On Wednesday, we reviewed Above the Dreamless Dead, edited by Chris Duffy, a graphic novel comprised of poems by the Trench Poets of World War I, and illustrated by contemporary graphic novelist.
As promised in that post, today we have an interview with one of the illustrators of that collection, George Pratt. Pratt is a painter and graphic novelist who has drawn for both Marvel and DC. In 1993, he won the prestigious Eisner Award for Best Painter/Multimedia Artist for the Wolverine: Netsuke series.
His first graphic novel, Enemy Ace: War Idyll, was also about World War I: it is an entry in a long running DC series about a fictional WWI pilot. I had a chance to ask Pratt some questions about his involvement with Above the Dreamless Dead over email. My questions, below, are in bold, with Mr. Pratt’s answers in regular type.
Can you tell us how you got involved with this project and how the poems were selected?
I was contacted by Chris Duffy whom I knew through working for Marvel and DC years ago. My interest in the project was totally because of my love for Wilfred Owen’s poetry. I asked Chris if I could work with the Owen material and he agreed. After sending him some work for them to use in their meetings with marketing, etc. He asked me if I’d like to do more than one of the poems. He sent me a list of poems, but I also suggested others and we met in the middle. Then they hit me up to do the cover which I was very happy to do as well.
One of my pet projects would be to illustrate the entire collection of Wilfred Owens poems. Not sequentially, but with single pieces, paintings, printmaking, etc.
In the notes to the book you mention that you’re a long-time fan of Wilfred Owen– were you aware of the other Trench Poets? What is it about Owen specifically that speaks to you?
Yes, I’ve been intimately familiar with many of the different war poets. My introduction to the Great War poets was through my research for my first graphic novel, Enemy Ace: War Idyll. I read so many books for that project, which I wrote and illustrated. Memoirs, histories, books of poetry, etc.
Speaking of Enemy Ace: War Idyll: are there any connections for you between the fictional DC world and the very real world of these poets who were writing at the time of the war?
Enemy Ace: War Idyll came about, curiously enough, through my interest in the Vietnam War. I was terrified of that war as a child. I was born in 1960 and that war was basically the dark backdrop of my childhood. Four or five years longer and I would have had to go. Even though my buddies and I were playing guns in our neighborhoods, the war still scared me. All of our fathers had been in World War II, sailors, infantrymen, bomber and fighter pilots, and we’d dress up in all the old gear and run around “killing” each other.
My father had books on WWII around the house and I was fascinated by it all and read many of those books, though, honestly it was the pictures that drew me to them. During art school I began to research the Vietnam War in order to understand it better for myself. One of the first jobs I got upon leaving school was as an illustrator for Eagle Magazine, a Vietnam Soldier of Fortune thing. There I met Jim Morris, himself a writer and a three-tour Green Beret in Vietnam. He was my editor and I became his pet artist. He gave me enough work to pay my rent and keep me in art supplies each month. He saw how interested I was and one day gave me the opportunity to use the phones and call some of his vet friends from ‘Nam and pick their brains about their experiences. This was about the time that movies about Vietnam began to trickle out.
But I wanted to say something of my own about Vietnam rather than just illustrate others’ stories. So I began to write a story about a Nam vet who had been a tunnel rat. But I felt I needed to be able to compare and contrast that with something else. Enemy Ace popped into my head for some reason or other and that started that ball rolling. In researching WWI I became hooked and haven’t been able to shake it.
Interestingly, Enemy Ace: War Idyll was published right at the beginning of the first Gulf War. I began to get letters from veterans, not only of that war, but from previous wars as well. The book helped them to deal with the things they witnessed. That was incredibly gratifying to hear. The book was translated into nine different languages, saw four American editions and was on the West Point Military Academy’s required reading list.
Does World War I have a particular fascination for you or are the setting of the two projects (War Idyll and Above the Dreamless Dead) coincidental?
I am totally fascinated by WWI, for a lot of different reasons. There’s the power of the subject and all that that encompasses, the breadth of the war, the parties involved, etc. There’s the visual impact of that time period for me. I love the way the uniforms looked, the thick wool and the way it hung on the figures, the clunky design of things and the trenches! Good lord, the trenches! The bleakness and desolate nature of it all. And yet, in reading the poems, the memoirs, etc. there still rises from those who experienced it a grace and unfailing hope for a better future.
World War One has followed me throughout my life, really, though I didn’t notice it at the time. My grandfather on my father’s side was in the First World War. The first piece I learned on the piano was a World War One piece. My English teacher in high school was the model for Howard Chandler Christy’s “I wish I were a man, I’d join the Navy!” poster. Etc.
I was fortunate to get to meet and speak with a veteran from that war when I was working on Enemy Ace: War Idyll. Frank Snell was speaking with a friend of his on a stoop just down the street from my apartment. I had no idea he was a veteran. But walking by one day I overheard them talking about the trenches. I stopped and introduced myself and Frank regaled me with stories of his time in the trenches. He was a machine gunner hooked up with an Australian unit. Machine gunners were the first in and the last out. The life expectancy was something like a week or two. He had been shot and gassed and had lived to tell about it.
I have been working on a World War One opus for quite awhile that I’d like to produce. It would be a serialized story about a young man, following him through his tour of the trenches. I’ve done some paintings for this project, but haven’t begun to do layouts for it. I did have a show of my First World War work in Belgium and France a few years ago. The gallery specifically wanted to do a show of that work and I was glad to have it shown in those two countries.
I was involved in a Romanian documentary about the war that was very interesting. Visiting Romania and walking the battlefield on top of Mount Cosna was amazing. Bullets still littered the site, as well as horseshoes, belt buckles, etc. Crazy.
I’ve also been working on a documentary about Harvey Dunn and his participation in the war, along with other artists. We’ve filmed in the bowels of the Smithsonian, where they have most of the work the Harvey Dunn produced, along with the other 7 artists America sent to the front. We’ve filmed in Ypres, Belgium at the Menin Gate. We’ve hit Polygon Wood, Sanctuary Wood, Dixmüde at the trenches there, as well as at artist Kathe Kollwitz’s son Peter’s grave. We’re still working on it and it’s been a fascinating ride.
I’m very impressed with your illustrations and your decision to make “the words . . . the most important aspect of the adaptation”. Since you weren’t aiming for conventional illustration of the poems’ actions, how did you decide what to draw?
I basically did pieces I felt would capture the futility of the conflict and tried to take it away from specificity or portraiture really. It was such an epic, sweeping war that engulfed so many, many lives that I wanted to touch on that sense of scope. I’m constantly trying to get my students to work at showing more by showing less, boiling down the visual so that the reader has to be an active participant rather than along for the ride. So I tried to work that in there as well.
Have you gotten a chance to read the rest of the book? Do you have any thoughts on how your fellow artists illustrated their poems?
I have not yet read the rest of the book but am excited to do so. I’m anxiously awaiting my copies! I know I’m going to be blown away by the different directions and techniques that others will be using.
I’ll be recommending this collection on my blog Adult Books 4 Teens. I wonder if you have any thoughts on what teens in particular might get from this project?
Well, I think everyone should read these poets for a number of reasons. One, that reading their words lets one know that we keep repeating our mistakes, that we seem not to learn to well from what’s gone before. Two, the writing is so incredibly eloquent and to the point. So beautiful, yet used to describe things so powerful and emotionally charged, some of it incredibly ugly really.
I hope that they’re as moved by these poems as I have been. I remember sitting on a bench in a B. Dalton booksellers in Manhattan surrounded by the throngs of customers in that store. I had pulled Wilfred Owen’s book of poems out and had begun reading. Those poems were like a punch to my gut. They took my breath away and I found tears quietly running down my cheeks. Like a quote from a Cat Stevens tune: “Sitting on my own, not by myself.”