I mentioned a couple weeks back that I’d be reviewing the episodic graphic novel Black Powder Red Earth. I finished it and have been meaning to get to it but I haven’t had the chance until now (sorry Jon) so here it is.
BLUF: it’s a very slow start and some readers will be dissatisfied with the pace. I did like the way it developed, but it was definitely better once I could read the first two issues back to back. If you’re the type who wants to get in, read Nick Fury’s Howling Commandos or Sgt. Rock and have an entire story line wrapped up in 32 pages then you may not like it. There’s no Justice League style dialogue. The violence is graphic and central to the plot.
It’s a four issue closed story arc, with time compressing as you go. It’s a cinematic pace, is the best way I can describe it. Issue One takes place over 3 weeks. Issue Two, 1 week. Issue Three will be just 2 days and Issue Four will encompass just a couple of hours.
The story is set in Basra, Iraq, 2019. Protagonists are PMC operators from the company “Cold Harbor” working toward a number of ends, not least operating on behest of the moderate Shia in an Iranian-influenced southern Iraq. (Warning: moderate spoilers.) The Iranians, under the guise of moving Petrochemical gear into Basra have begun positioning scuds in the region, just as they did in southern Lebanon to harass the Israelis. The powers paying for Cold Harbor want the Iranians watched and countered because they don’t trust them, but they don’t want the Americans to come in and do it (even if the Americans could afford to or would even have the inclination). Nor do they want the Saudis to do it, because they won’t play nice like the Americans do (nor would Al Jazeera cover it).
Many of the things the story line is predicated on, much of what they wrote back when the project was first started, has actually come true. A lot of the politics involved are eerily close to current events too, with PMCs comprised of former SOF troops from foreign nations operating as the de facto military arm of smaller Middle East and Persian Gulf states. Think Joint Special Operations Task Force-Gulf Cooperation Council, or when Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed hired Eric Prince.
The artwork is really good, though it relies more on narrative than lots of artwork to tell the story. They had to take their time to put in the appropriate pictures and whatnot for realism. Imagery is really accurate. Many of the structures you see depicted in artwork are based on photographs are from real places…some of the safehouses you will see, for instance, are actually just from other places, they’re just placed in Basra for purposes of the story and on behalf of some of the individuals behind the story [prior SOF, extensive PMC/PSC experiences].
“When you work with people in this sort of background,” Jon Chang told me, “the reality is that it’s that good because of them…but you have to make sure you don’t burn them or endanger them by the very realism you portray. Dashcams of guys on operations, AARs, first person accounts, are all taken account, but we had to make sure nothing was compromised.”
The authenticity of the story is surprising, though that isn’t necessarily the same as realism. It’s a little sobering to think that some of those contributing to the story in the early days have been WIA, KIA or worse in the years since.
“This is hard military fiction,” said Jon. “There’s no overtly heroic actions or larger than life stuff, it’s as close as we can get to the complexities of what day to day operations are like in southern Iraq. So there’s a really realistic angle, it’s a compelling piece of work because it’s so believable and so accurate.”
This doesn’t mean it’s boring by any means. Non proliferation operations, asymmetric intel development, covert urban operations and midnight snatch-and-grabs in and around Basra, along with some nicely paced and rendered gunfights, will keep you engaged.
Issue Two came out on Kindle right before Christmas and the hard copies are available now. Issue Three will hopefully be available by May and they’ve targeted Issue Four for July on Kindles at least. There is also a short film set in the BPRE world in development, with location photos and serious verisimilitude. It is literally taken out of Issue Three.
One thing the BPRE staff wants to emphasize is that everything that occurs in the story line is in some way based on some real world occurrence. It’s all based on true stories, just put together into one and adapted to be easier to understand.
“I had two goals with this project,” Jon told me. “First, I wanted to get people who are looking for a different kind of military-political theory and entertain them…secondly, I wanted to explore…what could truly happen in the Middle East?”
I think he did a good job on both counts, and I’m looking forward to Issue Three. I think you’ll enjoy it, especially if you’ve got the first two issues in hand when you get started.