Facing The Inhumanity Of War With A Platoon Of Chimps: Brahm Revel On The Guerillas Omnibus
by Hannah Means Shannon
This February 13th, a massive, 700 page tome is hitting comic shops containing the complete multi-volume work Guerillas by writer and artist Brahm Revel, published by Oni Press. Those 700 pages contain some of the most thought-provoking and emotive comic storytelling in recent years, first published in a four volume series that may well have flown under your radar.
Exquisitely drawn in lavish black and white, Guerillas is a very idiosyncratic tale that only Revel could have told, but one that really gets under your skin with a sense of bigger, more universal significance. It starts with a wild premise: John Patrick Clayton is a soldier fighting in Vietnam and trying to process his own place in the world when he encounters a group of chimpanzees in the jungle who seem to have been trained as soldiers by some covert operation. Now on their own, the inter-species group team up to survive. But when the outside world, and the creators of these “guerillas” come looking for them, life seems even more perilous than it has been before.
We’re very pleased to have Brahm Revel, who has drawn Marvel Knights and TMNT, but is perhaps best known for storyboarding The Venture Bros., on site today to talk about the Guerillas Omnibus.
Hannah Means-Shannon: I think it’s possible if people hear a really general premise for Guerillas as a story, they might not realize just how “serious” and emotional a tone the entire series of graphic novels has. Have you often encountered that misconception?
Brahm Revel: Yeah, definitely. When I tell people that Guerillas is about a platoon of chimpanzees in Vietnam, I always finish with, “but it’s serious!” The books definitely have a lighter side to them as well, and they’re also very much pieces of genre, but I don’t want people to imagine that the books are about wise cracking monkey soldiers. These chimps can’t even talk.
Guerillas is very much a “what if.” What if we were desperate enough to train monkeys to fight as surrogate soldiers during the Vietnam War? Even stated as simply as that, the built in critique of the war machine is already somewhat evident. The term “trained monkeys” already carries a certain connotation of being inconsequential and replaceable. So the idea was to take the absurd concept of chimpanzee soldiers and make it seem plausible, thereby showing the absurdity of the whole system in the first place.
HMS: What made you want to create a war comic at all? And why take on so many of the themes of suffering and trauma inherent in a soldier’s experience?
BR: Actually, before having the idea for Guerillas, I really didn’t have any particular connection to war comics. Back then I wanted to make adventure comics, so the war genre fell in line with a certain type of story that I was interested in making, but it wasn’t something I was specifically aiming for. I was just following the idea where it wanted to go. And it seemed like it wanted to go to Vietnam.
Vietnam was a very particular war at a very particular time. It was a jungle war, which made sense for the chimps, but it was also the first American war to be widely criticized for being senseless. I think all war stories must reconcile the mythos of the war hero, with the true realities and horrors of war. But the Vietnam War, in particular, is a war in which these conflicting ideas are integral to any narrative related to it. Platoon will always have a very different narrative than Saving Private Ryan. Likewise, the complete inhumanity that soldiers are forced to endure seemed like a perfect metaphor for the concept of using animals as surrogate soldiers.
I suppose I should also mention that I grew up in San Francisco in the ‘80s, so I was raised by the generation that actively resisted the Vietnam War. So I’m sure that that influence is there as well. That being said, I don’t think Guerillas is a purely anti-war comic either. It glorifies violence and heroism in the way that any piece of genre does. But it shows the consequences as well. I think for me, there was an aspect of having to reconcile my own ideas about the heroic storytelling of the comics that I grew up with, with the realities of the real world. Which is very similar to Clayton’s story arc.
HMS: We learn a lot about John Patrick Clayton in the first volume of the series, but continue to learn about him as he changes, too. What do you think makes him a typical American of his time, or doesn’t?
BR: I think Clayton is emblematic of a certain type of American male from that era. Someone who grew up in the suburbs and was sheltered from many of the harsh realities of the world, and as a result, was allowed to remain a child for a longer period of time. I think in a lot of ways there was a cultural shift from the 50s to the 60s where America realized that things weren’t actually as simple we wanted them to be, and America was forced to grow up a bit. Wars were no longer as simple as good vs. evil. Clayton definitely represents that struggle in a specific way. But in a broader sense, his story is also emblematic of growing up in general.
Every generation has to reconcile what they’ve been taught by their parents with what they experience as they leave the nest. Realizing that the previous generation didn’t have all the answers, and that life isn’t as simple as you thought it was, is integral to becoming an adult. So in that sense I think Clayton’s evolution is also typical of any young person’s narrative. I just thought it was hilarious that he was forced to confront these issues as the result of living with a platoon of chimps.
HMS: Clayton says early on that, “animals have always made me uneasy,” and I wondered if that relates to your decision to create a story like Guerillas. Do you have a particular sense of hidden depths in animals as something that sparked your imagination?
BR: I do, yes, but in a roundabout way. More specifically, I was interested in examining how humans can be so resistant to the idea that they are also animals. Not that we evolved from animals, but that we are still, in fact, animals. We are primates. Chimps are our closest relatives in the animal kingdom. These are facts. Yet people willfully reject these notions and cling to the perspective that we are somehow better than the rest of the animal kingdom because of our accomplishments.
I believe that because we put ourselves on this pedestal above the rest of the animal kingdom; we tend to diminish what they are capable of—both mentally and spiritually. It’s indicative of humanity’s tendency to fear that which is different, or that which we don’t fully understand. I mean, the chimps are the real stars of these books, right? It shouldn’t seem radical that they each have individual personalities or that they are somewhat rational beings. I think the strength of the metaphor lies somewhere in that idea. If I can get you to realize that it’s inhumane to send chimps to war, what does it say about war in the first place?
HMS: I notice the key role that captions and narration have to play in this graphic novel series because the chimpanzees aren’t able to speak, and so Clayton has to guide us through the series.
Did using captions and narration ever get challenging or limiting? What were some of the strategies you used to balance that out in the comic?
BR: Yeah, the initial concept was to have the captions there to help clarify any difficult visual storytelling with the chimps. But in practice, I almost never needed it for that kind of stuff. I was usually able get any ideas across with a series of actions or a look. However, the captions became useful for getting Clayton’s commentary on all of the crazy things that were going on. I could play his voice-over against the visuals and support or contradict his narration, or create other juxtapositions, which I think was ultimately necessary because otherwise those sequences would have been largely silent.
The voice-over scenes were always the hardest scenes for me to write. It’s a style of writing that I don’t feel as comfortable with as I do with, say, dialogue. It’s much closer to prose. When I went through the pages for the omnibus, it was those sequences that were usually the most cringeworthy for me. But ultimately I think they were necessary for the story that was being told. As I got closer to the end of the series I tried to diminish those sequences a bit, but it had become such a big part of the storytelling of Guerillas that it was hard to get rid of them completely.
HMS: Did you find it pushed you creatively to come up with enough sign language and gestural communication to help Clayton interact visually with his new unit? Did you expand on that visual “vocabulary” over time, working on these four volumes of the story?
BR: At first I really wanted to have an expansive vocabulary of military hand signs to show how succinctly the chimps could communicate, but I realized that the readers would just end up getting confused if it got too technical. My thinking became, Clayton is the audience’s entryway into this world, and he’s a real novice when it comes to being a soldier, so he probably wouldn’t understand most of their hand signs either. As a result, the chimps had to dumb it down for all of us.
I found that for obvious stuff I could use very simple hand signs, for other things I could imply meaning through cause and effect, and if I really needed to say something complex, I could always resort to using Clayton’s voice-over to explain what a chimp had “said.” Over time, what I realized the most, was how much I could get across with a simple look or a bit of acting. Which I think was a manifestation of the audience getting to know each of the chimps as personalities. You began to know what they would have said, if they were able.
HMS: The Omnibus Edition for this series must be absolutely giant! Volume 4 itself is well over 200 pages. The double-sized finale really captures, in detail, the big showdowns that previous volumes have set up. How did you decide how much backstory to include about WWII, Nazis, and the origin of Adolph the Baboon in that final arc?
BR: Yeah, the omnibus is over 700 pages in the end. Originally the series was supposed to only be three volumes, but as I started making the third volume I realized that I needed more space to give the story the ending that it deserved. And a big part of that was giving Adolf and Heisler the story arcs that they deserved.
When I originally plotted the books, there wasn’t a lot of attention given to Heisler and Adolf as fully three dimensional characters. They were just the “villains.” But as I slowly made my way through the books I began to realize how complicated their stories were, and I wanted the readers to sympathize with them in the same way I began to.
In terms of the Nazi stuff, that was an early decision to connect Guerillas with Project Paperclip, the true story of how the US and Soviet governments gave Nazi scientists full pardons as long as they would come to work for their respective governments. The US, in large part, won the space race because of Werner Von Braun, a former Nazi. I thought that eloquently showed the hypocrisy of governments when it comes to war, and it seemed like a good starting point for this story.
HMS: Something that really appeals to me, as a reader, is not just the seriousness with which you introduce big themes, like questioning why beings continue to fight when they don’t have to, but also the grey areas you introduce around human behavior and the “sides” in this struggle depicted in the book.
You mention that Clayton’s father, a soldier also, sees the world in black and white, but Clayton seems to move very far from that. Was conveying a more considered take on war and conflict part of your intention in telling a story like this one?
BR: Yeah, definitely. But even more generally, I think people need to recognize the grey areas that exist in all walks of life, whether it be war, politics, or economics. People have started retreating into their ideologies with such certainty that the world is becoming very black and white again. I think it’s important to question everything, including what’s going on in your own head. Why do you think the way you do? Where do your ideologies come from? Who put them there? Did you? I also think that we have to be more empathetic as a society.
Most people’s lives are so limited that they couldn’t possibly encompass the wide variety of human experience. You really have to put yourself in the shoes of other people and try to understand why they think the way they do, which means being more open. We have to allow for the possibility that we might be wrong. Most people would rather be dead than be proved wrong, which is probably why facts are losing their significance these days
Very few things in life are as black and white as we would like to believe. War is an easy concept to breakdown and see the fundamental contradictions in, but I think it’s important for us to remember that the rest of the world is painted in that same muddy palette of greys as well.
Thanks very much to Brahm Revel for his extensive answers to our questions!
Look out for the Guerillas Omnibus when it lands in shops February 13th, and take advantage of the opportunity to read this epic from start to finish! Final orders are due by January 21st, 2019.