March 8, 2021

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True War Stories: Interview with Alex de Campi & Khai Krumbhaar


Cover of True War Stories. Art by Richard Johnson

Back in September of last year I was part of the successful Kickstarter campaign run by Alex de Campi and Khai Krumbhaar by way of Z2 Comics and it gave the latter half of a pandemic year something to be proud of. The overwhelming support that the campaign received validated the passion project for it's two coordinators, and gave me something to look forward to.

Fast forward a few months, with book now in hand, and I’ve read through the war stories a few times already. These stories are not what you’d necessarily expect at face value from a book sporting a tank on it’s cover while calling itself True War Stories.

This is an anthology book at heart. It is a collection of memories of actual war veterans, told by war veterans, and illustrated by some of the comic industries top talents. Unfortunately, the chance to earn bragging rights for being an early adopter through Kickstarter have long passed. But you can now get a copy at your local bookstore, as well as online. As I learned during the interview, the charities benefiting from the sales of the book receive the most money if purchased direct from the Z2 Comics web store online. You can do so by following the link here.

I had the pleasure of participating in a brief conversation with Alex and Khai, the editors of True War Stories, and they were kind enough to share some behind-the-scenes action as well as some possible future plans for the book.


Sean: So, Alex and Khai, did you know each other before this collaboration and where’d this great idea for compiling a war story anthology come from?

Khai: We met at a friend’s house, where we were both staying during San Diego Comic Con. I don’t usually trot out war stories around civilians, but we got to talking and for some reason I told her the story that would eventually become “Rebels of Macadamia” [in the book]. She [Alex] had always wanted to do a war book. I assumed she was just throwing out ideas, but a while later she emailed and said, “Hey, for real though, let’s make this happen.”

Alex: The book took forever to make! I mean, that was probably 2015 or 2016 when we met in San Diego. It was a really slow process, mostly because we were absolutely determined that both the writers and the artists would get paid a decent rate for their work, which a lot of publishers weren’t willing to do. All the book’s profits go to veterans’ charities, but that doesn’t mean the people working on the book should work for free. The contributors needed to be treated with respect. I was really worried Khai would think I was a flake or unable to get the book together, like, here I am, this weirdo friend-of-a-friend showing up and going “hey, tell me your story, and we should get more stories like this.” We were super lucky to get Z2 Comics on board because not only did they give us page rates for the artists and writers, they said, “as soon as the book covers its costs, let’s give all the profits to charity,” and that was amazing. So we had our writers pick five veterans’ charities they liked, and all the book’s moneys go to that. 

Sean: That's pretty amazing that Z2 Comics went in the same direction with proceeds as you were intending without any nudge whatsoever! But, tell me, why do you think these aren't the stories that end up getting told to non-military people? I feel like these are the ones that transcend any preconceived stance on war in general. I mean.. even a pacifist can come away from reading this with enjoyment so why hold back, you know?

Khai: Well.. when the opening for a war story comes up people are looking for a certain kind. Their reaction when you tell the one you want (instead of the one they expect) can shut you right down. It sucks to share what you think is a really good story and be met with confusion, disappointment, or even contempt. That happens a few times and you learn to just tell the "safe" ones. Then no one gets to hear the real ones. Which is a shame, because those are the best stories.

Sean: Absolutely, they are the best ones! I can attest to that as having read this collection already. In retrospect (and to confirm what you just said) I noticed that all the stories in the book are literally not what you’d expect from someone telling a war story. Some are sad and others are quirky, but they all have a charm to them that make them feel intimate and personal; as if you’re having a beer with the one telling it while sitting with them in their living room. How’d you track down all of these veterans to tell such vulnerable stories?

Khai: For this book, it really came down to personal connections. Again, these aren’t the stories we usually tell non-military people, so it took a certain level of vulnerability for our contributors to share these with us. We had some personal ties to all our contributors, and they knew there was a veteran on the team, so they trusted us enough to believe we weren’t going to spin this somehow when they were done. They really took a leap of faith on us, and I think it paid off.

Alex: Yeah, this was definitely friends and friends-of-friends. And we told everyone “tell the story you think about most”, and that was it. Every writer chose what story of theirs they wanted to share. And one of the reasons this book exists is these are the stories you hear if you have friends and family in the military. Books of autobiographical military stories are so often heavily filtered through a propaganda lens (and a ghostwriter), focusing on moments of Great Heroism and… nobody actually tells those tales to their friends. It’s bragging. We wanted to show just the diversity of everyday experience on deployment, and some of it’s hilarious, some of it’s sad, some of it’s very philosophical. I do feel like we failed a little, in that we didn’t have a poop story. (Every soldier has a poop story; google “Rip-It Ranger” and be warned.)

Sean: Were there any stories that didn’t get included due to time or money constraints? If yea, throw me a bone and give me the gist of each one of your favorites..

Khai: We had one author drop out for real world reasons. I really wish we’d gotten her story, and I hope we can entice her back if we do another volume. Also, somehow we don’t have one single poop story in here. Everyone who’s deployed has a story about the time they pooped their pants (or the time their friend pooped their pants, but you know it’s really them). One of our authors has one that makes me cry laughing. It was a stretch goal to add that one, but we didn’t quite hit it. You can bet it will be there next time.

Alex: Yea, I do feel like we failed a little, in that we didn’t have a poop story. (Every soldier has a poop story; google “Rip-It Ranger” and be warned.) But, yeah, we actually had a couple of folks who didn’t end up being able to finish their stories, and I’m hoping they’ll be willing to be involved for Volume 2. Our door is always open. And, Tyson’s story about winning hearts and minds via drinking unpasteurized milk and the, uh, explosive gastrointestinal results…

Sean: [bookmarking Rip-It Ranger Google results on my phone] ..so, I really enjoyed the range of stories you included. Nearly every emotion on the spectrum is involved here. The one that made me curl up in laughter was “Overboard”. That one felt like a story Grandpa would tell as soon as Grandma left the room. At what point did you realize you were making a book for the coffee table rather than the relic room?

Khai: I think we always knew we wanted this to be a book that was read and reread and shared. War stories- the real kind, not the shiny Hollywood ones- are something we tell over and over amongst ourselves. A new guy shows up to the unit and everyone wants Sergeant Sachs to tell the story about the mule, that kind of thing. So that’s intentional.

Alex: Oh yeah, from the beginning we wanted like Humans of New York, but military. And honestly, if you’re friends with someone who deployed and you’re sitting around having a beer and you ask them to tell you a story, it’s probably going to be something funny and absurd. Or a poop story. This book’s about people, not institutions.

Sean: Hoe was the experience of doing this as a Kickstarter with Z2 Comics like for you both compared to just doing it traditionally?

Khai: Real talk, my main interest in the Kickstarter was covering as many costs as we could so there would be more profit from the retail sales for our charities. I know it was a good publicity move too, but anything that helps us raise more [money] makes me happy.

Alex: Yeah, same. Doing a Kickstarter in the middle of a pandemic when stuff has been a nightmare to get stuff from the printer and ship out has been an experience, but most folks have been really patient. The USPS has been losing so many books, like fully 10% of our books were lost or destroyed in the postal system.

Sean: Yikes! Mine came on time and in great shape. So no complaints here.

Alex: Great! But if you like engaging with people, and you’re super organized, Kickstarters are great. I just like the book earning out before it even comes out in shops. That’s crucial for me. And honestly right now? Anything to get books in people’s hands. You can’t rely on shops because a lot of folks still aren’t going to any. (Speaking of which, if you want to buy True War Stories and also want to maximize the amount of money from your purchase that goes to the five veterans charities our writers picked out, buy it from the Z2 web store. More than double the money goes to charity than if you buy it through Amazon.)

Sean: Good to know. I'll remember that for future also. Let's switch gears and talk the creative process for a minute. How did you handle pairing war veteran authors with the different artists? Did they choose or did you? 

Khai: Finding artists was all Alex! She asked some people she’d worked with before, and also put up an advertisement for the book. Then we’d match the artist to the story, introduce them to the author, and see how everyone felt. We did have to switch someone out at one point because it just wasn’t fitting the story, but overall, everyone seemed really happy with their team. The artists were very patient about endless “wait that patch is wrong, the incoming unit had THESE patches” edits.

Alex: Yes, I’m lucky enough to know a lot of great artists and since the longest story is only 26 pages long, we could grab a little space here and there in people’s schedules even though our page rate wasn’t, like, a Marvel or DC rate. The true hero of the book is Kelly Fitzpatrick, though, who coloured about 75% of the stories and managed to choose a different, unique colour style for each one. And also Peter Krause, for stepping in at the last minute to draw a second story when the original artist was unable to complete it.
Page from "Rebels of Macadamia" by Khai Krumbhaar, Jeff McComsey & Dee Cunniffe
Sean: So.. Khai.. was your rat story intentionally put in the three spot? Because where I come from that is the track listing for the hit single! Seriously though, how hard was it to navigate the reading experience? I don’t find it coincidental that the book begins with a quick heavy hitter and ends with a tear-jerker that’ll make you want to phone home.

Khai: We did go over the story order a few times to get the pacing right. I’m lucky to have had Alex’s experience for this part. She wanted “Roadside” at the end for that sense of closure. I think it worked out better than ending on a laugh, which was my first impulse.

Alex: Wait, I thought you suggested "Roadside" for the end? I was thinking about "Brothers" but then you said "Roadside" was better because it brings our soldier home from deployment, and you were right! The story listing was like making a mixtape. We wrote all the titles down and then we stared at it. Some of it was predetermined, like we didn’t want the two Vietnam stories right next to each other, and we wanted to spread out the branches of service represented so there wasn’t like four Army stories to start out, or a big bunch of Marines stories together, et cetera. We also needed to spread out engagements so it was clear that this wasn’t just a bunch of Afghanistan stories or Iraq stories. We put Motorpool first because it’s the sort of story everyone thinks the book will be about (the author also has a really funny poop story, by the way), and then go the other way with the rather more freewheeling "My Vietnam Blast" which is both dramatic and funny and was an Air Force story, then Khai’s story because again, we wanted to make sure one of our two women veterans’ stories was up front… there were a lot of considerations in placement.

Sean: Since you brought up mixtapes, I gotta ask.. in the editor’s room, was there a preferred background noise? Kim Gordan, Tom Petty, Dave Grohl.. or do you prefer splicing panels in silence?

Khai: Uh-oh. If I try to be cool about this, anyone I served with will rat me out in a second. My musical tastes have been described as “weird or relentlessly cheerful, plus classic rock”. So you’re as likely to hear me bopping along to Gogol Bordello as belting out “I’ll Make A Man Out Of You”. In my defense I was raised in Florida and Disney runs in our blood there.

Alex: There’s a panel where two Scout Snipers in Haiti are singing Madonna in their nest and it’s one of those Very True panels. I lettered the book mostly in silence because my 2008 (!!) Macbook Pro was thiiis close to dying the entire time and if I even THOUGHT about opening another application or asking it to stream something it would have been Game Over. (I finally bought a new secondhand one in November; it’s from 2019!).

Sean: Alex, I could be way off base here, but I felt like this was more than a business proposition for you. During the whole Kickstarter campaign I could almost feel the energy that suggested it a passion project for you, and not just selling comics. Who’s the veteran in your family?

Alex: My dad; he was Navy. We had a lot of cool family stuff happen around the book — both our Vietnam stories were father/daughter partnerships; the artist on "My Vietnam Blast", Dave Acosta, wants to get a story from HIS dad’s Vietnam tour if we do a Volume 2. Telling these stories started a lot of positive discussions among families.

Khai: Not directed at me, but as a fun note I have a family full of veterans. Father, mother, stepfather (my dad), grandparents, sister, uncles… it’s one of the "Officially Approved Vocations" in my family.

Sean: That's so awesome that the making of the book brought real life families together like that! Khai-- it was your first time as editor of a book, right ? You up for some more? I’d be down for part two of whatever you got kicking around up there, more rats or whatever else you got.

Khai: I had so much fun with this, and I learned a lot. The hardest part is wanting to go back to the first story (my own) and pick it apart at the end, but I think it holds up. I’m hoping we get to do another volume after this one. And- well, the rats really did stop coming for us, but I do have other stories. A really sad one about a cat, a funny potty humor one, and one that’s Very Good Stuff but I would probably need to check with S2 (security) about it before I told it.

Alex: I really want this book to sell well so we can persuade Z2 to do a Volume 2. And Khai was an amazing co-editor. We took stories in any form the authors gave us — sometimes a comic script, sometimes a ramble in an email, sometimes a highly organized PDF with photo references. And [Khai] fully adapted half those stories to comic script, which kept me from going insane while I did the other half, and lettered the book. And she was the eye for military detail, along with our authors, who had approvals every step of the way.

Sean: I definitely see an opportunity here for an ongoing passion project; Volume 2 and beyond. You both have hinted already at the desire for Volume 2 or something similar. What’s that look like for both of you? I’m sure there’s thousands of war stories worth telling, and I’m sure plenty of people interested in reading them.

Khai: The dream would be we do one every year, and that year’s authors choose the charities.

Alex: Yep! But like I said, we need Volume 1 to be a success. I’d like to pay the creators more next time, too.

Sean: Great! So basically keep telling people to hit up Z2 at their web store to buy the book. Say no more. Well.. this has been great. Thank you both for spending the time to do this. I wish you the best and I hope these stories bring a smile to everyone’s face as big as the one it gave me. /it really is a good read! Let’s end things by fantasy casting your own war story.. who draws, who colors, and who letters your comic?

Alex: Oh wow. I did a fictional story for the BATTLE annual in the UK this year with Glenn Fabry, who I love. Keith Burns painted cover… It’s hard to say, I got to work with so many of my favourite artists on TRUE WAR STORIES… Tonci Zonjic, I guess. I’d letter it myself, Tonci does his own colours

Khai: For me.. I doubt they’d do a war book because they mainly do fantasy work, but it would be fun to use Kendra Wells for a lighter story. They have a real humor to their art that I think would be unexpected. Also, I liked working with Dee Cunniffe on colors… but I’d like to try Kelly Fitzpatrick who did “Airman Jennings The Impaler.”
True War Stories is out now and available at all retail and online places where books are sold. Maximize proceeds benefiting war veteran chosen non-profits by visiting the Z2 Comics webstore at z2comics.com/products/true-war-stories-graphic-novel.

Page from "Airman Jennings the Impaler" by Brandon Davis Jennings, PJ Holden & Kelly Fitzpatrick