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By Derek Mainhart

What makes someone become a terrorist? It’s a question with some urgency at this point; one that, given recent events, is particularly resonant with cartoonists. In his new book Terrorist: Gavrilo Princip, the Assassin who Ignited World War I, cartoonist Henrik Rehr explores the mixture of ideology, desperation and political circumstance that are at the root of the phenomenon. Rehr’s vehicle for this exploration is perhaps the most infamous terrorist act in history.

Starting at birth, Rehr traces the forces that shape his subject, Gavrilo Princip: from his grandfather’s nationalistic stories of Serbia’s past glory, through the repression and indignity of daily life under occupation, first by the Turks, then the Austrians. Lacking any real education or prospects due to his second class status, Gavrilo’s idle days are filled at cafes digesting the news of the time with friends whose radicalization slowly, frighteningly, transforms from theoretical braggadocio to cold, irreversible action. As young Gavrilo (he was nineteen when he assassinated the Archduke) and his cohorts engage in ever more dangerous behavior, Rehr pulls off the neat trick of having the reader, fully aware of the historical implications of their actions, still feel anxious for their safety. He accomplishes this by skillfully interspersing telling, personal moments (Gavrilo’s sweetly naive relationship with his girlfriend, the family life of a reluctant co-conspirator), humanizing the principle actors.

As counterpoint, he interpolates scenes from the life of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, revealing him to be, yes, privileged and insulated, but also a loving family man, a reluctant leader, and also an optimist (charmingly naive in his own way) regarding human nature. If anything, he was predisposed, as Rehr portrays him, against exacerbating the tensions that would lead to war; more’s the tragedy.

Rehr’s even-handedness speaks to his humanistic underpinnings: whatever you think of his actions, Gavrilo’s concerns for his people were heartfelt. Whatever the cruelties of the Hapsburg Empire, Franz did not deserve to be gunned down in cold blood. (There is also a fatalistic irony at play as the author traces the combination of incompetence, botched plans and sheer chance that ultimately led to the fateful act.)

The subtlety of Rehr’s approach extends to his art, which is gorgeous throughout: beautifully composed, convincingly researched without being cluttered, the occasionally dense storytelling broken up by poetic vignettes of starkly lyrical black and white. This is especially true in the largely wordless coda, the powerful imagery of which recalls the work of the legendary Frans Masereel.

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In trying to condense a massive amount of complex information, Rehr does occasionally commit the misstep of having his characters narrate history through their dialogue. And as Gavrilo’s coterie grows, it sometimes becomes difficult (to these American eyes at least) to keep track of everyone amongst all those dark moustaches and names with too many consonants.

These are quibbles of course. Terrorist takes an impressive spot amongst the burgeoning field of politically-minded, historical graphic works. In addition to the aforementioned Masereel, Rehr’s exploration of history’s intimate effects on people’s daily existence recalls Jason Lutes’ magisterial Berlin, as well as the works of the incomparable Joe Sacco. (In fact, one could construct a credible primer on the tragic twentieth century of the region by reading a ‘graphic trilogy’ comprised of Rehr’s book, the acclaimed Fatherland: A Family History by Nina Bunjevac, and Sacco’s masterpiece Safe Area Gorazde.) Comprising various approaches and styles, the underlying hope offered by these works is that by attempting to understand how outsize forces affect individual lives (their dreams, their failures, their loved ones, their deaths) we can, on some small level, alter the course of our troubled times, before our own lives become so much grist for some future account of catastrophic history.

Terrorist: Gavrilo Princip, the Assassin who Ignited World War I, published by Graphic Universe, is on sale now. 

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