At the turn of the 13th century, a man named Temujin united the tribes of the Central Asian plateau into a great and powerful nation, using the force of military might, keen strategy, and strong governance to create the Mongol empire. He would become known throughout history as Genghis Khan. In July, IDW Publishing offers a new look at the warlord king’s life in “Secret Battles of Genghis Khan,” an original graphic novel by Daryl Gregory and Alan Robinson. CBR News caught up with Gregory to discuss the project, the research involved, and the tales history can tell us.
Gregory said, after he spent a few hours researching the life of Genghis Khan, “I realized that he’d led the kind of life you usually only get in an epic fantasy.” “He rose from poverty to become the greatest emperor of his time. And he did it with brains,” the writer told CBR. “Once I realized the scope of his military genius, I couldn’t wait to dive in.”
Genghis Khan is a name that should be familiar to almost everyone, but his reputation for ruthlessness and military prowess may overshadow other aspects of his biography. Gregory’s graphic novel endeavors to examine Genghis as a man as well as a ruler, beginning with his humble origins. “It may have been a bit ambitious to try to cover an entire life in one novel, but the advantage is that we can show the evolution of the man,” Gregory said. “Before he was the greatest military commander in the history of the world, he was a kid from a tiny tribe, whose father was killed before he was ten. How does that happen? We had a chance to tell that story.
“In some ways, conquering half the known world was a direct result of the injustice he experienced as a child. Genghis Khan was an iconoclast, and in his mind, an empire with clear rules, with wealth and security for its citizens, was a fairer, more just system than the old one under many tribal leaders who were constantly at war,” Gregory continued. “Of course, it was his empire, so maybe he was a bit biased.”
Gregory said tackling such a popular historical figure has the benefit of many sources from which to research, but Genghis’ historical remoteness does mean that some details of his life have been lost to time. “Fortunately, there are dozens of books on Genghis Khan, because there aren’t many people in history who had as great an effect on the world as he did. I consulted with a friend of mine who’s read nearly everything on the man, and he pointed me to the best of the books,” Gregory said. “The more well-researched books try to separate the myth of Genghis Khan from the historical truth. You can’t take some contemporaneous accounts at face value. For example, if you add up all the people the Khan’s armies supposedly killed, there would have been hardly anyone left on the continent.
“But after 800 years, even with the best research, there are some things we can’t know for sure,” Gregory added. “Fortunately, I’m writing fiction. While I tried to use the best of the historical record, I’m also stepping beyond what is know to tell a story. I’m putting words in his mouth, thoughts in his head. I’m ascribing motivations to his actions that may be incorrect.
Despite his extensive research, the page count of the book meant Gregory had to leave some gaps in the story. “I’m also leaving out a tremendous amount of detail. We cover an entire man’s life in 80 pages! There are many elisions and summarizations needed to make that happen. I barely mention his youngest son, his daughters, many of his wives — I had to skip over many of his innovations in running an empire, like his invention of a new postal service. With every hour of research I did, I understood how much I would have to leave out.
“But at the end of the day, you have to deliver a riveting story. I think we did that.”
Part of that story involves not just Genghis Khan himself, but the people nearest to him. “What became clear when I was doing my research was that this was a story of a father and his children, a ‘King Lear’ story with sons instead of daughters,” Gregory told CBR. “Genghis Khan’s first son, Jochi, was almost certainly illegitimate; his biological father was probably a member of another tribe. Genghis Khan always claimed him as a true son, even though everyone else, even his other sons, rejected him.
“Late in his life, Genghis Khan had to decide whether to support Jochi as his heir, which might have triggered a civil war, or choose another son to lead and preserve the empire,” Gregory continued. “We can’t know for sure, but I can only think that the choice broke his heart.”
His sons, however, were not the only people influencing the shape of Genghis Khan’s life and empire. “Another story thread that became clear was how, throughout his career, Genghis Khan chose the best and brightest to lead his armies, regardless of tribal affiliation or hierarchy,” Gregory said. “As a result, a blacksmith’s son became one of the greatest generals in his history. Other men who started out as his enemy became his most trusted lieutenants. It’s stunning how much Genghis Khan broke with tradition to build a meritocracy. You could rise to the highest levels of Mongol society, as long as you were loyal to the Khan.”
“Phoenix Without Ashes” artist Alan Robinson joins Gregory to bring “Secret Battles” to life, and Gregory put his illustrator through the paces. “Alan had the toughest job on this book. We cover over sixty years of Genghis Khan’s life, in which the Mongols fought many different empires. So not only does Alan have to draw a large cast, he has to age them all over decades,” Gregory said. “He also has to find ways to show all these civilizations and armies and make them distinct and visually arresting.
“Alan did all this beautifully. He’s so good with characters, and his action scenes are fantastic. He delivers on castles, siege engines, acres of corpses… and horses. Many, many horses.”
Though they are very different stories, “Secret Battles of Genghis Khan” bears some similarities to another of Gregory’s comics, “Dracula: The Company of Monsters.” “Some of the flashbacks in the Dracula book went back to Vlad Tepes and his military campaigns against the Ottomans in the 1500s. In ‘Secret Battles’ we’re going back a few hundred years more,” Gregory said. “But both books try to portray what it’s like to wage war in the age of swords and cavalry, and how bloody both the battles and the politics were. Being a ‘statesman’ before the 20th century was not for the faint of heart. Maybe it’s still not, but I don’t think Barack Obama or Angela Merkel would be called upon to personally decapitate their enemies.”
Gregory added that the two historical figures shared more than a few traits in common. “I think there are a lot of similarities between Vlad and Genghis Khan. Both men were warlord kings. Both men also used propaganda, and had propaganda used against them. They were both vicious, but not as blood-crazy as their enemies’ reports would have them. And today, both names have become shorthand for ‘monster,’ but they are both revered by their people,” the writer said. “Genghis Khan gave birth to a nation, and Transylvania still has plaques honoring Vlad Tepes.”
Despite the direct ties to real historical events, Gregory said “nobody should come to this book expecting a dry history lesson.” “This is a very wet history lesson,” he joked.
“It’s a good, epic story, that just happens to be based on a real human being. I had a blast writing it, and I hope people dig it.”
“Secret Battles” of Genghis Khan” is on sale July 2012.