SCENE: White House press briefing room.
CAVNA: “Mr. Carney. Over here.”
CARNEY: “Yes, Washington Post.”
CAVNA: “Jay, I have a question and a follow-up: “Have you read ‘Weapons of Mass Diplomacy,’ and if not, why not?”
Yes, were I ever in the front rows of the James Brady briefing room, that would be my opening query to the White House spokesman. Because “Weapons of Mass Diplomacy” is that good, that insightful — like a tall mirror that, once hung in the halls of power, reflects truth.
Originally published in France as “Quai d’Orsay,” “WMD” is a new-to-America graphic novel that should be especially enjoyed by anyone who has ever had to speak for a powerful person for a living. If you work for an agency or embassy, on the Hill or for a head of state, you will appreciate the greatness within these pages.
And if you like “House of Cards” or reruns of “West Wing,” this book is for you, too. Beau Willimon can do scheming and Aaron Sorkin can do process, but “WMD” does both, brilliantly, with no need to go over-the-top; its political foot soldiers break camp without treading into high camp.
What is it about the French, exactly, that they possess such a gift for pitch-perfect political satire? This book — which won the Best Graphic Novel award last year at the Angoulême comics festival — nods to Molière, even as it splices in splashes of Tolkien and Metallica. Early on, “WMD” strikes a wry tone of palace surreality.
Part of what makes this book’s smart heartbeat so true is that it is keenly transplanted from reality. It was written by Abel Lanzac, the nom-de-toon of author-diplomat Antonin Baudry. As a young man, he wrote for France’s then-foreign prime minister Dominique de Villepin during the post-9/11 run-up to the Iraq war. The names and some details have been changed; the deftly captured mechanics of diplomacy have not.
In “WMD,” Alexandre Taillard de Vorms stands in for Villepin. An utterly fascinating figure, he can spin doublespeak till his oratorical victims are rendered senseless or numb. He is quick and mercurial with no time for abstractions. He can tell a Nobel-winning poet: “I hate words. I’m a great admirer of poetry.” And he can drop a political pearl from the heart: “No discourse exists that cannot be elevated.” Without warning, he turns charismatically profound when doing improvisations, such as a singular soliloquy that compares a good political speech to the beguiling rhythms and pacing and perils of “Tintin.”
“WMD” also introduces us to an entire office of superb “Dilbert”-meets-Thurber characters who like their political red meat served tartare. And everyone’s put in place for the raising of the stakes, as the right-wing foreign minister (as in real life) prepares his big speech to argue that France should not join Bush and Blair in the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
Illustrator Christophe Blain renders all this brisk action and double-time doublespeak as visual poetry with a sense of physicality as fluid as Jules Feiffer’s. In this world where words can mean both nothing and everything, the line and the satire carry out a harmonious pas de deux.
The only higher visual irony these Frenchmen could have unfurled, perhaps, is to have drawn this tale of American invasion, sans Paris, in the style of George W. Bush’s recently displayed paintings. But then, even Molière knew where to draw the line at pure Gaul.
Cavna is the graphic-novel reviewer for The Washington Post. You can follow him on Twitter: @comicriffs.
“WEAPONS OF MASS DIPLOMACY”
By Abel Lanzac.
200 pp. $24.95