War & Comics – An Interview With Rodge Glass.

Rodge Glass is the Glasgow based author of the critically acclaimed graphic novel Dougie’s War, which deals with a Scottish soldier returning from Afghanistan who faces his own very personal battle with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.  With his upcoming Edinburgh Book Festival discussion about War and Comics, I thought I’d catch up with him and discuss the making of Dougie’s War.

The cover of Dougie's War

Dougie’s War’ is your first graphic novel.  How did the project come about, and why did you decide to use the comics form?

Adrian Searle approached me with the idea. He is Head of Freight, a really smart graphic design company who have moved into publishing recently with Freight Books. Adrian gave me my first publication in 2004 and he’s supported my work ever since. He was working with various charities to build awareness of issues to do with PTSD and noticed that in my second novel, Hope for Newborns, the main characters were three generations of an army family where there was a great deal of inner mental conflict. In that book there was an unclear sense of who the goodies and the baddies were. Also, a struggle which was really more about the war after the war, rather than the war itself. So he asked me to write Dougie. At the time I’d just finished a huge draining project, Alasdair Gray: A Secretary’s Biography and wanted a complete change. Also, I wanted an excuse to read comics and throw myself into another world. I’m glad I did.

As a prose author, what were some of the challenges of writing for comics?

Directness was the main challenge. In novel writing you have far more space for subtlety in language, and there are no rules about how long a story has to be – or indeed the form it has to take. Learning about splash and half-splash and making something happen on every two pages was a real change for me, but one I needed. My first two books were quite quiet tragic comedies where a whole chapter might consist of someone thinking about picking up a cup of tea and then deciding against it. You can’t get away with that with a graphic novel!

The other main thing was working with a collaborator. I talked on the phone with [artist] Dave Turbitt regularly, and we chatted about things like where Dougie might live, where he’d go drinking, what he liked and what he feared. These things really helped form him in my mind, and after these discussions I’d go off and write the next part of the script. Once Dave had responded to the first draft of the script by bringing out the story in the visuals, I realised that often I’d said too much. Now the pictures were there, I could strip the dialogue back a lot.  Dave’s artwork has a lot of heart in it. He was so good that my main contribution in the last stages of the project was hitting the DELETE button – again – and again – and again….

What comic books and literary works inspired ‘Dougie’s War’?  And more broadly, which comics have you read that represent the form at its most exciting?

The most fun thing about this project was getting to read a lot of comics I hadn’t heard of – and chase down ones I’d been meaning to read for ages. The very first thing – and starting point for the whole project – was Charley’s War, which I never came across when I was younger, but which immediately seemed to set the tone. We never sought to reproduce that, or to be as meticulous in design and rendition – Charley was incredibly intricate, and was a real unique case. But it showed two things – 1 – That you could deal with the internal horrors of war without being boring or simplistic, and 2 – That not really much has changed for ordinary soldiers since World War One. So when it came to the writing, we tried to link new conflicts to old ones.

After Charley’s War that I went on to read graphic novel that might seem quite obvious now – Persepolis, and the graphic novel version of Waltz With Bashir, and Joe Sacco’s Palestine. I had gone off comics as a kid because I found the traditional heroes boring – but here was something that demanded I use my imagination and intelligence at the same time. I hadn’t really seen that before. From there I gobbled up all kinds of things – my favourites were Pride of Baghdad, about the escaped animals from the Iraqi zoo after the Allied invasion in 2003, and Garth Ennis’s War Stories volumes. I reckon I’ve just scratched the surface of the kinds of things I’d be interested in. Denise Mina’s work with DC was interesting too….I don’t know if I’d call myself an expert, but an outsider interested in being on the inside. You can spend a whole lifetime trying to understand a literary form. I wanted to get a spirit, and see what we could make that did the subject justice.

Soldiers and war have a long history in comics, especially in the form of adventure stories and superhero soldiers like Captain America.  What do you think of mainstream comic book representations of warfare and violence?  

I’m wary of generalising about a whole slew of material from across several generations – that would be ignorant of me. So all I can say is that those mainstream representations like Captain America really turned me off. I was never into superheroes as a kid for the same reason as I wasn’t into Shakespeare or the Bronte sisters. I wanted to read things about the contemporary world, the world I was living in and wanted to learn about.

How did you attempt to buck the trends of representation established in comics like Captain America?  

Choosing the right artist was key – you can talk all you like about writers, but the graphic novel/comic form is distinguished by the visual spirit and identity of what you make. In short, the LOOK of it. Dave Turbitt was ideal for this because I don’t think he’d be capable of drawing a single frame that could be seen as mainstream, or macho, or dumb. He’s far too sensitive for that. He has a wild and vivid imagination but an effortless, simple style that always shows sympathy for the character being drawn. There’s no space for that in goodies and baddies in the trenches.

What do you think of the current state of the Scottish comics scene? What can we do to improve that culture?

One thing that Dougie has taught me is that there’s a lot about the Scottish Comics scene I don’t know! I worked closely with Freight, with the many soldiers I interviewed, and closely with Dave and Derick Carss who designed Dougie, but aside from that we were pretty isolated. This was my introduction to the Scottish comics world and I don’t think it’s my place to say how it can improve the culture. But I can say that I think that projects like Dougie, which open up the comics world to artists of different kinds, can really have interesting results. As a novelist I’ve felt very welcomed and would like to do more in the field if I get the opportunity. Also, I’d like to do more collaborations. I’m glad Dougie got a nomination in the Scottish Indie Comic Book Awards last month and I hope that a few more people in the comics scene check us out because of it. It’s nearly a year since Dougie’s War was published now, but it seems to be gaining momentum, and that’s really gratifying to see. The fact that Pat Mills has agreed to do this event with us at the Edinburgh Book Festival helps us, and the issue of PTSD, be taken more seriously as well. And that can only be good.