Retired Army Major and New York Times bestselling author (“The Silence of our Friends”) Mark Long, stated he wants to “say something about the true nature of war” in “Rubicon,” a new graphic novel adaptation of Kurosawa’s “The Seven Samurai” from Archaia and Meteor Entertainment.
To do this, Long worked with Seal Team Six founding member Dan Capel, Oscar winning screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie, and artist Mario Stilla, trading Ronin warriors for Tier One operators and feudal Japan for modern-day Afghanistan.
In an interview with CBR News, Long discusses the similarities between these warriors, and the challenge of character development while telling a story that takes place in a non-stop firefight. We also touch on how he overcame a language gap with his artist (Stilla), a “Rubicon” web-series, and whether he feels a responsibility to tell a realistic war story so as to not trivialize conflict.
CBR News: Mark, what is the status of the “Rubicon” film? How integral was Christopher McQuarrie during the writing process for this book and how involved will you be with any continuation?
Mark Long: Both Chris and Dan [Capel] have been super stimulating creative partners. I’ve learned so much from both. Chris, of course, is a storytelling Jedi master. His input was typically some profound, Yoda-like advice. I remember when we got started, I asked how to differentiate characters that are so similar, like these SEALS. And he said, “Give each one something they want more than anything in the world — something they’d die for if they had to. And then internalize it so it’s not a stated goal, but something that informs the character.”
Dan, besides being the best technical adviser you could hope for, is full of colorful anecdotes. There’s a lot of him in the lead character, Hector. Dan’s main interest wasn’t in the tactical details but in giving the SEALS authentic emotions and [a] voice.
A feature film is something we very much want to produce, but you’ll see a web series on Machinima first. I outlined “Rubicon” as a trilogy and Machinima picked up the prequel to the graphic novel the week before Comic-Con. We plan to shoot it in September.
What are some of the similarities and some of the differences between the samurai in “The Seven Samurai” and Hector’s team of soldiers?
Samurai followed a code of moral principles — Bushido, or the way of the warrior — that is organic to Tier One operators as well: courage, honor, loyalty, respect — and righteousness, which [Former Seal Team VI Commander] Dick Marcinko highlights in his introduction. “The Seven Samurai” is a brilliant exposition of these concepts through action. The Samurai have nothing to gain and everything to lose in defending the village from the marauding bandits. But their code compels them to act, particularly in defense of the meek and defenseless farmers, and so do the SEALS’. They reject the Afghan villagers plea at first, until one of their own is killed. Their motivation is righteousness as well, but as Dick Marcinko picked up, it’s a righteous and enduring anger — the same rage Achilles feels in the opening line of the Iliad, which Dick quotes: “Wrath, sing goddess of the rage of Achilles…”
What’s different? Almost nothing, by design. I think part of our instincts in adapting “The Seven Samurai” was it’s timeless nature.
Was there ever any thought to play around with black and white instead of color for the interiors?
Yes! The book was originally going to be black and white. And Mario inked the pages that way.
Why was the decision made to pull back from black and white?
Mario did a watercolor version of the cover and we both liked the look. When Archaia picked the book up, we suggested they help us color it. But if “Rubicon” finds an audience, we’d love to release the original black and white version later.
What can you tell us about the creative relationship between you and Mario Stilla?
Mario is from a family of classically trained artists in Naples, Italy. You can see the influences in his masterful use of forced perspective and emotional poses. Mario doesn’t speak any English and I don’t speak Italian. So after the manuscript was translated professionally, we resorted to Google translate to communicate during production. Our exchanges were hilarious. They read like two three year olds IM’ing each other.
There are points in Rubicon where one could describe the fighting as unrelenting. That’s more than appropriate for the story, but it also means that there is little time for the characters to sit and reflect on what they’ve stepped into, what they lose, and very little time for us to get to know all of them. What can you tell me about the challenge of developing these characters while they’re taking fire?
The last half of the book is almost all action by design. One of the things I love about graphic novels is that they can be consumed in a single sitting, which means you can create an emotional experience for the reader that reliably plays out in that session. I wanted the reader to feel as overwhelmed by the pacing of events as the heroes do.
But you’re right, it’s challenging to develop characters with that kind of necessarily terse dialogue. Knowing this, we worked hard on expressing their nature visually. You’ll see, for example, the “FOBBIT” Bolton carries a rifle that is ridiculously larger than [the rifles carried by] the SEALS, which he mishandles in practically every panel. He’s a walking joke, but his actions are consistently heroic. The contradiction elevates his character’s deeds. Through him, we see the true nature of courage under fire — that it is irrational and sublime.
We see Hector as a failed husband, a failing father and boyfriend — not to give too much away, but at the end, he seems like he’s ready to try and be better. My question is, does this battle change him?
Hector is Dan’s wonderfully complex creation. A Tier One paramilitary operator, Hector is older — it takes decades to get to that level — with a resentful ex-wife, teenage kids that miss their dad, and a hot mess of a much younger girlfriend. He’s trying to balance all this with the extreme demands of his career when we toss him into the crucible of an Alamo-like battle for survival in Afghanistan. It makes you care for him, because he very obviously cares for everyone he loves — family and teammates alike. Yes, he wants to be a better man and even in the middle of all this, is self aware enough to try.
“The Seven Samurai” ends with that visually stunning shot of the four graves on the hill, swords stabbing the piles of dirt. In Rubicon, you strike a similar note about loss and what defines a victory in a conflict, but you didn’t go quite as far to remind the reader what the team lost. What made you decide to pull back there?
The difference is in the social status of the Samurai versus the farmers. The Samurai observe that the farmers won the battle, not them. That the glory won in battle belongs ironically to the farmers. In our adaption, the wannabe SEAL (Bolton) observes the same thing, but his meaning is entirely different.
The farmers won because their lives have returned to normal. But the SEALS are fated to more killing, more death. Bolton adds, “We’ve lost more than we know.” Meaning, I think, that ultimately the cost of the battle is a bill that will come due much later in their individual futures. The abrupt ending to the scene serves to reinforce the idea. There’s no time for reflection. It’s back to the FOB, back on another operation.
I think it’s fair to say that those who are not personally affected by war pay far more attention to dramatizations and video games about war than they do the real thing. Is there a responsibility, as a creator of those dramatizations and those games, to tell those stories in as real a way as you can to not trivialize them?
It’s a good question. Do we feel that responsibility? Yes, but I think it’s personal. Certainly for Dan. Perhaps for Chris, whose brother is a SEAL. I think Dan would say he wanted “Rubicon” to be emotionally authentic. For me, I’m most interested in elevating the genre. If I felt a sense of responsibility, it was to honor the peerless classic we adapted. And in doing so, say something about the true nature of war.
“Rubicon” is available now in comic shops and bookstores.