Veteran's Day Special: An Interview with Three Creators from Above the Dreamless Dead

A few months ago, I wrote about Above the Dreamless Dead, an anthology of adaptations of World War One stories and poems from the group known as the trench poets--writers who served and survived that terrible conflict that solved just about nothing.

It's a great collection with some amazing creators. I had the pleasure of being able to e-mail interview three of them: Hannah Berry, Kevin Huizenga, and James Lloyd. We spoke about their experiences on the project and why they got involved.

I'd been holding these for a bit, waiting for the right moment. Given that Veteran's Day was originally designed to honor those who served in World War One only (then called THE World War, as if there'd be no more of them), I figured this was a perfect time to share. Enjoy!

Rob McMonigal: What interested you in being a part of this anthology?

Hannah Berry: The anthology appealed to me as a great way to commemorate the Trench Poets, and illustrating their work in comic format struck me as a pretty unique challenge. When I first sat down to plan the artwork I created a series of careful illustrations, reverentially echoing the words. Then I threw them out and started again: the point of a comic is that the images add an extra dimension to the writing, and the polite illustrations were bringing nothing to the table. The wish to be respectful had to balance with the translation of the poems into comic format - like telling a story within another story. As I say, a unique challenge!

James Lloyd: I had become horrified by modern warfare by the end of the nineties and subsequently participated in the Vancouver anti-war movement that developed in the wake of the Iraq invasion. This led to me want to tell the story of a US veteran staying in refuge here in Canada, which never came to fruition. However, Chris Duffy knew I had been making this the focus of my personal work and invited me to participate in the book. Above The Dreamless Dead marks the first time I've been able to make a statement in comics regarding these concerns professionally.

Kevin Huizenga: It's interesting to mix WW1 poetry with comics. It's challenging to try and adapt the formal qualities of poetry to the formal possibilities of comics.

McMonigal: How did you approach your adaptation? Can you talk a bit about what went into creating your section/sections of the book and the art process you used?

Huizenga: I tried to use the form of the poem to guide the design of the pages.

The poem was filled with ironies, so I tried to preserve those in my comics version by not ruining the ambiguities by coming down too hard on one side or the other in my interpretation of the meanings of various lines, and I tried to build ironies into my layouts and choices. For instance, the poem is itself a song, about soldiers who are themselves singing a song, and the poem is about what kind of song they should sing. So I left it ambiguous as to who was singing. Also, the poem increases in intensity by increasing the number of lines in each stanza.

I let this guide how I distributed the words on the pages. I felt it was more intense in comics form to decrease the number of words per page instead of increasing them.

Berry: It was important to get the period details right, and I spent a lot of time looking up visual references on some of the vast picture libraries online. (The biggest obstacle was being distracted by ‘research tangents’ - I learnt a lot more about despatch riders, the Royal Engineers and pigeons than I probably needed...)

I went for a fairly realistic approach to the artwork, but with enough left to suggestion in ‘A Private’ that (I hope) it didn’t undermine the weight of the piece. I used acrylic ink, as I often do, because you can throw it around like watercolour when wet but then layer it up until it’s nice and murky. 

Lloyd: The process of adapting the "Repression" poem to comic form was the longest I've endured on any one story. Both editor Chris Duffy and I wanted to bring the concept of soldiers suffering "shell-shock" (the subject matter of 'Repression of War Experience') up to the present day, and many conversations ensued regarding how best to see that through. Originally I wrote a much longer piece involving PTSD and the modern veteran that comprised the majority of my allotted pages, but Chris wisely decided the original poem should be the focus of the story and we would keep any commentary on current times a concise post-script.

Once ready to start the drawing, I determined that the art approach would have to be a conscious step away for the slicker form of cartooning I grew up with, such as in the EC Comics war stories from the '50s. I wanted a more granular, textured look, so I chose a mixture of hatching, dry brush, and Prismacolour pencil on rag paper to make sure nothing got too clean. I tried for a play on light and dark (the interiors of the house in which the protagonist resides were kept black in contrast to the stark white of the outside) with the text winding its way through both. I hope I created some interesting combinations. The text was hand lettered separately on a finished paper and layered in digitally.

I also contacted a cousin in Wales for any old family photos regarding the first war (my grandfather served in the horse cavalry) or the immediate post war years, in which my story takes place. The pictures I got back informed the family photos in the story and the look of the summer house and yard.

I should note that there wasn't a time during the writing or drawing that I wasn't incredibly intimidated by the task in front of me-- and as such, Chris Duffy's guiding hand was invaluable. I'm deeply indebted to his feedback and encouragement.

McMonigal: What was the biggest challenge in working on your adaptation?

Lloyd: Doing justice to the words and subject matter. Comics have a long history of looking awfully quaint when they step into the realms of complex and/or tragic events. The approach on this book required some sophistication and a lot of awareness. Or you just don't go there. 

Berry: I think it was finding the right tone for ‘The Question’, a poem about a soldier wondering if his cow back home was still alive. The humour was…unexpected. In the end I decided to play it very dry and leave the humour to the poem itself, but I couldn’t resist hiding a few unexpected cows in the background as the beast played on his mind. 

Huizenga: Doing research. Looking at WW1 history books was fascinating, but it was also very moving and emotionally exhausting.

McMonigal: Why is World War One important for people to remember? It's nearly a forgotten war over in the United States.

Lloyd: The loss of humanity was appalling-- near inconceivable by today's terms. The figures are overwhelming, as is the blithe disregard for the millions of lives which were carelessly tossed aside by the men running the war on both sides. Most tragic (given that few seem to be able to understand or explain how a dispute between Hungary and Serbia could engulf the entire world) it could have-- and should have-- all been avoided. The lessons of the first World War have to be learned and re-learned as we head into the 21st century with humanity clearly willing to repeat mistakes.

Huizenga: It's important to remember because it was so stupid. It was so clearly stupid and monstrous, but human beings just like us went through with it anyways, everybody did their part. The possibility of such a thing happening is a terrible thing everyone has to face and try to imagine. Especially those in power.

Berry: Why are any wars important for people to remember? “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”. More than 16 million people died as a result of a war brought about by nationalism and neo-imperialism - looking at the state of the world around us, I think we could all do with remembering a little harder.

McMonigal: If readers of Above the Dreamless Dead enjoyed your contribution, where else can they find you?

Berry: I have two graphic novels out - Britten & Brülightly and Adamtine (you can read a preview of Adamtine for free on my website, if you’re in the mood for a little spot of horror -

Huizenga: My website.

Lloyd: My website.

Thanks so much to Hannah, Kevin, and James for their insight!