There have been several retellings of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Apocalypse Now set the story during the Vietnam War, and Spec Ops: The Line moved the story to the Middle East. Each time, the narratives examined a soul-rotting journey into a twisted conflict. Now, writer Justin Jordan and artist Raúl Treviño will explore that same chaotic journey in their upcoming comic about the War on Drugs, Sombra.
Published by Boom! Studios, Sombra tells the story of a DEA agent named Danielle who journeys into Mexico to face the troubling, twisted world inhabited by the cartels and the DEA. Jordan tapped Mexican artist, Raúl Treviño, to illustrate the project, not only for his beautiful artwork, but because Treviño’s first-hand experience with the cartels could lend more gravity to the story.
Justin, your comic is inspired, in part, by the novel, Heart of Darkness. What inspired you to take bits of the novel into the modern day war on drugs?
Justin Jordan: [Joseph] Conrad was looking at the madness and hypocrisy of going into Africa to exploit it, and layering that behind a veneer of bring civilization to savages. Which, you know is a screwed up way of looking at it even IF it had been true. But the core idea is exploitation under the guise of helping, which is reflected in Apocalypse Now as well, because the central themes still worked.
And they still work when applied to Mexico. There’s this horrible stuff going on in Mexico, literally right across the border, and not only are we largely unaware of it, we’re responsible for it. Our appetites and our hypocrisy are damaging another country. And, you know, ours.
I mean, we talk about the war on drugs and how bad Mexico is under the cartels, but all of this exists because of our policies. We could, at least in theory, decriminalize the drug trade and stop the cartels today. But we don’t. Instead we “help.”
And like the people in Conrad’s story, I think we have this implicit notion that we’re somehow better. That if the situations were reversed, we’d be more civilized. But we’re not. And our blindness to that fact helps us lie to ourselves about what we’re doing and what we’ve done.
The war on drugs is a very difficult subject, not only to read about, but to understand in its complexity. What were some of the challenges of tackling such a topic?
Well, it’s vast and complicated. This has been going on for a long time, and so a lot of social structures exist just because of the war on drugs, and they’re entrenched. I mean, if you’re a DEA agent, your continued job and livelihood depends on drugs remaining illegal. That changes how you view your actions. Likewise, if you’re reliant on the cartels for your livelihood, even if you’re a good person, you’re part of the machine.
So the real challenge is getting across just why we keep going deeper and deeper into an un-winnable war that only exists because we’ve decided it should be. Doing that and still telling an entertaining story is tricky, and I feel like I need to get it right.
Raúl, as an artist who personally encountered violence at the hands of the cartel, what were some of the most important aspects of your art you wanted to emphasize for readers who might not have encountered the cartels first-hand?
Raúl Treviño: First, I would like to say that the “war on drugs” is one of the bad aspects of Mexico but this country also has its beauty and charm; otherwise, I wouldn’t still be living here. The most important aspects of my art that I want to emphasize with this mini-series are the conditions around the country. Since the story is written by Justin, my job is to set the story in the right environment, making the reader feel what it would be like to live in certain places surrounded by certain circumstances. I want to give them a hint of what it’s like to be immersed in this world, especially if you lack money and an education, and surrounded by misfortune.
What were some of the challenges of illustrating cartel violence for a comic book?
While producing my trilogy Tinkers of the Wasteland, which is a comedy adventure, it helped me to escape from the reality that I was surrounded by during the dark days of my city. Then BOOM! Studios contacted me to draw Sombra, and the main challenge was to try to depict violent acts (not far from what happens in reality) in an artistic way.
So I tried to look for a bright side to this project. And I realized that working on Sombra is a way for me to deal with the bad memories, and transform them into something that can nourish my artistic and spiritual side. And it’s working! It’s like planting all your bad thoughts inside of a bag along with seeds, and seeing a beautiful tree growing and blooming. I mean, it has turned into a great collaboration with Justin, Juan [Useche] the colorist, and all the crew from BOOM! Studios, especially my editors, Eric [Harburn] and Cam [Chittock], who provide great feedback. In a nutshell, taking something bad and turning it into something great.
What do you hope readers take away from Sombra after they read it?
RT: A book, movie, song, or comic won’t change the world overnight, but in my case, as an illustrator, I would like readers to bear witness to the graphic reality that is not so far away from fiction. I would like to awake emotions in them through a characters feelings, through locations and incidents, by way of my art. I want readers to imagine being in the place they are seeing on the page, and to think deeply about this serious matter that concerns everyone.
JJ: I hope they get a sense of the world that’s just across the border, and how much we could do to help it but don’t.
Sombra’s first issue will be released on July 20, 2016. It will be printed in both English and Spanish.