Exhibit / April 28, 2020
Object Name: Brought To Light: Shadowplay—The Secret Team and Flashpoint—the La Penca Bombing
Publisher and Year: Eclipse Books, 1989
Object Type: Graphic novel
Image Source: Archive.org (Shadowplay—The Secret Team and Flashpoint—The La Penca Bombing)
Description (Michael Grasso):
In 1989, at the very end of the Cold War, a group of four prominent mainstream and alternative comic book writers and artists created a double volume graphic novel exposing the rampant injustices, assassinations, and terrorism facilitated by the CIA and its creatures worldwide, ostensibly to fight global communism in the years following World War II. This pair of books, sold under the shared title Brought To Light, came courtesy of one of the only justice movements since the Church Committee to successfully take on the American deep state and confront the CIA’s historical criminal behavior.
Founded in 1979 as an outgrowth of its founders’ work to achieve justice for presumed-murdered nuclear worker and union activist Karen Silkwood, the Christic Institute took as its inspiration the Christian mystic/philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and his concept of a “christic” cosmic energy that he penned a mere month before his death. Danny Sheehan (a lawyer who had been involved in the Pentagon Papers case), Sara Nelson (a former television journalist and labor secretary for the National Organization for Women), and the Reverend William J. Davis (a Jesuit priest who would go on to spend most of the early 1980s in Latin America observing the crimes of reactionary regimes from Pinochet’s in Chile to the Contras in Nicaragua) founded the Christic Institute to provide legal and investigative aid to resist right-wing terrorism and corporate malfeasance across the globe. In the early 1980s, Christic would go on to bring a lawsuit against the Nazi and Ku Klux Klan terrorists in Greensboro, North Carolina who murdered four left-wing protestors in November 1979, including as defendants in the lawsuit federal law enforcement officials and the many Nazi collaborators within local law enforcement who allowed (and even encouraged) the Klan violence to take place.
As the Reagan years unfolded and a resurgent CIA found its footing again interfering on the global stage (especially in Central America), Christic found itself at the center of the case that would paradoxically lead to both its greatest publicity and the Institute’s eventual downfall and dissolution. In 1984, at the height of the Nicaraguan civil war between the revolutionary Sandinista government and the Reagan CIA-backed right-wing Contra rebels, a hastily-arranged press conference was put together to allow a disillusioned Contra official named Edén Pastora to speak to the press. For months, CIA officials had allegedly been tracking Pastora, a former Sandinista who had gone over to the Contras and now found himself at odds with the Contras’ alliances with foreign forces in the form of both the CIA and drug traffickers from South America. A purported “photojournalist” named Per Anker Hansen (believed by some to be CIA-allied Libyan agent Amac Galil) attended the Pastora press conference at a remote guerilla camp at La Penca on the border with Costa Rica, suspiciously guarding a package with “photographic equipment” that was actually full of C-4 explosives. Hansen/Galil left the building and allegedly detonated the package remotely. Three journalists and four guerillas died in the resulting explosion, and 21 were injured.
In the months following the bombing, American journalist Tony Avirgan (who was injured in the La Penca bombing) and his wife Martha Honey engaged in their own investigation, finding the CIA’s fingerprints all over this assassination attempt on Pastora (who survived the bombing with injuries and ended up eventually reconciling with Daniel Ortega’s Sandinistas). In 1986, as the Iran-Contra affair was in full swing, the Christic Institute filed a RICO suit in federal court against Oliver North and several other members of “the secret team” responsible for dirty tricks, weapons smuggling, and targeted assassinations in Central America throughout the 1980s. Christic ended up losing the case, its 501(c)(3) status, and its very existence thanks to “frivolous lawsuit” penalties levied by a Nixon-appointed judge whom Sheehan would find was associated with both Meyer Lansky’s Miami National Bank, a center for CIA-Mafia funding throughout the ’60s and ’70s, and the CIA itself as a “CIA [trained] attorney.”
While the La Penca bombing case was in full swing, the Christic Institute collaborated with indie comics scribe and political activist Joyce Brabner—who had attended one of Sheehan’s lectures and been inspired by his work—on a comic book retelling of the La Penca/Pastora case. Avirgan and Honey dictated the details of their investigation to Brabner, and she and comic artist Thomas Yeates put together an illustrated version of the La Penca bombing. It was published on indie comic imprint Eclipse (home of the Iran-Contra trading card set) and paired with a second comic detailing the CIA’s overall Cold War activities by writer Alan Moore and artist Bill Sienkiewicz. Yeates’s art style evokes war and adventure comics of an earlier era, much along the same lines as his future work on venerable newspaper serials like Prince Valiant, Zorro, and Tarzan, to simultaneously effectively convey and subvert the web of CIA intrigue that converged in that camp on the Costa Rica border.
Moore and Sienkiewicz’s Shadowplay—The Secret Team offers a broader history of the CIA’s interference and a much more hallucinatory visual and narrative experience. The comic centers on an avatar of the CIA and American imperialism in the form of a maniacal, drunken bald eagle who “represent[s] the Company,” the common sobriquet for the CIA, and who explains American intelligence interference abroad in terms of the brutality and murder necessary to protect American (business) interests. “I like to think I’m sellin’ folks a dream,” the eagle says, before accepting the fact that he’s responsible for “swimming pools full of blood” to keep that American dream—the international machinery of commerce—moving. Moore explores early Cold War CIA interference in elections from Italy to Iran to Guatemala before delving deeply into the Mafia- and corporate-aided CIA programs of assassination, illegal invasions, narcotics trafficking, and mass murder from Cuba to Southeast Asia to the Middle East, ending with an explanation on how the heirs to these earlier Cold Warriors were behind the Reagan era’s affairs in Central America and Iran.
Where Brabner and Yeates rely on the specific chilling details of the events leading up to the La Penca bombing op to illustrate the danger of the CIA’s activities, Moore and Sienkiewicz’s work evokes larger, more mythic themes, conveying the danger of the “American way of life” for much of the rest of the world. They subvert all-American symbols like the Statue of Liberty (crowned in rifles and carrying a giant dollar sign in the place of her tablet), baseball (CIA “trading cards” featuring Mafia don Santo Trafficante and Cuban exiles), and Pepsi (implicated in the manufacture and refinement of CIA heroin in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War). Sienkiewicz, by 1989 an established comic artist whose avant-garde, impressionistic style had given new life to Marvel titles like The New Mutants, and who had worked well within the political and mystical intrigues of limited series like Frank Miller’s Elektra: Assassin (1986-1987), here channels not only his own dazzling impressionistic style but the freaked-out hallucinatory caricatures of Hunter S. Thompson illustrator Ralph Steadman. Alan Moore’s own political stances on American imperialism and fascism had, of course, found full expression in his own pair of 1980s opuses, Watchmen (1986-1987) and V For Vendetta (1982-1989).
The two Brought to Light volumes stand as a final testament to both the Christic Institute’s vital work and as a signpost for the end of the Cold War, a time when nearly all the secrets of the CIA’s outrageous Cold War activities had become well-known—not thanks to America’s mainstream newspapers and television media, but because of independent, politically-engaged voices working diligently in underground media to strip the veils away from the rot and endemic corruption at the center of the nation’s politics.