Depicting modern warfare in comics or film is tricky business. Mark Long, Dan Capel, and their collaborators approach the topic in a unique way with Rubicon. In this graphic novel, Long and Capel take the plot of the Japanese medieval epic, Seven Samurai, and update it by setting it in modern-day Afghanistan. Navy SEAL Hector is struggling to maintain his complicated civilian life in the U.S. when he gets called back to Afghanistan for another mission. Soon, he and four other Navy SEALs find themselves defending an isolated farming village from Taliban attacks. They know they cannot protect the village with their numbers, but they choose to make their stand by training the villagers anyway. When the final attack comes, each SEAL makes choices about how best to protect the village and the consequences are dire.
By using the Seven Samurai as a template, Long & Capel tap into an older story that has influenced many films, perhaps most notably Star Wars. This creates a familiarity that allows the reader to identify with the characters quickly.
Like any war story, setting and geography play an important role, especially when laying out strategy and tactics before the attack. This may be confusing for some, but the artist, Mario Stilla, conveys the action well by changing the angles frequently and using clean line work. His depictions of the trees and buildings seem spot on.
In contrast to the realistically rendered setting, the characters are bland. The artist makes the various characters mostly identifiable from panel to panel with an important assist from the colorist (giving the main character a big red beard is key). Some of the panels are marred by out of proportion body parts and facial features lacking variety. The various Afghani characters are hard to differentiate between and the primary Afghani female character is a little cartoonish in her voluptuousness. Despite some of the problems with the art, the characters are compelling.
The real strength of this work is how well it captures the bond between the men in the SEALs unit and what honor and duty mean to them. Who deserves respect? How do you earn it? Once it’s earned, how does that change how others see you? The connections that the men share in combat seem more real and in focus than any of the familial relationships they have back home. That’s the blessing and the tragedy of the military life.
Rubicon will appeal to fans of war stories or action stories in general. While this is a story for adults, the language and violence are not gratuitous, and serve the story they are trying to tell. Like most Archaia books, the hardback version is well done and appealing, particularly the envelope on the back with the map, a letter, a funeral notice, Army report on Opium cultivation, and translation card. These items definitely enhance the story, though they may give those cataloging and processing the book a headache or two. The introduction by Dick Marcinko, commander of SEAL team 6, and the interview with Mark Long shine extra light on how the book came to be. I hope Long and Capel get to tell this cinematic story on the big screen, but I’m glad they chose to share it with comics readers first.