The weapons are cutting edge but the surroundings are not. The men sit in cheap folding chairs and at flimsy plywood tables that would not even stop a handgun round. The American security contractors, some bearded, listen patiently to the Cold Harbor executive in a suit brief them on their next target in the fractured Iraq of 2019, Basran.
It is a no-nonsense environment stripped down to the essentials: operator, weapon, and objective. This is the near-future world of the Black Powder \\ Red Earth graphic novels. In it the workmanlike aspect of some of the most dangerous, and lucrative, mercenary work is on display for all its gore and little of its glory.
“I wanted to see a story about what was actually involved in this,” Jon Chang, the writer behind the five issues who likens it to another genre of writing. “It’s like True Crime.” Chang works with Kane Smith and artist Josh Taylor to produce the graphic novels. The first series included four parts and the new series began last year with part five.
The reader follows two lead characters known only by their call signs. Token and Grinch move through their world as predators, slowly and procedurally, closing in on targets one by one. They joke. They pace. Then they unleash violence depicted unflinchingly on the page. This understated style is what separates BPRE, as it is known by its acronym, from more sensationalized stories. “That’s the real world,” said Chang.
There is minimal dialogue but everybody’s motivations are clear: The operators are doing their job. Management moves them around on the board, often guided by a drone overhead. Backers with bottomless accounts in the Gulf supply the money and the direction. The US government stands aside while Iran and Saudi Arabia wage a proxy war over what remains of Iraq with Cold Harbor’s contractors and IRGC agents locked in an under-the-radar battle. Locals try and stay out of the way, and not always successfully.
Some of the characters struggle with their work while others are happy to simply cash checks – and both Grinch and Token seem to accept this is the only thing they know how to do. This fatalistic professionalism is what saves the characters and their stories from becoming comic-book caricatures hooked on heroics or valor.
Judged By Its Cover
At first glance, each issue’s yellow-lettered cover is nearly identical. Look closely, however, and embedded in the gloss black page is a matte rendition of one of the Cold Harbor contractors in action. It is a fitting aesthetic. The contractors regularly endure periods of slow and steady work as they stalk a target, which for the reader just builds the tension until the inevitable ferocity that is frequently at the core of their missions. The violence that erupts is graphic, and the contractors are luckier than the men they track, kidnap or kill in firefights.
While images are heavily shadowed, detail is not obscured. There is a tactile aspect to the illustrations, particularly of weapons, that gives a real sense of texture. Chang says he is striving for realism, which means the stories are closely modeled on how the work gets done in this murky world. That work was often less dramatic than the public perceived, particularly given the political furor over Blackwater and other private military contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan. Chang started working on the series in 2003 and through it began to meet more people taking assignments as security contractors. He is also now working in that world as chief creative officer at Haley Strategic Partners, a security training and tactical equipment firm.
From a creative perspective, there is a delicate balance to be struck between a forgettable and mundane story and one that is unacceptably over-the-top. Sometimes the most realistic depiction lacks the drama or excitement that readers who pick up a graphic novel like BPRE expect. Authentic as the series is, this balance is something Chang has wrestled with in writing stories that entertain but also can stand up to scrutiny from those who are in the field.
“You have to remember who the audience is at the end of the day,” he said. That led him to reissue the initial volumes with simplified dialogue and other changes. It is a long way from the technological overload in video-game depictions of future conflicts, such as Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare.
“It’s always insulting to get the end of any kind of narrative when you try to exonerate a group of people for doing horrible things,” he said.
The BPRE series actually started out as a video-game project. As time went on it evolved into the graphic novel series, initially popular with a military audience, and began to fund the development of the game.
Today, new readers are apt to be gamers. “People came to BPRE first for the game, and the graphic novel grew out of that,” he said. There is a crossover audience as well of firearms and military gear aficionados, as well. In a sign of how intertwined fact and fiction in BPRE can be, there have been Cold Harbor limited-edition carbines and other gear produced to a spec that would suit the operators in the series.
The kinds of covert and clandestine missions that Cold Harbor conducts will be a feature of future conflicts, Chang said, and the key question for today is whether these missions will be government operations or privately run. Meanwhile, Grinch and Token are sitting around a cheap wooden table, thinking only of their next hit.