The article below (originally published here) provides an overview and additional context for the nonfiction comic Brought to Light, as well as a link to a PDF of the out-of-print work, because good reads should be shared. Enjoy.
BROUGHT TO LIGHT: The “lost” Alan Moore and Bill Sienkiewicz collaboration that is of historical importance
by Stephen Sonneveld
Remember that time two of the top stars in the comic book industry, misters Alan Moore and Bill Sienkiewicz, aligned to tell the dark history of America’s alleged shadow government, as it murderously politicked from World War II, through the Vietnam Era and into the Iran-Contra days?
This was the same book where activist, writer, and Harvey Pekar muse, Joyce Brabner joined Swamp Thing and future Prince Valiant artist Thomas Yeates to tell the story of reporters who died in an explosion in La Penca, Nicaragua - not the result of collateral damage, but a targeted hit that failed to kill the contra leader the press were there to interview. Their comic was based on the investigation of journalists Martha Honey and Tony Avirgan, the latter who had survived the bombing.
Such a book was published in 1989, thanks to a collaboration between Eclipse Comics and the public interest law firm the Christic Institute, both of which went defunct in the early 1990’s.
Of the many unique aspects of Brought to Light is that it has two covers, and you can start by reading either Moore/Sienkiewicz’s “Shadowplay: The Secret Team” or Brabner/Yeates’ “Flashpoint: The La Penca Bombing” before flipping the book over and reading the other story.
Introductions to both stories are included to provide historical context, as well as a middle section (following “Shadowplay”) that includes a call-to-action satirical comic by Paul Mavrides, and a world map detailing the United States’ “30 Years of Covert Action.” The legend includes such items as torture, communications violation and fraud/embezzlement/theft. The more things change.
One of the more curious aspects is the fine print on the left margin of the “Flashpoint” cover that reads, “Not for sale in Great Britain.” With half the creative team hailing from there, let the speculation begin as to why the country that invented modern espionage (recruit from the elite schools those who understand that the mission is to support aristocratic rule at the expense of all else - and anyone who gets out of line will be “Marlowe’d”) would not allow this book exposing America’s dirty secrets to be sold on her shores. Though, the answer may be as mundane as the fact that the book’s source material was involved in litigation at the time.
Both sections include bibliographies to cite their sources, but the $24 million federal lawsuit that the Christic Institute filed against the United States Government in 1986 - which provides information for both stories in Brought to Light - was ruled by a federal judge in Florida to be frivolous and politically motivated, and it’s claims unproven (a point addressed at the end of “Flashpoint.” It should also be noted that part of why the claims were unproven was because many of the witnesses died). The decision was upheld on appeal and the U.S. Supreme Court refused to even hear the case, meaning the decision of the lower court stands.
As a result of the court ruling, the Institute - which hitherto had a successful human rights litigation record - was ordered to pay heavy fines, lost their nonprofit status and ultimately dissolved. However, they would not be the first nor the last public interest to report on the government’s alleged drugs and gun running activities in Nicaragua and elsewhere.
One was Gary Webb, already a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist by the time he began investigating similar claims. A Time Magazine article - meant to discredit Webb - concluded with the following:
“A 1998, a CIA inspector general’s report denied any ties between the U.S. government and the drug dealers Webb named in his articles and book, but ultimately confirmed Webb’s thesis that the CIA had worked with contras despite drug-dealing allegations against them. Still, Webb’s reputation as an investigative journalist was tarnished.
In 2004, Webb was found dead at the age of 49 from two gunshot wounds to the head. Police ruled it a suicide.”
From a strictly literary standpoint, Brought to Light is a great read that shows the diversity of comic book storytelling and the medium’s potential not only in that regard, but also in its ability to provoke thought and elicit emotion.
Directors often say film is emotion, but that is true for all of the audio-visual arts including music, dance and theatre. Literature, one’s communion with the written word, is the artistic medium most associated with provoking thought.
What these artists understand better than most is that comics is the singular medium that can deliver both head and heart in equal measure.
The cover blurb calls "Flashpoint” a “graphic docudrama,” and it certainly is. Yeates’ beautifully rendered artwork displays why he would later draft characters once realized by Burne Hogarth and Hal Foster.
Brabner had the unenviable task of weaving the findings of Honey and Avirgan’s investigation, and Avirgan’s firsthand account of the bombing that took the lives of eight people, into a script that still made you care about those involved.
“Straightforward” is not a bad thing when all these stunning facts can speak for themselves. The script and the art deliver those facts and bring home the emotion.
The tension and frustration you feel for the characters is reminiscent of a great political thriller, such as Costa-Gavras’ 1982 film Missing, another true story, this time detailing an American father’s search for his journalist son, following another covert exercise - the United States sponsored coup in Chile.
Sienkiewicz was the perfect choice to illustrate “Shadowplay,” as only the frenetic energy he brings to the page could capture the terrible awe and the spectacular farce of a shadow government run amuck.
Amidst atomic fears, the United States once tried to assassinate Fidel Castro with an exploding cigar - this is the level of comic tragedy challenging Sienkiewicz throughout “Shadowplay,” who rises to the occasion without sacrificing story flow.
The brand name “Alan Moore” may “move units” for other publishers, but it really takes a project like this to appreciate just how special a talent Alan Moore, a writer from Northampton, is.
I don’t know of too many scribes who could adapt a lawsuit into an interesting comic book, but Moore does one better than that: he takes these disparate facts and creates a wholly original narrative arc that informs your brain of the details while punching your gut with the many horrors.
In a way, it reminded me of the script for From Hell, where he distilled volumes of Ripperology into a logically-flowing but still emotionally driven story.
My ratty, food-stained copy of Brought to Light, with its cover barely hanging on, was discovered on the book shelf of my college town coffee shop, which allowed me to borrow it, rather permanently. I’d been frequenting comic stores for years, but never even heard of this project.
The college town comic shop owner, Paul, was progressive like that, though. He was a tall, gray-haired, craggy-faced bachelor, always puffing on smokes in the open back door of the shop. When he stood, this abnormally round belly protruded against his button down shirts. Paul sold the trading cards, and the bread and butter books, but his shelves were also peppered with titles like the single issues of From Hell, and Ho Che Anderson’s King. I once asked him what his favorite comic was. He smiled, and recounted wth genuine wonderment his admiration for Carl Barks’ Scrooge McDuck. It was an eclectic place.
Post-college, this remains the only copy of Brought to Light I’ve seen, and since both Eclipse and the Christic Institute have shuttered, it is unlikely we’ll find one again in this form.
I guess Alan Moore turned “Shadowplay” into a spoken word and music performance, so select audiences in Great Britain might not be completely unfamiliar with the work.
Still, the history alone that Brought to Light represents makes it worth reading, not to mention this snapshot of comic book history, where a publisher, a humanitarian group and great talents all worked together to find justice for the dead, and shine a light for the future.
A free-to-read PDF of the complete Brought to Light, scanned from my original copy, is available now at this link:
Stephen Sonneveld is the award-winning writer and artist of Greye of Scotland Yard, available on Comixology, and Superman versus Cancer, which can be read for free at this link, and click on “Download original PDF file.”