The Man Who Built Beirut

Written and Illustrated by Andy Warner

A trip to Beirut to study abroad leads to a fascination with a man who served as both a unifying figure and a symbol of capitalistic control and corruption in this excellent non-fiction mini-comic.

I grabbed this from the library because I've been reading Warner's great work on Matt Bor's curated comics feed, "The Nib," which I need to do a write-up of very soon. Warner's art style is perfect for non-fiction comics, because while his layouts are imaginative and vivid, he's also very straightforward, approaching the art with a goal to provide visual aids that go along with the text. There's an understanding that to do this right, a balance must be struck between art and text.

It's a lot more difficult than you'd imagine, but Warner does a great job, both here and elsewhere. His text is well researched (there's eight references for this comic), but it doesn't bog down. We don't need a complete rundown of the history of Lebanon and its status as a proxy battleground for other powers. Warner makes we we know that--it's important for context--but doing pages upon pages about it would be overkill. He makes sure the text is carefully selected to have the most impact.

Similarly, the illustrations are designed to bring as much to the story as possible. The art is tightly constructed, and even establishing shots that help the reader get a feel for the scope of the material are placed within panel boundaries. Warner understands that he can't take a lot of space to bring readers into the world, so each page has as much packed into the layouts as possible, without feeling too crowded. When he does open up, such as a crowd scene where Warner himself shows up as just one more face, bewildered by the rage and sentiment around him, the impact is striking. In other cases, Warner uses a grid layout to show a sampling of deaths, with head shots and text making a sober statement.

I can't stress enough the level of detail in these comics. That crowd scene I mentioned has dozens of individually drawn faces, ranging from outraged to a bit bored, with Lebanese flags all over. Buildings clearly represent the places in Beirut, and his likenesses are spot-on. Even when he's using abstract backgrounds, there's a depth of pattern that makes them feel an integral part of the story.

The tale itself, about Rafik Hariri, tells a complicates story. Hariri was instrumental in agitating for Lebanon to be free of Syrian influence, and likely died for this belief. In his martyrdom, he got what he wished. Those who may have been behind the death were never brought to justice, in part because later politicians were afraid to pursue the point too far. To some degree, it was an early sign of the Arab Spring. At the same time, rebuilding Beirut made Harini and his cronies very, very wealthy. They were not any more for the common man than your typical Republican. Like all thing sin the Middle East, it's a very complex situation, and Warner admits as much while trying to be as neutral as possible.

Warner places himself within the story, as an outside observer trying to piece together the clues. He even discusses how this story obsessed him, even while he was trying to enjoy the rest of his time in a second visit to Lebanon. In the end, a discussion with a friend that places Harini in context gives a purpose to the comic itself and why the dead leader matters: He was unlike those that came before and after him, and his sense of being a "clean break" is why he has a monument and even silver steps recreating his last journey.

The Middle East could use with a few more clean breaks.

This is such a great non-fiction mini-comic, and now I'm even more interested in Andy Warner's work than I was before. You can find out more about him at his website. Best of all, you can read The Man Who Built Beirut for free online. Go there now!