"Best of Enemies" breaks down a complex story.
Sometimes, a graphic novel arrives that is more important for what it teaches than how it entertains. Such is the case with "Best of Enemies: A History of U.S. and Middle East Relations -- Part 1, 1783-1953" (SelfMadeHero, $25), coming in May.
"Best of Enemies" breaks down a complex and morally messy history into a clean and easily absorbed narrative. It begins with the fledgling U.S. military dealing with Barbary pirates in the early days of the country (the conflict that put "to the shores of Tripoli" in "The Marine's Hymn") and ends with the CIA orchestrating a coup that put the shah on the throne of Iran in 1953.
Every U.S.-Middle East connection in between is recounted, from American naval officer Alfred Mahan coining the term "Middle East" in 1902, to FDR's meeting with King Ibn Saud during World War II to cement the oil-for-security relationship we have with Saudi Arabia to this day.
Jean-Pierre Filiu, a world-renowned expert on the region, takes a strictly "just the facts" approach, which is rendered by graphic novelist David B. (the name the author goes by) in the same clear, cartoony style he used for his award-winning "Epileptic." Whatever political or historical lessons the reader derives is entirely up to him or her.
That's not to say there isn't plenty of meat here to chew on, even if you're not a history buff or political junkie. In fact, our history with the Middle East is one wildly at odds with our self-image, which alone is food for thought. It's pretty clear why Iran considers us the "great Satan" -- after you see what we did in 1953, it's a wonder Iranians don't hate us even more.
The only flaw, if you can call it that, is that the book focuses on U.S.-Middle East relations to the exclusion of broader history as a whole. We get a glimpse of great historical events when they directly impact the Middle East's relations with the United States, but huge chunks of the area's history are omitted. For example, there's little mention of the Crusades; the Shiite-Sunni schism; the Ottoman Empire implosion; the formation of Israel; or England, France and Russia carving up the region for 200 years or so.
Those things inform the Middle East's current societies, religions, governments, relationships -- and especially its borders. It makes one hope that "Best of Enemies" sells well enough for this team to conspire on a "History of the Middle East" graphic novel.
In the meantime, "Best of Enemies" is invaluable, because Americans are broadly ignorant of what our political and corporate leaders have been doing for the past 200 years in the most volatile region on Earth.