Director’s Commentary : Army of God
Regular readers may recall me blogging on a compelling work of comics reportage by David Axe and Tim Hamilton which was running on one of my regular bookmarked reads, Cartoon Movement. The series was Army of God: Joseph Kony’s War in Central Africa. Kony had come to internet attention via some bizarre online videos, but the horrendous, long-running conflicts and suffering his groups and others had caused in sections of Africa was one we didn’t see a lot of coverage of in the Western media, so I found this comics approach, with Tim illustrating David’s first hand journalistic reporting from the continent, a very effective way of raising the profile of the conflict to readers who may be unfamiliar with it, and, like Sacco, doing it in a manner which is immeadite and accessible.
With a print collection of Army of God coming out (and there is an associated story involving government red tape and the war on terror associated with that!) I thought this would be a fascinating work to hear more on and I am delighted that both David and Tim have kindly taken some time to share their thoughts on creating Army of God. Here’s David:
I knew when I went to Congo two years ago that I would write a comic book about it. And thanks to an expert team — my artist, editors and agent — what might have been a nightmare from beginning to end actually got easier and easier. With one huge caveat.
The hard part was going to the Democratic Republic of Congo, one of the world’s least developed and most violent countries, and meeting the victims of the Lord’s Resistance Army, the cultish rebel group led by madman Joseph Kony. After that, producing Army Of God: Joseph Kony’s War In Central Africa, was relatively painless.
I am a freelance reporter specializing in armed conflict and a regular contributor to Wired, Voice of America and other media outlets. Between stints in Afghanistan I went to Congo in October 2010 to report on Kony, the LRA, U.S. and U.N. military intervention and the victims of Congo’s unrelenting violence.
I began in Kinshasa, the sprawling capital of a country the size of Western Europe, with an exploding population numbering some 70 million. All of Congo has fewer miles of paved road than, say, my home state of South Carolina, so to get out east to where the fighting is, I had to hitch a ride on a U.N. aid flight. I landed in Dungu, an impoverished river town in the heart of the world’s other great tropical forest.
There in Dungu I spoke to U.N. peacekeepers, aid workers, Catholic church officials and the victims — women and children, mostly — of the LRA’s nearly decade-old campaign of rape and pillage. The LRA began as a Ugandan rebel group but was chased out of its home country and now survives by stealing from and enslaving Congo’s poor villagers. Bullets are expensive so Kony’s rebels — many of them brainwashed kidnap victims — use rape and mutilation as weapons.
I’d never been happier and felt more fortunate to be born an American. It should go without saying that we take for granted the peace, security and opportunity that comes from being a citizen of a world power.
But we also count on countries like Congo to sustain our prosperity. The rare minerals that make up the vital components in your cell phone and laptop computer: many of them come mostly from Congo, luring armed groups to the country and helping to fuel the conflict. The U.N. maintains some 20,000 peacekeepers in Congo, and beginning around the time of my visit, the U.S. military also deployed trainers and Special Forces, with a mission to help track and kill or capture Kony.
Returning home to the U.S., I approached Matt Bors, an award-winning cartoonist who at the time edited the Dutch Website Cartoon Movement. I wrote 100 pages detailing the histories of Congo and the LRA and recounting the suffering of the LRA’s victims and the escalating world efforts to combat the group. It was not my first long-form, nonfiction comic: I had previously written three journalistic graphic novels including two war memoirs, War Fix and War is Boring, the latter drawn by Matt himself.
But Matt, a very in-demand artist, only edited Army of God. I searched high and low for an artist with the right sensibility and some time in their schedule, and found it in Tim Hamilton, famous for his adaption of Fahrenheit 451. Tim’s stark, black and white art really captures the frequent bleakness of life in Congo and the moral dilemma of a world faced with evil such as Kony and the LRA’s.
I write simple scripts without flourish. As a reporter, I stick to the facts or, in the case of a few sequences in Army of God, recreations of events for which hard data are impossible to acquire. My scripts make frequently references to photos and videos of people and events. Tim was able to blend these visual facts into an ink-and-paper version of Congo that evokes the land, the wildlife, the patters of human activity and even the language of the country.
I’m proud of Tim, and grateful for Matt’s attentive editing. Without them Army of God would not have come together the way it did. The book ran first as an online serial at Cartoon Movement. Matt generously granted us all subsequent rights to the material. Our agent Bob Mecoy sold the book rights to Brandon Proia at Public Affairs. Brandon perfectly understood the project and worked with us to add new chapters and expand the chapters we’d already produced.
Like I said, painless. Not at all like Congo itself. And not at all typical of new graphic novels, as I understand them. Army Of God will be my fourth book-length comic. The graphic novels that have fallen apart on me — through some combination of my impatience and inflexibility, the inability of my artist to understand the script and an agent or editor’s lack of faith in the material — far outnumber those I’ve seen through to publication.
I guess what I mean to say is: thank God we didn’t screw this up. Which is not to say there wasn’t a glitch in the process. For very late in the project, after the art was done and the book was in production, there was a very strange and unexpected problem that wasn’t our fault at all. It involved a bank, the U.S. government and counter-terrorism laws. More on that in the next post.
And Tim’s thoughts on the creation of Army of God:
When Joe asked me to talk about Army of God for Forbidden Planet’s Directors Commentary, I was unsure what to write about. I’m inclined to let the “work speak for itself,” as many before me have said. Speaking at schools and colleges in an educational capacity aside, I feel that talking about the minutia of how I put together a particular book may be a bit like explaining a joke. Never the less, I‘ve given it a go.
As I said above, I’m happy to let my work speak for itself and thus am happy drawing or doodling character designs at my drawing board or working out the very complex plot of my next children’s book. Our world is now a place where we vomit our daily personal details out onto social media in large buckets, and some artists garner attention via parading sans shirt and or shouting the loudest in all caps. I myself am very appreciative for anyone who buys my Graphic Novels or children’s books, as creators can’t survive without such a symbiotic relationship. I would hope my final product is what captures a reader’s interest rather than how loud I type in all caps.
Anyway, on to the commentary! I approach all my comic or graphic novel projects differently. I get bored easy. I drew Fahrenheit the way I drew it for one hundred and forty some pages, and don’t want to draw a book in exactly that look again. If I’m falling asleep at my drawing board that means I’m not interested or challenged by what I’m working on and that it should go in the garbage. I don’t have the very first sketches I did when looking into what kind of look I thought Army of God should have, but I do have a few early drawings such as this girl I sketched from a photo. I kind of wish the book looked like this, but other influences took me in different directions. Perhaps I’ll use this look on another project at some point.
I also started sketching whatever animals exist in the Congo as there was some history of the continent of Africa involved in the early chapters. Here’s a gorilla sketch, even though I think I drew more Oxen than I did wildlife.
I’m lucky to live in Brooklyn, NY where it’s just a short subway ride over to the Metropolitan Museum of art or the Museum of Natural History. Before I received the script for AoG I hung out in the African section of the Metropolitan and sketched the art and sculptures. Pictured here is one such sketch of a totem. You can see more in the back matter of the printed book of course, but these sketches never really came into play in the book. Sketching art at any of the museums in Manhattan is never time wasted though.
Back when I did Treasure Island I looked at Egon Schiele drawings and drew that book with ink pen, broken brushes and a wooden stick. When I did Fahrenheit I was looking at art deco and advertising art from the 1950’s in order to design nice flat colors and shapes. During my quest to find a look for A.o.G. though, I found myself talking with the lovely Anelle Miller at the Society of Illustrators. She lead me upstairs to the Society’s impressive library where she showed me a massive book full of Rockwell Kent prints which she then let me borrow! Kent and other woodcut artists informed the look I thought “Army” should take. Harsh blacks and stiff uncomfortable compositions seemed the right way to go. Some people felt my art on this project looked a bit like Richard Corben’s work, which I find interesting as he is an artist who has never really influenced me. He does great work mind you, he just never wormed his way into my head. Here’s a piece by Mr. Kent just because it’s great stuff.
As you can imagine, Researching reference for this book was never “fun.” David took photos in the Congo that I used, but I needed much more reference beyond what he gave me. Guns, historical figures, guns, dead bodies, guns and dead bodies. These were the grim images I continued to find when searching for reference. I’m an inquisitive follower of the news, and can get a bit sidetracked while researching something like this. Material I read concerning Congo and Joseph Kony was obviously unsettling to deal with as I illustrated some of the sections of the book. I can only imagine what effect dealing with that kind of violence would have on a person who had to deal with it day in and day out.
Thumbnails. That’s where I do all the work. I usually do several versions of any given page and then toss most into the garbage. Below is a very VERY early quick sketch of what became page 26 of the book. I probably did a more finished version of this thumbnail but it was lost to the trash bin. Many of my roughs end up in the rubbish pile as I don’t really think of what I do as all that precious.
Here’s the finished page just to compare. After I work out all the story telling and layouts in the thumbnail I can kind of zone out and get the final drawings done. With this book I used various Japanese brushes, adding grey tones with the computer.
Although, I was for the most part drawing real people who were know for doing horrible things, the chapter heads made for some visceral and interesting portraits like the below illustration of Caesar Acellam. The original art for these disturbing visages are presently hidden away in my closet for the time being.
FPI would like to thank David and Tim for taking time to share some of their thoughts on creating this fascinating work. Army of God is out shortly from Public Affairs; you can follow David via his site here and his Twitter, and Tim’s own site can be found here and also via his Twitter. There’s a further twist in the tale of the creation of this graphic work though, involving over zealous government agents, financial shenanigans and the War On Terror – stay tuned for David’s postscript to the creation of the book tomorrow.