In comics, films and other popular media, depictions of war often focus either on the glory and heroism of victories on the battlefield or the abject horror of life on the front lines. But in “Dougie’s War,” an original graphic novel written by prolific Scottish author Rodge Glass with art by Dave Turbitt, the focus is shifted to the lives of fighting men and women after the battle is done, shedding light on the struggle many face reintegrating with civilian society. The book is available now from Freight Design, and CBR News spoke with Glass about the project.
Glass describes “Dougie’s War” as “the story of the war after the war – the internal battle one soldier goes through in his mind – what he’s up against is himself, the man war has turned him into,” as the titular serviceman returns home to Glasgow, Scotland after a tour in Afghanistan. Though Dougie is initially relieved to be back and is greeted as a hero by his old friends, he is soon overwhelmed by the stresses of ordinary life and the trauma of his battlefield experiences. “It’s a common battle,” Glass said, “We turn men into killing machines and then expect them to feel at home in supermarkets.”
Glass has previously tackled several genres of books and even written songs for the “Ballads of the Book album,” with his most recent project being an acclaimed biography of Scottish writer and artist Alasdair Gray. “Dougie’s War,” though, marks his first foray into comics. “It was mostly luck that I managed to get into comics at this point,” Glass said of his inaugural effort. “It’s something I was really keen to do but, coming from a fiction background, you don’t really get to hear of the opportunities – basically, I would have had no idea how to even try, who to contact, all that. So I was lucky because I was approached by Adrian [Searle] at Freight. My last novel, ‘Hope for Newborns,’ was about three generations of an army family. He read it and must have thought I had the sensibility he was looking for regarding the ‘Dougie’ idea. Also, I do have a bit of reputation for chucking myself into things that make no financial sense! Let’s just say he needed someone who was interested in making this thing happen for love, not riches.”
Like many novelists entering the comics field, Glass found a few new challenges in writing for the medium. “The most obvious to me was that this was a true collaboration, so I only had to tell half the story, and I had to work with someone who had the same idea of the heart of that story as I did,” he said. “Also, I realized you have to be extremely pared down in your dialogue, and have to strip your description right back. There’s much more space in a novel or a short story to take your time over details. I had some advice from Denise Mina who had done some Constantine [‘Hellblazer’] comics for DC, and she taught me that I had to make something happen on every page, in every panel. You can’t get away with slow action or with over-explaining what’s going on. Most of my original script got stripped out as Dave [Turbitt] created the panels. In fact, he told me to cut down my descriptions of what I wanted in each panel, as he enjoyed imagining it mostly from the dialogue and from our phone chats about the things Dougie might do, where he might go and how he might live. It sounds really hippy, but that was really very freeing.”
Glass has a reputation in the Glasgow literary community as someone who is always writing. Given that he’s now worked in several different media, CBR asked the writer whether he immediately knows which format will best suit a new story. “This answer has changed as I’ve gone on. Now, I tend to know at the beginning which form a story will take because I might be asked to produce something in a particular form – like with ‘Dougie’s War.’ I was commissioned write a comic so it was never going to be a novel!” Glass said. “When I started out writing in my early twenties, I thought I’d only be able to write short stories. Then I wrote a long short story, which became a novel. Then I was lucky with reception to my work, so I grew in confidence. I think most artists branch out when they feel more confident. But the Gray biography was the real turning point for me, as that was much more experimental in form – and then I thought, if applied myself in the same way, why not try different things?
“I’ve learned so much from working in comics that has influenced my fiction writing, and I really hope each form will complement the other,” he continued. “It’s so easy to get pigeon holed, and far too many artists of all kinds settle into what they think people want from them. I think audiences are more sophisticated than that. Actually, repeating yourself is moving backwards. I hope I’ll always keep moving, between styles and between forms. Mostly because I think there’s always lots to learn, and I learn best when doing different things at once.”
Though “Dougie’s War” is Glass’ first comics project, his connection to artist Dave Turbitt has deep roots. “I’m pleased to say that I met Dave a long, long time ago, when we were both students. He put adverts up around Glasgow looking to do art for bands – posters, CD covers, that kind of thing – and I was then in a noisy band looking for exactly that,” Glass told CBR. “I think he sees it very differently, it’s always the way, but what I’ve always liked about Dave’s art is its instinctive sensitivity. It’s got a lot of heart, and we’ve been attempting to do a big project together for years to showcase that. We grew up, I became a writer, he moved to London and made a life there but we always kept in contact.
“We were struggling to get the right person for ‘Dougie’s War’ and even though I knew Dave didn’t have the time, I knew he’d always wanted to do his own comic, and I reckoned that he’d be perfect. So I forced him to make time! Basically I didn’t want to make a macho story full of muscles and big tits – this is a very different kind of thing. I knew I’d be able to communicate with Dave because we already knew each other well and I just knew he’d get the idea. At first I really wanted to avoid working with someone I knew, but I’m so glad I did.”
Though there have been a few comics examining current and recent wars, and of course classic characters like Sgt. Rock making the occasional return, Glass’ examination of war’s aftermath is somewhat notable in that the writer himself is not a veteran. His perspective, though, does bring a number of things to bear, including interviews with returning vets and the experience of creating his most recent novel. “The internal conflicts of serving in the military was already a subject I was interested in from ‘Hope for Newborns.’ I’ve never served, but members of my family had, and the job of the fiction writer is to imagine yourself in situations you’ve not actually been in,” Glass said. “I’m interested in the ordinary guys that have few opportunities who end up in the services, rather than those born into it or the guys at the top who make the decisions. It’s the ordinary guys who usually get blown up. Adrian knew this, and Freight Design were doing some work with Veteran Scotland – I went to talk to the guys that make the poppies for Remembrance Day, researched the topic for several months and based by story on some of the things I’d heard. I can’t fake having served in Afghanistan. I’m not trying to pretend to do that. My job is to tell the story of these guys who told me they have no voice.”
In speaking with these veterans, Glass noted common elements running through their stories of returning home after combat. “They often had no idea about how to re-enter civilian society. They didn’t have the tools,” Glass said. “Some of these guys had gone straight in from school and had been trained to kill the enemy. And not to think too much. So when you’re thrust back into civilian life, without structure, among people who might not know, care, or who might disapprove of what you’ve done, that’s a hell of a thing to cope with.
“I heard a lot that guys had never had to manage their money. Never had to fill in an application form. Never had to make a doctor or a dentist’s appointment. Those simple things can be the most difficult,” the writer added. “Oh, and the other thing I heard a lot was guys pitying the likes of me, as I couldn’t possibly understand what it’s like to lay your life on the line for your fellow soldier. That kind of community, no matter the circumstances, that’s rare in civilian society. And even the ones who had suffered the most with PTSD, they were hugely grateful for having been part of a tight community like that.”
Glass said, though, that his own perspective cannot help but shape the story as it unfolds – “you just have to be subtle about it.” “I don’t believe in any objective truth, and this isn’t really an objective subject. You’ve got to get stuck in and get messy, or else not bother,” he said. “Naturally, after to speaking to a whole bunch of veterans about how they were treated after leaving the services, my sympathies were with them, and so I couldn’t tell the story of someone who comes home after serving in the war and is absolutely fine. To me that would have been a lie.”
The book is, of course, very sympathetic to Dougie, but is a pretty harsh look at life after the military. Asked whether “Dougie’s War” is or could be considered an anti-war comic, Glass said that the central issue is not war itself but what becomes of those who serve. “The key for me is the connection with all the previous wars, which is one of the reasons we’ve included all the ‘Charley’s War’ information and excerpts, also the Rudyard Kipling poem ‘Tommy’s War,’ set around the time of the First World War,” Glass said. “We wanted to make the connection between how soldiers were treated in previous wars and how they’re treated now. In short, not too differently. The poorest are most likely to suffer, to die, to struggle to adapt to civilian life if they do survive. I don’t know whether I’ll disapprove of the next war we’ll be involved in, but I can be pretty sure that people like Dougie will serve in it. This story isn’t about the rights and wrongs of any particular war. I’m no supporter of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but this comic is about how we treat the people we ask to fight for us.”
Glass said that, having now tested his skills as a graphic novelist, he’d be more than happy to do further stories in comics. “I certainly would like to do more, and I realize now more than before this project that actually there’s a real tradition of comics out there that ‘Dougie’ is a part of, which is vibrant and alive and very far from the tired old cliches I associated with the comics world as a teenager,” he said. “If I could find the right project, absolutely. I’d do more.
“But in the meantime, the next novel. It’s about the least successful player ever for Manchester United, and his obsession with the most successful. It’s a pretty dark comedy, and is called ‘Bring Me the Head of Ryan Giggs.’ If I’m lucky, it might be out next year.”
“Dougie’s War” is available now throughout the UK and can be ordered worldwide from dougieswar.com
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