Inside 'The Sheriff of Babylon,' DC Comics' Wartime Crime Drama

Tom King and Mitch Gerads on the origins of the Vertigo series that defies easy categorization and avoids easy answers.
John Paul Leon/DC Entertainment

One of twelve new titles announced by DC Entertainment's Vertigo imprint at last year's Comic-Con, The Sheriff of Babylon has since emerged as one of the most unexpected and interesting launches from the publisher in recent memory.

Written by former CIA counter-terrorism officer Tom King — who also writes Batman, Omega Men and Grayson for DC  The Vision for Marvel — with art by Mitch Gerads, Sheriff takes place in Baghdad in the early part of this century as the country tries to come to terms with a new reality post-"liberation" by American and international forces. When a former Florida cop turned military consultant is called in to investigate the murder of an Iraqi citizen he was training to be a police officer, the investigation into the killing uncovers the many ways the lives of Iraqis and Americans are connected, even if they don't know it.

At turns tragic, comedic, insightful and horrific, Sheriff has already seen its run extended beyond the initial eight-issue order. With the series' first collected edition — featuring the initial six issues of the title — in stores now, The Hollywood Reporter talked to King and Gerads about creating a comic about a real world situation where everything went wrong.

Let's start with the beginning. Where did the book come from? Tom, you used to work for the CIA. Were you in Iraq during your time with them?

King: I was, I was there for about four-and-a-half months. I only write about the time I was there, so everything is as right — or as wrong — as I can remember it. I was there from about February to July 2004.

How much of that experience ended up coming out in Sheriff of Babylon? It feels like a book that's coming from a very real place. It's not pushing a particular agenda, with good guys and bad guys. It's a story filled with flawed people trying to do their best, and that doesn't always work out.

King: It's on every page. The book is built out of my experience, my impressions and my memories of that time. One of the main memories I have is that, by the time I got there — about a year after the invasion — it wasn't about politics anymore. The people there weren't too concerned about the politics, they were just trying to do something right and every time they tried to do exactly that, it fell apart in their hands. Their best intentions led to the worst results. That's what we're trying to get at.

It's also a book that defies easy characterization. It's a murder mystery, but it's also about the politics of the interim Iraq occupation, the relationship between Chris and Nassir and Sofia. Was the complexity of the story something you planned out before starting?

King: It's both organic and inorganic, but part of it was planned. The easiest thing you can do as a writer is, you create a world that's interesting and you want to explore that world so you create a murder mystery. That's the oldest plot — you have this murder mystery, and as they try and solve this murder, they explore this world.

I wanted to write about Iraq, and the theme of the book is kind of how simple answers became more complicated and fell apart. So I wanted to start off with that simple concept: okay, it's a simple mystery, there's a murder on the first page and that's how we'll open up this world, and then as we go forward, looking into the murder, trying to follow that path, leads to the destruction of the characters and the destruction of the world they're living in.

That fit my experience of Iraq. It seemed to me — it seemed to a lot of people at the time — that Iraq was a "simple" war, an easy war, bad guys versus good guys. But as we pursued it, as we tried to follow that narrative, as simple as the murder mystery, it just fell apart in our hands. It's still falling apart today. So, form follows function.

Mitch, when did you get involved with the series?

Gerads: I was just wrapping up my run on [Marvel's] Punisher, and I was going to be picky about what I was going to do next. I got a call from Jamie Rich, our editor on the book — he had just been announced as a senior editor for Vertigo and was offering me a bunch of Vertigo books, and he got to Sheriff of Babylon and said, "It's written by Tom King, it's an Iraq murder mystery," and I think he called it Justified meets Homeland, and that was totally in my wheelhouse. I just said, "I'm in" before he finished the sentence. [Laughs]

The two of you seem to be in synch in terms of storytelling — there are sequences where you're able to shut up entirely and let the art tell the story, Tom. That's a sign that you're confident in your collaboration.

King: I'm a comic book writer, so I work with a lot of artists. Sometimes, you get art back and you're like, 'Oh no,' sometimes, you get art back and you're like, 'That's exactly what I imagined in my head,' and you're happy about that. And sometimes you get artists who take what I had in my head and went further with it, and that's what Mitch did with it. It's such a relaxing feeling. Even going back to the designs, the design for Nassir was stolen from my subconscious and put on a piece of paper. Once I saw that, I knew that Mitch could carry the load, so I could slack off, really. [Laughs]

Mitch, what kind of work goes into drawing an issue? It looks like a very lived-in book, like you've spent a long time researching everything…

Gerads: I'm obsessive about research, crazily so sometimes. Everything in that book, I try to make real. Every where in that book, every location, is either an exact real location in Baghdad, or as close to a real place as I could find or get, right down to — I tell this story a lot — I spent a lot of time researching telephones. Turns out, they're the same kind of telephones that we have here. It's half respect for the topic, and the people, and the traditions that the book is about, and half what really excites me about doing a book like this: I feel like it would be a disservice to make it anything less than as real as I can.

King: There's a responsibility to get this right. Yes, 100 percent. Every location except for one comes from a place I've actually been to — and now I'm horribly afraid people are going to find out where that one actually is. The soldiers and the Iraqis and the people who actually went through this, to present them as they were and as heroic as they were and as horrible as they were, it's important to make sure that's all true.

How does this compare with working on superhero comics? You've both spent time working for Marvel and DC on titles like Batman, The Punisher and so on. Is it freeing to not have to work within those genre tropes, or does the responsibility to be respectful towards the reality feel more important?

King: I wrote these other books, The Omega Men and The Vision, which feel as real to me, at least, but they're a different genre. What's different about working on Sheriff is, you can let the dialogue go a little crazy — for example, I just interrupted myself twice in the middle of interrupting myself. In [superhero] comic books, every phrase or word balloon is plot driven, where you're trying to accomplish something. With Sheriff, I can be more realistic and let characters say something that might make sense, but isn't necessarily what they intended.

Gerads: I did a book called The Activity, which was all real-world, special operations, but it was action movie real-world, special operations. With Sheriff, I get to flex a different muscle and do a lot less badass Rambo-type stuff and a lot more subtle work. There are some artists who'd be bored out of their mind doing that kind of stuff, but I love it. For me, the issue that's nothing but Chris and Fatima having a conversation was the most rewarding moment of my career.

The Sheriff of Babylon Vol. 1: Bang. Bang. Bang. is available in stores now.

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