A rule often passed on to prospective writers is that they should write what they know. It’s certainly a way in, if not acknowledging that a good writer can write convincingly about what they don’t know. Tom King pnce worked as a CIA counter-terrorism agent, five months of which he spent in Baghdad after Iraq was under American control in the early 21st century. Not a lot of people know what Tom King knows, and it makes sense to create a story around what he can reveal.

The Sheriff of Babylon is defined around a five page sequence beginning with Mitch Gerad’s sample art. It details the complications of dealing with assorted people and situations to ensure something relatively simple can be done, and is followed by the most efficient method of dealing with those complications. Don’t expect comforting humane boundaries set by US occupiers in Iraq during 2004. From the start King’s exploration of the contradictory and conflicting beliefs prevalent at the time is widespread and enlightening. Anyone can understand “My youngest, her name was Nahima. She was three when the bomb fell on the house. Three is not so old at all”, and with it King contextualises the response, which isn’t as easily absorbed.

King’s story revolves around three primary characters, although their orbit is wide. Christopher Henry is King’s stand-in, a man with a conscience attempting to do the best he can. Saffiya/Sofia, Iraqi born, but raised in the USA is more comfortable with the realities of life and death, while Iraqi policeman Nassir is shown early to enact a sense of right and wrong extending beyond his working duties. Each of the three to a greater or lesser extent has an agenda, as do most of the people they encounter. At the most basic level the agenda is saying nothing, in order to minimise the chances of offending someone whose offence might result in their death.

Mitch Gerads is an amazing artist, making us believe not only in the people, but their surroundings and their conditions. He defines them indelibly, distinguishing one from another, yet when some sleight of hand is required it’s pulled off so efficiently we don’t see the promotion of a fourth major character coming. King keeps other secrets, and while apparently showing us everything about someone, there’s always more to tell, which makes The Sheriff of Babylon a compulsive read. A sense of existential despair permeates almost every page, as the conflict isn’t just American against Arab, but Shi’ite against Sunni, the past battling the present, and sometimes even American undermining American. People ruminate and fulminate, but some questions have no answers, with “why?” the biggest of them. That underlines the density, although King uses drink as the great leveller, and near the end of this opening volume comes up with a great visual metaphor for the entire situation, an ancient figurine that no-one can figure out, but everyone can interpret individually.

This is combined with the conclusion in Pow. Pow. Pow. in hardback as The Sheriff of Babylon Deluxe Edition. In any form it’s worth reading. The test is that it can be divorced of the political opinion brought to it and will still be an astonishingly well constructed and humane story.