Many of us who have never been to Iraq think we already know the country -- or at least everything we need to know -- from the daily photojournalism of various news orgs and from such documentaries as Gunner Palace. But there are other ways to graphically cover a war, and other ways to get to know a people. In the buildup to the Iraq conflict in 2003, New York artist Steve Mumford wanted to be there so badly he glommed press credentials from the online magazine Artnet (Artnet.com), sneaked across the Iraqi border from Kuwait in an SUV with two French reporters, and got himself embedded with a US Army unit from the 3rd Infantry Division, part of the force that took Baghdad. Sketchbook and pen in hand, he rode in a Bradley alongside the soldiers through places like Tikrit, Samarra, and Baqubah -- posting his watercolors, drawings, and 75,000-word commentary online through the end of 2004. Now Mumford's war coverage is collected in a thoughtful and rewarding new art book, Baghdad Journal: An Artist in Occupied Iraq (Drawn & Quarterly, $34.95), in which we learn that the artist was often greeted with gentle curiosity by Iraqis when he began to simply sit and draw, rather than point-and-shoot, what he observed. Scenes of wartime street life, firebase action, and a visit by the Miller Lite Catfight Girls run through the book, as well as studies of a boy at a kebab stand or a Shiite protest march. Says Mumford: "I didn't see a lot of combat. I didn't see many bodies. ... But I believe I captured some of the reality of Iraq for many soldiers who were there when I was and for the Iraqis I got to know."
Mumford appears in person next Tuesday (7:30 p.m.) at Cody's Books, 2454 Telegraph Ave., Berkeley. You can also catch him the next day at Cody's new San Francisco store. CodysBooks.com
BAGHDAD JOURNAL in East Bay Express