“The Sheriff of Babylon” continues the Vertigo tradition of bringing interesting and challenging stories to readers. The gritty comic from writer Tom King and artist Mitch Gerads constantly defies classification. Part thriller, part war-drama and part crime-drama; “Sheriff of Babylon” plays with all these genres without being constrained to any one of them.
Without giving anything away, “Sheriff of Babylon” tells the story of Chris Henry, an ex-cop from L.A. who takes a job in Iraq shortly after the fall of Saddam Hussein. Although hired to train the new Iraq police force, Chris instead finds himself caught up in a web of crime and intrigue. With the entire first story arc out in trade and a “second season” teased by Vertigo, there really has never been a better time to get into King and Gerad’s gritty war epic. Not yet convinced you should be reading”Sheriff of Babylon?” Well stick around while we give you 15 reasons why you should be!
15. THE SETTING
One of “Sheriff of Babylon’s” most obvious selling points is the uniqueness of its setting. Seriously, how many comics have you picked up recently that are set in war-torn Iraq? Taking place shortly after the fall of Saddam Hussein, the story kicks off in Baghdad in 2004, when the American presence in the country is still a fresh wound for Iraqis. In “Sheriff of Babylon,” Iraq isn’t just unstable: it is in a state of utter turmoil. People and ideologies both old and new clash as the country desperately tries to find its feet after the fall of its dictator.
Rather then just providing a two-dimensional representation of Baghdad, King and Gerads make it feel like a real, breathing city. Sure, it might be a war-torn Hell on Earth when the book takes place, but it is still a place where people live and raise their families. This realism and humanity that King and Gerads bring to their setting make the events that transpire in “Sheriff of Babylon’s” first 12 issues feel that much more grounded.
14. THE ART
A sign of a great comic is when the art and story fit so seamlessly together that you can’t possibly imagine one without the other. It doesn’t happen in comics as much as you’d like, so when it does, you know you are reading a truly amazing comic book. “Sheriff of Babylon” is certainly one such book and represents an inseparable marriage between King’s scripts and Gerads’ art.
Mitch Gerad’s art really is the perfect fit for “Sheriff of Babylon.” His bold and precise line work easily dances between brutal action and subtle gestures. His characters all emote with such wonderful clarity and all the military paraphernalia essential to a wartime setting looks sharp and accurate. As well as providing the pencils and inks for the book, Gerads also provides “Sheriff of Babylon” with its sandy colour pallet. One flick through its pages and you will agree; for a book about war, “Sheriff of Babylon” sure is stunning.
13. IT DOESN’T GLORIFY WAR
Don’t let the chiselled blonde-haired macho man on the cover fool you; “Sheriff of Babylon” is not a book that glorifies war. Sure, protagonist Chris Henry has his moments of heroism — as do all of the book’s three protagonists — but he is always portrayed as a flawed human character and is genuinely affected by the horrors he witnesses.
Instead of delighting in over-the-top action, “Sheriff of Babylon” instead focuses on the cost of war. Shocking images of dead bodies, people being interrogated and cats chomping into corpses all adorn the comic’s pages. It is all very sobering stuff. Whenever action does transpire it is always intense and with brutal consequences. “Sheriff of Babylon” has a habit of drawing out action until it is uncomfortably long and lingering on its gory products. Rather then preaching about the horrors and injustices of war, the book simply shows them and allows the reader to make up their own mind.
12. TOUCHING MOMENTS
Throughout all the confronting images of war and political instability, “Sheriff of Babylon” manages to be genuinely touching. Punctuating all the violence and political machinations are powerful human moments. Simple moments that seem all the more poignant set before the backdrop of 2004 Iraq.
One such moment occurs when American Chris Henry gets drunk with Fatima — the wife of ex-Saddam regime cop, Nassir. What follows is a quiet and understated scene where the pair drink and talk in one of Saddam’s old pool-houses. As they drink and talk, all their differences — religion, nationality and political leanings — slowly melt away and they become just two people sharing a conversation. This beautiful exchange is one of the many touching scenes that graces the pages of “Sheriff of Babylon.” Sure, the premise and setting are enough to get you picking up the book, but it is “Sheriff of Babylon’s” many moving moments that will keep you truly hooked.
11. CHRIS HENRY
Chris Henry is “Sheriff of Babylon’s” blonde-haired, fair-skinned leading man. Although not the book’s only protagonist — Chris shares the limelight with Iraqi council member Sophia and Ex-Saddam regime cop, Nassir — he is the book’s only likeable American character. An ex-cop from L.A., Chris came to Iraq hoping to make a difference but instead spends his time trying to train the new police force — a fairly futile task.
Unlike the other American soldiers around him, Chris remains relatively un-jaded by his surroundings and has a great deal of empathy for those he encounters. In a refreshing change from most Hollywood macho-men protagonists, Chris is patient, slow to resort to violence and he is affected by any violence he does witness. A genuinely good person — or at least he is trying to be — Chris represents a glimmer of hope in a land where hope has long since abandoned.
10. MYSTERY AND INTRIGUE
If you are looking for a fast paced, high-octane action affair, then “Sheriff of Babylon” probably isn’t going to sate your appetite. But what it can deliver is intrigue and plenty of it. Instead of kicking-off with grandiose action or countless explosions, “Sheriff of Babylon” begins with a simple question: “who killed Ali Al Fahar.” This murder mystery is the main thrust of the story, and sees Chris, Sophia and Nassir pulled into the centre of a dangerous web of schemes.
“Sheriff of Babylon” is a deceptively slow burn. Information is dealt out to the reader gradually; never too much so you know exactly what is going on, but enough to keep you turning to that next page. Conversations are dense, forcing the reader to sift through the atmospheric dialogue to decode the mystery surrounding Ali Al Fahar’s death. That said, these conversations never feel like a chore. Instead you feel genuinely smart when you put the pieces together and figure out what exactly is going on.
9. TOM KING’S SCRIPTS
Working in harmony with Mitch Gerads’ gritty, sand-stained artwork is the thoughtful writing of Tom King. A creator at the top of his game, King has impressed comic book fans and critics alike with his cerebral plots and grounded character work. “The Sheriff of Babylon” not only carries on this reputation, it is one of his best books to date.
Sure, the characters are complex, the plot makes sense and all the prose flows smoothly, but King’s storytelling skill goes beyond simply being a solid writer. A master of visual storytelling, he uses every trick the comic book toolbox has to offer to get his tale across. King delights in varied page layouts, often utilising nine-panel grids and splash pages to create an undeniable sense of pace. This sense of pacing is also complimented by his dialogue, which flows in uneven bursts; either speeding up or slowing down the reader. With all this in mind, it becomes clear that “Sheriff Of Babylon” is more than just a well-written story, it is also a masterclass in comic book storytelling.
8. IT’S NOT ABOUT WAR
Ok, so obviously “Sheriff of Babylon” is kind of about war. There are guns, soldiers, bombs, tanks and all the other set dressings Hollywood has taught us to associate with war. And yes, there are interrogations, murders and unspeakable horrors, but at the centre of all this is people. Some involved willingly, some not-so willingly, but the point remains the same; at its core, “Sheriff of Babylon” is a book about people.
Chris, Sophia and Nassir are the three people that the comic chooses to spend the most time with. Rather than our three heroes — if you can call them that– acting to affect the war, the opposite actually happens; “The Sheriff of Babylon” tracks how the war affects them. If you look beyond the shocking violence and the setting , “Sheriff of Babylon” is actually a character piece; an unhinged exploration of people navigating extreme circumstances. Emerging from the wreckage of 2004 Iraq aren’t heroes or villains, just regular old people.
7. BRUTAL ACTION
Although “The Sheriff of Babylon” is certainly a slow burn (like we mentioned before, if you are looking for a high-octane thrill-ride you, then man, have you ever come to the wrong place), it does have its moments of intense action. As with everything else in the book, “The Sheriff of Babylon’s” livelier moments are unapologetic and brutal. Thugs get their faces torn to shreds by shot-gun blasts, cars get hit by rocket launchers and characters die completely out of the blue. Oh, and a lot of people get shot in the head.
To make things more shocking, these flashes of violence often come suddenly and without warning. In a feat of realism, these moments of violence come quickly and leave even quicker, forcing the reader to linger on the grizzly consequences. In the world of “The Sheriff of Babylon,” no one is safe and death is all too common.
6. IT PUSHES BOUNDARIES
King and Gerads are certainly not ones to shy away from potentially controversial and confronting material. The setting of “The Sheriff of Babylon” (2004 Iraq) is enough to court controversy on its own. Combine this with subject matter like terrorism, America’s involvement in Iraq, as well as torture, and you are in for one challenging comic.
“The Sheriff of Babylon’s” edginess goes beyond simply portraying violence, gore and occasional nudity. The book constantly questions America’s motivation for being in Iraq — particularly the motivations of individuals participating in the military intervention. The main way “The Sheriff of Babylon” does this is in the portrayal of American soldiers – most of which are total jerks. Instead of helping him fit in, Chris Henry’s empathy makes him an outsider. Unlike the other U.S. soldier’s Chris encounters, he treats everyone with compassion and humanity. Chris’ decency only further highlights the callousness of his peers, subtly challenging the American hero narrative.
Even though it is set well over a decade in the past, “The Sheriff of Babylon” is a very topical book. Issues concerning religion, terrorism and America’s intervention in the middle east — topics which continue to dominate the media today — are all front and centre in the comic’s pages. Rather than preach a certain worldview or perspective at its audience, “The Sheriff of Babylon” simply portrays life in 2004 Baghdad, trusting readers to draw their own conclusions. Although obviously a work of fiction, writer Tom King’s time in the C.I.A. gives the portrayal of post-Saddam Iraq a certain clout.
Avoiding political leanings as much as possible, “The Sheriff of Babylon” feels balanced. No one side is bad. Instead, each side has their own valid motivations and perspectives. This is particularly reflected in the book’s cast which features an American; Chris Henry, Saddam’s ex-chief of police; Nassir, and a member of the Iraqi council; Sophia.
4. IT’S GENUINELY SHOCKING
“The Sheriff of Babylon” is, surprisingly, a tonally diverse book. It can make you shrug, wince and smile all in the same issue. It can also make you gasp in shock. Although the comic never plays to shock value, it does have its fair share of truly shocking and confronting moments. It is, after all, a book about war, and you can’t portray war without also portraying its atrocities.
King and Gerad’s certainly don’t shy away from this, often forcing the reader to linger on the horrors of war for several panels. Again, this is never done for shock’s sake, it is always done in service to the story. Regardless of how uncomfortable some of what is portrayed may make you feel, it is important because it reminds us of the weight of what is going on. This is war, and in war the stakes are as high as they can possibly get.
3. GRITTY AND GROUNDED
In many ways, “Sheriff of Babylon” has more in common with crime comics than war comics. Sure, war is the setting, but the book’s slow, deliberate pace and drip feed of information make it feel different from most war stories. There’s no bombastic, over-the top action here. Instead, everything feels methodical and grounded. Every act of violence has a sense of weight to it. Every time a character dies, it feels genuinely affecting.
“Sheriff of Babylon’s” gritty and grounded tone is also helped by its choice of protagonist, L.A. cop Chris Henry. Chris isn’t some well-trained super-soldier and it shows. He handles everything as you would expect a cop to handle things; he is slow and measured, relying on procedure and training over instinct. Only, in the absence of any sort of traditional law and order, he seems severely out of his depth; a lone man of law in a city overcome by chaos.
2. MORALLY COMPLEX CHARACTERS
To most western readers, the world of 2004 Iraq might as well be Mars. The locations and culture all feel foreign and strange, as there are not many familiar cultural anchor points to cling onto. Fortunately, King and Gerads solve this problem by filling “The Sheriff of Babylon” with a cast of compelling and complex characters. The book’s three protagonists — namely Chris, Sophia and Nassir — are all very different people that find themselves on the same side.
All three of these characters are morally complex. Although ultimately all are good people, Chris, Sophia and Nassir all have questionable things in their past. The strongest example of this is Nassir. The chief of police before Saddam Hussein was overthrown, in another version of this story, Nassir could be a cut-and-dry villain. Instead, King and Gerads portray him as sympathetic; a conflicted man who does what it takes to protect his family. This humanity, which “Sheriff of Babylon” imbues in all its characters, is the draw-card of the series.
1. IT’S AUTHENTIC
When making any sort of narrative property, one of the key questions you have to ask is “what makes the creator the best person to tell this story?” When it comes to “The Sheriff of Babylon” writer, Tom King, the answer couldn’t be more obvious. That’s because before becoming the powerhouse creator responsible for such series as “The Omega Men,” “The Vision” and “Batman,” King was a C.I.A. officer. Even more importantly, he was posted in Iraq during that time.
Everything that transpires in “The Sheriff of Babylon” carries considerably more weight because of Tom King’s experience with the C.I.A. This isn’t just a story told by a voyeur or someone throwing around their political opinions; this is a story written by someone who actually lived amongst the chaos of post-Saddam Iraq. Seriously, who wouldn’t want to read a story about the Iraq war told by someone who was actually there?
What’s your favorite thing about the “The Sherif of Babylon?” Let us know in the comments!