Ted Rall has never been one to soft-pedal his views. Even in the opinionated world of columnists and political cartoonists, his takes are a bit hot: He's claimed the Iraq War raised the United States' IQ because only idiots enlist, and he wrote a manifesto for nonvoters a good decade before the "Voting Is for Old People" T-shirt terrified the Tipper Gore set.
So it's no surprise that Snowden (Seven Stories, 223 pages, $16.95), Rall's graphic novel about security expert-turned-CIA whistle-blower Edward Snowden, currently exiled in Russia, is out to prove a point. But the book's structure doesn't back it up.
Rall lays it on right out of the gate. After explaining the plot of George Orwell's 1984, he claims, "We live in Oceania." Rall follows this up with a refresher course on Snowden, detailing the immediate political fallout of Snowden's revelations about the extent of U.S. surveillance programs, and exactly what they were. This is itself something of a revelation: It isn't just metadata that the National Security Agency tracks, Rall reminds us. The NSA also records the majority of phone calls in the U.S. (through a program called Mystic) and can play back any of those calls (through a program called Retro.) They can take photos of you through your computer (Gumfish) and listen to you through your phone (Captivated Audience).
Rall renders Snowden's early life and the political debate around him in an expressionistic manner, in distinctly bright and chaotic line-drawing style. To say his book is a graphic novel is somewhat misleading—there's no sequence of panels that govern time or place but, rather, a bunch of images—mostly Rall drawings, but some photos—mixed in with all-caps lettering. In this way, it reads a lot like a children's book. Or, at least, it's a children's book for parents who want their kids to grow up paranoid.
It's an ambitious undertaking, but even for a veteran cartoonist like Rall, it's a bit much. In trying to juggle Snowden's biography, every aspect of his revelations and their political ramifications, all within this "we live in 1984" framework, Rall cannot truly unpack any single one. That we live in the world of 1984 is hardly a novel assertion. As a teenager during the George W. Bush years, I am fairly confident those exact words came out of one of my beflanneled buddies' mouths—if not in line for a Lord of the Rings showing, then while trying to download the tabs to "Crazy Train."
How will the surveillance state progress? What does it mean for ideas of individuality? Rall never gets to these second-tier issues. As it stands, Snowden is a fitting and functional portrait. It is little else.
GO: Ted Rall appears at Powell's Books on Hawthorne, 3723 SE Hawthorne Blvd., 800-878-7323, powells.com, on Thursday, Oct. 1. 7:30 pm. Free.