Brahm Revel may not be a household name in comics, but the writer and artist may well be on his way to changing that this month with "Guerillas" from Image Comics. Using the simple concept of training chimps to fight in a jungle war, Revel forges a thoughtful and strangely plausible tale that unfolds in the tangle of Vietnam. Revel spoke with CBR News about the miniseries, the inspiration behind it, and what he hopes to achieve artistically with the book.
"Guerillas" depicts a top-secret program initiated by the Nixon administration during the height of the Vietnam conflict. Said Revel, "They've begun using specially trained chimps to fight the war in Southeast Asia. The action follows a timid new recruit who accidentally falls in with the experimental apes, but as they hump through the damp jungles of Vietnam, it becomes unclear if these chimps are a stable fighting unit or an erratic and volatile pack of animals. The chimps have gone through the U.S. military machine and are trying to reconcile the ideas and orders that they've been taught with their innate instinctual drives."
Revel added, "'Guerillas' looks at the nature of war, the nature of man, and all the grey areas in between. It's also an action-packed thrill-ride full of jungle warfare and simian acrobatics!"
"Guerillas" is seen through the eyes of a human main character in John Francis Clayton. "He is an aimless suburban kid who has gone to war to find himself," Revel said, "but he soon learns that Vietnam is not his father's war. Also following the chimps through the jungle is a small unit of U.S. soldiers. They act as a kind of Greek chorus, who can comment on the controversial situations that unfold."
Each issue is around 48 pages, which Revel notes is longer than your average comic but shorter than a manga. "I'm trying to allow extra space for more visual storytelling and bigger and more elaborate action sequences," he explained. "At the same time, I'm also trying to establish three-dimensional characters that act in realistic ways, and have complex relationships. It's all about building a plausible world. For instance, just because the chimps can run around shooting guns, it doesn't mean that they've magically acquired the ability to speak. "
Revel said that the inspiration for "Guerillas" goes back to the film "Saving Private Ryan." "It was a good old fashion war movie that was less about politics and more about cool tank battles," Revel remarked. "My mind just visually connected the way the soldiers marched through the bombed out landscape with the way chimps walk single file through the jungle. That was it, monkeys plus war equals cool. The initial idea was for the chimps to fight the Nazis during WWII, but the more I thought about the story, the more it made sense to have it take place in Vietnam. It's a lot easier to explain the use of trained chimps in a war that takes place in the jungle."
The name "Guerillas" was one of the last pieces of the puzzle for Revel. "A lot of people assume that the play on words was the initial inspiration, but I didn't think of the name until the whole thing was plotted. And after I did, I thought, 'Oh my god, this is so obvious!'" he said. "I was deathly afraid that someone else was going to come up with the same idea before I had a chance to make it myself. Luckily that hasn't happened -- that I know of."
Revel had originally planned to finish the first issue and then apply for the Xeric Grant, which awards money for self-publishing comics and graphic novels. "It's a great service," said Revel, "and for years I'd thought about taking advantage of the opportunity. But as I got closer to the application deadline, the prospect of writing and drawing an ongoing series while dealing with printers, distributors and advertisers seemed awfully daunting. So I decided to see if someone else would publish it first.
"At the top of my list was Image, mainly because I knew that they only print creator-owned material. But I had also noticed that in the past few years they'd begun to print a much wider variety of genres and styles. So I checked out the submission guidelines on their website and I sent them a copy of the first issue. About a month later they e-mailed me and they said they were in."
Prior to "Guerillas," Revel had always been interested in art and making comics. "I went to an arts high school in San Francisco," said Revel, "and then I attended the Cooper Union in New York. After college, I randomly came in contact with Larry Fessenden, a New York based director. He was looking for someone to draw a comic based on his upcoming movie, 'Wendigo.' Over the next eight years I worked at his production company, Glass Eye Pix, as a freelance illustrator. I did everything from animatics and storyboards to pre-production design."
Revel continued, "Whenever I could, I urged him to make more comics, and over the years we produced a 'Wendigo' comic, an anti-Bush comic named 'What Are You Voting For?' and, most recently, an adaptation of his newest movie, 'The Last Winter,' which was printed by Image Comics."
Revel cites a wide range influences in his work. "In terms of comics creators, I love the mood and design of Mike Mignola, I love the action and clarity of Katsuhiro Otomo, and I love the characterization and simplicity of Jaime Hernandez.
"Recently I've become much more attracted to the simplicity of black and white art. I think you can learn more from black and white art because you get a much better feel for what the originals look like. There's no flashy color to hide behind; what you see is what you get. I really think that getting an image to 'read' in just black and white is no easy task and I love to look at artists who really know how to do it."
Revel made a point of mentioning two other creators whose influence reaches beyond content and style, Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird. "That's right," said Revel, "the guys who gave the world the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. So I think it's somewhat fitting that the first book I put out into the comic book universe is also a story about ass-kicking anthropomorphic animals!"
Revel takes a somewhat introspective view when considering his target audience. "I guess I'm just making a comic that I would like to read," he said. "I grew up reading mostly superhero books, but in high school and college I moved into the more independent stuff, and as more foreign comics have been made available, I've gotten into the wider world of sequential art. So I'm bringing all of these influences together to make my own version of what a comic book is.
"I guess what I'm saying is that I take comics seriously as a medium and I'd like to think that people who feel the same way will like what I'm doing. It's definitely a war comic, there are lots of guns and lots of cursing, but it's also a very fun and adventurous genre piece. I'll tell you what I told Image when I pitched it to them. People love to see monkeys dressed up like humans, especially when they're smoking cigarettes. And 'Guerillas' has that in spades!"
While Revel has ideas for the concept beyond the initial miniseries, whether or not readers will see more of "Guerillas" is up in the air. Said Revel, "I have come up with ideas for two sequels to 'Guerillas,' but they were conceived more as jokes than anything else. I imagined them in the vein of Hollywood sequels, in which the stories get less plausible and more outrageous as they go on. But the second one would be fun to do, so who knows? If the public demands it...
"The truth is, I've got plenty of other ideas that I want to do, so as long as people will keep reading my stuff, I'd like to keep trying new and original ideas!"
The first issue of "Guerillas" hits the stands August 27.