We haven’t seen that many fictional graphic novels dealing with the dark side of American foreign policy, but Aaron and Ahmed embraces the subject with open arms. The first section of the book is set in the torture chambers of Guantanamo Bay, the second in a Pakistani training camp for suicide bombers, and the third on the streets of New York.
Aaron is a Guantanamo Bay interrogator, justifying his line of work through the loss of his fiancée, who perished in the attack on the World Trade Center. However, he’s intrigued by the process of indoctrination required to create a suicide bomber, and develops his own theory on how it might be done.
To test his hypothesis he singles out Ahmed, one of the inmates, and ‘befriends’ him. Ahmed is pumped with female hormones and given special treatment, to try and flip him to the American side. Once Aaron is comfortable Ahmed has been reigned in, they travel to Pakistan so Aaron can experience a training camp for himself.
Here the tables are turned and it’s Aaron’s turn to go through the wringer. He’s submitted to the indoctrination skills of the Old Man in the Mountain, a ghostly, bin Laden-like figure. However, despite the physical resemblance, the Old Man in the Mountain is more of an ancient spirit, embodying the suicidal tendencies of the bombers, who see themselves as direct descendents of the Hashashiyyin (assassins originally trained to fight invading Crusaders).
It’s an enthralling tale, even though it seems a bit far-fetched at times. It doesn’t trivialise the situation in Guantanamo, as it doesn’t shy away from the unpleasant torture tactics used by the American military regime. In fact, it makes the mountain-dwelling fanatics seem like the civilised ones. But it slips into the surreal when the warring factions seem to trust their methods of bending the will of an individual over and above the ability of an individual to overcome the programming, especially if they come from the opposite end of the cultural spectrum. The American reliance on violence, drugs and psychology, and their opponents’ use of mysticism and false promises, feels over-simplified.
The characters are well defined, but undergo dramatic changes as the rival factions fight for control of their hearts and minds. While this is part and parcel of the story, it becomes hard to empathise with either. Our views are questioned and twisted as we progress through the story, which is enlightening but tough on the reader.
On the art side, we were a bit disappointed. Romberger’s style is fairly loose and fast flowing, and while the story is well paced, the illustration varies in quality.
It’s an entertaining enough tale, though it ultimately leaves the reader feeling hollow and perhaps a little guilty of taking entertainment from a set of situations that, in reality, cause so many innocent people such pain and misery. It’s a brave and sophisticated setting for a work of fiction, but the resulting story doesn’t have the gravitas to pull the whole thing off.