Last week saw the release of Brian Wood's latest comic series Rebels from Dark Horse, focusing on the events surrounding the Revolutionary War and the beginning stages of America as a country. Wood is no stranger to historical fiction comics, with Northlanders pillaging pull lists every month when the series was coming out from Vertigo. With Rebels though, it's a different focus on the actions that led to different historical events that are often shadowed by the more famous, such as the Boston Tea Party and the midnight ride of Paul Revere. Wood was kind enough to take some time out of his busy schedule and answer a few of my questions about Rebels via email.
Cameron Hatheway: I read that you were first inspired to do Rebels after a conversation about a retelling of the Founding Fathers with Felicia Day. What's the trick in presenting today's readers with an accurate retelling of the events surrounding the Revolutionary War that simultaneously doesn't scare them off? Students in particular hate being tricked into learning things.
Brian Wood: I have this rule that I created for Northlanders, and it's basically that if it comes down to making something in the book historically accurate or cool, meaning if you can only have one of those things in a given moment, you have to go with cool. And "cool" is a shorthand for any number of things – the narrative, the characters, the visuals… all that takes priority over the history. The buffs out there might blanch at that, but that's the way it goes. I don't want this book, or any historical fiction I do, to come off dry like an old Illustrated Classics.
The other not-really-a-trick trick I do is to pick an unusual POV to tell the story from. We already know the broad strokes of this history, we know about Washington and Adams and Franklin, we know about Valley Forge and crossing the Delaware. With Rebels, I wanted to show things from an angle we haven't really seen yet. Just like how I did it with vikings in Northlanders.
CH: This isn't your first time writing historical fiction comics—Northlanders shines brightly in my mind as an example of that. When it comes to researching a project like Rebels, where's the starting point in a sea of history on the subject?
BW: Start pulling books off the shelves. For me, that's where it begins and ends. The Reading Rainbow theme always plays in my head… "Take a look, it's in a book." In the case of Rebels, a lot of what I needed to know I already knew, since this history is my local history, the stories I grew up on. So compared to past projects, this was a walk in park, research-wise.
CH: In this first story arc we're thrown right in the turmoil of the New Hampshire farmers seeking justice from the Crown's unlawful taxation of their lands. What was it about this setting that made you decide to start the series? Why not the Boston Massacre or the Boston Tea Party?
BW: The phrase "America's First Militia," that's why. What a great tagline, what an incredibly evocative phrase. I came across that and knew it had to be the first story in the series. Not only does in contrast in interesting ways with modern times, it's also a lesser-known angle. The Tea Party has essentially turned into folktale, it lacks any real excitement and honestly I don't know what I could say about it that hasn't been said a thousand times before. The same is also true of the Boston Massacre, but I am trying to figure out a way to feature that in another story, perhaps from the angle of one of the British soldiers who participated.
CH: Will Rebels be released in a similar format like Northlanders, jumping around different times and settings during the Revolutionary War, always focusing on the rebels who fought during it?
BW: Yes and no. We'll jump around a little bit, but we have a steady artist in Andrea Mutti who'll be drawing a good 75% of the entire series, however long it lasts, keeping a strong visual identity to the whole thing (along with colorist Jordie Bellaire).
CH: I read that one issue in the future will focus on the folktale of Molly Pitcher. Will you be focusing on Mary Ludwig Hays or Margaret Corbin? Both women served valiantly attending to the wounded on the field in separate battles, and both are tied to the folktale of Molly Pitcher.
BW: Yes, although I'm sort of taking all three of those women, and women just like them, and creating a fictional character called Sarah Hull who will stand in for them. It's less of a straight re-telling of that folktale and more of a dissection of it, and then a look at the long term, this woman Sarah looking back after a great many years. It's probably my favorite issue of the first 8 or so.
CH: What kind of reference material did you present to Andrea Mutti when it came to capturing the feel of New Hampshire during 1768-1775?
BW: He didn't need too much help, but I was a stickler about the woods. I grew up in those woods so personally it was important to show the right trees, the density of the forest, and also the yellow-green of the summer foliage. I really bugged Jordie about that to nail that distinct color that I so strongly associate with New England. But Andrea's a pro, he hit the ground running with this book.
CH: Will Mutti be the artist for just this first story arc, or will there be a rotating roster of artists?
BW: In this first 10 issues that I have outlined, we have Andrea doing #1-6, a section of #8, and all of #9. That leaves a few guests, and the only one that's been announced so far is Greg Smallwood. He's drawing issue #10.
CH: How do you suppose you'd fare back during the Revolutionary War? What do you suppose your role in it would be, assuming you were living in Vermont?
BW: I always found a real peace and pleasure in chopping wood. I'd chop trees for freedom, how's that?
CH: What's your favorite historical insult that you've used so far?
BW: Trying to think if I've used one. I used the word "cock," but in the context of a proud person a "cock of the walk." Which, in a book that's designed to be a PG or PG-13 experience, it's me having my cake and eating it too. Because that word really works a few different ways in the scene.
Special thanks to Brian for taking some time out of his busy schedule to answer my questions, and to Dark Horse for the Rebels artwork that accompanied the article.