Guerillas is a nine part series published by Image Comics. It is written and drawn by Brahm Revel, and is quite possibly the most original war comic to be published in years.
Nicholas Yanes: For those unfortunate enough to not have heard about Guerillas, can you provide a quick summary?
Brahm Revel: GUERILLAS takes place during the Vietnam Conflict and follows a new recruit who accidentally falls in with a platoon of experimentally trained chimpanzee soldiers. The story centers on the relationships and bonds that form within a platoon during the hardships of war despite race, creed, or in this case, species.
That being said, it’s also a kick-ass action comic about chimpanzees trained for military applications. There will be simian acrobatics and M16′s will be shot with chimp feet!
Yanes: The dialogue of this book feels incredibly authentic. Do you have real life military experience?
Revel: No, I’ve never had any military training or experience. Not even ROTC. But like most people, I’ve seen the many movies that paint an authentic picture of the Vietnam experience. It was from these movies that I really arrived at the tone and cadence of the book. It’s hard to tell how accurate these films are, as they are made to entertain, but it at least falls in line with the public’s perceived notions of Vietnam.
I like to think of comics as a cooperative art form, where the reader adds their own knowledge to the story by filling in the gaps left by the Cartoonist. This allows certain generic characters or occurrences to become specific based on the reader’s personal experiences.
That’s not to say that I didn’t do a lot a research as well. I read many true to life accounts of soldiers and studied the slang and military nomenclature of the times. But the tone and inter-platoon politics came mostly from my research and my own imagination, not from personal experience. And while I want to be as accurate as possible to honor the people who actually fought and died in Vietnam, it’s also a fantastical story about chimpanzee soldiers, and certain liberties are going to be taken.
Yanes: What are some of the books, movies, or comic books that influenced the creation of Guerillas?
Revel: Unfortunately I don’t have a lot of my books on hand, but the personal accounts I read were by Tim O’Brien, John Del Vecchio and Phillip Caputo. They were all essential in getting into the mindset of the new recruit.
I also watched all of the essential Vietnam movies like Platoon, Apocalypse Now, and Hamburger Hill. I bought photo books to use as reference and history books to decipher the confusing conflict. I also got many books on chimps for both visual reference and for behavioral traits. I thought it was very important for the chimps to act like real chimps and for there to be a tension between their own instincts and the behaviors they learned from the military.
As far as comics go, I bought the complete series of The ‘Nam on ebay. The first twenty or so were excellent and very inspiring, but the quality of the art in the series began to wane and I lost interest.
I should also add, that in general, the work of Mike Mignola, Katsuhiro Otomo, and Jamie Hernandez are huge influences in my storytelling, visual iconography, and over sense of style.
Yanes: When I got to the end of the first issue I immediately thought of Ilya Ivanovich Ivanov – the Russian biologists ordered by Stalin to make ape/human hybrids. Did this at all influence you?
Revel: I’ve never heard of Mr. Ivanov, but I must admit, you’ve really peaked my interest. I may have to squeeze some allusion to him into one of the future issues.
My research did bring me to the many men’s magazines and pulps of the 50′s and 60′s. They had many exaggerated articles about “Hitler’s Baboons of the SS,” and “1000 Brides for Hitler’s Gorilla of Horror.” These Pulps will make a few small appearances in the future issues of GUERILLAS. As will allusions to Nazi Scientists and the weird folklore of the region.
Yanes: In the first issue you have a great line that borders the profound:
Clayton’s (the main character) father says, “I went to war a boy, and came home a man.” Clayton reflects on this comment by saying, “The reality is that my father stopped being a child long before that he grew up during the Depression. He had to learn early on what it took to survive. By the time the second World War came around he had aged well beyond his years. For him the war was a way out…salvation.”
How did you come up with a line that so incredibly puts the Greatest Generation in a new light?
Revel: Well, thank you for your kind words, but I don’t really think I’ve shed any new light on the subject.
It’s worth noting now, since we are in such a serious recession, that the people who lived through the Great Depression had it a lot worse than us. Things were so bad that people would literally starve because they couldn’t find work. And if you were a child during those times you were forced to grow up quick. There was no extra money for toys or children’s things. On the contrary, the children were expected to pitch in anyway they could. When America went to war the military was the easiest place for the many unemployed men to get hot meals and earn a paycheck. Plus, they were able to fight for their country in a war that wasn’t marred by weird political grey areas. We were fighting a megalomaniac who wanted to take over the world. It was simple good vs. evil.
The Second World War also created what is now known as the Military Industrial Complex. Back in the States thousands of jobs were created to build the bombs and vehicles that America needed to fight the war.
When the war was over the economy stabilized and created the consumer culture of the fifties… which is where Clayton grew up. In the safe manufactured confines of the suburbs.
Unfortunately the Military Industrial Complex has yet to stop building weapons of mass destruction, and the only way for the continual creation of arms to make sense is if we are continually at war…
Yanes: Every time a war comic, movie or book comes out, people automatically see it as an allegory for the war that the US is involved in at that moment. Does this assumption apply to Guerillas?
Revel: GUERILLAS take place during the Vietnam Conflict, but the overall story is more about the characters than the war and its implications on history.
That being said I don’t think there is any other war that this story could have taken place in. I like to think of GUERILLAS as more of an Apocalypse Now kind of story than a Platoon type of story… It’s a story that takes place in Vietnam rather than a story about Vietnam. As I said earlier, I don’t have the history or experience to make one of those true to life comics.
It is true that stories about war do seem to have a universal connection to one another and Vietnam and Iraq are very similar in many ways. But ultimately I’ll leave that question to the critics. I’m going to make the story that I’m going to make and if parallels are going to be made, then that’s all right with me…
Yanes: As someone working on their Ph.D. I have realized that most academics believe that the vast majority of comic book creators have a college background. Is this true? If so or if not, how do you think it affected the narrative and your storytelling style?
Revel: I personally, have a BFA from the Cooper Union in New York City, but I’m really just starting out in this industry, and I haven’t met a lot of other professionals, so it’s hard for me to say what the norm is.
The art department at Cooper was segregated into Fine Art (meaning an eventual push to get in galleries) or Design, and Comics kind of float in a world in between the two. So I toughed it out in the Fine Arts department and just continued to make comics or comic related work, even if there was pressure to do otherwise. It’s a pretty typical story from what I’ve heard. The comic book aficionado tries to get their professors to see the artistic merit in their medium.
There were times that I thought it might have been better to go to a program geared specifically to comics, like SVA or the Kubert school, but what I got at Cooper was a keen critical eye and a true understanding of how to read and create art, no matter what the medium. So what I may have missed in technique I think I’ve made up for in content. And that goes for writing as much as drawing.
Yanes: Given your experience with Image Comics, would you encourage other comic book creators to try to get published by an established company or to apply for the Xeric grant?
Revel: I never actually applied for the Xeric Grant, so I can’t speak from personal experience, but I do think that the Xeric Grant is better for someone who is making a graphic novel or a one shot rather than a series. I think it would be very hard to self publish an on going series (a la Cerebus, or Stray Bullets) as an unknown with a grant worth a few thousand dollars. That’s not to say it can’t be done, but I’m glad that I went with Image.
From a practical point of view, it’s very nice to have Image deal with the distributor and the printer so you can just worry about making comics. But in terms of marketing, it’s very beneficial to have a well-known company attached to your book. So many people will give your comic a shot just because of that Image “I” on the cover. That is so important, because even if you have the best product in the world, if no one knows about it, it doesn’t exist.
The other benefit of Image is that you maintain all of your creator’s rights, which unfortunately is an anomaly in the world of comics. The downside is that Image doesn’t have as much stake in your comic and they might not push it as much as a company who shares ownership in the product.
But I’ve enjoyed my experience with Image and I would definitely consider printing future projects with them.
Yanes: Given the state of the economy and that many comic book fans are cutting back, do you regret the $5.99 price tag? Additionally, could you explain how the price was chosen?
Revel: I’m actually very glad you asked this question, because I was concerned about the price from the very beginning. I originally wanted to charge $3.99, only a dollar more than your average comic for more than twice the pages. I even put that price on the cover that went out in the Previews catalogue.
But when the orders came in, Image, for the first time, mentioned that it would make more sense for a comic that big to be a couple bucks more. At $3.99 an issue I would have had to shell out $2500 for the printing that wasn’t covered by sales (about 3200 orders).
I weighed the options. Maybe more people would give it a try if it was cheaper, but I could have to pay even more if sales dropped. Ultimately I figured that it was twice the comic for twice the price, and that hopefully people would pay a little bit more to support the independent product. Also, I was always planning to print them bi-monthly and I figured that the price average $2.99 a month and was essentially the same as two months of a regular comic.
As the economy has continued to fall, my sales have dropped and I’ve still yet to see any kind of real money off the comic, so it’s not about greed it’s more about trying to break even. As it stands now the comic is likely to go quarterly after the 4th issue because I have to take breaks from working on GUERILLAS to actually make rent. But it’s a labor of love and my intention is to get to the ninth issue by any means necessary. So if you are a fan, bear with me and be patient for each new issue… and tell all your friends to go out and get one too!
Yanes: Where do you see yourself and Guerillas a few years from now? Can you picture yourself working on a mainstream superhero title? Do you see Guerillas becoming an animated movie or miniseries?
Revel: In an ideal world I would continue to make a different comic every year or two. Each story would stand alone as it’s own piece of work and they would come out as individual comics first and then get collected as graphic novels later.
As far as GUERILLAS goes, I would love to see it expand in to other mediums. I actually already have an agent shopping the idea around Hollywood, but so far no one’s taken the bait. Keep your fingers crossed though, a GUERILLAS movie would be pretty cool!
As far as mainstream comics go, I would love to do a one shot or a short series for nostalgias sake, but I wouldn’t want to get into the monthly grind on a work for hire book. I have a bunch of ideas of my own that I still want to get to, and if I can find an audience that enjoys what I’m doing I’d love to keep producing original work for as long as I can.
- Nicholas Yanes is a comic book expert who has written two theses focused on graphic literature: “X-Men as a Reflection of Civil Rights in America” and “Graphic Imagery – Jewish American Comic Book Creators’ Depictions of Class, Race, and Patriotism.” Additionally, he was privileged enough to create and teach “American Comic Book History”; a junior level course in the American Studies Program at Florida State University. His first publication is the essay, “The Super Patriot: World War II Warriors and the Birth of Captain America,” and will be published in Captain America and the Struggle of the Superhero: Critical Essays
By Nicholas Yanes