Battle Born Lapis Lazuli by Maximilian Uriarte
Little, Brown and Company
Pub Date 28 Jul 2020
From the bestselling author of The White Donkey, a heartbreaking and visceral graphic novel set against the stark beauty of Afghanistan’s mountain villages that examines prejudice and the military remnants of colonialism.
In this hotly anticipated new work from Maximilian Uriarte, creator of the popular Terminal Lance comics and The White Donkey, tells a “thrillingly cinematic” (Publishers Weekly) story of the personal cost of war and the power of human connection.Lapis Lazuli is a rich blue semiprecious gemstone found deep in the Sar-i-sang mountains of Afghanistan’s Badakhshan province. For thousands of years it has sustained the nearby mining villages, whose inhabitants lived peacefully in the mountainous landscape–until the Taliban, known in the region as the Horsemen, came to seek the riches stored deep beneath the earth. Taliban rule has turned the stone into a conflict mineral, as they steal and sell it for their own gain.At the behest of the fledgling Afghan government, seeking to wrest back control of the province, United States Marines are sent into the mountains. A platoon led by their eager and naive commander, First Lieutenant Roberts, and a stoic, fierce squad leader, Sergeant King, must overcome barriers of language and culture in this remote region to win the locals’ trust, and their freedom from Taliban rule. Along the way, they must also wrestle with their demons–and face unimaginably difficult choices.A sweeping yet intimate story about brutality, kindness, and the remnants of colonialism, Battle Born: Lapis Lazuli is an epic saga from the voice of a new generation of military veterans.
Mild spoilers. I have mixed feelings about Battle Born Lapis Lazuli. In many ways Uriarte latest is stunning. The artwork is magnificent. The linework and flow of the panels are elegant, capturing both the intimate moments of camaraderie and violence of battle equally well. A particularly memorable sequence sees a parent lamenting the loss of their child as American soldiers stand by helpless unable to offer comfort. A lot of research went into crafting the story, paying respect to the culture of the people of Afghanistan and to the sacrifice that foreign troops made there. Battle Born is not afraid to show the ugliness of people, the way that war degrades and dehumanises us all. There is a cinematic quality to the landscapes as well as the action sequences. It feels like part-war movie, part-western. It captures both the sense of being trapped by chaotic, unmanageable geopolitics of an unwanted soldier in a country with a rich and complex history and, the frustration of being a hampered by locals who are highly suspicious of any foreign presences.
The main characters all feel like lived-in characters. We get a glimpse of the inner lives of every character that has page time, there are no two-dimensional stereotypes, everyone has an internal driving force that affects the way that they react to the awful conditions that they are put in. Sergeant King, who is our protagonist, is a compelling figure, equal parts stoic and vulnerable, Uritate imbues King’s eyes with a deeply ingrained sadness. King is fierce, intelligent, and, inspires loyalty. Chavez and Forest as sporting characters well-grounded and provide King with a platform for levity and pathos.
Pretty positive so far. Where my problems with the book arise is with its tacit approval of torture and war crimes. I am going to say this three times: Torture does not work. Torture does not work. Torture does not work. There is a sequence in which a prisoner of war is beaten. My reading of the story is that due to high emotions that these actions were justified or understandable. In a tragic book, one of the recurring themes is how we in the West use our “civilised” view of ourselves to justify cruelty to those who aren’t. Maybe Uriate was trying to get across the point that even the best of us can do unjustifiable things. I don’t know. I did find it disturbing. In addition to being morally repugnant, torture does not produce accurate, reliable information. Any story that propagates the myth that it does is lessened in my eyes. There are further war crimes later in the book, but by then, the damage to my experience was already done.
It’s unfortunate that a few pages so marred my enjoyment of the whole. Maybe it’s my regret that the character didn’t take. This is first-class stuff, but I just can’t get on board with some of the messages it puts forward. It deserves to be read and probably read widely.