Ari Folman and David Polonsky's Waltz with Bashir: A Lebanon War Story is the companion piece to the movie of the same name. The tale told is of Folman's experiences in Lebanon around the time of the terrible Sabra and Shatila refugee camp massacres. Carried out in 1982 by Christian militia members as revenge for the death of a leader, these massacres occurred under the eye of occupying Israeli forces in Beirut. Folman's story, as illuminated by Polonsky, highlights not just the tragedy of the situation but the surreal, absurd quality of war, as well as how moments of great beauty can co-exist with moments of utter horror.
As the now much older Folman struggles to remember what happened to him as a soldier in the conflict, the story switches between past and present. Mindlessly shooting out into the darkness from the top of an armored vehicle as they race to a destination brings back echoes of the opening of Conrad's Heart of Darkness. Other scenes, like that of a cut-off Israeli soldier finding his way back across enemy lines by way of the sea, have a strong symbolic pull, evocative of Tim O'Brien. Walking through a bombed out airport has the kind of pseudo-science fictional pull of the best of J.G. Ballard's disaster novel. But conversations in the present-day as Folman tries to piece together his fragmented memory contain just as much power, especially interviews with other soldiers. And, as in the movie, Folman and Polonsky include real photographic images of the massacre at the end. (Although there seems to be less of this than in the movie.)
Definite differences between the graphic novel and the movie include re-sequencing of some of the flashbacks. There's also a bit of compression in the storytelling, in that some of the resonant repetitions of moments cannot be sustained in the graphic novel. But perhaps the most striking difference, for me, is how the graphic novel cannot quite pull off the title sequence. The "waltz with Bashir" refers to an extended gun battle that ends when one soldier tries to end the stand-off by going out into the middle of the street and doing a kind of brutal, violent, evasive dance as he shoots at the buildings above him. In the movie this is perhaps the most vivid sequence, brilliantly choreographed. In the graphic novel, the kinetic quality of the scene is largely lost.
On the other hand, a reader can linger on some of the more awe-inspiring moments in Waltzing with Bashir in a way that you can't watching the movie. For a topic so terrible, it might seem strange to use the word "linger," but that sense of strange beauty I mentioned does indeed touch many parts of the story. They even serve to emphasize and underline the horrors documented, as well. Perhaps chief among these is the appearance of a giant floating woman near an Israeli troop transport. It's the kind of surrealism that explains why Folman wanted to use comics and animation to tell his story. Dreams and reality merge in comics in a way they can't in live-action.
Is it essential to own the graphic novel if you've seen the movie? Each reader may have a different answer, but for my part I cherish the book as much as the movie. Both are complex, poignant reminders of the particulars of a specific massacre. But both also document the general banalities, horrors, and strangeness of war.
For video footage and interview, visit the Amazon page for the book.