The Terrorist in Me

The protagonist in Jay Cantor’s new graphic novel catches the 21st century disease
Graphic novels, Jay Cantor says, are “much harder than writing a screenplay, because you describe every picture.” Photo: Kelvin Ma
April 20, 2011

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Jay Cantor was home on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, and flipped on the television to check on the day’s news before heading off to work. “Like most of us,” he remembers, “I was furious.”

Later, he was surprised by how angry he had felt, and “began to imagine somebody very like myself who would see those images and want to torture,” he says.

Cantor, a professor of English in the School of Arts and Sciences and a novelist, wanted to write about that idea, but a novel didn’t quite suit the turmoil he was envisioning. “My idea had some fantastical elements in it that wouldn’t work in a book,” he says.

He found himself preoccupied with “the incredible images of the buildings and the planes,” and the effect they’d had on him. “I thought, This is a story that should be told in images.”

Then he was approached by his former student Pornsak Pichetshote, A97, an editor at Vertigo Comics who was on the lookout for well-known novelists willing to take a chance on writing in a different form.

Cantor took the challenge. The result is the graphic novel Aaron and Ahmed, A Love Story (Vertigo), which was published earlier this month. Cantor, who is also director of creative writing at Tufts, wrote the text; the art was done by James Romberger.

The book explores the roots of terrorism through the story of psychiatrist Aaron Goodman, a doctor at a Veterans Administration hospital who goes to work at the U.S. Guantanamo Bay detention camp after his fiancée is killed in one of the planes crashed into the World Trade Center.

Goodman witnesses torture as government operatives try to wring information about terrorist activities from the prisoners. But he takes a different tack, befriending a prisoner named Ahmed and treating him kindly, hoping that Ahmed would grow to confide in him.

A scene from Aaron and Ahmed. Photo: Kelvin MaThe relationship results in a furtive trip to Pakistan, where Goodman tries to discover what motivates people to become suicide bombers and in the process nearly turns into one himself. The book raises questions about religion and obedience, but the central argument is that an idea—or meme—can spread and replicate, just as genes do.

“Memes are like viruses,” Cantor says. “You can catch the idea of terrorism, and it will replicate in you in a way that spreads the meme further,” he says.

One of the ways to do that is through images. The scenes of 9/11 he saw on television had been created by the terrorists, and “they turned me into a kind of terrorist,” Cantor says. “It made me want to kill. It was the images that did it.”

A Comic within a Comic

It is fitting that Cantor found a way to express himself in a graphic novel. As a child he would climb up onto his bed and spread out his comic book collection: Superman, Green Hornet, Spiderman, Archie and Veronica. By his own estimation, he read and owned thousands of comic books, many of them, sadly, now discarded.

The comic books may be gone, but the love for them persists. One of Cantor’s novels, Krazy Kat (1987), is based on the comic strip of the same name, which ran in daily newspapers between 1913 and 1944. A character in his sprawling novel Great Neck (2003) is a famous comic book artist, and some of the other characters end up as comic book figures in the work of this artist.

Still, Cantor’s leap into a new genre was both exhilarating and laborious. He has worked on screenplays and been a consultant on several movies, including Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. But graphic novels, he discovered, are a different kind of challenge. “It’s much harder than writing a screenplay, because you describe every picture,” he says. “Panel by panel I described what the dialogue would be and what the art in the panel would be.”

A film script, Cantor explains, might be a couple of inches thick, while a graphic novel script is a good six inches thick. “Let’s say you’re filming Jane Eyre. You just write: ‘English gentleman’s country house, circa 1810,’ and the set designer does the rest.” By contrast, the first scene in Aaron and Ahmed, set in a VA hospital, required the script to describe what the room looks like, what the people in it look like, how they carry themselves and what they do. “It’s closer to a novel, but you probably wouldn’t describe every element in a novel, because you’re trying to evoke the scene and not put in every visual element,” Cantor says.

Yet despite the rigors of the genre, he soon became immersed in it—to the point where the comic strip became not only his medium but also a plot device. One of the conceits of Cantor’s book is that Goodman is prompted to act violently after Ahmed hands him a piece of Bazooka bubble gum, the kind that always had a little comic strip inside the wrapper. “There had been other images, but that comic is the trigger for him,” he says. That comic within the graphic novel—that “last little piece is necessary.”

Marjorie Howard can be reached at marjorie.howard@tufts.edu.

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