12 October, 2015Issue 29.1Literature

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The Gutters of History

Dominic Davies


Dominic Davies
Operation Ajax: The Story of the CIA Coup that Remade the Middle East
Michael de Seve and Daniel Burwen
Verso Books, 2015
248 pages
ISBN: 978-1781689233






That Verso, a publishing house renowned for publishing self-consciously leftist or ‘radical’ critical treatises and social histories, has now started to publish a string of ‘graphic’ texts, is emblematic of the form’s recent surge in production and popularity. These ‘graphic’ books, which might originally have been called ‘comics,’ ‘comix,’ or ‘underground comics,’ draw on the politically subversive tradition of ‘alternative comics‘ as charted critic Charles Hatfield. The form has been gaining increasing traction in the last decade or so, particularly since Joe Sacco’s Palestine was collected and reissued in 2001. Indeed, Verso promoted Michael de Seve’s and Daniel Burwen’s Operation Ajax: The Story of the CIA Coup that Remade the Middle East with a special feature on their website at the end of August. This blog, which introduced Verso’s new “Graphic Non-fiction Reading List,” was accompanied by a week-long half-price sale of the titles that it featured. These titles included a graphic biography of Che Guevara, a graphic rewrite of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s revolutionary poem “Masks of Anarchy,” and a graphic history of industrial workers’ strikes around the world, to name a few. The versatility of the form, which cuts across disciplinary and generic boundaries, is evidenced by this short list alone.

The proliferation of terms used by Verso, along with many other publishers and booksellers, to identify this new form is part of an ongoing debate among literary and art theorists. In particular, these critics question the utility of the title ‘graphic novel,’ which has accompanied a very recent shift in the academic reception of comics, from a general dismissal of the form as a ‘low’ cultural product to its current acceptance as, in certain manifestations, a kind of ‘high’ culture, worthy of study. Verso’s decision to drop the ‘comics’ term and instead opt for ‘Graphic Non-Fiction’ is most likely rooted in this anxiety about whether comics are worthy of serious attention—and perhaps more importantly, whether they can handle “serious” historical material such as this. Long-time comics critic Catherine Labio directly attacks such anxieties, arguing that the re-naming of comics as ‘graphic novels’ or ‘graphic narratives’ is part of a disciplinary land grab by literary scholars who have suddenly decided the form is now deserving of critical attention. The irony here is the fact that the rejection of the term ‘comics’ eschews the historical genealogy of a form that has often been politically left-leaning and self-consciously proud of the subversive nature of its content. Operation Ajax is not part of a radical new genre—’Graphic Non-Fiction’—that has simply fallen out of the sky, as Verso’s marketing campaign might suggest. Rather, it is a continuation of a continually developing form—’comics’—that is at last starting to get the academic and public attention that it deserves. Furthermore, an interactive version of Operation Ajax for iPads and other e-readers has been published by Cognito Comics, demonstrative of the way in which this versatile form is evolving in response to new forms of technological development to communicate its radical content more effectively.




Operation Ajax is a rewriting of the historical moment described in its subtitle, but it also sheds light on the West’s ongoing imperial meddling in the Middle East. It looks back to Britain’s tactical drawing of Iran’s borders in the early twentieth century, a geopolitical move designed to satiate that Empire’s growing appetite for oil. This supply was secured through the vehicle of the Anglo-Persian Oil Company, one of the first and most voracious multinational corporations of the twentieth century and that, in its modern incarnation, is recognisably known as British Petroleum (BP). After this brief historical mapping, the main narrative hinges on the coup of its subtitle, in which a weary British Empire under the rule of a re-elected Winston Churchill becomes increasingly subservient to the U.S., the imperial power that has spearheaded Western interference in the region ever since. From here, it shows how the coup in Iran in 1953, cynically instigated by the then newly-formed C.I.A., became a template for the dubious and underhand foreign policies that the organisation would practice throughout the Cold War, most notably in Central and Latin America. Therefore, while Seve and Burwen focus on a very particular set of historical events which are related in great detail, the long history of Western intervention in the Middle East is refracted through these specificities to expose the ongoing hypocrisies, lies and dodgy dealings that would eventually inform Britain’s and America’s catastrophic foray into the region in 2003.

This, then, is Operation Ajax‘s story. In 1951, Mohammed Mossadegh, a prominent lawyer and parliamentarian who promised to nationalise the country’s rich oil reserves, was democratically elected by the Iranian people. The British, outraged by the removal of these resources from their direct control, sought to prevent Mossadegh’s nationalisation programme by any means possible, resorting at first to economic and, when those failed, off-shore military embargoes. However, given the widespread Iranian support for Mossadegh, these were ineffective. Britain’s dwindling global hegemony meant that it could not interfere directly in the country without the support of the emerging U.S. Empire, which vetoed British proposals because it viewed Mossadegh’s government as its only foothold against the Soviet Union in a geopolitically crucial region during the early years of the Cold War. (The historical parallels with Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt, who was voted into power a few years later on the promise of the nationalisation of the Suez Canal, and again to the outrage of a weakened British Empire, are uncanny.) However, as the McCarthyite paranoia of ‘communism’ grew in the U.S. and President Eisenhower replaced Truman, a foreign scapegoat became increasingly needed to bolster domestic consent for America’s foreign policy. Slowly, British and American interests aligned, and ‘Operation Ajax’—a coup led by paid-off gangs of impoverished Iranians and a United States-orchestrated Iranian military—deposed Mossadegh and reinstalled the tyrannical Shah that had preceded him. Though satiating British and American desires at the time, Operation Ajax’s afterword informs the reader that the “Shah’s increasingly repressive rule ultimately set off the explosive revolution of 1979, which brought to power a militantly anti-Western clique of mullahs.” The succeeding eight-year-long Gulf War with Iraq in which estimates of around 1.5 million people died, not to mention the nuclear tensions that plague headlines in the West today, are direct outgrowths of this interference.

It might seem suitable, then, that Verso describes Operation Ajax as ‘Graphic Non-fiction,’ rather than, say, as a graphic novel. Included in the book’s final pages are facsimiles of the C.I.A.’s “Initial Operation Plan”, and the details of the coup listed there correspond exactly to events depicted in the graphic section of the text. However, given the vivid artistic work and carefully crafted narrative, Operation Ajax is more than a simple visual reproduction of the events that took place. Whilst the drawing is fairly realist (the depictions of historical figures such as Churchill and Eisenhower are easily recognisable), the form is experimental in its layout, especially when it is read as a continuation of the politically subversive tradition of ‘alternative comix.’




The panels of which traditional comics are comprised necessarily depict only segments of the scene they are conveying, and thus the form depends as much upon its silences—what is not shown—as it does upon what is drawn in order to create narrative continuity and progress. As comic artist and critic Scott McCloud has argued, the form demands that readers draw their own connections between the different panels in order to make sense of the narrative. In Operation Ajax, however, and as the above image shows [Image 2], the panels do not sit rigidly side-by-side, in some kind of simplistic sequential order. Rather, they are scattered and erratic, drawing attention to the fragmented nature of the historical narrative they are conveying. The gaps between the panels, known in comics criticism as “the gutters,” change shape, breadth and depth, blurring its temporal coherence. Just as the comic’s content is designed to thrust a silenced part of history into the West’s mainstream and highly selective memory, Operation Ajax’s complication of the linear simplicity of the traditional comics form enacts, or quite literally illustrates, this process. Indeed, as the excerpt below shows [Image 3], sometimes the gutters, so essential to the comics’ construction of narrative, disappear entirely. That this occurs in the moments at which the C.I.A.’s conspiratorial activities are depicted highlights the subversive nature of Operation Ajax’s historical material. It is speaking the silences of history, those moments of hypocrisy that have been conveniently forgotten, through a form that self-consciously eradicates its “gutters,” those silences that give traditional comic narratives their essential framework and narrative structure. The book might be said, in fact, to be illuminating “the gutters of history.”




Operation Ajax therefore offers an important recovery of political and historical actions that have shaped, and that undoubtedly continue to shape, not only the geopolitical, but in the light of Europe’s current refugee crisis, the public world today. If one wants to cite an accessible text that demonstrates the depth of the West’s responsibility for the current state of the Middle East, Operation Ajax is the direction in which to point. That it is delivered in the comic form is particularly suitable because it speaks to a tradition of radical and subversive thought that is currently undergoing what should be considered a moment of productive and exciting revivalism. The decision to label Operation Ajax ‘non-fiction’ is clearly political, in that it demands its readers to realise the “truth” of the dark imperial past it illuminates. But to label it an ‘alternative comic,’ or even to align it with the ‘comix’ tradition, is to emphasise its political and historical clout yet further, realising the formal legacies upon which it draws and the rising movement of subversive comic art with which it should be identified.

Dominic Davies is a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow in English at the University of Oxford, where he also completed his DPhil in March 2015.