Bombed by the USA?

On page 16 of Brought to Light, the new comic book he stars in, Tony Avirgan gets blown up. “I just saw a bright flash, and heard this bong bong, like a bell ringing in my ear. Then I felt my eyebrows and hair burning . . .”

Like the DC superheroes of yore, Avirgan picks himself up and goes on fighting evil. What makes this comic different is that eight people don’t pick themselves up. They die. And it really happened.

So we spoke with Tony Avirgan, who is a real person, to make sure we had the story right: The United States government tried to kill you? we asked.

“I feel that a sector of the U.S. government, this one wild sector, almost killed me and did kill some of my friends,” he said. “And I think it is perfectly capable of doing it again if we don’t stop them.”

The bomb went off the night of May 30, 1984, at La Penca, a rebel camp just inside Nicaragua’s border with Costa Rica. The press had gathered there to hear from rebel leader Eden Pastora, the famous Comandante Zero of the Nicaraguan revolution, who’d come under pressure to subordinate his army to the main body of contras, the Nicaraguan Democratic Forces, or FDN. To Pastora, the FDN was a hive of drug runners and former Somoza butchers.

The assumption after the blast was that the Sandinistas had tried to assassinate Pastora, their old ally. Avirgan wasn’t so sure; and he and his wife Martha Honey–both free-lance journalists based in Costa Rica–spent the next year trying to figure out what actually happened. Here’s the story they came up with: The bomb was planted by a terrorist posing as a Danish photographer. He’d been sent on the mission by a rich American rancher who lived in Costa Rica and maintained close ties with the CIA. The rancher wanted Pastora dead because Pastora was screwing up the contras’ program.

Confused? So read the comic, Brought to Light. It tells Tony Avirgan’s story a lot more clearly than we can.

We asked Avirgan what he thinks about being turned into a comic book. (A better term would be “graphic docudrama,” which is what the book calls itself It’s square-bound and 80 pages long. And it costs $8.95.)

“Of course, when I was a kid. we had Superman and Batman comics,” Avirgan said. “But I have been out of the United States in third world countries the last 17 years, so I’d completely missed the phenomenon of comics making a transition to an intellectual stage, an adult stage.

“When I first heard about this project I was–I guess you could say uninterested. I was not against it but not terribly enthusiastic either. I now humbly admit I was wrong. I’ve been amazed since the book came out at how widely these things are read. Adult journalists, people who work for Congress have all contacted me. It’s obviously not a kids’ thing anymore.”

At least not a kids-only thing. In 1985, a Philadelphia organization, the Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors (CCCO), found itself with a problem. How do you snatch innocent teens from the jaws of the war machine when nobody pays any attention to your leaflets? So CCCO’s Lou Ann Merkle trekked to Cleveland to sound out underground cartoonist Harvey Pekar. What if we tried a comic book? said Merkle. Some little black-and-white thing?

Pekar’s wife, Joyce Brabner, thought better. “I could tell Lou Ann had a good idea but she was going about it wrong,” Brabner now tells us. “She needed a color book. And instead of volunteer artists she should go after the best talent in the business.” Besides being an activist, Brabner is a relentless promoter. She turned Merkle’s little idea into Real War Stories, a slick comic printed and distributed by Eclipse Books of California.

Meanwhile, in Washington, D.C., the Christic Institute had its own sensational story to tell: 30 years of what its own underread publicity calls “a lawless ‘secret government’ fighting covert wars worldwide.” In 1986, Christic took on the whole bunch, filing suit in Miami against such notables as John Hull–the CIA-connected American rancher in Avirgan’s story–and Iran-contra celebs Richard Secord and John Singlaub, and the head of the FDN, Adolfo Calero–29 defendants in all, all accused by Christic of . . . racketeering! Christic asked for $29 million in damages.

The racketeering charge was a stroke of genius. Christic, which describes itself as “a nonprofit interfaith center for law and national policy in the public interest,” decided that 30 years of gunrunning, dope smuggling, and bushwhacking fit the usual definitions of organized crime. So Christic sued under the authority of RICO, the Racketeer-Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Statute passed by Congress in 1970 to help the feds bust mobsters.

But the suit required an honest businessman who’d been the victim of the racketeers. That’s why Christic recruited Tony Avirgan as lead plaintiff. Avirgan’s camera had been damaged when the bomb went off at La Penca in 1984.

Dan Sheehan, chief general counsel of the Christic Institute, admired Real War Stories and wondered if Joyce Brabner could produce something for him. Gladly. Brought to Light is actually two stories. There’s the “30 years of covert activity,” says Brabner, “which goes all over the globe, and it’s really very frightening.” Brabner wanted a “murky expressionistic style,” so she rounded up a couple of superstars, artist Bill Sienkiewicz (Stray Toasters) and author Alan Moore (Watchmen, Swamp Thing) to put it together. “Tony and Martha, their story is much more straightforward, very clear and almost modest. I wanted somebody to do Tony and Martha like a Hitchcock.” Brabner wrote their story herself, and it’s been drawn by Thomas Yeates (Swamp Thing, Captain Eo.).

Brought to Light is just now showing up in some mainline bookstores, but it’s been in the comic shops a few weeks already, and distributors say it’s moving well. We have mixed feelings about the product. Tony Avirgan’s story, “Flashpoint: The La Penca Bombing,” is coolly effective propaganda. But the big picture, Moore and Sienkiewicz’s yarn “Shadowplay: The Secret Team,” is so wildly stylized and self-indulgent it’s a travesty. It’s obvious that they set out to do art, not just shill for some lawsuit. If you don’t believe Christic’s case before you read it, you won’t when you’re done.

Last June, a day or two before the civil trial on the Christic suit was supposed to begin in Miami, the presiding judge threw it out. Christic is appealing. Last September, Warner Books, which was going to publish Brought to Light with Eclipse, backed out, making Eclipse eat a lot of extra expenses and delaying the book’s release by months (past the presidential election, everyone involved with the book points out). A few days ago, the Miami judge ruled that the Christic suit was sheer frivolity, so he ordered the plaintiffs, Avirgan and Honey included, to pay the defendants’ $1.1 million in costs and fees.

“That’s four times greater than the largest award ever under the laws that he used,” said Avirgan. “He’s a Judge so he can do it.”

Christic is appealing that, too.

Adversity has been bumping Christic at every turn. Whopping debts are piling up. That’s one reason why when Avirgan visited Chicago a few days ago to speak to the Benton Fellows at the University of Chicago, Joyce Brabner also flew in from Cleveland to squeeze every drop of publicity out of the visit she could manage.

In January, on the other hand, the national police of Costa Rica arrested John Hull and charged him with smuggling drugs and weapons. The New York Times wrote that Costa Rican investigators described Hull as having been “an integral part of the secret contra supply network controlled by William J. Casey, the Director of Central Intelligence, Lieut. Col. Oliver L. North and other Reagan Administration officials.”

“I am still recovering from the shock,” Eden Pastora was quoted as saying. “He was the most powerful man in the country.”

“Better late than never,” says Tony Avirgan, who needed some good news.

Closely Watching Pogo

A month after resurrecting Pogo, Larry Doyle and Neal Sternecky wonder how they’re doing. “I don’t want everyone to love it,” says Sternecky, the artist, “but I want the people who love it to really love it.”

From other comic strip creators, they’ll settle for respect. Walt Kelly’s original Pogo inspired just about everyone now in the business. And 16 years after he died, Pogo is theirs.

The visit to the Today show was momentous. Berke Breathed drew a Sunday Bloom County strip savaging the new Pogo before he’d even seen it, but Doonesbury’s Garry Trudeau has kept his silence. And Jane Pauley is his wife.

“She was a lot nicer than I had anticipated her to be,” says Sternecky, “although she had certain calculated phrasings that if you wanted to you could read the wrong way.”

They were weighing every word.

“She said something in one of the introductions,” Sternecky remembers. “‘We’ll be talking to the gentlemen who’ll be taking over the Pogo strip. Pogo without Walter Kelly? Huh!’

“As in, ‘Imagine that,'” Sternecky told us. Urggghhh.

And Doyle, Pogo’s new writer, said that during the chitchat just before they went on the air, Pauley told them her husband’s greatest fear.

“She said Garry Trudeau’s greatest fear is that he’ll die and she’ll decide to continue the strip.”

“There’s a hurdle we’ve got to get over,” says Sternecky. “You have to accept the idea Pogo’s coming back. We accepted that when we decided to do it. Apparently Breathed refused to accept it, and I imagine Trudeau does too. I can assume we’re being watched by pretty much everyone in the community.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dana Attanasio.