No matter how you look at him, Ted Rall is an ass.
If you used to watch Bill Maher’s “Politically Incorrect” you were probably annoyed by his snotty off-topic post-9/11 comments about the illegitimacy of the G.W.Bush presidency. If you’ve seen his cartoons in your local alternative paper, you’ve probably had enough of his crude, blocky art and strident “humor”. If you follow comics fandom, you may have seen the ugly mess of his legal feud with Danny Hellman. If you’ve read his graphic novel about his conflict with a high school bully My War with Brian, you probably put it down feeling sorry… for Brian. Rall’s an ass.
But he is not (to use the British term) an arse. He is not full of shit.
In fact, when it comes to politics - especially international politics relating to places like Afghanistan - I bet you $20 he knows more than you do. He’s well worth listening to.
After all, he’s been there. He went to Afghanistan at the same time U.S. troops went to “get rid of” the Taliban after 9/11. For that matter, he’d been to “the Stans” (Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Pakistan, et al.) repeatedly even before most Americans could find them on a globe. Even a labeled one.
In his book To Afghanistan and Back, Rall tells about his experiences as a journalist - the only cartoonist - in the first of the middle-eastern countries the U.S. “liberated” in its semi-official “War on Terror”. The book consists of roughly half prose/half comics: a graphic novella (i.e. a short “graphic novel”) sandwiched by text reports from the front.
First, for anybody questioning whether comics are an appropriate medium for covering something this serious: get over it. Cartoonists have covered wars, politics, and other serious matters for a century or more, and they do so every day in your local paper. See also: Art Spiegelmans’ Pulitzer-winning Maus (about the Holocaust), Joe Sacco’s Palestine and Safe Area Gorazde, or Joe Kubert’s Fax from Sarajevo (whose topics are pretty self-evident).
The focus of Rall’s book is personal, a travelogue of sorts, and in that sense he’s a Good Reporter, sticking to what he knows. But he knows more than just what he’s able to see, and he shares that insight - a combination of knowing the big picture and seeing the details up close - with his readers. Such as his perception of how the Northern Alliance “defeated” the Taliban: by Taliban supporters shaving their beards and joining the other side. Not because they’d been “liberated”, but because they wanted to be part of the winning faction. So little actually changed but the fashions. Telling the real truth behind the story makes him an even Better Reporter.
The text and the novella repeat each other a little, but that’s because they were originally written for different audiences. One “bit” covered in both accounts is the technically death of Swedish cameraman Ulf Stromberg; you can tell that hit Rall pretty close to home… for reasons made clear in the book. Although technically not a combat death, you get the sense of him as yet another casualty of another (and especially) nonsensical war. And while it may not hav made Rall any less of an ass (who knows, perhaps even more so), it lends some credence to the argument that Rall has a right to be an ass. And perhaps even a duty, because by not caring what people think of him, he has a chance at also affecting what they think of the world… and in this case, the U.S. policies and activities in the Stans of Central Asia.