Ernie Colón does a lot for a business suit. Two types of people populate The Torture Report, a new graphical adaptation of the 2014 Senate Select Committee on Intelligence report on the use of enhanced interrogation techniques under George W. Bush. There are the detainees — usually nearly nude in frigid temperatures, their bodies wracked with agony — and there are the bureaucrats at whose mercy they suffer. These men are inevitably clad in that uniform of conservatism and civilization, the business suit. There’s even a besuited silhouette on the cover, hands shoved in his pockets, radiating placid certainty.
That certainty led the highest-ranking members of the CIA not only to authorize the use of brutal, often untested, dubiously effective interrogation techniques throughout the 2000s, but to mislead multiple branches of government and the media about their efficacy. They also led George W. Bush to authorize the techniques’ further use.
Colón and writer Sid Jacobson must have begun work on this project long before the election, and yet events have made it more timely than could have been imagined even a few months ago. President Trump takes an even stronger line on enhanced interrogation than Bush did, repeatedly saying “waterboarding works” and equating the practices explicitly with torture. Last week, Sen. Dianne Feinstein grilled Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, Neil Gorsuch, on apparently condoning waterboarding and other techniques.
This book is clearly meant to serve the same function as the duo’s best-selling collaboration, The 9/11 Report: A Graphic Adaptation, making hundreds of pages of documents and testimony live and breathe using comic-book-style illustrations. It might seem that the topic would prove well-suited for this treatment, given the obvious — if excruciating — visual interest it provides. But the results are mixed. This book is certainly an accessible and digestible depiction of what Scott Horton, author of 2015’s Lords of Secrecy, sums up in an afterword as “one of the most dysfunctional and embarrassing episodes in the history of American spycraft.” But numerous flaws dampen the book’s effectiveness.
Colón, an artist with wide-ranging experience working at top comics publishers, seems strangely daunted by the material. His drawings alternate between operatic and muddled. He’s at his best when he’s pointing up the divide between the tortured detainees and the bureaucrats who hold them at their mercy. The former are usually near-naked, while the bureaucrats, naturally, all wear the aforementioned suits. These guys could have come out of Get Your War On, David Rees’ early-2000s comic that used cheesy clip art of office workers to emphasize the absurdities of the War on Terror. They’re drawn the same way, and the irony is the same.
Colón’s depictions of the enhanced interrogation techniques themselves — among them facial slaps, abdominal slaps, “walling” (slamming the detainee’s head against a wall), stress positions, cramped confinement, sleep deprivation and waterboarding — aren’t as chilling as you might expect. The uneven quality and varying styles of the drawings keep the brutality at a remove. The most affecting representations are simple silhouettes of the men who were hung by their wrists for hours. Colón’s experiments with panel organization and point-of-view are more successful. Each page bursts with different shapes and arrangements of artwork, providing a sense of catastrophic momentum.
Jacobson has distilled and arranged the material in the report to create a powerful narrative. The effect of reading, again and again, that CIA assertions about the program “included inaccurate information” or “are not supported by CIA records” is potent. Still, Jacobson’s own (albeit highly understandable) bias occasionally undercuts his storytelling. He keeps throwing in exclamation points and editorializing asides. When he recounts how Assistant Attorney General Steven Bradbury authorized the use of 13 enhanced techniques in 2005, he adds a speech bubble reading, “Good to be back in action again!” It’s unclear who’s supposed to be speaking (or thinking) this, and it doesn’t mesh with the parts of the text hewing narrowly to the report.
Despite these weaknesses, The Torture Report remains a deeply necessary book — particularly now, when the full report may never be made public. It shouldn’t require all the skill and passion of two experienced comics creators to bring information like this to the average reader, but such is the case in our saturated media climate. Flawed or no, this book will doubtless be a crucial resource for years to come.
Etelka Lehoczky has written about books for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times and Salon.com. She tweets at @EtelkaL.