Naval Institute Press has a dedicated readership for its detailed volumes of precisely told military history and biographies, and those readers share more than taste in books. They are also largely from the same demographic: white, male, and over 65. So when editors began wondering how to reach younger readers, they knew that they might have to embrace something entirely new.
The result is Dead Reckoning, a graphic novel imprint that debuted in September 2018, and though the imprint’s lead Gary Thompson says it is too early to reach many conclusions, he is certain of one: Dead Reckoning is reaching the new readers the press had hoped to find.
“So far what we have seen is that for Dead Reckoning we have a very strong 25-to-40-year-old demographic, and it’s about 50% women and 50% men,” says Thompson, who spearheaded the effort to launch the imprint. “When you have a readership that is constantly aging out, you always have to think about new ways to innovate and get involved, and with graphic novels you can do that. It’s not like there aren’t young people out there who don’t like military history, it’s just there weren’t really getting it the way that they wanted it.”
Dead Reckoning has entered uncharted territory both as a press accustomed to publishing academic nonfiction and within the graphic novel trade. “There’s just not a lot of great content out there when you’re reading Dog Man and then moving to superheroes,” Thompson says. “But once you get tired of seeing people punch things really hard, is there something that fills the gap between punching really hard and the really naval-gazey super-out-there indie comic stuff?”
The greatest difficulty for Dead Reckoning has been adapting precise historical research to a story-driven format while remaining true to history. “Even when we publish fiction it needs to have a truth to it,” Thompson says. “There needs to be some kind of genuine element there that keeps people involved. When you’re doing what the Naval Institute Press does, it’s strictly what happened, when it happened, who said it, but when you’re trying to make a story out of it and you’re trying to make people want to pick up and read for the fun of it, you can’t be dry. You can’t be just a textbook that has pictures in it.”
If the fictional Katusha is an example of a successful balancing between fact and story, then Thompson is pleased. The book tells the tale of a Ukranian teenage girl who becomes a partisan during World War II and then joins the Russian Army, fighting Nazis as a tank commander.
Though the story is fiction, Thompson says, “Katusha is based off of lots of things that really happened.” He adds, “There were lots of female tankers in Russia. Lots of women did go off and do these things in that time.”
Thompson says he was delighted when the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum placed orders for copies of the book, and he says that museum bookstore orders have been strong overall since the press first launched. “We like seeing people be able to see the educational qualities of it,” he adds, “even if it isn’t a super-hardcore history.”
Along with the younger demographic, some of the press’s core readership have come along to Dead Reckoning too, including the chairman of the board of the U.S. Naval Institute, retired admiral James Stavridis, who fired off an email to the press after spending a Saturday morning reading Riff Reb’s Men at Sea, which includes eight classic seafaring stories. Thompson says Stavridis wrote that “when he was teaching all of his students, he would teach these stories all the time, so he loved seeing them made so accessible.”
After launching with four titles in 2018, Dead Reckoning will publish seven by the end of this year, and eight in 2020. Among the forthcoming titles are Once upon a Time in France (fall), the story of a Romanian Jew who hides his identity in wartime France to funnel money to the Resistance, and Smedley (Oct.), which follows the life of Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Smedley Butler.
Thompson says that he can see a day when he will be open to exploring more unconventional forms of storytelling as the press grows: “If someone came to me and said, ‘I’ve got this really awesome idea for a super-classic military sci-fi thing à la Robert Heinlein,’ I would be like, ‘Awesome. Let us see it.’ ”
But not yet: “It’s too early for us to make monumental changes,” Thompson says. “This is my baby. I’m acquiring for it. I’m having to trust my gut. As I’m looking forward I know I have this block of things I find interesting that I think other people have found interesting, and I know what’s coming out for the next couple years. I think everyone here is okay with saying, ‘Let’s see what shakes out.’ ”