Thursday, April 25, 2013

Best of Enemies: A History of US and Middle East Relations, Part One: 1783-1953

The best kind of educational books both engage and inform their readers, and I am happy to report that Best of Enemies is that kind of graphic novel. There was much in it that surprised me, including the fact that the Ottoman Empire was the first foreign entity the nascent US declared war against as well as the extremely sketchy roles FDR and Dwight Eisenhower had in post-colonial Iran and installing the shah into power. The book levels blame in many directions, and no one really emerges as a hero, not even the US. The narrative is complex and compelling, well detailed and documented by a prominent and respected scholar, Jean-Pierre Filiu. Certainly there is much here that is eye-opening and also shows that the conflicts we are still witness to are complicated and long-lived, going back centuries before oil was even a factor.

For me the highlight of this book was David B.'s art, which is bold, iconographic, and searingly beautiful. I found myself lingering over the physicality of his patterns and the etherealism of his imagery that simultaneously propel the story while commenting on it like the best kinds of editorial cartoons. His political views resonate through the narrative clearly, offering insights that take full advantage of the uniqueness of the sequential art medium. Also, a thread of icons that date back to the Sumerian king Gilgamesh is woven throughout, lending a legendary and historic quality while also tying events together thematically. After reading Best of Enemies, the current conflicts in the Middle East seem less like recent concoctions than long-building events predicated on a series of scuffles, backroom deals, and cash-grabs.

Both of this book's creators are distinguished in what they do. David B. is a respected, award-winning comics artist whose autobiographical graphic novel Epileptic is considered a modern classic. He has influenced many other artists as a founding member of the prominent French publishing house, L'Association, which is where Marjane Satrapi and Joann Sfar were first published. Dr. Filiu has been a political consultant in high-level capacities over the past three decades and is professor of Middle East Studies at Sciences Po, Paris School of International Affairs. He has also worked internationally at other prestigious schools like Georgetown and Columbia University.

Reviews I have read online have been very positive about this book. Bart Croonenborghs highly recommended it, writing "Jean-Pierre Filiu and David B. complement each other perfectly in crafting not only an important historical document but also a reflection on current times." Tucker Stone, who is not one to gush, gushed, "I'd recommend this book unreservedly to someone who wants to drink in some exciting art, I'd donate a thousand copies to school libraries throughout the world." Henry Chamberlain felt the book was very even-handed, stating "The approach of the book is refreshing in how the U.S. is placed among all the other players of geopolitics. There is no shining beacon on a hill, per se, and that goes for everyone."

This book is the first of a projected trilogy. It was published by Self Made Hero, and there is a preview at

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