Brooks’s and artist Canaan White's graphic novel The Harlem Hellfighters documents the suffering and courage of African-American troops in the Army’s legendary 369th Infantry Regiment of Harlem, N.Y.—from the vicious, degrading treatment they received in training to the horrors they faced in the trenches of WWI.
Max Brooks is best known as the author of the bestselling Zombie Survival Guide and the graphic novel, Zombie Survival Guide: Recorded Attacks.
You’ve done comics before, but why do this project as a graphic novel?
What I love about comics is that they’re a great way to tell a visual story without having to worry about the economics of Hollywood.
How did this graphic novel come together?
Random House asked if I had another project I wanted to do, and I said I’d love to turn this script I have into a graphic novel. Initially this was a movie script that I started in the late ’90s at the time TNT had done The Tuskegee Airmen, the original Tuskegee airmen film with Cuba Gooding and Malcolm-Jamal Warner. So I wrote a script, took a couple years, did the research, and brought it in. TNT said no. Everybody else said no. I was about to shove it in a drawer. I had one last meeting that changed everything for me—with Lavar Burton. He said, don’t give up on this. He said there’s a lot of Harlem Hellfighter scripts making the rounds in Hollywood now, but yours comes closest to the truth. That was the best compliment I could have ever gotten.
You’ve done a lot of work in the horror genre and there are scenes of WWI combat in Harlem Hellfighters that perhaps are best depicted using comics.
I think this is the scariest thing I’ve ever written. That’s why I’d rather go up against Zombies than fight in the trenches of World War I. Everything in the book is all real. I didn’t make anything up. I wanted to be able to defend the graphic violence, and it’s not gratuitous. The scene of the flesh being blown off the bones is from a book I read [on the period]. That’s what happens when a shell lands. The rats, the mustard gas, the picking of lice, that’s all real, it didn’t come from me.
It’s hard to believe this story hasn’t already been made into a movie.
When men and women go off to war, one of the things that keeps them sane is knowing that they’ve got their whole country behind them. So to have to risk their lives in the trenches, not only knowing that the country doesn’t have their backs but that it is actively trying to sabotage them... When you add all the pieces up, it’s scary mosaic. It’s why I wanted to write this. Look at their combat record: 191 days in combat, longer than any other American unit; first American unit to reach the Rhine; never lost a trench; never lost a man to capture; whole unit wins the Croix de guerre. If this had been a white unit, there would have been a movie made about them in the 1940s.
A great point in the narrative: Black troops in the 369th could see clearly that every racist-driven obstacle imaginable, both from the larger society and the US military command, was erected to prevent them from being effective soldiers.
It’s never been proven but that’s what I believe, I think it’s true it was an active conspiracy. When you add all the pieces up it offers a scary mosaic of sabotage. There’s Spartanberg, S. C. where black troops were sent to train. Why would you send a unit to train in the deep south when there’s just been race riots there? Uniforms, training, weapons [were substandard]. Black soldiers had to scavenge for weapons and pretend they were white rifle clubs in order to get up-to-date weaponry. When I read it I said, you gotta be kidding me.
That’s where I had to go back to my research because I thought I had made a mistake. I did about four feet of research [gesturing with his hands to note the stack’s height] when you stack it up. When you do a comic book, I think it’s harder than a movie script or a novel. When you write a novel, if you need a uniform button, you don’t have to describe it, it’s not important. And if you do a movie script, that’s the art department’s problem. When you do a comic book, you have to see everything. Canaan, the artist, and I were meticulous. 50% of the book is just weapons, what does World War I look like.
Tell us about the book’s characters.
Some were based on real world characters and some were made up. I wanted my main character to be fictional because I didn’t want to run the risk of offending anyone’s family. I wanted to have artistic freedom, so my immediate squad of men are all fictional, so I could be free to write. Henry Johnson was very real, the first American black or white to win the Crois de guerre. I wanted to be able to meld artistic freedom with real characters, like James Reese Europe, a real guy, [a pioneering creator of ragtime and jazz and a lieutenant in the Hellfighters and director of the regimental band, which played for troops all over Europe]. From what I’ve read about him he was driven and brilliant and a guy you would admire, but from afar. You don’t want all your characters to be nice and wonderful. Jim Europe was a perfectionist and nothing upset him more than when his band didn’t reach his expectations.
What about the ending? The story of the 369th is both a great tragedy and a great triumph.
I struggled with the ending. I realized I wanted to say that this was just the beginning of the fight [against racism] as opposed to the end. As a character in the book says, “I’d like to say we changed the world, but the truth is we came home to the Red summer of 1919, the worst racial violence this country has ever seen.” The 369th moved the ball forward, but they took one step in a very long road. I know that’s not an ending that Americans like. They did have that one triumphant moment [the parade they got on returning]. I wanted to focus on the parade because that was something they were denied and they got their parade. For that moment, everybody came out and that was great.