So what if superheroes had fought on the side of the Allies in WW2?
Continuing the barrage of announcements from Image Comics at this year’s Comic-Con International in San Diego, writer B. Clay Moore unveiled his new project, “Battle Hymn” and spoke to CBR News extensively about the series.
“‘Battle Hymn’ is a five-issue mini-series debuting in December from Image,” says Moore. “Jeremy Haun, who previously drew twelve issues of ‘Paradigm’ (also from Image) is handling the pencils, and Ande Parks (of ‘Green Arrow’ fame) is handling the inks to start. Dave Bryant is coloring the book, and Brian Frey (who collaborated with Tony Harris on a few ‘Starman’ trade paperback covers) is collaborating with Jeremy on the covers.
“Basically, ‘Battle Hymn’ is my answer to the question, ‘What would the government have done if super-heroes really existed during World War II?’ I mean…it’s a safe bet that if Superman or the Human Torch were flying around the States in 1941, the government would be more than a little interested in harnessing their power for the war effort. But how would they do it? And what would be the ramifications?
“So that’s my starting point.
“The main characters in the book are part of a group dubbed ‘Watchguard’ by the government. On the surface, the characters are sort of archetypical types, mirroring a lot of the heroes that were running rampant through comics in the forties. But it’s important to note that these characters are almost all deeply flawed, and their flaws are what drive the story to its conclusion.
“We’ve got the Proud American, a patriotic zealot with artificially augmented strength, who fancies himself a shining symbol of freedom, but whom the government looks upon as a slightly deranged walking photo op. The government sends him around the globe and snaps pictures of him as he mugs with weary soldiers just coming off the frontline. At the outset of the book, he’s the only one with any public identity of note. Sort of a living unknown soldier in the public’s mind, and ostensibly the ‘leader’ of Watchguard.
“Next is the Artificial Man, an android crafted by Professor Erich Cloud and a team of gypsies, mystics, scientists and dreamers. No one knows exactly what went into his creation, although the government helped fund it. Barely half-sentient, the Artificial Man responds to Cloud’s directives, and little else. But he’s driven in part by nuclear fire, and his power builds to dangerous levels unless unleashed, resulting in the constant release of hissing steam.
“Quinn Rey is our water-breather, in the tradition of Aquaman, the Sub-Mariner, the Fin or Hydroman (Golden Age heroes). He’s just coming of age, and is sort of like a playful puppy in the water. The problem is that his version of ‘playing’ is to pop up and punch holes in the hulls of U.S. battleships before diving back to his undersea home. The government manages to hook him with the right bait, and while he remains something of a brash and reckless youngster, the bait in question, Miss Betty Jablonski, keeps him in check.
“The Mid-Nite Hour is the lone Brit in the group. A British super-spy, the Hour comes out of the shadows and joins the group at the request of Winston Churchill, in an effort to better gauge the reasons for the group’s formation. He’s probably the only sane member of the gang.
“Johnny Zip runs fast (somewhere around fifty miles per hour), and likes the ladies. Before joining the group, he spends his time taking money for appearances (racing motorcycles and horses), and working his charm on the ladies. Beyond that, there’s not a lot to him.
“Finally, the Defender of Liberty is the flip side to the Proud American, although both emerged from the same government-funded augmentation program. Whereas the American makes every move with thoughts of keeping the world safe for democracy, the Defender is decidedly more self-centered. When the Proud American is called away, the Defender steps right in and has no problem doing whatever dirty work is needed to be done to keep Watchguard from falling out of favor with the rather nervous American public.”
Some might be quick to think this a deconstruction or parody of the Golden Age heroes, but Moore stresses that this is his way of paying tribute to one of his favorite eras of comics. “Oh, yeah, I’m a huge fan of Golden Age comics. Since the day I started reading comics as a kid the entire history of comics has fascinated me, and the energy of the Golden Age super-hero comics was just insane. The number one problem with all retellings of World War II super-hero stories is trying to explain why the heroes didn’t just blow into Germany and take out Hitler and his goons. Writers invariably come up with convoluted answers to that question, but in my story it’s only a matter of time before one of the ‘heroes’ realizes there’s no reason he shouldn’t do just that. And that’s when the shit really hits the fan.
“The project has been a while in development, actually. Initially Toby Cypress (who’s done some Batman stuff, and a Wolverine story, among other things) was slated to handle the art, but circumstances made that tough to pull off. So Jeremy and I were driving down to Wizard World Dallas last November, kicking around another idea we had, when Jeremy suggested that he handle the art on ‘Battle Hymn’ (which was then called ‘Anthem’). Once in Dallas, we ran the idea past Jim Valentino, and Jim, who’s a big fan of Jeremy’s, told us to run with the idea. Ande Parks volunteered to ink at least the first issue, and Dave Bryant is a Kansas City guy with a multitude of talents, so I begged him to color the book. Cover collaborator Brian Frey was actually on board before Jeremy, and adds a cool, retro poster feel to the covers.
“I didn’t do a ton of research. This stuff is pretty ingrained in me, you know? Jeremy, of course, has done a lot of period research to nail the look and feel of the era. And Brian Frey and I combed through a ton of old propaganda posters trying to settle on the right ‘look’ for the covers. So the covers are intentionally ironic.
“Churchill and Roosevelt appear in the first issue. The group is assembled at the request of FDR, and Churchill wants to make damn sure his boy (the Mid-Nite Hour) gets to play along.”
It’s clear that these characters are inspired by their 40’s counterpart but as the above character descriptions showed, the series is told with a modern storytelling style. But will Moore be trying to recreate the style of the 40’s? “No, I’m not trying to recreate the style. The storytelling approach is definitely modern, and I’m actually trying a slightly new approach to things. The goal is to tell the story as if we were eavesdropping on selected events that occur along the way, without spending a lot of time bogging things down by filling in blanks that aren’t imperative to moving the story along. I suppose it’s more or less a cinematic approach to things.
Lest ye think Moore has a political agenda with the series, the prolific Image Comics writer says the series is about constant themes in any era of American history as opposed to a commentary on the present. “I think it’s more a reaction to the events that are always present in society than a direct reaction to the current war. Those in charge will often bend others to their will if they feel it’s in the best interests of the country. Sometimes they’ll do the same if they think it’s in their own personal best interests. But if you played this game with super-powered chess pieces, I think it would only be a matter of time before the board exploded in your face.”
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Designing a series like this is tricky- one can pay too much homage to old characters and create characters that look too retro or one can base the costumes too much in the present and lose any retro feel. So what did Moore and Huan do? “Well, to make a long answer not quite so long, a few character designs were roughly in place before we started on the book. The Mid-Nite Hour is a character I used in a ‘Love In Tights’ story that I wrote a few years back, and the costume in that book was designed by myself and artist Kalman Andrasofszky (of DC’s ‘iCandy’). The problem is that the costume looked exactly like Mike Mignola’s Lobster Johnson costume (which debuted at the exact same time), so Jeremy tweaked it a bit for ‘Battle Hymn.’ But it’s a pretty iconic look. Kind of like Blackhawk with a flight helmet. The patriotic heroes, yeah…an iconic look was intended. The Artificial Man is kind of a cross between Toby Cypress’s original designs and Jeremy’s vision. Jeremy gave him this sort of Jason Vorhees tilt to the head that I think is brilliant. Quin Rey was another character I used in a ‘Love In Tights’ story some years back, designed by myself and artist Mike Giba. Jeremy reworked the design quite a bit, in an attempt to make him more regal looking. Johnny Zip is another character I’ve had in my sketchbooks for years. I like the absurdity of Golden Age names like Johnny Quick or the Whizzer, and so I edged Johnny Zip a little toward the ridiculous. His finished look is a combination of my own designs, Toby’s designs, and Jeremy’s designs. Still, very much of the era.”
CBR Executive Producer Jonah Weiland contributed to this story.
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