Johnny Jihad is a graphic novel that speculates on the Radical Islamization of a typical American boy from a typical American town. It is, of course, inspired by the discovery of John Walker Lindh, but it should be noted that it is not an attempt to recount Lindh's experiences. It is a speculation on what might lead an American teenager down the path that Lindh followed, and what might be the outcome. It is a complex work, a multilayered article of propaganda with apparently confused allegiances, and therefore somewhat difficult to parse. I will tease that bit out a little later, but first I want to talk about the art.
Johnny Jihad is executed primarily in scratchboard, and Inzana does an excellent job with it, maintaining a moody darkness throughout the work. He exploits the tendency toward angularity intrinsic to scratchboard to create a very tense, conflicted look, but he does not became enslaved to it -- when curves and circles are called for, they are rendered smoothly and cleanly. Essential to a work like this is a solid use of shading, and values are rendered stunningly. Johnny Jihad is an ambitious story, and Inzana's art fully lives up to that ambition.
The premise of the story is simple enough. Looking at John Walker Lindh, the author asks himself "how could this happen?" The narrative he develops in answer to this question is, of course, very different from the Lindh narrative. It is Inzana's own answer to this question, his own hypothetical scenario which he weaves into a dark tale of treason and treachery, of multiple betrayals. But, it is obvious that Inzana believes what he is supposed to when it comes to Islamic terrorist networks. The result of Inzana's acceptance of these assumptions, combined with his skeptical cynicism regarding the U.S.'s role in creating the Taliban is a tale in which no heroes emerge.
This book is not, for example, going to win any prizes for creating a balanced portrayal of Islam. By choosing to portray only terrorists, and giving short shrift to those voices within Islam that the terrorists oppose, Inzana fans the flames of anti-Islamic prejudice. He indulges the notion that reading the Koran is the gateway to becoming a terrorist. The first Muslim he portrays works at a supermarket so that he can skim the registers and steal food which he then sells at his own store. And yet, when the protagonist is shown the terrorist group's indoctrination video, Inzana seems to be urging us to look at how we have brought the terrorism upon ourselves.
And so, this book is not likely to win the George W. Bush award for patriotic inspiration, either. It does not show Americans behaving significantly better than their enemies. Once Johnny falls into American custody, we see justice subverted, utterly, as CIA men give him a choice between becoming an operative in Afghanistan or being summarily executed, along with his mother. We also learn at this point that the U.S. is selling Russian weaponry to the Taliban, and that the U.S. put them in place. And yet, Inzana seems ultimately to validate things like the USA PATRIOT act and Military Tribunals by assuring us that these things are for other people.
By creating a protagonist who was basically a sociopath prior to the events narrated in the story, the child of an abusive father and a mother driven mad by said father's suicide, Inzana further advances the myth that one must be desperate and crazed to be vulnerable to recruitment. We know from the John Walker Lindh story that this is not the case. By working as hard as he does to create a protagonist most readers would have little empathy with, he gives us the assurance that this fate awaits other people, unlike ourselves. By defining the protagonist as so thoroughly Other, he contributes to the mythology that allows us to define American citizens as "enemy combatants," and deprive them of due process. The message is clear: unless you're a depraved, glue-sniffing sociopath who builds bombs for fun, you have no worries.
By the time this book reaches its inevitable conclusion, we find very little except a protagonist who has become the thing he hates most. In the end we are left with a son who can only say to his father, in the fashion of Harry Chapin's "Cat's in the Cradle," "I grew up just like you, dad."