The Harlem Hellfighters, a new graphic novel written by Brooks and illustrated by Canaan White, takes place during World War I, and tells the story of the New York National Guard’s 369th Infantry, an all-black regiment who played an instrumental—though too often forgotten—role in turning the tide of WWI.
“I was 11 when I first learned about the Harlem Hellfighters,” says Brooks. “I’d always wanted to hear more of their story, and I waited and waited.” A decade went by with all quiet on the Hellfighter front, and so Brooks gathered what information he could.
“First I ordered a 60-page little grade school book from a new little website called Amazon.” From there, Brooks kept compiling materials when he came across it. He eventually wrote a screenplay about the legendary troops, but the script was met with skepticism and, ultimately, rejection.
“I thought someone might be interested, but everyone said no,” says Brooks.
Reading The Harlem Hellfighters, it’s hard to imagine such a compelling story falling on blind eyes. The story begins in 1917, shortly after President Wilson brought the U.S. into “the war to end all wars.” We follow the men of the 369th from the enlistment lines of Harlem, to basic training in Carolina, to the toxic trenches of France and back stateside, where the Hellfighters experience a bittersweet homecoming.
Coming from a kaleidoscope of geography, culture and socio-economic status, the men of the 369th were exceedingly diverse. Among the soldiers (some real, some imagined) we meet is the legendary musician and bandleader James Reese Europe, the biggest jazz musician in New York City at the time, and an instrumental figure in bringing jazz music to the European continent.
“It’s amazing,” says Brooks. “James Europe was the toast of New York City when he was granted a war commission. For him to go over and fight in the war would be like Kanye West going off to war in Afghanistan today, or Justin Bieber volunteering to fight in Iraq.”
Accompanied with astonishing artwork from Canaan White, The Harlem Hellfighters is a provocative and gritty account of war, staying true to the actions and the types of speech that took place down in the trenches. Brooks employs the various dialects and mannerisms used by the soldiers, and is sure to take some flak for tackling headlong a racially charged topic like The Harlem Hellfighters. Is he worried?
“Look,” says Brooks. “You can’t be truthful and be nice, and I’ll be damned if I’m going to censor the past to appease the current cultural trends. So is it correct for a non-African American to be interested in this story, to want to tell this story as honestly as I can? No. If someone else had done this story, I would have consumed it and gone on my way. But nobody really had, not in the way we’re doing it.”
Brooks is also aware of the American aversion to history, and hopes that the graphic novel format will broaden the scope of the audience. It wasn’t until Brooks worked with Avatar comics on a companion book to go alongside The Zombie Survival Guide that he finally saw a graphic novel as the perfect medium in which to tell the Hellfighters’ story.
But a new medium offered new challenges. “When you do a graphic novel,” says Brooks, “you only have space to put in what’s relevant, what’s absolutely necessary to tell the story.” He explains that he and illustrator Canaan White went back and forth, adding and revising (everything from the characters’ facial expressions to their equipment), exchanging ideas. However, the hardest part of writing The Harlem Hellfighters for Brooks arose when he confronted the latitude of fictional storytelling vs. the historical record. “There were so many times that I just didn’t trust myself,” says Brooks.
There is a point early on in The Harlem Hellfighters when the regiment, clad in civilian clothes (white soldiers were given uniforms) and denied weapons by the military, is forced to train with broomsticks instead of rifles. In response, the 369th fabricated letters from gun clubs real and imagined, and sent requests for arms under the ruse of belonging to one of these exclusive clubs (a membership in a gun club typically ensured the provision of firearms). “The story sounded so far-fetched that I had to recheck my materials just to be sure.”
How will people respond to a Max Brooks vehicle free of zombies and undead zaniness? We’ll soon see. How will Max Brooks respond to his critics? The same way he always has. “My career has been a constant cycle of proving myself,” he says. “Now I have to do it again. If I didn’t let criticism get to me, I wouldn’t be a writer, but I’ve developed a kind of armor. If I write for an audience, I leave myself vulnerable to criticism; but if I just write for myself, no critic can touch me.”
Oh, and about that Harlem Hellfighters movie?
“Yeah,” laughs Brooks, “now there’s interest.”
Tyler Stoddard Smith ’s writing has been featured in: UTNE Reader, McSweeney’s, Esquire, The Best American Fantasy, The Beautiful Anthology and The Morning News, among others. He is also an associate editor of the online humor site, The Big Jewel. His first book, Whore Stories: A Revealing History of the World’s Oldest Profession was published in July 2012.