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Review time! with Operation Nemesis: A Story of Genocide and Revenge

by  in Comic News Comment
Review time! with <i>Operation Nemesis: A Story of Genocide and Revenge</i>

“In the wind we hear their laughter, in the rain we see their tears”

Well, with that title, how can you pass this up, right? This comic is published by Devil’s Due, which is run by Josh Blaylock, who also wrote Operation Nemesis, after the idea was brought to him by David Krikorian, whose family was directly affected by the Armenian genocide. Hoyt Silva drew the book, Greg & Fake Studio colored it, and Nic J. Shaw lettered it.

It costs $18.99.

The Armenian genocide has gotten more publicity in recent years, but it’s still not as notorious as the Jewish genocide, for a variety of reasons, the most paramount among those, perhaps, is because Turkey refuses to recognize it as a genocide. Their reluctance to do so is ridiculous – any who even reads a tiny bit about the government’s policy in 1915-1916 can see that it was genocide – and it’s kind of a embarrassment that they refuse to do so. I mean, even the United States kind-of, sort-of admits that they committed genocide with regard to Native Americans, so the fact that Turkey doesn’t acknowledge this is idiotic. So the Armenians remain somewhat swept under the historical rug, although recently, more people have begun to realize what happened to them. Operation Nemesis is a comic that shows both the actual genocide and the immediate aftermath, as it tells the story of Soghomon Tehlirian, an Armenian who assassinated Talaat Pasha, the main architect of the genocide, in Berlin in 1921 and was acquitted by a German court. Blaylock uses his trial to tell the story of the massacres, as Tehlirian’s entire family was killed in 1915 and only a stroke of luck allowed him to survive (the soldiers presumed him dead and simply left his body with the rest). The story feels more complicated than it is presented here, which is perhaps the limitation of the medium – the book needs to be visually attractive, so Blaylock doesn’t appear to want to bog things down with legal minutiae, which is fine, but it leaves some holes in the story.

The German judge seems wildly out of character, as he basically forces Tehlirian to tell the story of the massacre. It’s certainly good for the story, because it allows Blaylock to get into the genocide, but it still feels kind of odd that the judge would be such an advocate for Tehlirian. Perhaps the trial went exactly as Blaylock writes, but there had to be a good reason for the judge’s request, except we don’t get it. The judge and the prosecutor hint that there are powerful political forces in play during the trial, as Germany was Turkey’s ally during the First World War; a German soldier, Armin Wegner, is shown taking pictures of the massacres as they happened and saying he’d report back to Germany (Wegner was arrested by the Turks and sent back to Germany, but he managed to smuggle the photographs out and he became a passionate reporter of the genocide in 1919-1920); and Talaat Pasha was, after all, living in Berlin, and the government had to have known where he was and who he was (he was living under an alias). Very little of this makes it into the comic, though, and Blaylock chooses – perhaps wisely – to focus on Tehlirian and his experience, but it might have behooved him to include a few pages about how the German government felt about the trial, as in 1921, the Weimar Republic was still fairly fragile (Hitler’s putsch attempt, if you recall, came in 1923). The book delves into Tehlirian’s life quite well, but it feels a bit incomplete because the actual trial is so odd.

Still, Tehlirian’s story is very compelling. He gives us only a ground-level view of the genocide, but that means it’s brutal and visceral instead of calculating.

We can read that 1.5 million people were killed (that’s the high estimate – the low is 800,000), which, as we know, doesn’t have much effect on us because it’s too big of a number. Blaylock instead shows us Tehlirian’s family and how they were rounded up by soldiers (“gendarmes,” which were not French policemen, but mercenaries, a tactic which allowed the government to deny that Turks did the killing) and marched out of their town. They begin to resist, especially when one soldier drags Tehlirian’s young sister away to rape her, and then the killing begins. Tehlirian’s attorney called other witnesses who tell their personal stories about the killings, and Blaylock (and Silva) don’t pull any punches – some of the violence in the book is extremely graphic. Blaylock doesn’t get into the long history of Armenian/Turkish relations, and the reasons Talaat Pasha gives for the massacres (which he defends to the American ambassador as “deportations,” even if the ambassador is having none of it) are the standard ones politicians always give for persecuting minorities – they’re plotting against the Turkish state, they’re in league with Turkey’s enemies (in this case, the Russians, who are co-religionists with the Armenians) – and while Talaat might believe them and they might even be true (there were certainly Armenians pressing for independence), can anything justify the extinction of an entire ethnic group? Blaylock does get into the history just enough so that we can get a sense of the long antagonism between the two groups.

What’s especially fascinating about the book is that Tehlirian is not who he seems, really. He doesn’t hide the fact that he killed Talaat because he was the engineer of the genocide, but his lawyer argues that the massacres turned him into a killer – they clearly don’t paint him as insane, and no one thinks he is, but they argue that his mind was so affected by the killings that he had no choice but to destroy Talaat. Blaylock does some clever things in the book – he has the lawyers and Tehlirian insist that he did not know Talaat was in Berlin and that he only took advantage of a situation when it presented itself, but after his acquittal, Blaylock goes back and shows that this is not the entire story. The book is structured strangely – the acquittal comes about 2/3 of the way through the book, and only then does Blaylock get into Tehlirian’s post-massacre, pre-trial life in more detail, but I suppose he wanted to show us what actually happened (Tehlirian was acquitted and lived until 1960) before getting into his deeper motives; throughout the first half of the book, he jumps back and forth between the present and the past, and it seems like he could have done that throughout the entire book to sprinkle moments from Tehlirian’s life after he escaped into the narrative a bit more. The structure of the book before Tehlirian is acquitted is well done, and after it, the book becomes much more straightforward, which makes it drag just a little bit. We can guess that Tehlirian isn’t telling the whole truth during his testimony, so to see his journey from Armenia to Berlin laid out so plainly slows the momentum of the book. It feels almost like a long epilogue, and it really shouldn’t.

The information is fascinating, to be sure, but it’s kind of strange that Blaylock shifts the way he tells the story.

Silva’s jagged, Brian Stelfreeze-esque art works quite well in the book, as it speaks to the seriousness of the book, staying in tune with the script. Silva might be perfectly capable of doing a lot of action work, but he’s not called on to do much here, and when he does, his figures are a little bit stiff. But he does great work with the characters – Tehlirian is brooding, while Talaat is smarmy and overconfident – and he does some really nice things with the way he depicts certain moments. He often “scratches” the panels, streaking background silhouettes or the lower halves of characters with white lines to give the art a more kinetic and organic feel, and he uses blacks to excellent effect in a few places, like when Tehlirian’s mother is killed or when various doctors testify for and against Tehlirian’s mental state. There are more than a few horrific images in the book, and Silva does a superb job showing the brutality of the massacres without reveling in the violence. At the end of the book, Silva gives us a “Godfather-esque” tableau of violence as Armenians hunt down those who have wronged them, and he does an excellent job showing the closeness of the killings and the desperation of the victims, who finally have to face consequences. Silva also does a very nice job linking the Armenian genocide to Hitler’s genocide on the final few pages, with some terrific and terrifying visuals accompanying Blaylock’s quotes by Hitler about the world forgetting the Armenians. It’s pure propaganda, but it’s effective propaganda!

If you’ve never read much about the Armenian genocide, Operation Nemesis isn’t a bad place to start. In recent years, more books have been written about it, so if this piques your interest, there are avenues to explore. This book is an intense look at such a horrible historical event, and Blaylock was smart to focus on one person and how the killings affected him, because we can extrapolate out and think about how it affected so many others without being confronted with overwhelming statistics. It’s a solid comic with a powerful message, and it would be nice if this growing literature (of which this is just an example) finally forced Turkey to confront their past. Probably not, but at least this is getting the story out there!

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆

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