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RESEARCHING ‘MANNA’ PART 4: “But is it a Mark 3 or a Mark 4?”

INTRODUCTION

To say a tank is just a tank when working on a book such as MANNA is to armchair generals like being asked what shade of white you want when going to a paint shop. I am just as bad as any armchair general when some of this comes up. How many Hollywood war movies made over the years featured generic or historically incorrect vehicles? (I can imagine a lot of mumbling at this point.) Of course, there were good fiscal reasons in a number of cases for this- getting the equipment beyond what was in storage on the backlot was too expensive, or building replicas was too expensive, and so on. No doubt some directors and producers probably made comments like “It’s just a tank. Who cares if it’s American and we painted it up to look German? Nobody will know- or care.”

These days, however, that just isn’t on. We do care. Why wasn’t there more debris on the beach in DUNKIRK? Why was a Yorktown class aircraft carrier subbed in for a shot In MIDWAY where the LEXINGTON is shown to be sinking at the end of the Battle of the Coral Sea? Where were the Wildcats in MIDWAY? Why was the bow of the EXETER, as shown in WORLD ON FIRE not given the straight stem it had in real life? Why is a U-Boat of the First World War drawn like on from the Second in a comic book I read recently?

We care. The materials are out there. People still know these things. Why didn’t that information get into the hands of people making these otherwise excellent films and stories? You can actually gain some insight on how this dogs people working in the historic genre from watching an interview with Anthony Horowitz about the making of FOYLE’S WAR and the challenges they faced in ‘getting it right’. I found it enlightening and intimidating at the same time, making me realise that working on historic fiction is a lot like juggling a lot of balls in the air. If you are interested in writing about the war, look up this interview and watch it- if you can find it.

Enthusiasts are well informed and very picky. Computer animation has made recreating the terrible vistas of war much easier. Video games and 3D simulations like BBC’s incredible “BERLIN BLITZ,” (created using the Oculus Rift), can put viewers into the action on an almost visceral level. (I could go on about how disturbing it is that many players seem to derive more fun than horror from these experiences, but let’s leave that for another time. “BERLIN BLITZ” left me in a cold sweat, unable to speak for some time after experiencing it. Others left saying how exciting it was. Hmmm…)

GETTING THE TOOLS TO DO THE JOB

So, facing this, I want to get a number of details in MANNA right and leave any construction of the imagination to things which are not out of the realm of possibility, but are also not crucial to driving the history in the plot of the book.

Getting information on vehicles, aircraft and weapons isn’t that hard. It’s only time consuming and requires fact checking- especially if initial sources are sites on the internet created by enthusiasts not necessarily affiliated with museums, collections or organizations that specialize in keeping or operating the guns, planes or tanks in question. Books are better for that, although, they are not fool-proof. As time passes and some younger authors are writing these works, I find errors are creeping in where once they didn’t. It may be that the speed and convenience of the internet is trumping good ol’ fashioned scholarly research.

Better scholarship is found more these days in books where the author has direct access to archival materials and related primary sources. If possible, meet these people and talk to them. Go to the museums. Visit the archives. Explain the project and ask for help in locating resources. Discuss findings in books with interpreters at these places. I will give you three examples of how this can be useful.

  1. I wanted information on pilots who evaded capture by the Germans in World War Two and returned to Britain. What happened to them? Were they able to go back into action with their old units? If they’d been helped in their escape by a Resistance cell, how did that impact on their chances of returning to operations in Europe? The National Air Force Museum of Canada in Trenton was very helpful in pointing out resources and either supporting or refuting evidence I had discovered in other places. One meeting was all it took.
  2. How does one start the engines on a Lancaster bomber? That depends on the type of Lancaster it is. Was it built in Britain or Canada? Is it a Mark I, III, or X? Does it have Rolls Royce Merlin or Packard Merlin engines? Was it built near the end of the war with possible deployment to the far east for missions against Japan in mind? All of this matters, as I discovered when I asked someone at the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum in Mount Hope, outside Hamilton, ON., this very question.
  3. If gasoline was rationed, how did people get about in occupied Europe during the war? Welcome to the wonderful world of wood or coal gas powered vehicles, carts pulled by dogs in harness, known in the Netherlands as Honderkar, and horses pulling wagons for the Wehrmacht. (On the last point, I discovered the German army was not nearly as mechanized as one would have believed from watching the propaganda movies. Hundreds of thousands of horses were used by the army in the war. One of my interviews with witnesses to the German occupation of the Netherlands revealed that it was rare to see mechanized vehicles under enemy control during the last half of the war beyond Kubelwagens, Schwimmwagens and motorcycles. Trucks were uncommon and then often only moved at night after D-Day.) This will be important as I sort out the conveyances used by one of the characters in the book. She will start with a small car, a van version of the Fiat Topolino, move to a wood gas powered motorcycle rigged up by her husband and finish with a honderkar. Some creative licence may be needed in parts, but only so in parts because everything else has be verified as having existed at that time.

Ask the questions of your sources. You may be surprised by the answers…

LINKING BACK TO OTHER ELEMENTS IN THE STORY

Finally, remember the people who ride the machines are just as important as the machines themselves. Check uniforms. Also, check markings on vehicles and camouflage patterns. If you’re going to portray a Canadian Military Pattern truck from a certain regiment of the Canadian Army in a particular area of fighting, make sure that particular type of machine was there and make sure the markings on the vehicle match units that served in the region at that time.

The only other thing you can do is come up with fictitious markings for a non-existent unit and then you have some latitude in terms of what you can portray in your story. For example, in MANNA, I created a fictional R.A.F bomber squadron flying Lancasters from a fictional place in Lincolnshire. The squadron codes are fictional. The tail markings- highly unusual anyway- are also made up. This was done after careful research allowed me to develop the above with a certain knowledge that none of it existed previously and no one either descended from squardron crews or actually there would come up and tell me I got it all wrong. Frederick E. Smith did this when he wrote 633 SQUADRON and its sequels. You can get the information to do this online or in books. I used both to re-search what I used eventually, coming up with my Lancaster looking something like this-

The serial number is real. The squadron codes and tail markings are made up. This is one of the computer generated models I acquired for use in the book. I modified the original markings to make up TIZZY, but am only using it myself and do not intend to make them available elsewhere. Hopefully, that will keep the original creator happy.

I hope this helps you realize the nature of the work you have ahead of you. When presenting this material in the class on the graphic novel at George Brown College, I have been greeted afterwards by comments like “Well, I guess I won’t be writing any historical graphic novels any time soon,” or “I think I’ll stick to fantasy.” I love the last one the most because I would pay real money to see the reaction of someone like J.K. Rowling or George R.R. Martin to a comment like that. For historic fiction, at least you have a foundation upon which to base your research. I would think fantasy or science fiction would, if anything, be harder to create.

But that is a topic for another time…

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RESEARCHING ‘MANNA’ PART 3: Graphic novels about the war

If you intend to create a graphic novel, study the works of other authors and artists in the medium. When I suggest you study graphic novels, I mean read self-contained works, not trade paperbacks collecting six issues of your favourite superhero story. You can certainly learn things from those works, but they are structured differently from graphic novels, which have more of a traditional narrative structure and do not presume that you have a pre-existing knowledge of the characters or situations. By graphic novels, I mean MAUS, by Art Spiegelman, A SAILOR’S STORY by Sam Glanzman, ERNEST & ETHEL by Ronald Briggs.

Books like that. The ones above are named because they all deal with the Second World War. In the pictures below are a collection of graphic novels I have collected on the war. It is by no means complete. Click on the images to bring up a separate post. Click on that for an enlargement. These books are all available either through major major retailers, or the secondary market.

SOME OBSERVATIONS…

One thing a number of these publications have in common is that they originated in Europe. I met a German representative from a distribution company a few years back who said graphic novels about the war are popular in Europe as the grand-children of the people who lived through it try to understand what happened then. I have found more of these books coming from Europe now than from America or Britain, which seemed to focus more on war narratives a number of years ago. Perhaps it is because the nature of the conflict was such that continental Europe is only now being able to examine the war as it was fought right there and the British, while bombed and terrorized by the Luftwaffe and Hitler’s U-Boats never endured enemy occupation outside the Channel islands and the Americas were largely untouched by enemy action except off the coast at sea. Certainly I’ve learned the experiences of those living on the continent was VERY different to that of my parents, who grew up in the British Isles.

Some stories focus as much on civilians as they do on soldiers. All of them, whether true stories like TWISTS OF FATE, IRMINA, A SAILOR’S STORY, MAUS, THE BATTLE OF ARNHEM- SEPTEMBER 1944, SIX DAYS, ALAN’S WAR and I, RENE TARDI etc., adapted from a novel like SUITE FRANCAISE, or adapted pieces inspired by historic characters or events like the Garth Ennis stories, LE GRAND DUKE, BEAR’S TOOTH, and VOICES IN THE DARK, brings new dimensions to our understanding of the war and jumps beyond the standard US vs THEM stories that were more popular years ago. When I look at anthologies or collected works like ACES HIGH, WAR STORIES, BLAZING COMBAT and BATTLE CLASSICS, I notice that the selections here stand out also for their balance of characterisation and action. ACES HIGH represents a complete run between its covers and thus we get to see some more traditional stories alongside the ones that explore moral issues in war, but I wonder from the selections in the Garth Ennis picks for BATTLE CLASSICS how many other stories not in the anthology appeared in that magazine fitting the more formulaic works that were popular years ago.

(I have one book here, ROSE BLANCHE, which is not a graphic novel, but rather a picture book. The images are so much part of the story, though, that I keep it with the graphic novels just the same.)

Please note in the photos I have two samples of contemporary comic strips from the war in my collection- JOHNNY CANUCK and JANE, the latter being a biography of Norman Pett, the strip’s creator and his model for the title character, Christabel Leighton-Porter. Both are gems: the former for the Canadian content and the latter for the cheekiness that pushed the limits of propriety for its day. I met a veteran of the Canadian Army’s campaign in the Netherlands a few years ago and we got to talking about Jane. He told me waiting for the next installment of strips to come out in the army newspaper was something that helped keep him going during that campaign. JUST JANE, the Lancaster bomber at East Kirkby in England, is named after Pett’s character. If you visit YouTube, you can find old Pathe newsreels of Pett drawing Leighton-Porter for the much anticipated next edition of Jane’s story. It’s a bit of a staging job, though, because more often than not Pett drew his model from the nude and added clothes- or removed them- later in the final panels. Very much of their time, neither character is well-known today outside historical scholarship and the fading memories of people who were there when the adventures of Johnny or Jane first went to print.

THE HOLOCAUST

Before Art Spiegelman created MAUS and brought comics and graphic novels to a whole new readership in the world, the Holocaust also appeared in comics. WE SPOKE OUT: COMIC BOOKS AND THE HOLOCAUST, edited by Neal Adams, Raphael Medoff and Craig Yoe, is a collection of stories from the pages of comic books where the Holocaust figures in the plot. One of the most powerful in it is Neal Adams’ own piece on the wartime experiences of Dina Gottliebov√°,¬†(later Dina Babbitt). I bought the book so I could get a complete copy of the story and acquired with it a rich legacy of this horrific period in the history of so-called humanity. It provides a good foundation to accounts of the Holocaust in sequential art up to the publication of MAUS, allowing me to put some of the other books I have on the subject- like Joe Kubert’s YOSSEL, Dave Sim’s JUDENHASS, IRENA and AUSCHWITZ into a kind of context. The art in each is unique. The stories are powerful. Put together with the other books I’ve shown in this article and unrelated historical graphic novels I possess that are not covered here, (like George Pratt’s haunting take on the World War One character ENEMY ACE), I have gained an appreciation that artists in the genre have a freedom to be more expressive, abstract or illustrative with the art used to compliment the text here than they do in conventional superhero comics, where other expectations dominate the presentation of the work. Perhaps that is best, for I wonder how some of these stories would ‘read’ visually if they were presented in the same style as so many of those wonderfully action packed and dramatic tales from the big comic companies. WE SPOKE OUT gives us a glimpse of what they could look like, but I wonder if they would have the same impact if rendered exclusively in that style. I think not. I think the variety of art styles presented in all these books is what makes them together so powerful, for it reminds us that the filters we use when telling our stories don’t just stop working with the words we choose to put on the page. The images themselves carry as much of the narrative and need to be given careful consideration in their design and creation.

CONCLUSIONS…

In all graphic novels, there is often a tug of war between writers and artists regarding which part of the book gets prominence. Having met some famous writers and artists, I have heard about this firsthand. One writer said she felt lucky to have such great artists illustrating her stories, but knew not all writers could say the same. “If you can write and draw your story, you’ve got much better control over the content,” she concluded.

I can think you also have much more responsibility too, for a comic panel is not so big when you have to find space for both words and pictures in it. Creating any sequential art, especially one that focuses on strong story telling, is a delicate balancing act and is not for everyone. So, in closing, think carefully about the story you want to tell and the best way to do it. I have a number of friends who would much rather read MANNA as an illustrated novel than a graphic novel. At this point, I’m not entirely sure they’re wrong. What may emerge in the end could be a hybrid like Terry Moore’s STRANGERS IN PARADISE, which uses prose, sequential art, and mixtures of the two to tell its story. Another good example would be Sydney Padua’s THE THRILLING ADVENTURES OF LOVELACE AND BABBAGE.

At the time of writing, I’m thinking the hybrid might be the answer…

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RESEARCHING ‘MANNA’ PART 2: Hearing the voices of the war

As time passes and the Second World War slips from the living memory of humanity, efforts have been made by family members, museums and government organisations to gather the stories of those who lived through the conflict for posterity. Some of these collections have been published for the public as books. Some have been made available as media resources. Peter Jackson used audio recordings of First World War veterans made almost fifty years ago to create the narrative track for his documentary film, THEY SHALL NOT GROW OLD. Similar projects related to the Second World War could be created the same way as thousands of stories have been preserved in various ways for people to consult in the future.

Where MANNA and the occupation of the Netherlands in World War Two is concerned, I have pulled source material from a number of places. First, the internet, using Google and Wikipedia as a starting point, helped to lay a foundation. Wikipedia is, to me, a good resource because of the links reaching out from articles to other websites or books. I have found much useful information that way. Wikipedia is good for the SEARCH part of fact finding. Google and Wikipedia quickly turn into rabbit holes and dogs chasing their tails when searching, though, because websites link to other websites, but the information shared is either the same or a variation therein. If you need a deep dive, you need to look elsewhere.

Books. Lots of books. Books about the subject directly and things spinning off from it will be a good place to start. For me, these were resources I used to get going. OPERATION MANNA/CHOWHOUND was already out of print when I picked it up. A newer book, OPERATION CHOWHOUND, came out jut a couple of years ago. Together, they compliment each other on the food drops that gave my book its inspiration.

Then, as I realized I needed to learn more about life under the occupation, I supplemented website information and photographic references with these little books of personal anecdotes from survivors of the occupation, either in the Netherlands itself, or in the colonies of the Dutch East Indies, now known as Indonesia. I collected the ones I felt were the most useful and then decided to add some primary material of my own, meeting people who were in the Netherlands during the war and interviewing them. Two of the three interviews I conducted were recorded for posterity.

Why not more interviews, you may ask? I have asked many people. Few wished to discuss their experiences. Others, according to relatives I’ve talked to, had forgotten much over time and could offer little of use. A couple examined the information I brought and said I knew more about aspects of the occupation already than they did… and they lived through it! Having said that, though, every one of those interviews lifted a curtain that was obscuring the vision I had of the world I wanted to created for MANNA. In one case, a look at a design for a kitchen I created raised concerns about the size and I was able to make it more realistic. In another case, my image of tanks and trucks everywhere was debunked quickly by one witness who said luckily the tanks stayed away from his town and only came through when trouble was in the offing. I learned about the use of horses in Holland- thousands of them. I heard about relatives who fought with the Resistance and relatives who were drafted into the army and sent to Russia. I heard stories that surprised me, touched me, horrified me and captivated me. More books reinforced those accounts and enriched them further. For example, reading about Arnhem was one thing. Hearing someone describing the sight of hundreds of transport aircraft flying past her home towards the drop zones at the beginning of Operation Market Garden was something else entirely.

Memories, I learned, could be stronger and more vivid with age than one might assume and attitudes generated by the experience of the war could be hardened surprising by time. “I hope they got what they deserved,” said one witness when he heard about the number Dutchmen who enlisted for the SS divisions formed in the Netherlands and sent to the Eastern Front. Other sentiments- not to be shared here- were also echoed.

These accounts are like gold, and more are being unearthed from sources long silent in the world. DUTCH GIRL, the story of Audrey Hepburn’s experiences in the Netherlands during the war was published just last year, long since she passed away. It’s well worth reading and I found it to be a great addition to my library on the Dutch in the war. To balance the perspective and try to get inside the experiences of Germans in the war, as occupation soldiers and support personnel would have had stories of their own, I read a lot of books about life in the Reich and in its service. A number of these books were memoirs of events that happened in the youth or childhood of the narrators. No one else is left today to tell their stories.

I would say to anyone out there wanting to attempt historic fiction, primary sources where possible are very helpful, but round them out with a range of materials. Be open-minded in terms of where you look. Sometimes, an unlikely place will yield a nugget or two of useful information. Don’t just concentrate on the narrative. Build resources about the whole of the world in which it takes place. It’ll make the story rich and authentic. Think of your story as being like an engine. You see the overall shape of the thing. But you need to remember the hundreds or thousands of parts- some moving and others not- that went into making it what it is. As anyone who’s had car servicing done, those little parts have their roles to play in the smooth operation of the engine. Don’t neglect them in your car any more than you would do so in your story. And finally, take your time in putting it together. The only person you are racing against until the book is complete is yourself and maybe the few friends you had read it at some point. The world is unaware of the thing until it finally appears in print and even then it might not even so much as wobble upon its release. So get it right while you get it done.

Hilde seems happy with her new book. Do it right and you’ll be happy with yours.

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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.