A Review of The ‘Stan by Kevin Knodell and David Axe
by Brit Barnhouse
The ‘Stan, written by Kevin Knodell and David Axe, and illustrated by Blue Delliquanti, is the graphic novel equivalent of a linked essay collection. It contains 17 short essays in comic form sprung from a handful of experiences surrounding the war in Afghanistan. It is noticeably accessible, even for me, a reader with not much connection to military life or culture. Before the pieces begin, a two-page preface lets us know that The ‘Stan is going to lean more into criticism of the U.S. Government than endorsement.
Each piece begins with a collage of the characters and scenes within, set atop a black background and labeled with the chapter number, title, characters (read: real people) and location. This allows a clear starting and stopping point between stories—each contains individuals, with nuance and complexity surrounding them, rather than a stereotyped expectation of soldier or Afghan or man or woman. The essays themselves feel like snapshots as we are dropped in the middle of a person’s life and allowed to observe one frame of their existence before being slipped into a new frame and life. The organization of each panel is clean and easy to follow, with captions or quotes that clearly frame the setting and timeframe for each event or story. In other writing formats I might consider the use of so much exposition in the captions to be a detriment, but in the case of The ‘Stan, the artwork does much of the emotional heavy lifting. Vivid stories unfold through Delliquanti’s artwork even without the accompanying text.
The ‘Stan includes first-hand accounts reminiscent of a reporter’s findings in the field, with panels switching between present-day interviews, sometimes with the subject of the story sitting in a car or atop a barstool with a beer in hand, to a recounted memory of Afghanistan. This works well to keep the reader engaged and reminds us that these are real people, real stories being told. The ‘Stan feels conversational and welcoming—sometimes even funny, as is the case in “Operation Donkey Haul” in which the men attempt to use a donkey to haul a generator up a hill—despite the frequently gruesome subject matter.
Though all 17 essays are contained within 128 pages and are often short, they are vibrant and compelling. They are not just stories of the “default” idea of hardened men at war—choking down MREs and slinging language that would make your mother blush—but also stories of refugees and stories of civilian victims. The ‘Stan addresses “man culture” in the chapter titled “Afghan Rambo” but also includes stories of women who serve and an Afghan woman whose products at the market go toward helping other women escaping abusive conditions. Each story will leave you with needed perspective, and importantly, empathy for the other.