Creator, Mike Heimos, talks Fever Ridge!
Friday, Feb 15th, 2013
As so often happens here at the IDW offices, a pile of advance copies of upcoming comics appeared in the Editorial pit the other day and we on the web desk could not help but a get jump on our reading list. Lucky for us, one of those comics was Fever Ridge and creator, Mike Heimos, was kind enough to return our emails begging for more!
What are some of your main fictional inspirations on Fever Ridge: A Tale of MacArthur's Jungle War, and how are they blended in with the true life history?
I'm pretty much in the intertextuality camp, that as Umberto Eco says, "...books always speak of other books, and every story tells a story that has already been told." The idea is that texts perpetually refer to other texts, especially those previously experienced by a given author. So, past readings from my favorite genres - historical fiction, short stories, bildungsroman, semiotics and magical realism - all are going into this little graphic novel, somehow.
Anyone who aspires to write a solid historical fiction probably is grounded in classics such as Beowulf, the Nordic sagas, The Iliad and The Odyssey, because "they have it all." But for me, more direct influences are the works of Eco and say, Gore Vidal (e.g. Julian), and comics such as Brian Wood's Northlanders, Ivan Brandon's Viking, and Jordan Stratford's Mechanicals: A Steampunk Novel of the Crimean War come to mind. Now, some such writers take advantage of holes in the historical record, to give us engaging conjectures. For example, many great ancient texts are missing, and Eco imagines what might have happened to some of them in The Name Of The Rose. Other writers craft pure dramas involving well-known figures, as in Goldman's play, The Lion In Winter. It looks like Wood studied the Vikings' subcultures in a lot of depth, perhaps even by traveling to the Northlands (!) to come up with the short story, folksy, there's more to the- Vikings tales he made in Northlanders. Fever Ridge is a combination, mainly a dramatic piece of historical fiction, though the focus is on commoner folk, and as I say later, it is going to offer an interesting speculation or two.
I love magical realism such as created by Garcia-Marquez and Rushdie, and the latter's mystical/historical fiction Midnight's Children is a big influence. Why not see some magic underneath big events, right?
One of my favorite, classic short stories is Hemingway's The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber. There the setting becomes a medium for the main character's evolution: the African safari not only is external - where he is and what he is doing - but Francis seizes on it to change his very nature, grounding his transformation from cuckold and coward into a man that is in control and finds brief happiness in the end. So it is a coming of age in that sense, and it happened because he was in Africa hunting dangerous game.
Thus I'd like to do several things in Fever Ridge. For example, some Alamo Scouts missions are not well documented, and in fact some records are wholly missing, allowing me to dream up a conjecture or two, ala one of the main approaches to historical fiction. Our main characters go through coming of age or bildungsroman processes as well, and we look at how the War and the places in which they wage it affect the main characters' choices, their reformations, how they mature (and very quickly). Those personal dramas carry broader messages about society and social strata, elites, education, a little collective consciousness. There also will be some mystical elements combined with the social commentary, and one obvious bit of intertextuality (connecting to two other graphic novels I have in mind, the device being one of my supporting characters). Finally, we create some symbolism with the help of terrain, flora and fauna.
In the supplemental biographies we include in Issue #2, I talk a lot about the inspirations for the three main characters - Erik, Blackie and Franz - so I hope the readers check those out. Yes, their pre- and post- War lives, their motivations for enlisting (some of which are unique, not just "rah-rah patriotism") are indelible to the story.
There will be more of such supplements on other characters, but at this point I'd like to keep most of the other specific character inspirations behind the curtain. Though, I will say now that Magua, the antagonist from The Last of The Mohicans, inspires one of the characters (who comes forth a few issues into the series). Magua is one of my favorites: his duplicity, or even multiplicity; a sincere and sympathetic motivation; a powerful spirit; and, his being both a savage and a sophisticate.
There was not a real Erik Alois Ritter in the US 6th Infantry Division in World War II, though he is a lot like my grandfather. He is an imagined guy that could have existed, lived and thought as we present, and this is true of the other main characters as well. But we also present MacArthur and Krueger and other known people, giving you things they said and did, etc. So as to your big question, the objective is to blend the factual with the imagined, the known history woven with fiction by character development and involvement. Thus you're going to see imagined people in events that really happened (such as, the Battle of Lone Tree Hill) and those that could have happened (such as... read the book!).
Obviously this title is inspired by true events; how do you go about researching a project like this, and how do you achieve a high level of authenticity and accuracy?
I mainly stuck to traditional library research, online research and the like. Of course, I also painstakingly went through all my grandfather's mementos and his service file from the US war archives. Anything visual that I find, I send off to Nick, and we really are trying to get details of weapons, places etc. correct. But this again is fiction, so here and there some license should be expected.
I will be giving readers a bibliography at some point and hope that some readers are inspired to educate themselves about the foundations of Fever Ridge, to see where we fit right on top and where we purposely overhang, a little.
One primary source I'd like to mention, and you can read about this online, is that official military personnel files are "archival" and available to the public, if they are old enough [http://www.archives.gov/st-louis/military-personnel/about-ompfs.html]. But unfortunately you also have to keep in mind that there was a huge fire at the US war archives in St. Louis in 1973, resulting in the loss of millions of pages of personnel records [http://www.archives.gov/st-louis/military-personnel/fire-1973.html].
I'll just reiterate here that this work is fiction and the story we tell is not true. So for example, I've endeavored to make our deployments consistent with actual the 6th Army and Alamo Scout operations, etc., but I use that word "consistent" strictly.
So many war stories focus almost exclusively on the dangers of combat; in Fever Ridge: A Tale of MacArthur's Jungle the environment is just as deadly as any human enemy the characters face; what inspired you to highlight nature as an adversary, and what are some of the most interesting dangers The Sightseein' Sixth will be encountering in New Guinea?
One thing you learn very quickly in researching this conflict: the environment was indeed a huge player. This is true in any war, but here it was acute - the major tropical diseases (malaria, dengue fever, and others) present in the western Pacific were Nature's uppercut, the unknown terrain its left cross, and both were major causes of casualties. That there were anti-malaria drives in the U.S. illustrates the importance of the struggle against the mosquito [http://www.crazywebsite.com/Free-Galleries-01/USA_Patriotic/pg-WWII_Posters_Vintage/Vintage_WWII_Patriotic_Posters_United_States_America-_Malaria_1_jpg.htm]. And this angle is so important, that it caused me to come up with the title, as the fight against disease becomes more important to the unfolding story.
As well, when WWII began the interior of New Guinea was virtually unknown and because of this, I definitely make the habitats "characters" in their own rights, as I wanted to build a Heart of Darkness feel into Fever Ridge. Except for a few accounts of missionaries and a handful of explorers (some, a bit unscrupulous), the Great Powers knew little about the place at the beginning of the War. This is the world's second largest island; it has more linguistic groups than any other place on the globe; there are new people, languages, animals and plants being discovered there, even to this day. And it was in this enigmatic place that the momentum of the Pacific war reversed.
Another reason for focusing on the environment is that I'm wired this way; my own relationship with it is important, being a woodsman, hunter, and fly-fisherman. New Guinea simply fascinates me, and I want to bring its colors and history to readers.
I should add that although the book's "main environmental character" is New Guinea, the story is rather epic in scope. We take you from the Mojave Desert to Hawai'i, to New Guinea, the Philippines, and Japan, in all sorts of environments and seas. You'll even see a bit of that wild place that is Missouri!
As for interesting dangers, how about: crocodiles, deadly snakes, poisonous plants, the Spirits, cannibalistic tribes and desperation cannibal-Japanese, unmapped terrain, and uninhabited swamps?
One thing to keep in mind, and something we will explore in the book: Nature is both an adversary and an ally. In fact, I think Nature is always both, that is what is so wonderful about it. We, and everything on and in the planet, are all 'star stuff,' and in the 21st century we are re-learning that the environment is a player in all our endeavors.
As to the specific relationship of war with the environment, I think one is remiss in telling a war story if they do not give Nature her due: all belligerents dealt with issues of weather, terrain, disease, tides, so forth. So it is here, for the Sightseers.
And in Fever Ridge we not only show them "dealing with it," we highlight that the Sightseers' encounter with the natural world adds to the poignancy of their experience. They are quite aware that, being mainly form humble backgrounds, they would not have encountered such wonders as are in New Guinea and elsewhere without the War, and they may never again see such wonders if they survive it. So indeed they come to be savvy to the ways of the cities, deserts, seas and jungles they navigate over this highly condensed span of time, because of the demands of the Times.
Who were The Sightseer's, and what are some of their significant stories you're looking forward to telling?
The Sightseers were the men of the 6th Infantry Division, which was one of the constituent divisions of the 6th Army under the command of Walter Krueger, who was probably Douglas MacArthur's most trusted lieutenant. According to one source, the cognomen of the division was "The Sightseein' Sixth" because of their "...reputation for hiking," for the sheer amount of ground they covered in World War I. It was my grandfather's division, and it had such a snappy nickname, just could not avoid telling some of the story.
Aside from The Sightseers, who else will be featured in these stories?
We are going to encounter all your "usual suspects," the Americans, Brits, Australians, the Japanese, and all kinds of big player individuals. But we are also going to expose readers to people that have gotten short shrift in the storytelling of the Pacific war - the Papuans, Malaysians, Singaporeans, we may even jump big islands, to Borneo. We also delve a bit into some uncomfortable topics, such as the wartime impositions on civil rights in the US (e.g. the internment of Japanese-Americans, and even some German-Americans). And there is a way-cool, exotic character (I referred to before, as the intertextual element) that will be fascinating and ties this era to...read the book!
Otherwise it is the Alamo Scouts, which were Krueger's elite reconnaissance force and are almost unknown to the American public, that are the biggest feature in the story. Our three main guys are both Sightseers and Scouts (as in reality: all the Scouts were first on duty for their basic units, such as the 6th Infantry, and could be recalled thereby away from the Scouts, if needed). Thus we will show them conducting behind-lines recon missions, and also fighting for their basic unit in major battles, such as in the Battle of Manila.
Again, I have lots of things I want to accomplish in Fever Ridge and one is to raise awareness of the Alamo Scouts, the 6th Army and the 6th Infantry Division.
What are some of the internal conflicts The Sightseer's will face, and how will they put aside their differences and unite against their enemies and their environment?
Actually the internal conflict that is most important in Fever Ridge is inside each man: navigating the line between madness and sanity; choosing between competing aspirations for post-war life; and there are philosophical issues between each Man and his City, as Leo Strauss might say. To the extent there are conflicts between characters, they arise from mismatching vis-à-vis the foregoing, but also, more dangerously, there is going to arise actual, deadly conflict. As you'll see...
How do they unite? Well to a large extent, when you are in the middle of war you have no choice but to unite against the enemy. They are shooting at you, trying to kill you and everyone on your side. There simply is no other choice but to be united, at least when you are under fire.
Now speaking of the enemy, we will also present a bit of the war from the Japanese soldier's perspective. So stay tuned for a little more exposition vis-à-vis the Japanese sniper we encounter at the end of Issue 1.
Likewise as we discussed before, when Nature seems to be fighting you as well, you team up to survive. But ultimately it is a fool's errand - Nature is the master of us all.
Fever Ridge #1 hits shops Wednesday, February 20th!
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