Thursday, July 21, 2011

The Fog of War and Comic Book Writing

"Did you fight in the war?"

"How did you come up with these stories?"

"Did you work directly with the troops?"

Those are the three questions I hear most when I'm at a signing or an event promoting the benefit anthology Untold Stories from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Did I fight in the war? No, and those aware of my attempt at enlistment know it was not for lack of trying. A medical disqualification compelled me to focus on other ways to serve, among them working on this book to benefit the USO, Wounded Warrior Project, Fisher House, and Soldiers' Angels.

How did I come up with those stories? Truth be told, I didn't. Clayton Murwin, the founder of Heroes Fallen Studios, did all the hard work earning the trust of the troops and their families and playing comic book matchmaker with the various creative teams and those with stories to share. Though I tried to return the favor- getting the word out to a couple of artists and a letterer I knew that they might want to get involved- when I volunteered to help with the writing duties, Clayton put me in touch with the artists and letterers with whom I'd work... and with the troops.

As I've said before, that part meant the most to me. In order for me to do my job and faithfully adapt the two stories on which I worked, it was important that I work directly with the men who had provided their accounts and keep them involved every step of the way, from rough drafts to finished scripts, and sometimes even beyond.

Working with Kyle Hausmann-Stokes, an army staff sergeant at the time "Yea, Though We Drive Through a Tier One Hot Spot" took place, was a piece of cake. It helped a lot that he sent plenty of photographs we could use as reference. It helped me even more as a writer that, while he was over in Iraq, he sometimes posted about his experiences on a blog- which he allowed me to use as reference and even quote verbatim when appropriate. And with source material so rich in witticisms about everything from down time to the infamous "pucker factor," what writer could resist? It was also easy and delightful to convey the high regard he had for those under his command, the way they worked together, and his often biting wit. Furthermore, the events he recounted had an easy plot, conflict, and a resolution of some kind.

But not every tale from the war front makes so easy a story. Larry Hama said in the foreword that the accounts in this book are not stories "per se." To paraphrase, stories are "tidy and neatly packaged," structured and trimmed to make sense. And the more I worked with Michael "Sudsy" Sutherland on the aptly titled "When Words Fail," the more I realized how difficult it was to "neatly package" everything the former Air Force ground ordnance delivery specialist recounted while being faithful to his account.

The decision to limit my visible presence to a caption box and title and skip dialogue altogether was motivated by a number of factors. First of all, most of the communication taking place was over the radio. Since Ratelo (the procedures for military radio communications) is subject to change and always classified, my options were limited. I could try to figure out how to write the dialogue as accurately as possible, giving myself a colossal headache and possibly getting a lot of people in trouble in the process. I could fake it with a mix of jargon and phonetics that might look impressive to civilians, but hilarious to anyone who would recognize it for the nonsense it is. Or I could just leave out all of it and address the next and more important challenge.

War quite simply is not tidy, and sometimes, even with 20/20 hindsight, those who know war, having been there, can't make sense of everything it involves. Sometimes anecdotes from a war aren't simple plot-conflict-resolution stories. While the neat plot, conflict, and resolution- the fight to clear Al Qaeda from a town in Al Anbar Province- is already told in the history books, they omit the chaotic jumble of details that sear themselves into the memories of those who've actually fought there. This was all about that chaotic jumble of details that might otherwise get "trimmed." It was much more about the feelings evoked by what's seen than the narrative. What would happen if you saw all these things happening around you? You might not know what's going on and be frightened and confused. You might have an idea of what's supposed to be happening and still be frightened and confused. You might know exactly what's going on and still perceive it as utter chaos. As for me, words failed me, but the images didn't, particularly in penciller Paul Shirey's capable hands.

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