A Return to the Jungle with Mike Heimos: Fever Ridge #4

IDW takes us back to the jungle in the latest issue of Fever Ridge: A Tale of MacArthur’s Jungle War. Penned by Mike Heimos with artwork by Nick Runge, this unique historical comic focuses on the U.S. military campaigns in New Guinea and the Philippines during World War II, topics not often broached in mainstream WWII fiction. This series successfully takes on the familiar conventions of the genre and infuses them with literary sensibilities and elements of magical realism, creating a layered, evolving narrative that demands revisiting with each new issue. Heimos plays the long-game in crafting a rich and well-researched story, while Runge sees it through with dynamism and an incredible strength of page design.

Issue #4 is no different. Here we see another successful intertwining of historical context with the tension of tight, character-driven scenes, punctuated by Heimos’ well-scripted dialogue. The introduction of the character Ruud adds another intriguing layer through the lenses of native politics and colonialism, further developing both the time and space. Runge expertly unfolds these scenes through the use of beautiful splashes and engaging panel transition and composition alike, complemented by color palettes of Nolan Woodard. There’s really nothing quite like this title on the shelves right now, a compelling read with an astounding visual execution that leaves the reader absorbed issue after issue. If you haven’t picked it up yet, I highly recommend doing so.

With the release of this issue, soon to be collected in a trade of issues #1 through #4, I got a chance to catch up with Mike Heimos.FRCover1

You’re a writer of prose as well as comic books. For some that’s a difficult balance to maintain, while other writers thrive in both formats. How do you decide which format to pursue your stories in? Do you find yourself leaning one way or another?

It can be tricky because the expected answer is, “when I want to see as well as read it,” it goes to the visual format, but that could apply to virtually any story. My decision comes down to answering whether it has been done in comics before, and, can the potential art + words outperform what can be done only with wordplay?

When I was mulling and researching the concept that became Fever Ridge, the striking colors and landscapes, people, animals etc. of New Guinea cried out to be presented visually in order for it to be told properly, completely. As well, I could not find any comics or graphic novels that dealt with the New Guinea and Philippines campaigns, nor some of the other constituents of the book.

Similarly, I’m also working on some medieval stories that will be nice to see in graphic novels or comics, for as far as I can tell, the subjects are new to the genre and they could look crazy slick.

I’ve definitely become hooked on creating graphic novels/comics and look forward to doing several more projects, but am taking care to remain equally interested in writing traditional prose. Right now, I’m working on a series of short stories that are very GenX-ey. Since I’m a GenX and think our generation is fascinating, want to tell a few stories relating to us, some is even semi-autobiographical, what not.

FRPage1You’ve said in the past that Fever Ridge is meant to be read as a graphic novel. With that in mind, do you prefer the serialized format of comic books, or the immediacy and cohesion of the graphic novel? What are some of the pros and cons you’ve encountered?

Well for my creations, it depends…

Obviously if the story is open ended, it’s a serial; if the story is finite, could be better to do as a graphic novel. The real trick is to decide whether to make a finite story into a limited series or a graphic novel.

I’ve learned that unless one is absolutely sure the work conceptually is right as a monthly, and the team can hit the monthly publishing/printing deadlines (which we and plenty of others have trouble doing), it might be better to just make the book in graphic novel form. Or finish creating all the issues up-front, but that means undertaking a lot of work, expense, risk etc. and any income is deferred. Lots of people might find that too tough, but for me I think it would be much less stressful and in many ways better creatively.

The “pros” of serialization include that you can make some sales, create interest incrementally, and you can tantalize. What’s a cliffhanger without a bit of a wait?

As Fever Ridge was my first foray into comics and graphic novels, I did not know or fully appreciate the various release approaches, frankly I just assumed that it was the standard to serialize it then do trades etc. I cannot deny, if I could go back in time we would make Fever Ridge purely as a graphic novel, release when totally finished etc. Lesson learned!

For my comics reading, I kind of like serials and series if for no other reason that they get me to the comic store to pick up the latest issue from Whomever, and I have the excuse to browse for other stuff too. Now that I’ve walked in creators’ shoes, I promise my compatriots that if I like your stuff, will wait for issues patiently no matter the deadlines missed, won’t give up until I hear it is “kaput!”

Yet there’s no doubt, still like the full novel format. And also, the trend for “art books” is something I’m digging a lot.

A book World War II history buffs will love, Fever Ridge is dependent on a great deal of complex historical context. You’ve spend a lot of time building that up, devoting Issue #2 to this contextual backstory. As a writer, how do you find the right balance between plot/action with historical backstory? As a reader, how do you think that translates, given some of the magical realism in the story as well?

FRCover2Ah but let me point something out: as you will see when you read the trade Vol. 1 (issues 1 – 4), there is STORY in Issue 2 as well. It is not “just a history lesson” to paraphrase one reviewer. You will have to be a little observant (and patient… read into Vol. 2). But, story is there too!

Similarly, page 14 of Issue 3 – there is STORY there. Your understanding of the book will be less complete if you overlook reading that fictional “Cockatoo News” edition.

My take on executing a historical fiction, is to not balance between history and plot. You strive for a seamless weave of the historical backstory and world of the plot, with the plot. That is, it involves “world creation” just as much as a space opera like Star Wars or a Tolkien fantasy. Just as we, Earthlings of the 21st century, need to have Middle Earth laid out for us in sufficient detail and reference to be taken in by Bilbo’s story, so do we need e.g. the 4th century Roman cultural infrastructure to have a great story on Julian the Apostate (ref Gore Vidal’s Julian). Past eras are simply alien worlds, thus one succeeds in historical fiction not by making up places and re-ordering the laws of physics and the like, but through researching and laying out that world as thoroughly as possible.

Now when we add a magical element to the tapestry, then things get doubly interesting. But it’s just another layer in the story.

I think a lot about one of my favorite books, Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, which is a story of the not distant human past in the Subcontinent, and contains the magic of “superpowers,” including telepathy. My book is just a story of some complex men of a couple of generations ago, their WWII experiences and lives afterward, and it has an element or two of the magical (the main one being a character and the question of his origins and mortality).

BY THE WAY, I wouldn’t dare say Fever Ridge is up to the level of Midnight’s Children! Just drawing an analogy to indicate what I’m aspiring to do – to present historical fiction that also has a magical element or two.

Since the Fever Ridge trade will be coming out to collect issues #1 – #4, will there be any new material to entice readers to pick up the paperback?

Yes indeed the trade will have lots of new stuff, bonus materials and such. Here’s the outline:

I asked Nick to color two of his spreads (#3 pgs. 10-11, #4 pgs. 2-3), only because the spreads were his real forte in the sequential art, they are incredibly killer and I wanted to see his own color interpretations of those. Know that I think Jordie [Bellaire] and Nolan [Woodard] have done GREAT work.

A mini-album collects some photos and mementos from my grandfather’s WWII service – you will see various shots (and some that obviously reflect into the story) with explanatory captions.

A set of annotations on certain panels from each issue, selected not-randomly and I point out some cool tidbits, e.g. a little trivia as to MacArthur’s silk robe (seen in #2). BTW there’s a little salute there to Brandon DeStefano, my letterer (who is not only doing a superb job in the book but also is a gentle educator and fine raconteur).

In a section I call “Gobbets,” I craft some analytical queries for the readers, inviting them to re-look at the indicated materiel and think about the significance. Hopefully, some folks will be intrigued enough to get in touch with me on their thoughts, interpretations etc. (my Twitter account is indicated in the Intro to the bonus features).

We made an art gallery, starting with a special pinup Nick created, inspired by a couple more of my granddad’s photos. Then, all the character/bio sketches from #2 and #4.

I give a bibliography and an index. The bibliography is a proper one, but the index is more a fun thing than traditional. Still, these two pages are not to be overlooked – as with all the bonus stuff, there are important “reveals” to glean there, too!

Finally, we show one Runge cover (#5) and a retailer incentive cover by Leila del Duca (#7), and some teaser info for #5 – #8 (Vol. 2).

FRPage2Fever Ridge is a unique and complex war story with elements of the magical and the strange. As a writer, what is your aim with Fever Ridge? What would you like your readers to take away from it in the end?

Right, it is fairly complex… and I am definitely not writing it for everyone. The fact is, as your question presumes, I definitely do want readers to TAKE AWAY some things.

Generally the work has gotten good to great reviews, and some of them actually insightful. But yes, there has been some negative commentary, “This is boring!” and such. OK but here is a basic point: this book is not a shoot ‘em up in the first place. Also, it is not a rah-rah patriotism piece.

My aspiration is to make something for a perceptive reader, who has patience and can both notice and savor details, layers, subtleties as well as explosions, wants a developing story and character evolution, is interested in historical fiction. To date, we have been laying lots of groundwork – and still showing some action! Anyone who says, as did one reviewer, “nothing happens [in Issue 1] …” is just blind. The sniper cliffhanger, that’s nothing? Another example – the swamp firefight in #3, that’s nothing happening? C’mon!

With that said, I will tease you and the readers like a prom date: there is some incredibly extreme “action” later in Vol. 2, I assure you. Example, and as our good fans will guess from reading the first issues: Issue 5 is a recon/rescue with a twist. ‘Nuff said.

I’m trying to make a book that I want, pure and simple (and there are some people like me, I think ;-), a book that one revisits after the first for a second, third reading, a couple of years later and such. It is not for someone who wants “POW!” on every page never to return to the work. I’ve nothing against them, mind you; it’s just that I’m writing this for someone else.

Anyhow, having indicated THAT I want people to take stuff away from Fever Ridge, back to your questions as to WHAT I want them to take away. Several things…

The book is made in homage to my grandfather, and the Erik character in part is thought experimentation to understand him better. Thus I want to document his perspective; and maybe connect with people of my generation, perhaps our parents and our kids, whose fathers/ grandfathers/ great-grandfathers may have had similar outlooks.

Moreover, there definitely are philosophical and political ideas, issues woven into the story, stuff that not a lot of today’s readers have considered at all and especially in the context of WWII and the ‘Greatest Generation.’ You saw some of this beginning in Issue 1, in the first conversation between Franz and Erik; it’s elsewhere too. Of course, these issues are the more gravely considered during war, when a society tells its young men to kill another’s young men, by the bushel.

There is a gap in the fiction of WWII in that the New Guinea and Philippines campaigns have gotten short shrift, and this book is to make a contribution there, too. Relatedly, another goal is to increase awareness of New Guinea, its people, flora and fauna – it is one of the last true gems of the world, such places are being sterilized and eliminated daily.

Again, I want to offer something to those that really enjoy the element of magic-realism, and who would like to stay with it in my other work. I think for example of Herbert’s Dune books, which have strong magical elements that connect all the subplots and eras. My magical elements include at least one that will connect to other of my projects.

In my research, I came across some cool “holes” in the history that gave me the opportunity to include a mystery element as well. In Vol. 2 you will be taken to Fever Ridge and see what it might mean for the Sightseers, and the world.

Finally, I suppose I just wanted to contribute to an emerging genre of historical fiction in graphic novels and comics. As I’ve said elsewhere, I’m a fan of Brian Wood’s Viking stories, Jordan Stratford’s Crimean War steam punk book (and his blog btw, WOW), and others.

Before you go, any parting thoughts? Any other news you’d like to share?

Hmm just come back to me in a few weeks, there may be some additional news as I’m cooking something up at the moment, but it’s too preliminary to discuss!

Also, get out there and support other creator-owned works!

Thanks again to Mike for taking time to talk, and we hope to hear again about this book in the future.

Magen Cubed

3 thoughts on “A Return to the Jungle with Mike Heimos: Fever Ridge #4

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