I look to comics to show me experiences I haven’t had and get me thinking about new perspectives, with bonus points for unusual, interesting settings. Cairo has all of the above. It’s written by G. Willow Wilson, a journalist who lived and worked in the area, which gives the fantastic events verisimilitude.
It starts with a drug smuggler, but it quickly sprawls out through his connections and those he meets through chance (or more likely, destiny). His sister is friendly with a frustrated journalist experiencing censorship, who meets a lost American girl who speaks a little Arabic. The smuggler sells a stolen hookah to a Lebanese boy, but a bad guy wants it back and takes the reporter and girl as hostages to get it.
That’s because it actually contains a genie. Then there’s the lost Israeli soldier who needs to get back across the border and hijacks the smuggler to give her a ride. It all comes together in creative ways as the journey leads through a legendary land on a quest for a magical artifact. There’s even a flying carpet and an imaginative combination of playing with panel borders as the framework for a mystical task to complete to gain the desired object of power.
Artist M.K. Perker is better known for his editorial cartoons and illustrations than comic work, but his experience shines through here. His characters are distinctive and emotional, his settings are fully realized, and the whole thing’s got a down-to-earth, almost grimy feel that suits such a life-threatening adventure in this ancient city. It’s the shading, with constant half-shadow, reminding us of the lack of black-and-white answers.
Honestly, when first opened the book, I expected to flip through it quickly. I suspected I’d find another forgettable Vertigo bid at self-importance through allowing writers from other media to slum in comics. I quickly realized how wrong I was as I was sucked into the adventure. I couldn’t turn pages fast enough to find out what happened. At the same time, I wanted to wallow in each page as it introduced me to the modern Middle East. It’s a brilliant blend of fantasy and modern political problems that reminded me of the classic Baghdad-set Sandman #50.
Of note is the showdown between the spoiled California girl visiting the Middle East to “make a difference” and the trapped journalist whose life is on the line. She values facts; he prefers emotional arguments to reach those who would otherwise patronize him and his people. It’s an eye-opening culture clash. The overall message is love instead of hate, living instead of dying, made more meaningful through the significance of its setting.
The publicity calls it a “modern fable”. It’s an overused phrase, but never more accurate than here. Also, be sure to remove the dust jacket from this original hardcover at least once — the binding, with purple foil outlining the city, is lovelier than the subtle cover illustration.