique place in the war, being an intelligence officer with a CT assignment — a counter-terrorist assignment. So I wasn't on the front lines. That's not the Iraq I saw. I saw a different kind of Iraq.
And I do think it's something a lot of soldiers, a lot of people who were over there saw, but they don't see as much in the media. We see a lot of people talking about these sort of front line actions and those things, which are vital for that war. But there were experiences that a lot of other people had of being in this crazy place as it fell apart, that I also want to bring to the forefront here.
I think it's a unique story that people haven't seen before, and a unique background that's kind of like a crime story.