Produced by a team of award-winning artists, and based on an award-winning interactive storytelling app (available on iTunes with trailer below), Operation Ajax, is a thrilling tale of real-life intrigue in comic book format.
Created by Daniel Burden and Mike De Seve (in partial collaboration with Stephen Kinzer), Operation Ajax
is a graphic book depicting the CIA mission that overthrew Iran’s democracy with the execution of the 1953 CIA coup that removed Mossadegh and reinstalled the monarchy.
Operation Ajax tells the story of how the epic coup d’etat dramatically altered the fate of Iran, the Middle East, and the rest of the world.
In the Afterword, Kinzer writes:
For years after Operation Ajax, statesmen in Washington and London considered it to have been a great success. They had reason to be pleased. In place of Mossadegh they had reinstalled Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, who was eager to do their bidding. From the perspective of history, however, the coup hardly seems a success. In fact, it is one of the episodes that sent the Middle East careening into its present instability.
The Shah’s increasingly repressive rule ultimately set off the explosive revolution of 1979, which brought to power a militantly anti-Western clique of mullahs. That revolution and its consequences panicked the United States and led it to form the partnership with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq that ultimately led both parties to much grief. The revolution also terrified the Soviet Union, which decided it had to stop the spread of Islamic radicalism by invading Afghanistan. Religious power in Iran inspired a host of violent militants around the Islamic world. All of this has roots in Operation Ajax.
So, it turns out, did the hostage crisis. Years afterward, hostage-takers wrote memoirs explaining why they had stormed the US embassy in 1979. It was all about 1953, they explained. In 1953 Iranians had forced the Shah to flee, but CIA officers working in the embassy staged Operation Ajax to bring him back. A quarter-century later, the same Shah had been forced to flee again, and had been received in the United States. Militants overran the embassy not out of nihilism, but to prevent a repeat of Operation Ajax. Westerners didn’t realize this because we had no idea Operation Ajax had ever happened. If the West had decided to live with Mossadegh rather than deposing him in 1953, we might have had a thriving democracy in the heart of the Muslim Middle East for the last three generations. It is difficult even to imagine how that would have changed the region’s history.
By crushing Mossadegh, the West taught rising leaders in the Middle East that championing democracy and nationalism would bring outside powers down upon them, while collaborating with Western oil companies would bring rich bounty. That lesson has gravely deformed the region.
Given the shattering importance of Operation Ajax, why do Westerners know so little about it? Part of the reason is that nations, like individuals, prefer to recall aspects of their past that evoke good feelings. We are endlessly proud of the times we liberated the oppressed. Episodes when we have crashed into a democratic country and consigned it to dictatorship are less comforting. Rather than confront those misjudgments and try to learn from them, we consign them to footnotes or forget them entirely. This book is a blow against that historical amnesia. -Stephen Kinzer
Read our Q & A with Daniel Burwen, the founder and Creative Director of Cognito Comics, below:
Persianesque Magazine: What inspired you to make this book?
Daniel Burwen: When the US went to war with Iraq in 2003, I had a lot of doubt about the rhetoric of the US as a victim. It would be 2007 before I discovered overthrow by Stephen Kinzer, which cast light on the many questionable things the US has done to sovereign nations over the years in our own interest. The stories told in overthrow inspired me to use my background in video game development to make an interactive story experience that captivated an audience the way the games did, but telling something of cultural and historical relevance.
PM: What made you deicide to do it in comic book format?
DB: As well as being out of budget, console games didn’t strike me as the appropriate medium for the story. I thought a graphic novel would be a better format for telling a story that would also be within my means.
PM: Have you been to Iran? If so, when, and where did you visit?
DB: I have not, always wanted to go.
PM: What sparked your interest in Iran? And the coup in particular?
DB: Of all the stories outlined in Overthrow, the story of the 53 coup stood out as most memorable. I was worried that the US would go to war with Iran next, and I wanted this key piece of history to be part of the story, so that Americans had more context into the complex relationship we have with Iran today. Perhaps considering this before deciding to go to war with another country in the Middle East.
PM: Why do you think that this book is a good and relevant read for the time being, considering the #IranDeal?
DB: Because the story of Ajax is always relevant. The impact of the 53 coup is still very much felt today, and arguably the cornerstone event that set the course for the Iran of today. Ajax is our legacy in the Middle East, and that has implications for any involvement the US has now and in the future with foreign governments.
PM: Will you be making it into an animated series/version?
DB: We wanted to, and tried to do so. The plan didn’t quite work out in our favor, but I hope the project moves forward in another format some day to reach a wider audience than an iPad app can reach.
PM: Had Mossadegh succeeded, what do you think Iran would have looked like today?
DB: Modern, democratic, and peaceful.
PM: Who do you think should buy/read this book?
DB: Americans especially, but really anyone with a curiosity about the history of the US and Iran [relations].
PM: How did you go about editing the character’s looks/features?
DB: We needed to make sure the characters had strong likenesses but also were identifiable and easily drawn by different illustrators. Mike did a great job shepherding that effort forward, and I’m sure can add more about that.
PM: What has the general feedback been on your book from consumers?
DB: The itunes reviews are incredible to read, a lot of “this is the best comic book I’ve ever read” or “I learned so much, can’t believe this is a true story” or “I love the animation, great techniques for making a comic interactive.” Across the board its 99 percent positive, and on rare occasions we get someone upset about how we depicted the Shah.