Every veteran of the forever war, the long war, the Global War on Terror or Whatever You Want to Call It, has a day (or many days) they’d rather not remember. Days they’d like to keep in the back of their mind, under lock and key and submerged in a handle of whiskey.
We articulate those days differently. Some talk. Others never will. Some write novels and memoirs. Others Tweet and Tumblr. But Iraq veteran Maximillian Uriarte — creator of the Marine Corps famous “Terminal Lance” comic strips — turned his forgotten days and his war into a 250-page graphic novel and called it “The White Donkey.”
The byproduct of five years and a successful Kickstarter campaign, “The White Donkey” is both accessible for non-military types and a fitting tribute to the Americans that have fought in the wars that followed Sept. 11, 2001.
For the uninitiated, “Terminal Lance” began in 2010 as a weekly strip that followed two Marines — Garcia and Abe — on some of their offbeat adventures within the Marine Corps infantry. The strip, which appeared on his own website, appealed to Marines because it was written and drawn by one of them (Uriarte is an infantryman with two Iraq deployments under his belt) and managed to capture the masochistic humor of the USMC right down to the port-o-john art.
While “The White Donkey” has its fair share of humor, it is really a story about the war Hollywood chose to ignore. There are no firefights in frames of violent color, and no special operators rappelling from helicopters. Instead one of the most compelling scenes is when the book’s main character, Abe, is filling out a post-deployment health assessment. The familiar questions with the familiar bubble answers re-purposed to tell a narrative that many veterans might see as their own.
The book is drawn in hues of blue and tan, giving the palate the feel of a scrap book while also helping the reader place themselves in the narrative. Sepia is for Iraq, green is for the United States, while blue and black are reserved for flashbacks and the segments that take place while Abe is on leave in Oregon. Meanwhile the plot revolves around the tedious months before deployment, the peculiar absurdity of a war zone, and the uncomfortable conversations when you come back from it all.
Uriarte tackles a lot in the pages of “The White Donkey,” from love (“Do we have to put a label on it?”) to mental health. In the book’s afterword he explicitly says how he wanted “The White Donkey” to show what might drive a veteran to suicide, and it’s something he does evenhandedly by relying on sound character development while managing to flesh out many of the tropes commonly associated with Post Traumatic Stress (something that many Americans/family members/caregivers could glean much from).
Visually, the most compelling scenes come at the end of the book, but it is how Uriarte conveys the tedium of 2007-2008 Iraq that anchors the novel in reality. Rigid frames give way to wide angled pictures that capture the chaos of snap vehicle check points and the tedium of resupply convoys. Meanwhile, in the background of his deployment, Abe wrestles with his coming of age under the weight of his body armor, 130 degree Iraqi heat and his own misguided reasons for joining the Corps. It’s not a glorious existence, and Uriarte uses Abe’s constant complaining and ambivalence to frequently underscore how ridiculous the war is.
In many ways, “The White Donkey” is one long illustrated deployment journal. Pages filled with offloading water bottles and staring out into the desert and waiting for that plane ride home. Yet, tucked into the panels and frames, are those singular moments that, like a rock cast into a pond, send their ripples out almost infinitely–altering lives and ending others. “The White Donkey” follows the tremors, backwards and forwards, and manages to illustrate what feels like a ‘true’ war story and a lonely chapter in a war our country is trying desperately to forget.