Perhaps it’s my status as an older millennial. Or that I knew way too many starving artist types (go journalism degree!). Either way, a slew of college friends opted out of corporate America to travel the world. Some taught English in Japan, while others wandered the hills of Peru. They sought adventure, romance, inspiration, or just an excuse to defer student loans.
Either way, it’s a tale I’ve heard a few dozen times before. But not with nearly as much heart, wit, and depth as Nicolas Wild. In Kabul Disco (out now via softcover trade), the French writer/artist details his own international excursion, mixing memoir, travelogue, and comedy. In 160 pages, Wild offers a truly unique perspective on an entire generation’s desire to simply get lost.
The year is 2005, and with nary a career opportunity in his home country, Wild accepts a job in Afghanistan (penning recruiting campaigns and kid-friendly comics). For those with a tenuous grasp on recent history, that’s a less than ideal time for an already troubled region. And it’s that very sense of impending doom that serves as a quasi-main character throughout much of the book.
In every step and extended conversation, Wild comes face to face with the likelihood of death and destruction (his and otherwise). Yet that heavy emotional air only works to fuel a certain tinge of giddiness. A joy not entirely reminiscent of life in just about every Fellini film. By embracing a truly tragic crux – life in a warzone, effectively – Wild is free to explore the heart that comes from a shared sense of uncertainty and fear for an utterly grim future.
Perhaps the most effective way these issues are explored is via the artwork. It’d be enough to say that Wild’s black and white pens are simply whimsy. That there’s a certain indie Tintin vibe radiating a sense of cautious warmth. A dash of child-like familiarity that somehow makes tense or foreign scenes feel more comforting without ever affecting the emotional content or message. Each page feels very much like a quaint cartoon ripped from someone’s journals, and that’s as intrusive as it is deeply compelling.
Yet it goes deeper still, and Wild’s worth as a creator is as much rooted in his perspective and unique worldview. He’s unafraid to show everything in his travels, from awkward conversations to moments of poignant depth to the terrifying machinations of a country at war. Everything gets a fair shake, and in that we can get glean a more nuanced understanding of the story’s rich inner nougat.
Namely, Wild’s relationship with this new world, and what that says about one’s sense of identity. Or, those shared threads of love and humor and death that bound us one and all. Even unique perspectives on war from the Afghan people. There’s a momentum that churns through this whole story, and even in the more reserved, borderline pedestrian moments, the human heart still beats strong. It’s hard to not feel that there are real stakes at play, whether it’s just one man’s own understanding of his place in the world or how we as a species use war like some folks use icebreakers.
Even in those heavier moments toward the book’s end, when the tone shifts and Wild’s life in Kabul changes abruptly, there’s still something resembling brevity. A joke or a dash of awkwardness to counter the ceaseless drudge of anxiety and clear existential despair. In this way, Wild’s time feels more open-ended, more akin to a stroll through a specific moment than a guided tour through set places and facts. You can pick up on any strand you want, be it the critique on war, the meditation on human connectivity, or how challenging it can be to adapt to new people or a place.
What matters most is that that you get moving and follow the story. It’s in those steps that you’ll find something of value you couldn’t find in your bedroom.
As far as indie-centric books go, this one isn’t immediately a must-read. That says nothing of the quality, or Wild’s ability as a beguiling artist and storyteller. There’s just several moments in this tome where I felt like I was trapped at my aunt’s house, looking at 150 photos of her trip to Fort Lauderdale. Which is to say, you’ll feel as if someone’s bragging about their mighty adventures, and that may illicit all sorts of feelings (jealousy, ineptitude, etc.)
Yet that may be the most important function of Kabul Disco: not just to show you the world, but to titillate about what exists on the ground in these locales. The joy and camaraderie and the awkwardness and the endless horror. Maybe you’ll want to run headlong into it all, or fly off in the opposite direction. Either way, you’ll never be the same person for having taken just a few easy steps forward.