Born to be wild

Born to be wild

Born to be wild

Kabul disco
Nicolas Wild
HarperCollins, 2009,
pp 159, Rs 325

Nicolas Wild, the protagonist of this graphic novel by Nicolas Wild, can’t quite get his career moving — he has no inspiration and he certainly doesn’t earn enough to pay for his share of the Paris apartment where he lives with a hyperactive writer who stays up all night finishing his twelfth book and after a quick morning coffee, starts writing his thirteenth.

No wonder Wild feels a little low. At such a juncture, an advertisement seeking a comic book artist for an Afghan communication agency may seem like a great opportunity. That is, until you actually find yourself in war-torn Afghanistan.

Anyway, this unemployed French children’s book illustrator soldiers on and does his stint among veteran aid workers and rugged war correspondents, as a staff member of the colourful Zendagui Media which started out as an NGO but later restyled itself as a propaganda agency that handles public information for various paying customers.
Initially, the cause is good: to teach youngsters about their rights as citizens of Afghanistan by retelling the constitution in cartoon form. Sounds like a farfetched plot? Nope, it’s true. Kabul Disco belongs to the new genre of ‘Graphic Reportage’, and at the end of the book you’ll find a colour supplement with actual samples from the constitutional cartoons (which use a minimum of written text to explain complex subjects like Prohibition Against Child Labour or The Right To Education) as well as photographs of the real Nicolas Wild in Afghanistan with his colleagues at Zendagui Media.

So, rather fascinatingly, we here have an illustrator who goes to Afghanistan to make money and comes back to publish his report — or reportage, if that is what this is — in the form of an autobiographical graphic novel. Although one smiles at certain comical situations depicted in the simply but evocatively drawn black-and-white panels, it is a smile tinged by sadness over the plight of Afghanistan.

Wild’s colleagues are vividly portrayed and one gets a good sense of the kind of entrepreneurs who are attracted to places like Kabul. The three co-founders of Zendagui Media are Valentin, an energetic chain-smoking bon vivant; Diego, a grim adventurer and security mastermind; and Edouard, a slicked-hair corporate type who likes to go skiing in the Afghan mountains.

After some time, Wild starts to enjoy the Kabul life — a lot of partying goes on, the expats have exclusive restaurants that serve Foie Gras and Escargots while people starve in the streets. He decides to stay on after the first project is over. But the next job that lands on his plate isn’t as nice: publicity material, posters and ad films to recruit local lads to fight the Taliban. The story suggests that this work is paid for by American tax-dollars and the Afghan soldiers are canon-fodder in the 21st century’s Great Game. The advertisements tempt the recruits with computer education and other promises that Wild realises are but lies.

But by this time he’s hooked on the wild expat lifestyle with its perpetual partying — his new life in Afghanistan beats being unemployed in France, as long as one doesn’t get kidnapped by fanatic lunatics (which happens to one of his friends).

The moral issues are interestingly illustrated, perhaps even in such a way that would not be possible in, say, text-based reportage or autobiography where Wild would probably end up seeming somewhat banal. The format also lets him present Afghani history and politics in brief one-page capsules, similar to the technique Marjane Satrapi tried out in her famous autobiographical graphic novel Persepolis.

In Kabul Disco, Wild shows that it is quite possible to do narrative journalism in a playful manner and capture the comedy and tragedy of expat life in Kabul, where so many make a living off the misery of so many others.
In the sequel, things promise to get worse for Wild who will perhaps almost become a junkie, so watch out for Kabul Disco Book 2: How I Didn’t Become An Opium Addict in Afghanistan.

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