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Posted at 12:01 PM ET, 08/ 9/2010

'No filter': Cartoonists MATT BORS & TED RALL depart for Afghanistan eager to tell 'the people's story'

By Michael Cavna

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For 18 long months, Matt Bors spent his days at war. In every hot spot, his eyes trained on every Humvee, on every rocket, on every malaria pill. It was challenging, grueling, exhausting -- and all from the safe remove of a drawing board in Portland.

As Bors labored over illustrating the just-released David Axe graphic novel "War Is Boring," he relied for visuals on Googling his way around the world -- East Timor to Chad to Somalia to Lebanon. From home, he employed the Web and his imagination as he provided cartoon image to Axe's firsthand war-reporter narrative -- even for the word balloon in which Axe directs his "anger at the pundits and editorial cartoonists who make their living criticizing wars they know nothing about and are too cowardly to go see for themselves."

Today, Bors, the cartoon chronicler of global events, is hardly too cowardly. Today. the Oregon artist who has never left the country as an adult is making that maiden voyage to a war-torn country. Destination?

Afghanistan.

"This will be a pretty radical culture shock for me, I'm sure," says Bors, 26, creator of the syndicated editorial cartoon "Idiot Box."

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However, "I think seeing things firsthand is invaluable," Bors tells Comic Riffs. "So much of what I do as an editorial cartoonist is reacting to the news, sitting in my home office working away in solitude. In matters such as war, I don't think you could do anything but gain greater insight from going yourself and talking to the people it directly affects."

Bors says he's eager to embrace that culture shock. And he notes that he won't be going with the USO, as the National Cartoonists Society has done during the Iraq war. His travel agent is not the U.S. government, but rather fellow alt-political cartoonist Ted Rall, author of "To Afghanistan and Back."

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Bors, Rall and fellow cartoonist Steven Cloud will spend roughly a month in Afghanistan, traveling as independent reporters. "We are traveling totally independently," Rall says to Comic Riffs. "Embedded reporting is [expletive]. And immoral. It endangers real reporters. No permissions, just visas. It wasn't easy ... but we did it ourselves."

"We didn't go through any military channels," Bors says. "This trip is entirely funded from our own money, readers, clients and mainly Ted's extraordinary success in raising $25,000 from kickstarter.com. We will be unembedded and not traveling with any other journalists.

"As for visas, we simply applied as journalists and went through the arduous process of dealing with the bureaucracies of the ex-Soviet Central Asian countries. We have Uzbek, Tajik, Turkmen, Afghan [visas] and an incredibly hard to get Iranian visa. That's the country we are exiting through."

So why does Bors feel so compelled to go now? And why, specifically, to Afghanistan?

"This is crunch time for the American occupation," Bors tells 'Riffs. "Obama has ordered 140,000 troops there, public support is tanking, the death toll is rising dramatically and we are propping up a transparently corrupt government in Kabul. There appears to be no end in sight. Oh, and it's August. Why wouldn't I go?

"Seriously though, it's the most important time in the war and the focus is going to be on our soldiers, the Taliban and the Karzai regime. Ted's plan is to not go where any of those things are and report on the Afghan people and how they are coping. That's what I like about this trip."

Bors says he heads to Afghanistan as both a American and as an artist.

"As an American who pays taxes, I'm partly responsible for this war. It concerns a lot of people and others go about their lives oblivious to the people in the third world, specifically ones their government kills. I want to see it for myself. I don't really separate artistic and personal -- my personal life is my work, since I spend most of my waking hours drawing comics -- so they are sort of one in the same."

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"Like a moth to a flame." That's how Rall, in his foreword to "War Is Boring," describes the powerful lure to return to a war zone, whether you are Axe or a legendary wartime cartoonist like Bill Mauldin or Joe Sacco.

"In 2001, I experienced Afghanistan as a 'war tourist,' " Rall tells 'Riffs. " 'To Afghanistan and Back' is the ultimate fish-out-of-water story. This time, I'm out to get the point-of-view of the Afghan people: how their lives have changed since then, and of course how they see the U.S. occupation."

"I have long loved Central Asia," Rall also notes. "The people and the history are amazing. ... I am also compelled to try to correct so much reporting about Afghanistan that I think is plain wrong."

When Rall went to Afghanistan in 2001, he was part of a 45-person convoy. He says three members were slain and some others were seriously injured.

"The biggest challenge is physical," Rall says. "The food is awful, the beds are infested with parasites, the heat is brutal and you get banged around a lot on terrible roads. Of course there's tension. Robbers, corrupt cops, thieves, IEDs all figure into the equation. You're constantly scared and bored at the same time. And of course it's hard to be away from friends and family who worry about you."

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Rall and Bors say they plan to travel to the north and west of Afghanistan, including to some areas beyond the mapping of LonelyPlanet.com.

"The most amazing thing is the chance to participate in historical events directly," says Rall, who plans to blog daily about his travels. "No filter. No glass screen. Just you and the people in the thick of it."

"David Axe and Ted are two of my closest colleagues and we all share an overlapping passion for comics, war, journalism and politics," Bors adds. "Sitting behind a desk hearing and thinking about [this] all the time got me itching to go for myself.

"Now I am."

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(courtesy of Ted Rall)

By Michael Cavna  | August 9, 2010; 12:01 PM ET
Categories:  Interviews With Cartoonists, The Graphic Novel, The Political Cartoon  | Tags:  David Axe, Matt Bors, Steven Cloud, Ted Rall  
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Comments

Unbelievably courageous, especially since Rall already has first-hand knowledge on how dangerous it is. I wish them the best of luck.

Posted by: nottenst | August 9, 2010 1:17 PM | Report abuse

In reference to the previous comment and "Courageous", I think a better word word be "Stupid" not more than a week ago we had 10 civilian medical personnel killed over here. What is this guy thinkin, travel in war zone ( an make no mistake that what it is a war zone )with no security. What does he think he's gonna do when he's travelin down the Ring Route as, shown on his map, and he gets stopped at a fake check point set up by the Taliban? They are gonna accuse him of being a spy, convict him on the spot and execute him, and all for what? So he can draw pictures of the war. For the Love of God man, don't go. If you must go,,God's Speed

Posted by: jiji1 | August 10, 2010 10:54 AM | Report abuse

Journalists going into a war zone is part of real journalism, not stupidity. It's the difference between getting some regurgitated press release and the genuine article--information that's extremely useful to citizens of an occupying nation.

Posted by: chriscottrell | August 10, 2010 1:14 PM | Report abuse

Nope, this is definitely stupid. These guys aren't "real journalists" -- they're war tourists, geared up for adventure, convinced their beards will somehow fool people. They have no idea what they're getting into. Real journalists who've been there don't go rolling around "unembedded" in the west or even the north much anymore, unless you just fly into the cities, which everyone does. That's because it's extremely dangerous, and can get people killed, like the translator from the NYT last year. Afghanistan in 2010 is much different then Afghanistan in 2001. Hope they have a great translator -- otherwise, the story about what happens to these guys may end up being a sad one, and no one wants that. I only decided to write a note because of what happened last week to people who actually knew Afghanistan extremely well, who were actually committed to it, in the peaceful province of Badahkshan. This whole venture is a mistake, unless these guys just stay put in Kabul. Insh'allah.

Posted by: tintin39 | August 10, 2010 2:32 PM | Report abuse

@tintin,
Real journalists are not embedded. Nightly News entertainment "journalists" and those who print the government press releases, are. THEY are the war tourists, escorted to the places that the military wants them to see, like puppets.

The convoy that Ted Rall was part of in 2001 covered the liberation of Northern Afghanistan from the Taliban, the seige of Kunduz and the massacres at Mazar and elsewhere. It consisted of 45 experienced international war correspondents, many who had covered vietnam, somalia, bosnia, etc from the NY TImes, Washington Post, The Guardian, BBC, etc.. Within a month, three were killed in the group, several injured. It was not embedded. It was REAL journalism.

Ted Rall is a nationally syndicated columnist and a Central Asian expert who has traveled extensively throughout the region and has covered the war in Afghanistan, Kashmir and Pakistan. He absolutely knows how dangerous this trip is.

Afghanistan in 2010 is no where near as dangerous as Afghanistan 2001. The level of brutality in Taliban controlled Afghanistan was savage. The region was covered in land mines and cluster bombs. The Taliban was shelling, shooting and ambushing constantly and the US bombing was without cessation. They literally dropped a bomb every second, every night, on Kunduz and the surrounding desert.

Frankly, there is no peaceful place in Afghanistan and anyone stands a chance of being killed at any time, for any reason, any where.

All that said, I pray that the guys stay safe and I am looking forward to finally hearing some truth from the region.

Posted by: LA90077 | August 11, 2010 3:56 AM | Report abuse

The problem with this trip is that it involves the notoriously dishonest Ted Rall. His analysis of the situation in Afghanistan and Central Asia has always been replete with factual errors and hyperbole. As someone who has spent a significant amount of time living and researching in the region, I do not trust a single thing that he writes about it. His book "Silk Road to Ruin" represents the worst of Western publications on a region filled with terrible publications. The problem is well meaning and educated people take his perspective on Central Asia seriously because the region is such a black hole for most. This trip will likely only result in more shameful "reporting."

Posted by: bekzod_boy | August 13, 2010 1:58 PM | Report abuse

The problem with this trip is that it involves the notoriously dishonest Ted Rall. His analysis of the situation in Afghanistan and Central Asia has always been replete with factual errors and hyperbole. As someone who has spent a significant amount of time living and researching in the region, I do not trust a single thing that he writes about it. His book "Silk Road to Ruin" represents the worst of Western publications on a region filled with terrible publications. The problem is well meaning and educated people take his perspective on Central Asia seriously because the region is such a black hole for most. This trip will likely only result in more shameful "reporting."

Posted by: bekzod_boy | August 13, 2010 1:59 PM | Report abuse

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