“I have always been interested in the subject, but have been more strongly drawn to the 20th Century, and all it’s conflicts… mostly World War Two.”
SIEGFRIED SASSOON used poetry to communicate the futility and horror of the First World War. Lady Butler immortalized the epic battles of the 19th Century with her paintbrush and canvas. In our own era, filmmakers like Steven Spielberg bring the spectacle of conflict to the big screen.
And then there’s Wayne Vansant. His medium is the war comic.
After getting his start in with Marvel Comics’ groundbreaking 1986 saga The ‘Nam, the 30-year-veteran illustrator has turned out literally dozens of works covering everything from the American Civil War to the Korean Conflict, as well as a number of books on the Second World War.
One of his most recent releases, the 368-page Katusha: Girl Soldier of the Great Patriotic War (available in two volumes both in print and digitally) tells the story of the Red Army’s struggle against Nazi Germany as seen through the eyes of a Ukrainian teen who joins the fight.
MilitaryHistoryNow.com recently caught up with the 66-year-old artist to ask him about his craft, his latest work and the power of the comic book as a medium for historical storytelling. Here’s what he had to say:
MHN: You’ve been illustrating war comics for 30 years now. What draws you to military history as a subject, rather than say super heroes or sci-fi?
WV: I grew up in the 1950s, my parents being of the World War Two generation. Most of my friends’ parents were too. I grew up hearing war stories, or hearing comments like: “That was back during the war.” Then there were lots of war movies on television, all in black and white of course. I started drawing from an early age, usually inspired by things like 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Flash Gordon. I started reading comics in the late ’50s. I never cared anything for super heroes or fantasy. I did like Turok: Son of Stone and the Classics Illustrated. But most of all I liked the war comics, although I think I did realize they were not very realistic. When Sam Glanzman’s COMBAT from Dell Comics first came out 1961, I saw what war comics should really be. For the next 25 years, I read a lot of comics and a lot of history, but there was nothing in the industry that I could see for me. Then in 1986 I saw Marvel’s Savage Tales, which was a collection of adventure stories, war stories and westerns. I sent in some art work and story ideas to editor Larry Hama. He started using me right away on Strange Tales and then as a fill in artist for The ‘Nam. Within a year I was the regular artist. I guess the rest is, as they say, history.
MHN: Why do you think comics are a useful medium for telling stories about history?
WV: Before the camera, the only way war could be see by individuals that had not taken part in it was in paintings or books. The vision of the person at the sharp end of combat was very seldom realistically told. Then came the camera. Even then, the images were stiff and a little fuzzy. Film added movement, but still suffered the same problem as the still image. If you want to put todays young people to sleep, just show them a documentary like World at War (which I love). Today, with HD video cameras, the reporting is about as realistic as you can get. But comics are different. Using photos (color at last!), information in books, pictures of actual equipment, photos of individuals, and actually walking the ground, you can, I think get a pretty clear idea of what happened. I have read about the Battle of the Bulge all my life, but when I travelled to Belgium in 2013 before I did my book for Zenith Comics, it all came together. Everything popped into focus! It gave me a very clear understanding what happened. I’m not saying you can do the same with every subject, bit I feel that it works pretty well with history.
MHN: You’ve covered the Civil War, Vietnam and World War Two. What draws you to a particular topic?
WV: Having always lived in the South, I have always had a strong connection to the Civil War. I know of at least 15 relatives who fought for the Confederates. I have always been interested in the subject, but have been more strongly drawn to the 20th Century, and all it’s conflicts, but mostly World War Two. There are still many participants that you can talk to, and there is still so much information to research. It was so huge, and new information is coming out all the time. I can also see so many comparisons and lessons for our current times.
MHN: How is your recent work, Katusha, a departure for you?
WV: Katusha is a story of the Russian Front, seen through the eyes of a fictional 16-year-old Ukrainian girl named Ekaterina Andreaevna Tymoshenko. In the late 1990s, I had the opportunity to visit Ukraine and Poland. It really surprised me how alive the memories of The Great Patriotic War are in that part of the world. I was always interested in the war in the East, but what I saw and learned compelled me to go deeper. This has been a long project, first conceived in 2004. I’ve worked on it between and during other projects. The story takes Katusha from the German invasion in the summer of 1941, at a time when she wasn’t sure if the Nazis would be any worse than the Russians, into partisan activity, to tank driving school in the Urals, through Stalingrad and Kursk as a T-34 driver, and finally as a tank commander trough Ukraine and all the way to Berlin. This is not a story of great heroics, although Katusha wins here share of medals (her adopted sister Milla wins the Hero of the Soviet Union medal). I wanted it to be story about her, but also of what she sees. As Timothy Snyder said in his book Bloodlands, Ukraine, between 1933 and 1945, was the most terrible and deadly place on earth to live.
MHN: Tell me about the research that goes into historical comics like this?
WV: Like any book dealing with history, I do a lot of research using traditional sources, mostly published books. For Katusha, I read many, many books on the war in the East. When I could find them, I read novels from that part of the world, about the war or the culture. Non-fiction and novels by Vasily Grossman were especially inspiring. When I can, I like to do more original sources, like interviews. But I also must have a lot of visual materials. In the case of Katusha, the buildings and landscape of the period. Original and photos of uniforms and equipment, and in the right color. The tanks and vehicles, aircraft and ships. I like to build models to draw from, and I have different models of T-34 tanks used in Katusha’s unit. I frequently used photos of people I met in eastern Europe when I created and drew characters. Many of the characters were based on real people. And the many, many people I talked too: Red Army veterans in Zhytomyro and Vinnytsai, both men and women. The woman head of a veteran organization and a Rabbi in Berdychiv. The mayor of Ivano-Frankivsk. Veterans of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army in Ratomyya and Rovni. Historians in L’viv and Luts’k. A mass grave in Kalush. And an old woman in a nameless village who not only survived the German occupation, but Stalin’s terror famine of 1932 to 33. Some of the stories I heard were so terrible, I was unsure for a long time that I could tell them.
MHN: What aspects of military history do you think you’d like to explore in future work?
WV: An editor recently asked me if I could do something on current wars, and I said I would like to, but it would take me some time and research to get my head around it. There are still many subjects about World War Two I’d like to do. I would like to do a historical-fiction trilogy like Katusha on the Italian Campaign. I would like to something on the Battle of the Atlantic and the Murmansk Convoys; the liberation of the Philippines; the war in New Guinea, one of the least written about campaigns; or a book on Tarawa. Although I have done a work on the Korean War, I would like to revisit it somehow, as I would with Vietnam. There are still Civil War subjects I would like to explore. I would like to deal with Latin American wars and Cold War subjects in different parts of the world. So many wars, so little time.
Want more Vansant? Here’s a collection of some of his recent titles.