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Graphic Novel Review: Army@Love vol. 1: The Hot Zone Club by Rick Veitch and Gary Erskine

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Welcome to Afbaghistan, soldier.

The Bagh, as we call it here, is hot, dirty, and crawling with baghis armed to the teeth. And the li'l buggers ain't scared of dying, neither, and will stop at nothing to take you with 'em. So remember your basic training, make good use of our superior technology, and be ready for the fight of your life.

Ain't it the coolest?

Army@Love takes place just a little bit into our future and to the left of our reality. The war has been going on for a long while, and the army has had a hard time getting people to recruit. In a stroke of genius, middle management executives are drafted and come up with a plan: market war as peak experience.

Responding eagerly – not to say slobberingly – an adrenaline-addicted generation joins the battlefield, enjoying a moral license to do, well, anything actually – and concentrating on the combination of sex and violence, the ultimate rush. Up until now, the violence part took place in the battlefield, the sex one in "the resorts" – a few days of unbridled nudity, fornication, music and drugs.

But then Switzer, a sharp-shooter with a craving for fun, convinces Flabbergast, a stage-magician who looks good in uniform, to join The Hot Zone Club: actually doing the deed under fire. So now, everybody wants to join The Club, especially after Motivation and Morale – MOMO for short – catches on and spreads the rumor around.

Switzer is none too happy about the growing popularity of The Club, especially since Flabbergast is telling everybody he came up with the idea. Never trust a hypnotist (as his lovely, if somewhat zombified, assistant could have once – alas, not anymore – testified). Loman, Switzer's husband back on the home-front, overheard the whole thing over the phone, so he's not ecstatic either. He has bigger problems, though, as his business is moving stolen parts – car or human, everything goes – from and to Afbaghistan, and the local bosses are none too happy with his recent work. He's also sleeping with Allie, the wife of MOMO head-honcho, Healey, who, on his part, is exploring the nether-regions of his dedicated secretary, Woyner, while being squeezed by the Secretary of War, Stelaphane.

Flabbergast confuses his priorities
Flabbergast confuses his priorities

As you probably understand by now, Army@Love is a rather crowded comic, it's about contemporary American wars, and it doesn't pull its punches. But how well does it bode?

Well, that depends. On the satire front, it's a bit too over-the-top while also too obvious: okay, yes, Big Business stands to gain from the war; leaders will stop at nothing to get people to follow their plans; when the fighting starts, morality flies out of the window. Nothing new or very original here. Another problem is that Rick Veitch's satire lacks real bite by taking all of the risks out of the game. Satire is ultimately a tragic genre, while Veitch's universe is, surprisingly enough, rather optimistic: no US soldiers die during the comic, for instance.

But by no means is all lost. The book redeems itself by blending these rather insipid messages into a tasty, unique and extremely well crafted dish. Army@Love is one of those rare creations that improves with each read, and this is due to two major factors: Veitch's thoroughness and originality. Many elements in the book are well-researched – technologically, psychologically, graphically – but also given a certain twist. For instance, Roy the Robot is, basically, a bomb-disposal robot enhanced with weapons and surveillance equipment, and Veitch based him both on existing platforms and designs for future models. But the way he communicates is all Veitch – flat computer-talk with painful attempts to sound human ("I am sorry to inform you that I am not at liberty to disclose that information at the moment"), adding neat emoticons at the end of paragraphs. There's something bizarrely familiar about this, while it's also absurd to the extreme. Delicious.

But this is just a taste of what, rather unexpectedly, turns out to be the book's real forte: the characters. They are the most believable I've encountered in a long while in any medium – Switzer both doesn't care about her husband and loves him deeply; Loman will swindle his own sister but risk his life to try and save a half-stranger; Stelaphane is optimistic and patriotic, and also destroys people almost absent-mindedly. These complex, beautifully human, characters are presented to us in stages and through their actions, and Veitch resorts to direct exposition only once, and even then, presenting it in the text-balloons while unique, aesthetic, combat action is taking place in the background.

And this is the final reason why Army@Love turns out to be such a good read: Veitch knows his craft. The layouts, backgrounds, pencils, word-balloons, pacing – all are top-notch, serving the artist's intent and his relationship with the reader rather than just demonstrating ability. Combined with Erskine's fleshy colors, Veitch has created a full-bodied, lush, reality – which it is a delight to sink into.

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About Adam Klin Oron