Although the best-selling writer Max Brooks (who penned World War Z, the zombie novel that inspired last year’s cinematic blockbuster) is a relative newcomer in the world of graphic novels, his latest book The Harlem Hellfighters has already created a buzz. A month before its April 1 release, Sony Pictures and Overbrook Entertainment (Will Smith’s production company) bought the film rights to what Henry Louis Gates Jr. has described as “a major contribution to our understanding of Black history.”
With an endorsement from Spike Lee on the cover, The Harlem Hellfighters tells the brutal tale of the Negro soldiers of the 369th Infantry Regiment who fought in World War One. The intense story deals with the struggles these men struggled with both on and off the battlefield. From the overt racism of the local citizens in the Southern cities where they were stationed, to the paradox of fighting for freedom overseas (when Jim Crow was flying high in their own country), to the sheer brutality of war, Brooks doesn’t back off from the hardships these men were forced to endure.
“I wanted this book to be both educational and entertaining,” Brooks says from his home in Los Angeles. The son of famed comedian, writer and director Mel Brooks (Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein) and actress Ann Bancroft (The Graduate), Max first heard of the Hellfighters from a family employee named Michael Furmanovsky, who was also studying history UCLA.
“I was 11 years old, and he used to pick me up from school and share various stories about the Hellfighters,” says Max Brooks. “What struck me even as a kid was the bravery of these men, to deal with this terrible war as well as the injustices.”
While Max first envisioned The Harlem Hellfighers as a film many moons ago, nobody in Hollywood was feeling an obviously big-budget period piece with a majority Black cast. After he began working with the independent comic publisher Avatar Press six years ago, he realized that the story could be told in the comic book format. As he says in the author’s note, “I learned very quickly how different comic book writing was from prose, but how similar it could be to movie scripts… It seemed the ideal medium for telling the story of the Harlem Hellfighters.”
Recruiting African-American artist Caanan White (who also works for Avatar drawing the war comic Uber) to illustrate, the two immersed themselves in reams of vintage photos, books, films and recordings. “I chose Caanan because he was amazing at drawing the detail that was needed for a period piece,” Brooks explains. “His work is so amazing, and everything from the uniforms to the weaponry is so precise.”
Following in the blood-’n’-guts tradition laid down generations ago by such wonderful artists as Joe Kubert (Sgt. Rock), John Servin (Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos) and Harvey Kurtzman (Two-Fisted Tales), Caanan White has drawn The Harlem Hellfighters in a style that stunningly captures the ugliness of war, racism and human suffering.
“I’m not very familiar with a lot of old war comics, but I do remember seeing a few Sgt. Rocks,” says White from his home in Fort Wayne, Indiana. “They were gritty and grimy, which I think is also the case with Harlem Hellfighters. This is the kind of book that is hard to take, but I hope people don’t shy away from the book because of that.”
Coming of age in the 1990s—when the Image Comics explosion made creators Todd McFarlene (Spawn) and Rob Liefield (Youngblood) the hottest comic book artists in the country—White was inspired to begin his own ventures into sequential storytelling.
After sending samples of his work to Avatar a few years back, the techno-trance loving artist was signed to an exclusive deal with the indie publisher, whose roster includes Alan Moore, Frank Miller and Warren Ellis. “I have tons of my own stories that I’ve worked on over the years, and I hope to get some of those up and running this year,” he says.
Although White hasn’t illustrated any books for Marvel Comics or its rival DC, he cites Superman as his favorite character. “I also read Captain America and Cloak & Dagger, but there is only so much you can do with mainstream characters. I like superheroes, but doing a book like The Harlem Hellfighters was something I’d never experienced before,” he says.
Packaging the project for Broadway Books, Avatar has become known for taking risks that mainstream comic publishers shy away from. “Publisher/owner William Christensen gives creators so much artistic freedom,” says Brooks, who’s currently scripting the vampires vs. zombies title, Extinction Parade. “This in turn allows us to be freer and more experimental.”
After 15 years of research, which included many hours at Harlem’s prestigious Schomburg Center, Brooks has crafted a script that has the raw power and haunting honesty of Paths of Glory, A Soldier’s Story and Glory. Says Brooks, “My hope is that The Harlem Hellfighters will serve as an introduction, and that people will discover the books and other source material that I used. There is so much more to learn about these men and all that they dealt with while fighting for their country.”
Cultural critic Michael A. Gonzales has written cover stories for Vibe, Uptown, Essence, XXL, Wax Poetics and elsewhere. He’s also written for New York and The Village Voice. Read him at Blackadelic Pop and follow him on Twitter @gonzomike.