Books

A Comic Draws Connections Between Mass Surveillance and Drone Warfare

In the true spirit of journalism, Pratap Chatterjee and Khalil team up to lay bare a complex story on their new graphic novel’s pages.

A two-page spread illustrating the monstrous reach of the intelligence-military-industrial complex in chapter 17 of <em>Verax</em>
A two-page spread illustrating the monstrous reach of the intelligence-military-industrial complex in chapter 17 of Verax (all images courtesy Metropolitan Books)

The worlds of surveillance, journalism, and comics come together in Verax: The True History of Whistleblowers, Drone Warfare, and Mass Surveillance: A Graphic Novel, a recent piece of comics journalism by cartoonist Khalil Bendib and journalist Pratap Chatterjee. Despite the many years of extensive reporting on mass surveillance and drone warfare, it can still be difficult to grasp the full extent of violence made possible by these instruments of war. To what extent are we surveilled? What does drone warfare even look like? Verax doesn’t pretend it’s easy to answer these questions, let alone how they are related, but it does an excellent job of informing its reader on the topics. The authors combine serious journalism and skillful comic-making to deliver an engaging, illustrated report.

The nonfiction comic opens with a poignant prologue. An MQ-9 Reaper buzzes loudly over an arid, mountainous landscape. Staring at a screen from far away, an eye watches as the drone disrupts a casual soccer game. Nearby, a baby cradled by its parents cries in their home on a hill — the drone’s target. This scene, which has no dialogue, makes a strong first impression and hooks the reader emotionally.

A drone flies over Waziristan in the prologue of Verax.
A drone flies over Waziristan in the prologue of Verax
A page from the prologue of Verax
A page from the prologue of Verax

The ensuing story follows Chatterjee as he tries to uncover the connections between the drone war and electronic surveillance. Through his interactions with a large cast of characters that includes Wikileaks’s Julian Assange, filmmaker Laura Poitras, and whistleblower Edward Snowden, we are introduced to the world of surveillance and government contractors. As we follow Chatterjee’s work as a journalist, we learn about the magnitude of civilian casualties caused by drone strikes.

In Chatterjee’s words, the book is “about the blanket surveillance of innocent people who then become targets for killing.” Drone strikes are flawed means for waging wars; they kill an increasing number of innocent civilians; and their targets are picked by imprecise surveillance algorithms. Chatterjee and Khalil (the comics artist goes by his first name) summon a variety of narrative, journalistic, and artistic tools and use them throughout the book to skillfully build their case that the whistleblowers who have revealed all this information to serve the public interest are heroes.

Pratap explains mass surveillance to Khalil in a spread from chapter 10 of Verax
Chatterjee explains mass surveillance to Khalil in a spread from chapter 10 of Verax

Verax shows how compelling the comics medium can be as a platform for journalism. Documentary films, like Poitras’s Citizenfour, transport the viewer into the scene in a way that cannot be achieved in text-based newspaper articles or even long-form reports — a picture is worth a thousand words, after all. However, documentaries are at a disadvantage when reporting on events that the camera did not or could not capture. Verax doesn’t have this problem because comics are able to present images from any time and place. Even when real events are not on record, they still happened and can be represented.

From cover to cover, Khalil’s visual aesthetic — black-and-white political caricature mixed with heartfelt realism — is an ideal match for Chatterjee’s story. The veteran artist isn’t new to journalistic comic making: he has been publishing political cartoons on his website since 2003. He’s also known for his work in Zahra’s Paradise, a collaboration with Amir Soltani and an anonymous editor to produce a sobering web comic reporting on the 2009 Iranian elections.

A New York Times article by Pratap Chatterjee (screenshot by the author)
A New York Times article by Pratap Chatterjee (screenshot by the author)
Khalil's illustration of a New York Times article by Pratap Chatterjee in chapter 14 of Verax
Khalil’s illustration of a New York Times article by Pratap Chatterjee in chapter 14 of Verax

Chatterjee’s background in investigative journalism, combined with Khalil’s expertise at drawing caricatures, bring real people and real events to life in an engaging experience not constrained to any camerawork. The stories of influential whistleblowers Bill Binney, Ed Loomis, and Thomas Drake — and their confrontations with the law — come alive on the page. We even get to witness moments never recorded on camera or tape, like the time police raided Binney’s home with guns drawn. When Chatterjee visits Islamabad as a reporter to hear Waziristan locals denounce the crimes of drone warfare in their home region, the detailed artwork captures the scene as well as any documentary crew in Pakistan could have.

Laura Poitras, director of Citizenfour (2014), being routinely stopped at airports in a page from chapter 5 of Verax
Laura Poitras, director of Citizenfour (2014), being routinely stopped at airports in a page from chapter 5 of Verax (click to enlarge)

Verax breathes life into off-camera events by means of illustrated storytelling, but comics’ potential to inform the public with well researched journalism goes beyond the narrative realm. The authors took careful consideration to make tracking, hacking, and mass surveillance accessible to the reader. In later chapters, Chatterjee’s character just about breaks the fourth wall when he explains to Kahlil what the drone warfare and NSA revelations actually mean for all of us. In chapter 10, Chatterjee makes use of a blackboard to explain how the United States Intelligence Community is organized. Another chapter uses an underground maze to illustrate the covert ways that the government spies on us and taps our devices.

The cover of Verax
The cover of Verax

For those already deep into the story of surveillance and drone warfare, this comic introduction might not be as illuminating as more in-depth journalism (the comic’s website happens to be a great source of links to other books and articles of value). However, by and large Verax is a brilliant exercise in accessible journalism that is delightful to read and alarming to process. The comic, like the whistleblowers it celebrates, reveals true events and history normally hidden from our sight.

Verax: The True History of Whistleblowers, Drone Warfare, and Mass Surveillance: A Graphic Novel, by Pratap Chatterjee and Khalil, is available from Metropolitan Books.

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