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RESEARCHING ‘MANNA’ PART 1: Colouring a world at war

“…and that’s why we call it ‘research.’ Because we SEARCH and then we RE-SEARCH.”

Dr. Angela Baisley

Angela Baisley was one of the best teachers I ever knew. I met her when she did a teacher exchange many years ago at my school, coming up from Florida- within sight of the Kennedy Space Center and the launchpads that saw beginning of so many historic missions into space. Her knowledge was vast. Her wisdom was great. I believe we truly got the best part of the deal where the exchange was concerned and took away a lot from my time working with her.

Her quote, which I used to begin this article, summed up then as it does now the challenge of writing any work involving history. The challenge only increases when the work involves illustrations or is a graphic novel. Creating aviation art has led to some interesting conversations with people over the years about how one goes about trying to make the piece accurate. I even hosted a talk at the Brampton Public Library years ago on this and enjoyed exchanging ideas with people about ‘historic’ art.

When I began work on MANNA, having wound up SARGASSO temporarily, I knew a long road lay ahead of me where research was concerned. SARGASSO was a fantasy set within an alternate universe that looked a lot like Earth in the early 1900s. Costumes, cars, architecture and such had to be more or less period specific. Beyond that, I could play freely with the world I had created.

MANNA was going to be different. It was set on our world, in our past, featuring locations, events and historic figures that were parts of our history. Getting it wrong was not something one wanted to do. While it is almost impossible to get it completely right, though, all reasonable efforts must be made to try and recreate the era as accurately as possible.

“I believe the true line of research lies in the careful noting and comparison of the smallest details”.

Flinders Petrie

MANNA required research on clothing, housing, transport, landscape and the environment- both rural and populated- to get the look of the Netherlands just right. Holland is more than windmills, bicycles and canals. The countryside may be flat or mildly undulating in most areas, but that doesn’t mean they are like the Canadian prairies or our Rocky Mountains. Early drawings for the graphic novel made the landscape look too open. With more research, I am now getting right the land and the colours within it and setting up scenes that say ‘Holland’, rather than ‘some place with a windmill in it’.

Books and the internet were very helpful to achieve that. However, I had to be careful with the internet, though, because I was not always able to recognize images that had been manipulated through the use of computer software. Collecting lots of pictures would help give me a range of materials so I could make informed decisions about colour choices later.

Ultimately, I know a trip to the Netherlands would be the best way to obtain primary reference material. At the time of writing, however, the global pandemic is making air travel difficult and other considerations continue to keep me at home. Someday, I hope that will change.

“The pictorial battlefield becomes a sea of mud mercifully veiled by the fog of war.”

Winston Churchill

If I find pictures from the war that are themselves in colour, I am very happy, indeed for the benefit of having the material at hand, though the subject matter is often tragic and disturbing. However, film stocks and issues with reproduction on the web make for challenges in themselves when viewing period photos. Old images often have an orange or sepia tint to them. Learning to recognize that when looking at these pictures has helped to avoid some errors when designing scenes for the book. For example, the colour of uniforms and anything to do with camouflage can be hard to figure out using period photos, if the original images have not been kept in good condition before publishing. Using books like the following in the image below, connected with others showing photos from the war, help a lot.

Unfortunately, it still comes down to matching the real colours with the right markers, coloured pencils or pastels in my kit- a problem I faced when creating the image of the Hitler Youth boy alongside other children and the stereotypical German frau in the big image that appears in the entry on MANNA in the gallery of Illustration and Cartooning.

From the Time-Life book THE NEW ORDER, by the editors of Time-Life books. (ISBN 0-8094-6962-6, published 1989.) This kind of reference helps artists because new photography of these uniforms comes with new technology and a better registration of the colours. Still, trying to match this with my materials was a bit tricky until I got the mix right. Other details that confused me were things like socks and boots and how different boys had different configurations in their uniforms. Belt buckles and sashes were a bit small in these images. Other books- the RE-search part of the exercise- helped refine the details better. It would be understandable for you to say “Does it matter?” But when dealing with nit-picky armchair historians who’d rather judge the work of others rather than create judgement worthy work of their own, no detail is too small for notice. And trust me, there’s always at least one in the crowd.

I also find books like the ones below to be of great help in handling details and providing great photographic references to help me draw the uniforms, machinery and settings I need to deal with in MANNA. A series of books from France on the uniforms of British, Canadian and German soldiers were among the more expensive purchases in my library, but easily some of the best. The uniforms photographed are, like the Hitler Youth ones in the picture above, original. The photographs are pin sharp, however, making you see the material in amazing detail. The Osprey books are solid, reliable and full of concise, well-organized information and hugely useful photos and illustrations. Realising that writing a book about the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands was going to require more than pictures of soldiers, I found Osprey provided affordable books to give me reference material on the underpinnings of the occupational forces’ structure, from police to nurses, firemen, communications operations and various auxiliary services. Some of them are illustrated here.

Some of the books above are getting on for 50 years of age. The Cromwell book isn’t even in English, beyond a few captions in the text. It’s Polish. However, as I was buying it for the pictures and diagrams, it didn’t matter. I look at these books and think back that 20-30 years ago, book shops were seemingly knee-deep in texts and picture books about the Second World War. In the 1960s, a lot of books were coming out about the Great War. Why is that, you may ask? These conflicts were 50 years earlier at the time and many of the participants were entering their senior years or starting to pass away. Now- 80 and 100 years on, few, if any, people who lived then remain. Publishers probably perceive that the interest in these events is now limited more to a niche market of enthusiasts. It might explain why newer books like the uniform guides seen below are so much more expensive than a number of the ones above put together. However, it does set up a dangerous problem for us in that as the availability of these books, along with the primary witnesses fade into history, the collective memory of society can be more easily distorted by people who might not our best interests in mind.
Every one of the books here is decades old and second hand. They are still worth more than a lot of the information you will find casting your nets in the deep waters of the Google Sea. It’s kind of ironic that I have to, in a way, go back in time, to find some of the best resources about the war. I don’t mind, though. Losing myself in shops where the shelves are taller than me is a great way to pass the time.

Or should that be ‘pass through time?’

So where do you find these books? Amazon, with its myriad dealers and retailers is one place. One place where I go in person to buy these books is ARMY OUTFITTERS in Toronto, just off the 401 highway on Lesmill Road. It is an amazing place and has done wonders to help me find not only books for the various war stories I am working on, but also books I remember reading from my childhood, when visits to the library were a weekly Friday night occurrence.

Next, having discussed the colours of the war, I will discuss the stories behind it, followed by a reflection on the machinery in MANNA. Check the photographic section for posts related to the book and trips I took to museums and collections over the years. Also, look at the section on models for articles on some of the kits I’ve built so far related to MANNA.

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