War is hell. It may seem like a cliché by now, but think about it for a moment: what if war was quite literally "hell?" In 2005, comic book readers had that very question answered with the psychological-thriller "Children Of The Grave," a mini-series published by Shooting Star Comics by writer Tom Waltz and artist Casey Maloney. The mini-series developed strong critical acclaim from both fans and professionals alike, and with IDW Publishing's announcement of a new collection of "Children of the Grave," the series is poised to reach a larger audience. CBR News caught up with Waltz to learn more about the book, the upcoming collection and his future projects.
"Children Of The Grave" chronicles the mission assigned to Team Orphan, a US Special Forces team ordered to kill terrorist Akbar Assan. Of course, being a horror comic, nothing is quite as it seems, as there seem to be mysterious forces at work that may destroy the team from within," Waltz told CBR News. "A couple of years ago I was watching TV news reports of mass graves being unearthed in Iraq. The pictures on the screen were awful-- men, women, children and babies being pulled out of the ground after being ruthlessly murdered and unceremoniously buried because they didn't share the same religious or political beliefs as their killers. Ethnic cleansing and genocide are nothing more than human shame and human failure, in my mind. Like any kind of terrorism, it strikes of cowardice at its worst and, sadly, it happens in so many places. Bosnia, Rwanda, Dafur… shoot, the list goes on and on. It breaks my heart and angers me to no end.
"Shortly after seeing these horrible images on the TV, I was listening to one of my Black Sabbath CDs, when the great song 'Children of the Grave' came on. The last verse of that song goes: 'So you children of the world, listen to what I say / If you want a better place to live in, spread the words today / Show the world that love is still alive, you must be brave / Or you children of today are Children of the Grave, Yeah!' The whole idea of the song, for me, is that the adults of the world have made a mess they are unable to clean up, and those that suffer the most as a result are the children. So since the adults have proven incapable, it's up to the children to stand up for themselves and make a positive difference, otherwise they are doomed -- or as the song says, they simply become 'children of the grave.'"
Waltz quickly combined that inspiration with his visceral reaction to the reports of genocide from all over the world, creating the basic outline for "Children Of The Grave." As the story progressed, he met artist Casey Maloney through Digital Webbing and the rest, as they say, is history. But in terms of landing at IDW, after being at Shooting Star Comics, it turns out that the management was already fond of Waltz's work. "During Free Comic Book Day of 2005, I was introduced to Ted Adams (IDW Vice President) by my local comic seller her in San Diego, Robert Scott (Comickaze). Ted and I had a nice conversation and he mentioned how much he liked what he was seeing of 'COTG.' After a few months, and a few lunch get togethers, Ted and Chris Ryall (IDW EIC) informed me that they were interested in collecting 'COTG' at IDW. It was fantastic news for Casey and me, and as it turned out, a fairly smooth transition from Shooting Star once we'd decided to take IDW's offer. Shooting Star was moving on to new titles and imprints (they've got some great stuff coming from Chuck Dixon and Christopher Mills), so, understandably, a 'COTG' trade wasn't high on the list of priorities at the time. Plus, Casey and I maintained full creative and publishing rights to the story and its characters, so no legal rambling was necessary to make the move to IDW happen. The rest is history, and Casey and I are thankful every day for being involved with both Shooting Star Comics and IDW, two great independent publishers."
While fans of the original mini-series will no doubt be glad to finally get a collection of the mini-series, the truth is that they're in for much more than they imagine. Waltz and IDW have gone all out to create a new "COTG" experience, and Waltz was happy to shed light on the changes. "First of all, Casey Maloney went back and fully gray scaled the entire series, adding a new depth and pop to the already impressive artwork. As part of this revamp, I too went back and fixed the lettering, as well as tightened up some of the dialogue and text in places that I felt needed it. We've got all new cover art by fan favorite artist Dan Brereton that is absolutely gorgeous. We've got an introduction by comics veteran Beau Smith ('Cobb") that is a lot of fun to read. We've got a guest artist pin-up gallery with beautiful work from some very talented folks. And, we close it out with a never-before-seen 8-page sequential story Casey and I did as part of writer J.S. Earls' 'Sorrow' project in support of Protect.org (a.k.a. The National Association to PROTECT Children). So, yeah, this thing is filled with extras that we are very proud of, and that we hope will not only draw in new readers, but will be something old readers will want to make a part of their comics collection as well."
Fans of "Children Of the Grave" have commented that Waltz's characters seem a bit more "real" and nuanced than most military characters in comics and there's a good reason for that: he's a military veteran. "To be honest, although there is most definitely a major military element to the story, and though I did draw some inspiration from my own experiences in the Marines and the National Guard over the years, my main intent was to bring attention to the horrors of genocide, as well as attempting to make a commentary about how the traumas of childhood can greatly influence the failings -- and in some cases, sins -- of adulthood," he said. "At its heart, 'Children Of The Grave' is a story about different people from different backgrounds who all share similar pasts, in that they've all been through something in their childhood -- something horrendous -- that has led them to their present situation. I call it a fated meeting -- destiny, I suppose -- wherein all the characters must face their past demons if there is to be any hope for the future. That I use a military conflict type setting probably reflects the fact that I feel comfortable writing about marines and soldiers more than anything else. I'm sure this same type of story could be told using civilians in a non-military setting. I think the theme is universal - after all, we are all children once, no matter what path we choose in life, be it military or otherwise. What I wanted to explore was how the childhood environment so often dictates that path - sometimes taking us in good directions, sometimes bad."
While "CoTG" tackles rape, murder, and the responsibility for those actions, the series manages to never feel as though Waltz is preaching -- a conscious move on his part. He's also taken care to make sure that the violence in the series doesn't seem "cool" or glorified: he's very aware of how violence can destroy lives. "In my scripts I would always tell Casey Maloney exactly what level of violence I wanted him to display in his artwork. This, by no means, was my way of dictating his style. Rather, he and I discussed it before we started working on the project together, and I let him know that I was going to be very deliberate in how I approached the violence -- that I wanted to illicit specific emotional responses to what was happening on the page whenever possible. I was hoping this would make for a more realistic story (well, as realistic as a story can be with dead kids returning from the grave). There were times I wanted Casey to show just what a point-blank gunshot would do -- blood, guts, brains and all. There were other times where I felt the violence would drive the point home better if it was implied or hinted at. This way, the reader would have to "feel" the impact of the terrible actions without being distracted by overwhelming visuals (particularly in the rape scenes). In both cases, Casey came through like the champ that he is.
"A funny aside to this, though, is the large amount of cursing I included in the dialogue. In my first drafts of the story, I had 'watered down' the swearing quite a bit out of concern that I might offend too many readers with a lot of cussing going on. I showed the script to Robert Scott (owner of San Diego comics store Comickaze, and a current Eisner judge), and he took me aside after he read it and gave me some great advice. Basically, he said, 'Tom, if you're going to have swearing, than do it for real. Don't go half-assed because it won't sound genuine.' And he was absolutely right. Marines, soldiers, sailors and airmen (God bless 'em all) cuss like there's no tomorrow, and to present them any other way would be to deny the truth. So my guys curse up a storm in the story and, ironically, I think 'COTG' is much better for it (though my mom adamantly disagrees)."
The horror represented in "Children Of The Grave" is more much psychological than visual, with Waltz taking an almost Hitchcockian approach to exploring the mass genocide surrounding Team Orphan. "Hey, for me, the stuff that gets inside your head, rather than the stuff that chops off your head, is the stuff that's the scariest by far. I'm not saying I don't appreciate a good gore fest every once in awhile, but the effect it has on me is more physical (like I want to barf my guts out) than psychological. I do, however, think it's possible to have both elements in a story and make it work, too. Off the top of my head, one of the best examples of that is John Carpenter's 'The Thing.' No doubt, there were some extremely graphic (and gut wrenching) scenes in that great horror movie, but the psychological element -- the great unknown the characters were dealing with- who is really human, who isn't? -- was much more terrifying to me. Let's be honest... who's scarier? Jason Vorhees or Norman Bates? In my opinion, the loony mama's boy trumps the homicidal hockey goalie every time."
To that end, Waltz is very passionate about portraying violence accurately, and feels that a bit of restraint and realism in comic book violence could benefit everyone. "I think the biggest mistake, more than anything else, is ignoring the consequences of war. It seems like war is so often presented these days like some kind of videogame, wherein you do your best to kill as many folks as possible, always shooting for that 'high score,' never worrying about getting hurt or killed because you've got more 'lives' left. Real war is fought by real people on both sides of the line - people with families, friends, hopes, dreams -- fragile, mortal lives. Do I think some people need to go? Hell yes. I'd be the first one to double-tap Osama Bin Laden in the forehead if I had the chance. But does that make it okay? No. The very fact that it's come down to having to kill someone so sinister is proof that we are dealing with terrible consequences of war and its associated violence. Just because something is right or necessary doesn't mean it's glorious."
As mentioned earlier, Casey Maloney's work on "CoTG" has been one of the series' big draws, and his synergy with Waltz is something the writer highly values. "Creatively, we are totally in synch with each other almost at all times. I can write something, knowing exactly how he will approach it when he starts drawing, and he seems to understand what I want, even when I don't know what I want. From the very beginning, he and I have naturally "clicked" and I enjoy every second we work together and hope it will continue for many years to come (or until Marvel or DC steal him away from me -- which they'll do if they're smart)."
If you're one of the fans who enjoyed the prose tales in the back of each issue of "Children Of The Grave," there may be a full-length novel in Waltz's future, but he's also got some very real projects lined up for release in the near future. "Currently, Casey and I are working on separate projects for Platinum Studios. Soon as we wrap those up, we are going to get busy on our next book, a sci-fi/military drama called 'The Last Fall.' We don't have a publisher for that yet, but we are talking to some right now and hope to be able to make an announcement soon. 'The Last Fall' will be our first official project from our new creative studio, Studio Eye Five. I'm also developing a follow-up to COTG, which will most likely be the second Studio Eye Five gig. I've done some writing on the awesome UK-based online comic, 'Night Warrior.' Casey and I did an 8-page story there that I think will appear in an NW print anthology soon.
"And 'Children Of The Grave' is available for pre-order from Diamond Distributors until June 12th. Please give the Diamond ordering code JUNE063212 to your local comics seller. If you do not have access to an LCS, COTG is also available for pre-order at online booksellers such as Amazon.com, BarnesandNoble.com, Walmart.com, Booksamillion.com, etc."