A new ‘graphic novel’ depicts one soldier’s return from Afghanistan and his struggle to adjust to civilian life. We speak to writer Rodge Glass and artist Dave Turbitt about just one forgotten casualty of war.
How did you get involved with Dougie’s War?
Rodge Glass (RG): It came about when Freight Publishing, also a design company, began working with Veteran Scotland, and Adrian (the boss!) came up with the idea of a one-off project based around his interest in the issue of PTSD and his love of graphic novels. Freight have a really dynamic history of one-off books or weird and wonderful projects with a graphic design element. As for me, well, Adrian had been the publisher of my first ever short story back in 2004, and then he read my novel Hope for Newborns (Faber, 2008) which was about three generations of an army family in Manchester, who run this place called The Victory Barber Shop. I think that after that, he thought I’d be good to work with. You’d have to ask him whether I actually was or not!
Dave Turbitt (DT): Last year, Rodge called me up out of the blue in June and asked me if I would draw a comic strip book, which was going to be called Dougie’s War. I’ve known Rodge for the last 10 years and we’ve been trying to find a big project to work on for a long time. He was in a band when I first met him, he originally responded to an advert I put up advertising my services as a designer for bands and musicians. It so happened Rodge called me again last year just as my day-job became quite crazy with a massive project, but he’s very persistent! He kept saying he was sure I could do it, which was really encouraging, especially at first. It took me a few goes to get the style right for the book.
Rodge: You’ve written both fiction and non-fiction. Did you have to approach this as both?
RG: Yes – in fact, that’s something that hasn’t been spotted by the press much, most things have focused on my fiction. But with the biography I wrote, there was a real sense of responsibility to the real people it was based on, trying to tell the truth while also being respectful of them. This had a lot in common with that. But the minute you put something down on the page, you turn it into fiction. The guys I interviewed totally got that, right away. That this would need to be a fictional story, based on facts.
Were you both worried by your responsibility to the many veterans affected by PTSD?
RG: I was conscious of it, certainly – you don’t want to let people down. You know, they’re totally entitled to read it and say it’s not their experience, or not a convincing story. I was most concerned that the guys I had most dealings with would find it convincing, but also that they thought it would help raise awareness with young people as well as Veterans. It was really important – both to me and the guys I talked to – to let people know what it’s like for people in their situation. Many of them told me they felt they didn’t really have a voice. This is supposed to give them that voice, so obviously I wanted to get it right. It was a real relief when two of the fellas, David Cruickshanks and Shaun Davidson, both from Fife Veterans’ Association, came and took some photos with us and did some interviews. It felt like they were proud of Dougie and wanted to talk about it all.
What do you think you’ve learned from creating Dougie’s War?
RG: It’s hard to say as it’s just come out – but I know a few things. Aside from learning a lot about Veterans’ issues, from many past conflicts, not just the recent ones (I spoke to guys who’d served in Northern Ireland, the former Yugoslavia, Germany, the Falklands as well as Iraq and Afghanistan), I think I learned something about storytelling itself. In graphic novels, you have no time to waste: you have to get on with the story, inject some pace, and keep within strict guidelines about space and panels and episodes and all that – those things were new to me, though the crime writer Denise Mina has done comics for DC and she was really helpful, she explained how to lay things out and good methods. The dialogue itself is actually a really small part of the story, if you look at it closely, so the writer’s job is to create a convincing world that the artist can make real for readers. It’s tough, but I’ve got the bug now, and I’d really like to do it again!
DT: Rodge and Adrian had created a story and character who needed to be brought to life in a respectful way, but also in a way I could draw for 40 pages, in my spare time, without going mad. Also it could not be so “comic superhero” looking that the drawings would undermine the story. Dougie had to feel vulnerable, like a real, emotional person, for the story to be told correctly. “Dougie’s War” the script was a character study, it had to be done in a way that brought readers into his head. So I arrived at a loose drawing style for him and others in the book, you put yourself in the drawings because it’s so loose. The other thing was the volume of drawing needed! I was working on weekends and evenings, and so I had to give myself a very strict schedule and a very quick way of getting into the right frame of mind to draw – I listened to the same CD every night (The Avalanches) and sat in the same place in my flat, it gave me a quick way of settling myself down after the commute.
What are your hopes for Dougie’s War?
RG: I hope Dougie has a life. We’ve already had some good reviews and plenty of online chat and a couple of features with people like yourself – but I hope it will gain momentum over the months to come. We’re gonna do a launch in Manchester, London, and take it to some festivals, we’ve just booked an event at Aye Write, Glasgow’s Book Festival. I want to spread the word, see how people respond. Aside from that I’d love to see it in the window of Forbidden Planet in Glasgow, next to Spiderman or something like that!
DT: I’d like to think that it can spread a very basic human message. The guys coming home from Afghanistan need love and a human connection. From what I’ve seen and read, they basically become honed for the purpose of being a soldier, but what they’re not given much of is training for how to be a non-soldier again, and how to live in the non-Army world, with it’s fuzzy logic and situations that don’t have a clear right, wrong or maybe any sort of purpose. I think that’s the thing if you look through the book, there’s not much affection going to Dougie. His sister feels like she can’t get to him, she probably gets to him too late. The only other woman in the main story is the barmaid, who’s not that sympathetic really. We all need that human connection, it’s what makes us tick and what keeps us grounded in a world of recessions, all night shopping channels, overdrafts, booze and fast food. Every man needs it, soldiers need it, and it takes courage to admit that. I hope we help more people to realise that.
RG: The things I mentioned before are all nice, but I think the comic should really be judged on whether it speaks to people in the Veterans’ community, also whether it is of help to young people thinking about serving. It’s supposed to be accesible for teenagers – that’s why the front looks so much like a teenager’s comic. All the information and help is at the back if you want it, all the photographs and essays and interviews. But if you just want the story, you can have that two. It exists in both forms.
To what extent did you consciously ‘riff’ on the classic strip Charlie’s War?
RG: It was more important for me than for Dave (the artist) I think. Dave needed to think about making it DIFFERENT to Charlie’s War, so it didn’t seem like an imitation, and I don’t think it could really be any more different! But I wanted to make that conscious connection between current conflicts and past ones. The stories I heard from guys, again and again, about their struggles on Civvy Street, alcoholism, loneliness, isolation, feeling abandoned by the society they’d served – these were the same, no matter the conflict. So I wanted to use Charlie’s War to make that connection across the generations. Also to show we understood the history.
DT: I have to confess, I haven’t read much of Charlie’s War, beyond a copy of the first book I saw at Adrian’s house. The thing is I think the connection is important to Adrian, and Rodge, but I didn’t want to draw a strip which made a load of references to another strip with similar themes. Joe Colquhoun’s art is so striking and so beautifully done, and the way he drew the story explored so much of that way of drawing, that it would have been a bit redundant to go down that route again. There was also an ego thing! I had to feel like I had my own way of drawing for the book. Reading Charlie’s War now, it’s obvious Pat Mills and Joe Colquhoun were as interested in telling the story in a compelling way in the same way that Rodge and I are. Charlie’s War is so good that 20-some years later Adrian was inspired to commission us to do this book, so it’s always going to be connected to Dougie’s War, even if the way we tell the story is very different.
Dave, was the decision to use black/red artwork a deliberate homage to the printing range of many old British comics?
DT: I love old black and white comics, when you read them you’re not focused on the colour, which is often wrong or a bit weird looking. Black and white is like handwriting in a weird way. And when you colour a comic strip it becomes more specific, THIS colour jeans, THAT colour hair. (These aren’t my theories, Scott McCloud points this out in his book, Understanding Comics. But he’s right!) You think less about the meaning of the story and look at it more like a child’s picture book. I think black and white images have much more power than colour ones, it’s immediate. It must be the way the human eye takes in information, if it’s just light/dark/greys and black lines, you’ll absorb the information a lot faster. So it’s not really down to aping the past. Of course to do the strip in full colour would also have taken about 3 times as long, and been about 5 times as expensive to print! Come to think of it that’s why a lot of old comics were created in black and white too, so there is a link!
I also had to make sure my drawings of the real world places and objects was as well researched as Rodge’s script. Luckily a lot of information and images from the recent conflicts are posted online, on sites like flickr, often by ex servicemen. There also seemed to be a glut of documentaries and films relating to the conflict out in the last year, especially the Channel 4 documentary about PTSD, and the Air Hospital film. As well as being very powerful statements about humans in those situations, they also had a load of detail and online materials which gave more information about the tech used. For the scenes set in Glasgow and Wootton Bassett, Google Earth and Streetview were very simple effective tools for quickly finding the right location and helping me to get drawing quickly, as Rodge’s script evolved.
Dougie’s War, Rodge Glass/Dave Turbitt, Freight, RRP £14.95, ISBN 978-095440248-8,
“The graphic novel depicts an all too familiar scene and is a great way of reaching former members of the Armed Services who are too often forgotten about when they return from the theatre of war,” says Gordon MacRae, Head of Communications & Policy at Shelter Scotland, about Dougie’s War. “Shelter Scotland is proud to endorse ‘Dougie’s War’ and hope that it will encourage men and women who have shared similar experiences to seek information and support from organisations like ourselves before things get too bad.”