How "The Odyssey of Sergeant Jack Brennan" Uses Marines to Start a Dialogue About Trauma

Bryan Doerries and his Theater of War project have been presenting the plays of Sophocles before military and civilian audiences since 2009. More than just an art project, the Department of Defense wanted to use it as a tool to start conversations between soldiers. The plays cover war and trauma, most originally written and performed in Athens during wartime, and are intended to provide mental health support for both soldiers and veterans.

"The Odyssey of Sergeant Jack Brennan" is a new graphic novel from Pantheon written by Doerries and drawn by artists including Justine Mara Anderson, Nick Bertozzi, Joelle Jones, Dylan Meconis and Jess Ruliffson. Its aim is to bring Theater of War's approach to a new medium. The titular Sergeant Brennan gathers his squad of Marines before their return to the United States to tell them the story of Odysseus and his struggle to return home. More than a retelling of the epic tale, the book is designed to echo many of the struggles people face returning from war, and allows the Marines to talk about their own experiences and friends.

Using metaphor and distance to tell stories and to allow people to relate to them is something that is familiar to many comics readers and Doerries spoke with CBR News about the book, Theater of War, and what modern readers can still learn from the Trojan War.

CBR News: Like a lot of people I read "Theater of War," your book about this theater project you've been doing for many years. Where did the idea to make a graphic novel of "The Odyssey" come from?

Bryan Doerries: The idea started back in the early days of Theater of War. In 2009 we had this unprecedented relationship with the Department of Defense where we were contracted to do 100 performances of Sophocles' plays on military bases over the span of one year. In the process of doing that and traveling all over the world, we reached a lot of people but we also discovered that the problem and the conversation that needed to happen was so much larger than the theater could ultimately reach. We started thinking about how could we devise a strategy or a series of strategies to reach a wider audience with the core messages of Theater of War. One of the core messages of Theater of War is that these struggles -- these mental health struggles, struggles with suicidal ideation, struggles with substance abuse -- are as old as humanity. And yet they're all incredibly isolating. If Theater of War had one public health message it's that you're not alone, and most critically, you're not alone across time. People have been feeling these things for a long time.

It didn't happen overnight but over several years and through relationships with people who the DoD liked the idea we were eventually approached by DARPA, the wing of the Department of Defense that developed the Internet, to pitch an idea for a graphic novel. The objective of the project under DARPA was to create a series of tools that would empower veterans to begin telling their stories through sequential art and a curriculum that would help them, at a very rudimentary level, begin that process; both in art therapy settings but also in their homes. Out of that grew the funding that enabled the team that we assembled to create "The Odyssey of Sergeant Jack Brennan."

We had a relatively short timeline and we decided to deploy multiple artists rather than hire just one artist for the project. Out of that came an early prototype of the book. I wrote the script and then worked with several editors -- Joey Manley, who unfortunately passed away during the process, Tom Hart, and a couple people from E-Line Media, which was our partner. When we had the prototype done, I took it to my publisher Knopf and said, by the way, I've been working on this graphic novel.

Did you know from the beginning it would be about "The Odyssey"?

At first we thought we would adapt one of the plays that we perform by Sophocles. The plays are very useful because they're very dramatic and they have a tremendous impact on audiences. They pack a big punch. Thinking about the graphic novel as a form, unless we really expanded and riffed upon that material, and made up a lot of material, the plays wouldn't necessarily lend themselves well to novelizations. Then we started looking at the epic and of course "The Odyssey" is one of the oldest stories in the Western world and one of the oldest war stories of all time.

We wanted to explore could we bring an ancient Greek narrative into the contemporary world in a way that would help veterans -- who have been through similar experiences as described in "The Odyssey" -- begin a process of healing and discussion. As we started to explore "The Odyssey" in more detail, it became clear that it was really the best vehicle for graphic novelization. It had the sweep of a much longer story with many chapters and twists and turns. We weren't going to bite off the entire "Odyssey" because that's just too much material but we would focus on Odysseus' story of his own journey home that begins in the Phaeacian banquet and ends when he returns to Ithaca and doesn't recognize it.

Why adapt "The Odyssey" when "The Iliad" might be the more obvious choice?

There's no shortage of material. We intend to create sequels and we intend to create different iterations of this project, if it's successful, that meet the needs of different audiences. For instance one of the audiences we neglected with this project are female veterans. The squad that's featured in the book is all male. The Marine Corps is 95% male, but the army is 15% women and we now have women in combat roles so we're anticipating and hoping that we'll get to think about that question. "The Iliad" would be great though the core narrative of "The Odyssey" matched very well -- both metaphorically and sometimes quite literally -- to the challenges that veterans face returning from war. We feel that in terms of what we're trying to do, that "The Odyssey" maps our objective which is to give people tools to think about the challenges they're going to face before they face them. To see that they're not the first people on the planet to have felt those things.

I raise "The Iliad" because the idea of a long, seemingly endless war is something that previously we never could have imagined and now is all too familiar. Also I know that one of the plays you perform for military audiences is Sophocles' "Ajax," which is set during the Trojan War.

I think both have their place in the conversations we try to frame and elicit. "Ajax" serves that because it takes place within the war. One of the things we wanted to do and you can see this in the graphic novel is the sack of Troy isn't really covered in great detail in "The Odyssey," so we looked at other source material in particular "The Trojan Women," to fill in some of the gaps. We were hoping to develop what would be a sort of muscular, and to be quite honest, a violent beginning to the telling of the story. To grab the military reader in particular and say, this isn't your grandmother's Odyssey. We also want to acknowledge that the subject of this discussion is violence and its impact on us as individuals and our communities. We invested in the beginning chapter, "The War Never Ends," in portraying as much of the violence as we thought we could get away with and still have it appeal to a very wide audience.

As a theater director, you're accustomed to collaboration, but what was the experience like of working with editors and artists and working on this book?

It was terrific. It's a radically different type of collaboration. The work of actors and directors is collaborative within a space where we're together, working and preparing together. Artists in this form work alone and laboriously over long periods of time, but a lot of the tools that make one effective as a director, are going to extend to this type of collaboration with visual artists. Trusting their talent and their innate ability to bring to the embodiment of your text things that you could never have imagined and integrating that into the larger vision of what the book will be. It shares a lot in common with creating a theatrical production in that way.

How do you find artists for a project like this?

Tom Hart was a real resource, and so was Joey Manley, but Tom found most if not all of the artists. We went out pretty wide in our first query of people we thought may or may not be right for it. Even though we were paying a decent wage, people have lots of other projects, and they had to want to do it. One of the people we discovered early on was Jess Ruliffson who had been going down to Walter Reed and interviewing veterans and helping transform their stories into sequential art. When I saw her work, it was so immediately apparent that she had both the sensitivity to handle the Marine framing device. Also she'd been around enough service members and veterans to bring a kind of authenticity to the way that she rendered and drew them. Joelle Jones did a lot of commercial work that was really sexy and muscular and compelling and we thought for the section about the sacking of Troy that's what we want for the aesthetic.

Each artist brought a different sensibility and a different aesthetic. One of the concerns we had was that this isn't an anthology, how will people read it? Are there examples out there of multiple artists working on the same narrative but there's no framing conceit that justifies why you're moving from one style to the next. We didn't really know until the end whether it would or not. For the most part we haven't heard any complaints about people being thrown by moving between the styles and work of different artists. If anything I think it brings a variety that keeps people engaged.

It feels that since Vietnam, we see a value in individual stories and experiences in a way that is very different from how our grandparents' generation in WWII thought which was that you just shouldn't talk about these things.

There are two things at work. One is, and I'm oversimplifying, but the Vietnam conflict was one of the first times a nation turned against its military and criminalized its military for carrying out the nation's foreign policy decisions. That was a mistake in the eyes of many Americans. No matter what your ideology, no matter what you think about foreign policy, most people are focused on never repeating that again. I marched against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. I was very against the invasion of Iraq, but I didn't feel comfortable as a civilian sitting on my hands when the cohort of veterans started returning from the wars to substandard care. It seemed like we were repeating the sins of Vietnam again. The other thing is that since Vietnam and since that generation came back, we've come to a new understanding of trauma and its treatment. We've made a few steps on a much larger journey of understanding how to treat trauma. That it is treatable at all is a major advancement from the WWII generation. I think most people in America support the troops and they support the idea of them getting good care, and part of that care is good mental health care.

I've been doing a lot of work in the UK the past six months and they are really far behind on that journey. First of all they didn't experience Vietnam the way we did. Second of all they have a culture that's very much like our WWII culture of stiff upper lip, denial, depression, repression; that it's a disservice to talk about trauma to other people. From my perspective those are all symptoms of a culture that has yet to see the positive and constructive and healing benefit of creating safe and supportive spaces for people to tell their stories and to be heard.

We developed a lot of tools for healing trauma -- and I'm not psychologist -- but it seems apparent that with regards to certain types of trauma like combat trauma we heal best in groups, not in one-on-one sessions with therapists. Our work creates the pretext for groups to come together and to heal through storytelling and the graphic novel is just one more extension of that strategy. It's already being embraced at a very high level at the Department of Defense. I'm very optimistic and hopeful that in the next six months we'll see a lot of Sergeant Brennans emerging from reading the graphic novel and thinking about what their responsibility is to their individual soldiers, Marines and other service members.

Because the book isn't just a retelling of "The Odyssey," it's Sergeant Brennan retelling the story and using it as an opportunity to let members of the unit tells their own stories.

That's really it and that's really our project. Our project is not some academic popularizing gesture. I'm sure you can find other adaptations of "The Odyssey" that are actually closer to the original in their telling. This is a version of "The Odyssey" as told by a Marine in his own words to his squad on their last night in theater. It's really about giving people permission to do what Sergeant Brennan is modeling. By virtue of telling an old story there's permission that's intrinsically part of the exercise. Also the way the novel is structured, where he tells a story and then someone from his squad volunteers to tell a story, that's what we're encouraging people to do when they read it.

You discuss this in "Theater of War," and I think a lot of people conflate a lot of Greek history and mythology, but these plays and stories are using myths and history. The authors had distance from those events. Distance and metaphor allow us to see ourselves in those stories.

Absolutely. I think "Ajax" in particular is very good at breaking open that because it's about the strongest of all Greek warriors and how even he is vulnerable to these invisible wounds. The central metaphor of "The Odyssey" is that no matter how tough you are, no matter how good a leader you are, you could easily end up coming home without your troops. And you can loose a lot of them after you return if you're not careful, if you're not attentive to their needs. It's possible to be lost at sea even after you've come home. It has nothing to do with how tough you are. War in particular is an experience that places individuals in these ethical and moral situations for which there are not always right or wrong answers. People will be haunted no matter what they do, and so giving words to that and voice to that and expression to that through visual art in particular creates a feeling of solidarity and connectedness between people who may feel very isolated otherwise by their experiences. Especially if they thought themselves impervious to these invisible struggles.

As you say, "Ajax" is a perfect play because he was the greatest warrior, he felt he was invincible, but after his friend died, he was unable to talk about what he felt and what it meant and deal with it.

He had no words. In some ways Odysseus has a surplus of words but it doesn't really help him.

In the end, you can't avoid the trauma no matter who you are.

Exactly. Both stories, I think, are stories of very strong warriors who no matter what their talents and gifts are, are visited with these challenges. In some way I hope it's reassuring to veterans to see that the greatest heroes of the Trojan war also struggled with these issues.

"The Odyssey of Sergeant Jack Brennan" is on sale now.

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