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Operation AJAX: Teaching History Through Technology

"CIA: Operation AJAX" is a groundbreaking interactive graphic novel that tells the story of Operation AJAX, the 1953-coordinated CIA coup against Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh.

Operation Ajax Official Trailer Operation Ajax Story Promo
Click the icon to watch the official trailer  Click the icon to watch the story promo

Washington, DC - Many Iranians are familiar with the story of Operation AJAX, the 1953-coordinated CIA coup against Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh. Unfortunately, not all Americans are aware of how this intricate tale affected history and helped shape the modern-day relationship between Iran and the U.S.

To bridge this information gap in an exciting way, Mike de Seve (author of Operation Ajax) and Daniel Burwen (creator) have developed a groundbreaking interactive graphic novel called “CIA: Operation AJAX” that is available as an app on the iPad. The company, Cognito Comics, has pioneered a multi-dimensional platform that includes former classified documents, newsreels, pictures from the coup, and artistic representations of the coup.

NIAC spoke with Mike and Daniel to learn more about the process and inspiration behind the project:

Stephen Kinzer's book “Overthrow” was one of the main inspirations behind the project. What originally attracted you to this story, and what lead you to want to create this revolutionary comic?

Daniel: When the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2002, I was left asking a lot of questions.  The rationale for war given by mainstream American media didn't feel right, like I wasn't being told the whole story.  Discovering “Overthrow” by Stephen Kinzer was eye-opening for me, as I felt like I had finally discovered some of the missing pieces.  Out of all the stories in “Overthrow,” the story of Operation Ajax resonated with me the most.

Mike: Kinzer's book is astounding in both its content and simplicity.  I'm talking about his overview book, “Overthrow,” in which he describes in brief each government overthrow the United States has engineered against other nations in the last hundred years or so.  I think there were about 12 or 14 in all, which as a fact alone is pretty startling. When it came to Operation Ajax, learning of that coup was a real mind-bender for me, because it made me rethink every thing I remember being told about Iran in 1979, when I was a kid, which was basically that they had just irrationally kidnapped Americans and Iranians were dangerous and hated our democracy. I never knew there was such a critical backstory to those student actions – namely that our government had attacked Iran's former democracy so violently and so secretly, and was so critical in securing the Shah's power as dictator – and that now our President Carter was giving refuge to that same Shah again.

Were you at all nervous about embarking on such a politically charged project?

Daniel: Absolutely.  Despite my interest in the subject matter, I knew I would need to enlist an expert to guide the creative handling of such sensitive material.  I was very lucky to have Stephen Kinzer join our team as editor from the outset, and he really helped guide us throughout the project, helping Mike and I vet every decision to find a balance between telling an engaging story while still keeping things historically accurate.

Mike: It makes me much more nervous that almost no Americans know anything of this coup, and don't have the faintest idea how we became such enemies with Iran.  That kind of mass ignorance can only lead to gross misunderstanding and the ability for mass opinion to be manipulated by not so nice forces.  So writing this story helped me feel that maybe I was helping a little to undo that danger.

How did you decide to tackle the project in terms of writing, production, technical support and developing software. How long did the process take and what was the most difficult part?

Daniel: CIA: Operation Ajax was originally planned as a 40 to 60 page print graphic novel. When Mike and I started the project, neither of us knew what we were getting ourselves into, given that our backgrounds were in animation and games, respectively.  The hardest part of the process was learning how to create a great comic book, and the learning curve was quite steep. Once we started getting into the script, it became obvious that 60 pages weren’t going to cut it. One of the key problems in the storytelling centered around the narration.  Mike found us an angle with the unnamed American CIA agent, and once we figured that out, things went a lot smoother.  It took about 2 years before we had a workable draft, and then we brought Jason McNamara onboard to adapt the script to comics format.

Art production was another challenge, as most comic artists work with traditional pen and paper and we needed layered digital pages so we could animate them.  We found that a team-based illustration approach, while not ideal in some ways, was ultimately a better fit for our needs.

Tall Chair, our software provider, spent a year trying different things before finally figuring out a tool that could handle our animation and interactivity needs on the iPad.  They have been a steady partner for us, constantly improving the tool and workflow as our process evolved.

How familiar were you with Iranian political history before starting the creative process, and have you since developed a passion for it?

Mike: Even though I come from a politically liberal family and am not apt to believe everything the national news tells me, and even though we were raised with a great deal of tolerance for other cultures and points of view on word events, we were (and still are as a country) nevertheless still kept almost entirely in the dark about Iranian-American history.  It's just amazing how the info is not given any traction in our media or educational system, except in some small corners of progressive academia.  So yeah, it was eye-opener after eye-opener for me to learn about this stuff.

Have your opinions or sympathies changed in regards to the Iranian people?

Daniel: I think working on CIA: Operation Ajax just reinforced what I suspected was already true, that things aren't so black and white.  The challenge for me now is learning more about recent events between Iran and the US, so I can have a more informed dialogue with people about the current situation.

Mike: Not really.  I guess I tend to assume the people of any country are by and large good, and not that different anywhere you go – it's the powers at the top that start to have the questionable motives.

What sort of feedback have you had from the Iranian and the wider communities?

Daniel: From Westerners, the reaction has been overwhelmingly positive

Mike: The few Royalists that acknowledge us at all do so with great venom and eloquence.  I have a close friend in that camp, actually. But those kinds of reactions are rare.  The vast majority of Iranians we've encountered are amazingly supportive.

Has the success of Operation Ajax come as a surprise, or were you aware that you had something quite special on your hands?

Mike: I feel this is a really incredible story, and has the power of really changing people's perspective on one of the most critical areas of world power.  Talk about potent.  That's what makes me really feel like, yeah, our work is a success.  That said, the audience has nowhere to go but bigger.  This story is not going to ever get old, and will long be critical to world peace. So I hope we have many, many years of people discovering it, through our telling or someone else’s. That would be real success for me.

Why do you think that Operation Ajax has elicited the type of reaction that it has?

Daniel: I think there is a lot of room still left for accessing the power of the iPad as a storytelling device.  We broke a lot of new ground, and are getting attention for that.  The fact that we painstakingly crafted a graphic narrative of a critical historical event in vivid detail is also worthy of attention, so when you do both, it’s bound to make an impact.

The portrayal of the Iranian people in the media can often be skewed or unbalanced. Film and alternative media have played a role in exposing a more humanistic and relatable image of Iranians, i.e. with graphic novels such as 'Persepolis' or films such as 'A Separation.' Simultaneously, productions such as 'Shah’s of Sunset' or '300' propagate a trivialized and even offensive portrayal.  Do you think the media has any sort of responsibility or scope in adjusting the representation of the Iranian people, particularly due to today’s political climate?

Daniel: I think it depends on the agenda of those creating the media.  My motivations are clear, but I can’t speak for other people.  It is my intention with Operation Ajax to inform westerners of the long and at time complicated relationship the US has with Iran, and from gaining a better understanding of this relationship, I hope we can find a path to peaceful coexistence.  I think it’s easy to forget our past, and in doing so, we are doomed to repeat it.

Mike: I think they should.  With great power of course comes great responsibility. That's not just a Spiderman slogan, that's the real world.  That said, I think the great majority of people in the media don't really take that approach when they're in the thick of it and just doing their jobs.  It becomes much more about doing what your employer thinks will be a hit.  It's hard to push back against profit, but it can be done. 

There are some very violent and critical depictions of some major political figures, have you experienced any backlash and were you worried about insulting people or causing outrage?

Daniel: Every decision we made in the narrative was intentional, and often Mike, Stephen and I would go back and forth on details.  We have done our best to be fair, honest and factual while telling compelling and engaging story.  Because of the polarizing nature of the material, I think there will always be people that take issue with some of our choices.  The only direct negative feedback we have gotten is from a few reviews on iTunes, but unfortunately that’s a one-way communication and it is my hope that these people reach out to us and engage us in a dialogue. I’m always looking to learn more about other people's views, especially on historical topics like Operation Ajax.

Operation Ajax is truly a unique comic experience. The newsreel footage was especially fascinating! Are there any upcoming projects that you're hoping to embark on and is this the end of your relationship with Iranian political history?

Daniel: Thank you! We have exciting some things in the works at Cognito. For now, we're working on bringing Operation Ajax to iPhone and Kindle Fire. We've recently announced a partnership with BoomGen Studios to develop both Operation Ajax as a feature film and other stories in this space, but we're taking a break from political subject matter for our next project.  While historical content remains my passion, I've learned you can't rush the process, and I look forward to telling more stories about the Middle East in the future.

To find out more about CIA: Operation AJAX, visit


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