Cairo the city holds many secrets for foreigners. CAIRO the graphic novel isn’t so obtuse; it puts some of those secrets out there for all to see and uses them to kick off a story that is part mythology, part social commentary and part full-blown adventure.
The combination works. It’s a debut from writer G. Willow Wilson and longtime illustrator M.K. Perker (Turkan Soray Lips, Fairy Tale Mafia) that uses magic realism to propel its five principal characters into a heady battle with ultimate evil. Among the participants are Kate, a bored young American seeking meaning in a strange city; Shaheed, a fellow American of Lebanese heritage who claims to be just passing through Cairo on his way to Beirut; Ali, a political activist and newspaper columnist; Tova, a member of the Israeli Special Forces who has lost her way and needs to get back to Israel; and Ashraf, a drug smuggler who has just come into possession of a strange hookah pipe. Of course, all five characters converge and become intertwined in a sometimes complex plot.
Fairly early on, CAIRO takes a giant leap into the fantastical (this is a book about the strange world that most of us never see, after all) when Shams, a genie --- more accurately, a jinn --- pops out of the hookah. With the stage set, Wilson is able to weave in a series of fun cultural fantasy and myth against the strikingly realistic background Perker has laid out. Shams, it seems, is under a curse put upon him by an evil magician, not to mention being chased by an evil demon.
If it all sounds too gimmicky, complicated, or just plain strange, wait. Wilson has a light touch, which is exactly what CAIRO needs and deserves.
This is partially allegory, and some standard elements of mainstream comics rear their heads, but overall, it is a plainspoken and craftily simple tale of human existence caught up in a much larger, and very intense, battle between light and dark. Best of all, it often has the feel of old pulp fiction adventures or old movie serials --- fast, furious action clomping away while hapless innocent characters inadvertently drawn into the action try to make their way. To see this take place in the eerie underworld of CAIRO --- and especially with such earnestness and care --- is a fresh treat.
Wilson rushes perhaps a little too hastily to her third act’s ending, which does create a jarring climax to an otherwise well-paced tale. But aside from that, this is an impressive debut and shows that Wilson is a talent to watch out for in the future. She has already moved on to the ongoing series Air --- also from Vertigo, and teaming her up with artist Perker --- and has written for the superhero comic The Outsiders. Air shows that Wilson is no one-trick pony; she’s a great imaginative talent, and it’s going to be interesting to watch where she goes from here.
Reviewed by John Hogan on October 7, 2008