Family turmoil and suburban boredom prompt 16-year-old John Sendel to become an Islamic terrorist in this powerful black-and-white graphic novel. Inspired by the story of John Walker Lindh, Johnny Jihad is a grim portrayal of the terrorist world in all its ugliness, and the horror of finding oneself at the center of it. Inzana’s creative and heavily stylized artwork does well to illuminate John’s story, spoken in an authentic despairing teenage vernacular.
Between an abusive father and a broken mother, John has little to live for in his cookie-cutter New Jersey suburb. Adrift in a world of pornography, cheap drugs, and websites instructing how to make bombs, John becomes attached to Islam by a co-worker at the supermarket, whose faith in Allah and the evils of the West is matched only by his craftiness at stealing from the register. Mostly to alleviate boredom, John embroils himself in the world of Islam. A disturbing chain of events leads him first into a terrorist training camp on American soil, where he finds “the family I never had,” then on an assassination mission, and concluding in an Afghani hideout receiving American retaliation for 9/11.
The color line was broken for America when they discovered that John Walker Lindh was white. While it became clear that you don’t need to be Middle Eastern to be a terrorist, Americans couldn’t imagine why a Marin County suburbanite would join a terrorist organization. Inzana’s answer is a disturbing one, focusing not only on now all-too-familiar Columbine-esque teenage nihilism and self-destructive tendencies of adolescents, but on John’s sheer boredom with his life. It is his boredom with daily banality that starts his drug abuse and bomb-making, and his boredom with the banality of teenage miscreants which spurs his investigations into Islam. From there, with life’s purpose made clear and the days of idleness behind him, it doesn’t take much convincing at the training camp for him to turn his back on both America and the value of human life. He rationalizes his allegiance as a rejection of American materialism:
In New Jersey, I was just another cog in the great machine of life. I world work until I could retire with nothing to show. Mediocrity was so sickening, wishing to be somewhere or someone else, I would never be those models in the magazines or the actor on TV. That’s what America told me to want…but I no longer cared about the brand name that was emblazoned on my shoes, or where I got my hair cut. Islam let me see that these were just traps, vices that deluded me from seeing what the world was.
John’s motivation is a desire to transcend the average. The great American dream.
Johnny Jihad also takes the reader inside Afghanistan where it paints a gritty but sincere portrait of Bin Laden-ified village life. Amidst the bombs, poverty, and oppression of women, there is also boredom—not just in John’s heart, but in the villagers’ as well. The tedium of waiting for what happens next is excruciating, be it bombing raid or scraping together a meal, and the embittered John speaks of his surroundings with a newfound world-weariness and anger. This is where Inzana is most daring: John’s corrosive narration is honest and painful. While the beginnings of the story covered the evils of banality, the ending conveys the banality of evil in all its horror and monotony. Adding to the ending is John’s final indictment of America, but this time on humanitarian, not religious grounds, as he points out all the collateral damage from the post-9/11 bombings of villages: “There were innocent women in this camp…and children. Now all that remains is the stench of their burnt flesh.” Johnny Jihad is a coming-of-age story of the most horrifying sort: a Holden Caulfield for the post-Columbine and post-9/11 world.
Inzana also deserves credit for his impressive artwork. While all his images, even movement shots, tend to look too still, and he has trouble drawing John’s face with the same realism as the others, the art on the whole both paints vivid imagery and provides psychological insight into John’s character. Inzana uses black-and-white in original ways, meaning the backgrounds are neither dull nor just background: they come alive and create an entire expressive scene. His lines are coarse, almost scratchy, reminiscent of woodcut but with far more detail. Some of the scenes possess a dream-like quality; others are granted a stark realism through an almost brutalist interplay of color. Inzana’s art tells the story in this book, and it never fails to captivate.
Unfortunately, the text doesn’t live up to its illustration. Inzana faithfully adheres to bored, misguided, adolescent speech, but a little too faithfully for the purpose of evocative narration. John’s speech is riddled with clichés and is generally uninteresting—it serves mainly as a voiceover for artwork. But this is a forgivable fault, as Inzana still tells his story well and much is redeemed by the powerful ending, where the new, “grown” John expresses himself with unforgiving clarity.
Johnny Jihad is a commanding work which speaks to important, relevant themes while never forgetting that it’s also a work of art. Inzana seamlessly combines individual characterization with global events in a rich graphic setting as he speaks of self-destructive teenage nihilism and the horrors of religious fundamentalism, and of the potentially connected causes which bare them.