The War On Comics

By | Tuesday, October 28, 2008 Leave a Comment
In 2003, G.W. decided it would be fun to invade a country that we really never had any business invading. (For the record, as popular as it is now to say the war in Iraq was ill-conceived and poorly executed, I've been saying that since Day One.) But one of the under-reported tragedies of this war has been possibly irreparable damage to one of the world's oldest comics. (To be fair, though, there have been many tragedies in this whole clusterfuck of a war and they can't all get equal air time.) The chaos that ensued immediately after G.W. invaded Iraq led to a great many archeological artifacts being stolen from the National Museum of Iraq, one of the more notable ones was the Warka Vase.

The 3 foot tall Warka Vase was carved out of alabaster around 3,000 B.C. and was discovered in 1934. The vase has three tiers of artwork wrapping around its exterior depicts a series of offerings being made to the goddess Inanna. I don't think I've ever heard anyone -- even Scott McCloud -- claim this to be comics per se. Archeologists tend to use high-minded phrases like "narrative relief sculpture." But it is sequential art -- a comic, after a fashion -- and certainly a more involved piece of history than a single image that might occur on another vase from the same period.

In the lawlessness that accompanied the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the National Museum of Iraq was looted and any number of priceless treasures disappeared, including the Warka Vase. (U.S. troops were instead sent to guard other sites, such as the Oil Ministry.) It was immediately known that the vase was damaged, as it had been ripped from its base so forcibly that it broke, leaving a portion of the vase remaining on its stand. And when it was returned during an amnesty period a few months by three unidentified men who pulled it unceremoniously out of the trunk of their Toyota. While many people were relieved to see its return, it was now in 14 pieces.

At the time, Pietro Cordone, senior adviser on culture for the Coalition Provisional Authority, said, "This is one of the most important pieces from the Baghdad museum, and I am delighted it has been returned. It is reason for people all around the world to celebrate."

Ahmed Kamel, the museum's acting director general at the time, added with optimisim, "It was in pieces then [when it was first discovered] and we restored it. Now the looters have broken it again, but it can be repaired."

That was in June 2003.

I caught mention of the Warka Vase in a Newseek article back in February. Nothing significant, just passing mention that it had been stolen and returned within the larger context of rebuilding the museum itself. But I was reminded that I hadn't heard anything of significance about the vase's restoration. I've been looking for news about it for the past few months, trying to see if there had been anything new to report.

And I'm here to tell you that I've got bupkis.

I spend a LOT of time searching and sorting through information online, and there appears to be an effective media blackout about the specific state of any artifacts from National Museum of Iraq. The museum's director, Donny George, fled he country in 2006 after receiving death threats and, at least as near as I can tell, has not yet been able to return. The museum itself was bricked up and many employees were not allowed inside at all. (Not to imply that the Warka Vase is actually housed there. While I don't have any evidence of this, I suspect it hasn't actually been in Iraq for several years. It's possible it's with George in New York, but I have a gut feeling it's in Great Britain.) The barricade was more recently removed and replaced with iron doors, but it's still not open to the public. About every 4-6 months, some student will pop online and pointedly ask about the status of Warka Vase, and will inevitably get a "we don't know" response.

Presumably, the idea is to make the museum itself secure first, and then present the restored vase at its opening. Last week, the U.S. State Department pledged $13-14 million (I've seen reports of both) to help repair/rebuild the Baghdad museum. The reconstruction of the museum is scheduled to take two years, and there are no plans currently for reopening the museum to the public.

I've been hoping to find something out and present it to you here, but it looks like no one will know much of anything about the fate of one of the world's oldest surviving(?) comics until at least 2010.
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