THE SHERIFF OF BABYLON is a gripping, perception-shattering new Vertigo miniseries from writer Tom King (GRAYSON and OMEGA MEN) and artist Mitch Gerads. A crime tale set against the backdrop of the Iraq War, it tells a fictitious story that draws inspiration from the often surreal and frequently dangerous experiences of thousands of American veterans. It’s fiction that feels real, and for good reason. Tom King is a former CIA operations officer who served in Iraq, an experience that informed much of The Sheriff of Babylon.
To get to the heart and soul of this deeply personal new comic, we asked DC All Access’s Jason Inman to interview Tom. Jason is a former serviceman who served as an Army combat engineer in Iraq from January 1, 2005 to December 10, 2005, and we were curious what a fellow veteran would think of the series. We wanted to know what sort of questions it would provoke for him as someone who also spent time in and around the Green Zone. Here’s what one former soldier had to say to another one about the Iraq War and the new comic series it inspired.
Jason Inman: Tom, I read the first issue. Good job on that, man. I really enjoyed it.
Tom King: Thanks. That means the world to me.
Jason: This series, Sheriff of Babylon, it pulls from a very personal experience in your life. How long did it take you to write it? Have you been thinking about telling this story for years?
Tom: Yeah, I have been. I wasn’t in Iraq for very long. Just four and a half months. I know people such as yourself who served a much longer time than me, and I don’t want to make myself into something bigger than I am. But I did have the experience of serving there, and I worked the issue before the war and after the war from the States and from around the world. So I dealt with Iraq for a long time. It was a big piece of my life. I knew at some point I had to write about it. I tried a few times and it just made me feel uncomfortable. I knew I wasn’t getting it right.
It’s a weird feeling and I don’t know if people can relate to it, but I get a sort of guilt when I write about Iraq. I’m sure you can hear it in my voice—I’m already apologizing. But I feel like I didn’t do enough. I should have done more. I left too early, the situation wasn’t resolved. And also, it’s weird but there’s almost a feeling of wish fulfillment—like I wish I was back there, I wish I was still in it—and pain that came with it. There’s a lot of emotion wrapped around it. So it took me a while to get to it. It was about ten years before I was comfortable with it.
Jason: How would you compare your day life in Iraq to the day life of the military troops over there? What was your day-to-day?
Tom: Well, I was in the CIA, so obviously I can’t talk about the specifics of everything. Or more accurately, I don’t know what specifics I’m not allowed to talk about.
Jason: You could just say it’s classified. [laughs]
Tom: Yeah, this is the first book I’ve written where I’m submitting every issue to the CIA to approve. I’m not writing about anything classified or any sort of intelligence. It’s not anything like that. But I am writing about stuff that sort of comes close to that line, and I very much respect the secrets that were given to me. I don’t want to eff that up.
I think people forget what a wide variety of experiences Americans had in Iraq, soldiers, contractors and everyone who was over there. I can’t compare my daily life to an average soldier’s because there’s no average soldier life. I hung out with Special Forces guys. I hung out with big army guys. I hung out with military contractors that spent their whole life in the army and then came over after that. I didn’t have the life of the guard who was standing out there doing 18-hour duty in full armor sweating in 130 degree heat. I didn’t have the life of the guys who were doing the front line raids—the real trigger-pullers. But I also didn’t have the life of the guys who just sat behind the barriers all day and just watched other people do their jobs. I was out there. I was trying to get stuff done close to the front lines.
I don’t know if it was a typical experience. I ate a lot of KBR foods. I did a lot of mortar drills. I hid in a lot of bunkers. I drove on a lot of streets that I shouldn’t have been driving down. It was my experience.
Jason: What’s been the hardest thing to explain to your artist, Mitch Gerads, in your Sheriff of Babylon script?
Tom: Mitch comes from a military family, and he’s been drawing military comics for almost a decade. He knows his stuff. He’s probably one of the best—if not THE best—military artist of his generation, so there’s not much I have to explain to him. He gets it. I mean it’s a little tough because I want to write about the moment I was there. I don’t want to write about a lot that I didn’t see because I feel like I won’t make it genuine. But it’s hard to be like, “Okay, this is what the Al Rashid Hotel looked like in February, 2004.”
I remember that I was trying to describe to him some of the really weird stuff after the invasion that was so common back then. Like how often people were trying to sell you little trinkets that you would take home with you that said things like, “Thanks for American Freedom.” And I was trying to find them online. We must have taken a billion pictures, but I couldn’t find a picture of all these guys that used to sell you that crap everywhere you went. Like these little mugs with pictures of America and Iraq stitched together. So sometimes there’s stuff that’s so specific to that moment that I have trouble finding a reference, but Mitch nails it either way.
Jason: There’s a scene that really stuck with me in the first issue. You have your main character, Chris, eating in front of a suicide bomber and talking about how the heat makes him hungry. Do you know a Chris in real life? Is Chris based on anybody?
Tom: No, not really.
Jason: It’s just that the heat line stuck with me as something so real. I felt like I’ve heard that line before.
Tom: Yeah, I remember just being so hungry in Iraq all the time. It’s such a bizarre detail, but everyone was on Atkins in Iraq. Everybody! We had these cooks and they could make you steak for breakfast, lunch or dinner. I just remember constantly being hungry and having meat sweats. That’s pretty bizarre, but you were eating a ton of meat.
I’m trying to make Chris as far away from me as possible. When I write myself, I get bored out of my mind. I go to that well so often. I’m trying to make him a little bit different. In some way, he’s supposed to represent those people who felt 9-11 happened to them personally. I think a lot of people felt that way, even if you weren’t involved at all, it felt very personal to you. I’m making it more of a metaphor with him where he’s actually somewhat involved. He’s trying to make up for that. He’s saying he wants to be in this fight and affect some change, and he gets sent to Iraq, and he doesn’t know how that impacts the way 9-11 affected him. How he did get from, “I want to save the world from 9-11” to “I’m fighting a war in Iraq by training Iraqi police officers”?
That impulse is based on myself and a lot of people I know.
Jason: I also noticed that we never see a weapon being fired in the first issue. You just have a black panel with white text in the middle. Where did that come from? Was that a way of hiding these really terrible acts of violence?
Tom: Yeah. I mean, there’s going to be some violence in the book, but I didn’t want the focus of it to be the violence. For example, there’s a kid who gets shot and I just didn’t want to show that. Also, I’ve been in some situations where bombs or guns are going off, and what’s weird about it is that you don’t really know what’s going on when it happens. I know that’s probably not the bravest thing I’ve said in my life, but you don’t know where it’s coming from. It’s not 100% clear. It’s in the aftermath, after you hear the shot, you look around and see what happened. You see the after effect. You think from the movies that there’s a moment from when you pull the trigger to when the gun hits its target, but anyone who’s fired a gun knows it’s so fast. It’s instantaneous, right?
Tom: That’s your first realization—you can’t dodge a bullet. There’s no such thing as dodging a bullet. As soon as you fire, wherever you’re aiming at, that bullet’s there. Once you hear the bang, whatever the bad stuff is that’s happening has already happened. So I wanted to get that across, but in a comic book way.
Jason: One of your other main characters is the daughter of a Sunni who was raised in the States, but now she’s come back to Iraq. So she’s an outsider just like the Americans, but she’s also a woman in a very male dominated country. I was hoping you could tell me a little bit about the creation of the character of Sofia, and what we can expect from her in the series.
Tom: I wanted to talk about this generation of Iraqis that came back to Iraq on the heels of Americans. I was in Iraq with them. There were a group of Iraqis who were outside of Iraq that helped this effort and helped this country. I always found that kind of fascinating—these guys who would work with America to take over a country that used to be theirs. I wanted to explore that. It’s not a bad impulse. Saddam Hussein was a horrible, horrible person. To work your whole life to get rid of that person was something noble, but it also means that what became of the country was amazing and horrible.
It’s not black or white, a good thing or bad thing. But she’s one of those kinds of Iraqis who worked from the outside to help the Americans in any way she possibly could. In terms of making her a female, I knew some incredibly powerful women who were out there, who had been put in positions of authority because of the war. I found that to be very interesting—how much respect they could garner. So I wanted to explore both of those issues in this one character.
Sofia’s my favorite character. I love her.
Jason: What would you say to someone who has never heard of Sheriff of Babylon to get them to check it out?
Tom: This is the comic book equivalent of an HBO show. This is the thing that everyone’s going to watch Sunday night and talk about Monday morning. Every issue is going to shock you. Also, if you turn on your TV and you’re wondering, “Did we win or lose this war? Will we ever win or lose this?” I’m going to try to talk about that a little bit. I’m not saying I come up with the answers, but I was there at the beginning of it and I was there when everything went a little bit wrong. So if you want to listen to a guy try to make sense of it, Sheriff of Babylon is the place to turn.
Jason: From my time in Iraq, I get asked a lot of the same questions about the same things. What is the one aspect of your time from over there that people don’t understand, or that you wish that they would stop asking about?
Tom: I feel people don’t understand what PTSD is—my experiences with it and my friends’ experiences with it. I feel like they always think of it in terms of it creating crazy, dangerous people, but I think it’s a much more complicated condition than that. It’s more than just thinking that you went through something horrible. It’s also about thinking that you went through something important, and you were sort of on the edge of the world and when you pushed it, it moved. Then you come back to your normal life and you’re doing your thing, you’re writing comics for a living and watching the news, and you don’t feel important anymore. You don’t feel that sense that you’re doing the right thing all the time.
It’s not always about the horror. It’s not always about thinking you’re going to get shot. It’s sort of about the difference between a life where you thought you were making a difference and a life where you weren’t. I think that creates a lot of stress in people and people haven’t acknowledged that. There’s some misunderstanding in a lot of popular culture where they assume it’s this one thing and it’s so much more complicated.
Jason: Alright, Tom, I just have one more question.
Tom: Dude, I need to stop and say thank you for your service. I know I’ve said it a thousand times, but I want everyone to know how much I respect what you did.
Jason: Well, I want to say the same thing. I mean from just reading this book and reading other interviews with you, it sounds like you had some crazy times over there, so I want to thank you for YOUR service.
Tom: I took a plane there, man. I was okay.
Jason: Yeah, I was in the back of a cargo jet. [laughs]
Tom: That’s what I’m saying!
Jason: All right, so final question. What is your hope for the series and what will make you say mission accomplished on Sheriff of Babylon?
Tom: The second question is easier. Nothing will ever make me say mission accomplished on Sheriff of Babylon. I’ll always second guess myself and think I could have done it better, and know I could have done it better. To me, that’s what being a writer is. It’s this idea that you’re always seeking perfection, but you never get it, and if you’re not feeling that fear, then you’re not doing it right.
As for my goal with Sheriff, well, it sounds crappy, but I have no desire to make art. At the end of the day, I want people to be taken away from whatever it is and read a comic book and relax a little bit. If they learn something from it, that’s fine. But the first goal for me is always [to entertain]. Life’s hard enough, but read this comic book and maybe it’ll help you out.