Harriet’s War is part of Commando‘s Armistice celebration, marking 100 years since the end of the First World War. The story of an ambulance driver on the Western Front, it’s a story I was really excited to write, not least because it covers the under-represented role of women in the war.
You can get Harriet’s War from newsagents in the UK and in digital form around the world via Comixology. If you want to read more about it, check out my post from Monday. And if you enjoy it, please let me know – it’s always nice to hear when people like your work.
This week, I have a new comic out from Commando – Harriet’s War.
Harriet’s War is part of a series from Commando marking the centenary of the armistice that ended the First World War. Called The Weekes’ War, the series follows several members of a single family, all serving in British forces.
As I’ve written about before, World War One is an important part of history. It was a war of unprecedented destruction in which people were reduced to cogs in industrial-scale killing machines. Because of the way soldiers were recruited, entire communities sometimes lost a generation of young men. Seeing how the war could touch the many members of a single family is particularly fitting, as well as a smart way to show different sides of the war.
Showing different sides is why I’m particularly proud to have written Harriet’s War. It’s only right and proper that we talk about the millions of young men who fought and died in the Allied armies, but it’s also important to remember other people and places, and that’s what Harriet’s War does.
The central characters, Harriet and Vera, are both women. Though very few women fought in the war, many were involved in it. Filling roles such as factory workers and nurses, they did hard, sometimes dangerous work. Though it was driven by men, this wasn’t just a men’s war.
This story focuses on medicine in a time of war. Harriet and Vera are an ambulance crew, risking death in no man’s land to save injured soldiers. We don’t often see the work of medical staff in war, but from frontline combat medics to the surgeons rebuilding broken bodies, theirs is tough, vital, life-saving, heart-breaking work. Without them, countless more lives would be lost, and it’s good to see them get the recognition they deserve.
Once Harriet gets out between the trenches, the story shows yet another side of the war – the experience of the Germans. In Britain, we mostly focus on the Allied experience, whether intentionally or by default. But a generation of German youths went through the same hardship the Allies did, the same losses, the same horrors. By the late war, they were battered, demoralised, struggling to survive. When Harriet encounters a German unit, the story takes a dramatic turn, one that reveals the humanity of the other side.
Of course, there are still many other sides to the war, ones that aren’t included here. From the struggle on the Eastern Front to the fighting in Africa to the war at sea, they are too easily forgotten when discussing the war. We can’t deal with them all at once, but we can at least make a start. If there’s a part of the war you think is under-represented, leave a comment about it and I’ll try to write about it in the future.
Art for this issue is by an artist who’s new to Commando – Khato of Creaciones Editoriales. As I write this, I haven’t yet seen the finished issue, but based on the pages you can see here I think it’s going to be great, full of vivid action and character. I love the collaborative element of comics, the way an artist gives the story life in ways the writer never even imagined. This is no exception.
On a personal note, this issue features a small tribute to my Great Aunt Vera, who died earlier this year. Vera was born during the war and lost her father to the fighting in the trenches. She went on to become an extraordinary person in her own right, lively, outspoken, and insightful until the end. Harriet’s friend and colleague is named after her.
Harriet’s War will be out in newsagents and on Comixology this Thursday, the 29th. Other issues of The Weekes’ War are already out there for you to buy. I hope that you enjoy this journey into some of the less remembered parts of the First World War.
A lot of the most powerful storytelling happens in the moments between scenes, the pieces we put together to fill the gaps. If someone has died and then we see a relative rebuilding in the aftermath, we fill in the trauma of loss. When the happy couple ride off into the sunset, we feel happy for their future life together.
In a shared creative universe, there are even more of those gaps.
There are lots of shared creative universes out there. From the half-dozen interlinked Star Trek shows to the Marvel Cinematic Universe to the insane sprawl of DC Comics, they’re something most people are exposed to. Maybe you just dip in and enjoy a little of what they offer, but for the hardcore fan, they’re a rich treasure trove. The more you consume of a single universe, the more of those gaps and connections you see. You fill them in through imagination, conversations, and fanfic, exponentially expanding that universe.
I used to think that the satisfaction in this was comparable with referencing in other parts of our culture. Looked at this way, recognising a Captain America character’s cameo in Ant-Man is like spotting a reference to Shakespeare in Stoppard – the satisfaction is all about feeling smart. You’re in on the reference. You’re part of the game.
But I now think that there’s more to it than that. Because these references exist within a continuity, there’s an extra layer of emotional meaning that those Shakespeare references don’t have. We’re not just recognising Agent Carter as a character from another film. We’re seeing how she’s aged, learning some of what she’s been through over the years, filling in gaps in her story. We feel for her. High culture references, with their focus on intellectual satisfaction, don’t do that.
Marvel’s Infinity War is full of this. It pulls in characters from so many other films, while leaving their familiar families and friends out. By the end, it only takes the slightest drift of imagination to start filling gaps elsewhere in this world, with tragic results. I’ve seen reviews that say the film is accessible to a Marvel outsider, but for someone who has been following these films, its impact stretches on and on.
I’m not arguing for the superiority of shared universes. Like any form of culture, they have advantages and disadvantages, can be good or bad. But their references have an extra layer of meaning that some others don’t. They don’t just hit you in the thoughts. They hit you in the feels.
I have a new comic out now, courtesy of the fine people at Commando.
The Forlorn Hope is the story of Tom, a young ne’er-do-well who drunkenly signs up to fight in the Napoleonic wars. Sent to Spain, he struggles to escape his new life of hard work and danger. But as the redcoats are thrown into a series of bloody sieges, Tom has to decide what sort of person he really wants to be.
Like my previous Commando story, The Forlorn Hope‘s characters are fictional, but the events they’re caught up in are entirely real.
During the Napoleonic Wars, the British army expanded hugely to face the might of the French Empire. To get enough men, recruiting parties scoured the country, often relying on drink to make men susceptible to exaggerated promises of pay and adventure.
The unit I put Tom into for this story is a real one – the 45th Nottinghamshire Regiment. The events of the comic cover actions they took part in, including the bloody storming of Badajoz. The details of the fighting are as close to the truth as I could make them, down to the moment when a grenadier named MacPherson turned his red jacket into a flag. I’ve skimmed over the uglier details of the aftermath, as they seemed out of place in Commando, but the moment when the victorious British immediately start drinking reflects the real behaviour of Wellington’s army.
As for calling assault parties “Forlorn Hope”, that’s also real, though its original meaning isn’t what you might expect. The phrase arose during fighting in the Netherlands. It’s a corruption of the Dutch phrase “verloren hoop”, literally meaning “lost heap”. So a similar sentiment but with a different meaning. It’s a fitting description. Many men were lost in the assault parties sent to storm besieged towns and forts. It was a difficult, dangerous business, and it was with good reason that the survivors were held in high regard.
You can find Commando #5139: The Forlorn Hope in British newsagents now and in digital form via Comixology.
I’ve recently written some reviews on books for writers for Re:Fiction. As is usually my way, I’ve focused on the positives, while trying to provide some balance. I generally don’t bother to review things I don’t like, which helps with that.
So if you’re looking for interesting writing resources, you might want to check out my reviews of…
We pulled hard at the oars, twenty of us rowing in unison, pushing our boat as fast as we could towards the shore. We wanted to be off the water and on dry ground, where we could fire back at the Turks on the cliffs. But more than that, we were excited to join the fight. The Great War had come, and we were keen to play our part.
With a crunch and a lurch, the boat hit ground. We let go of the oars and grabbed our rifles, leaping out into the shallows. Water filled my boots and soaked me to the thighs.
Billy grinned as he leapt into the water beside me.
“Last one up the beach digs the latrines!” he shouted before heading off at a run.
I followed eagerly, just as I’d followed him into schoolyard skirmishes and into the recruiting station when war came. We’d been lucky, just old enough to sign up. Now here we were, ready to stick it to the Turks.
Our captain stumbled as he climbed out of the boat. Blood streamed from his arm and his gaze was caught on a body bobbing in the surf beside him. My stomach churned but I forced the bile back and raced on up the sand.
Billy halfway up the beach when he suddenly spun around. I thought for a moment that he’d turned to urge me on. Then I saw the stain on his chest and the shock on his face. He fell sideways in the dirt.
I rushed towards him, a scream bursting from my lungs. All around, men were dropping like flies – some dead, others scrabbling in the dirt to dig a safe place. More bullets tore through Billy’s body and the sand beneath. I dropped to the ground and pressed a hand against his wound, but it was too late.
As I stared into my friend’s lifeless eyes, the guns thundered all around.
“Private Hughes, isn’t it?”
Captain Arundell approached along the sandy trench. He was the third commander we’d had since the landings. At least this one had the sense to keep his head down.
“Yes, sir,” I said, delivering a weary salute.
“I’m looking for volunteers for a raid on the Turkish lines,” he said. “They say that you’re a tough one, a survivor. I thought you might be a good choice.”
I snorted. “I’m a survivor because I don’t volunteer, captain. There’s nothing here worth sticking my head above the trench line for.”
“I have men who are keen to go,” Arundell said. “But they’re all new and inexperienced. Without some veterans to round out the team, they might not make it back.”
“Then good luck to them,” I said.
Arundell looked at me. We both knew he could order me to join. We both knew how well the rest of the men would view that sort of treatment, given what we’d already been through.
He turned and headed away down the trench.
I watched as the corpsmen carried Jones’s body off on a stretcher. He’d survived the landings and months on the beaches, only to succumb to a fever. He wasn’t the only one. Between disease and shelling, our safe positions felt more and more like a death trap.
I huddled against the wall of the trench and prayed for deliverance.
A private from the next platoon scurried along the trench. He paused as he reached me.
“Have you heard?” he said. “We’re leaving.”
I stared at him, hardly daring to believe.
“When?” I asked.
“After Christmas. They’re taking the ANZACs out first, then us.”
His smile was so wide, his face still fresh and innocent, it reminded me of Billy. I felt a moment of warm nostalgia, then one of nausea as I remembered him lying bleeding on the sand.
“Major Arundell’s looking for volunteers for the rear guard,” he continued. “We’re going to make sure the rest of you get out safely.”
My stomach sank at the thought of leaving this kid to face the Turks. But what could I do? My prayers had been answered. We were getting out at last.
The air stank of blood, cordite, and loose bowels. Even in the darkness of the night, I could make out the piles of bodies beyond our shell-shattered trenches, the remains of the last great Turkish assault.
I finished setting my rifle in place, rigged up with a tangle of strings and slowly leaking cans. It was a messy device, but a functional one. It would pull the trigger at odd intervals after I was gone, creating the illusion that a soldier was still here. At least, that was the theory.
The Turks had to know that we, the last few men standing, were about to leave. That was why they had launched the attack, to beat us while we were alone, before we could make our escape. And it was why we were still doing every last thing we could. Even if it only bought seconds, this still gave us a better chance of survival.
“Good work,” Major Arundell whispered, patting me on the shoulder. He pointed down the beach to where the boats were waiting. “Now let’s get out of here.”
As we grabbed the oars and set to rowing, I looked back at the cliffs of Gallipoli. I’d never been so glad to leave any place on Earth.
And I’d never been so glad to be alive.
* * *
I have a comic out!
“To Win Just Once” is a Commando comic, released yesterday in print and through Comixology. It’s about the experience of New Zealanders in the First World War. It deals with events on the Western Front, but references the Gallipoli campaign, and so this story is meant as a matching piece, showing what that campaign was like. If you want to read more about Gallipoli you could start with this article I wrote for War History Online.
If you enjoyed this story then you can get more like it by signing up to my mailing list. You’ll get a free e-book as well as stories straight to your inbox every week
This Thursday, my first story for Commando Comics hits the newsstands and the Comixology app. I’m very proud of this story, titled “To Win Just Once”. I thought I’d put some notes here to give readers more information about the story.
The battle portrayed in this story is a real one. The assault on Messines Ridge was one of a series of battles fought around the town of Ypres. This was some of the most heavily contested territory of the war and the whole area was left devastated. You can read more about the battle in this article I wrote for War History Online.
The British Army in the First World War wasn’t just made up of people from Britain. Soldiers from across the empire and former imperial territories fought for the British. Australia, Canada, and New Zealand sent thousands of men to Europe. The Canadians were so feared by the Germans that the British created bluffs about where they were being fielded. Men from the Australia and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) fought in some of Britain’s most difficult campaigns, including the disaster at Gallipoli.
One of the most dramatic details in this story is the explosion that destroys the German defences. This was also real. Engineers from the British Army dug twenty-one tunnels across no-man’s-land and filled the ends with a vast quantity of explosives. It’s the largest non-nuclear man-made explosion in history. Two of the mines didn’t go off, and those bombs remained buried to this day.
While the battle was real, the characters are not. I made up every single one, from frustrated infantryman Jimmy Wilson to Captain Chandler, the disdainful English officer. That said, they are meant as realistic portrayals of the soldiers present and their experiences. ANZACs really did suffer through the Gallipoli fiasco only to end up on the front lines. British officers were mostly from privileged backgrounds, and the respect they showed for their men, especially from the colonies, varied hugely.
I’ve based the general picture of the war on research I’ve done to write books and articles. Because of the bombardments, the area around Ypres was a hellish mess by 1917. The fighting was tough and brutal, bombardments heavy but ineffective. As a result, assaults were usually awful and futile for the attacking troops. Messines Ridge was one of the exceptions, as it was a success and the Germans suffered most of the awfulness.
I was inspired to write this story by reading about Messines Ridge for War History Online, and by Commando’s call for pitches about the ANZACs. I’ve written more scripts for Commando since, and am about to start writing for WHO again, so watch out for more announcements here. You can also get notice about upcoming comics, along with free fiction, but signing up to my mailing list.
And to end on an upbeat note, the title for this story is taken from a Saw Doctors song. I saw the Saw Doctors play live when I was seventeen, and it was one of the liveliest, most entertaining gigs I’ve ever seen. This song, with its positive message about enduring and finding your win, will be in my head forever. That’s no bad thing.
The Devil has spoken to me. Appearing out of books, comics, and TV shows, he’s there wherever I look. And he has a single consistent message.
He says that he’s not such a bad guy after all.
Most of us know the classic version of the Devil, drawn out of the theology of Abrahamic religions. He’s the ultimate embodiment of evil, a force for darkness tempting us to do wrong. His story didn’t feature much in my liberal religious upbringing, but I knew about him from the surrounding culture. He was evil personified.
This is a Devil to fit a binary universe. Good and evil are sharply differentiated and clearly defined. God and Satan represent that division and show us two different, entirely incompatible paths. A black and white world.
The Devil You Know
But now, when I’m more exposed to images of the devil than ever before, they’re very different from that old school Satan.
There’s the Lucifer of Gillen and McKelvie’s The Wicked + the Divine, one stylish god out of a dozen, more concerned with a good time than with changing humanity’s fate.
There’s Morningstar in Alliette de Bodard’s The House of Shattered Wings, looking out for his followers amid a tangle of dark politics.
There’s the Lucifer of the TV show, as adapted from the comic books of the same name. The comic version is a metaphysical rebel, the small screen one a playful rogue. There are temptations and deals with the devil, but they’re using about having fun, not bringing ruin.
The Devil I hear calling out from me from these stories seems pretty reasonable. So has he completely changed?
Lost and Found
That probably depends on what you mean by “changed”.
Milton’s Paradise Lost first popularised sympathy for the Devil. His Satan was a baddy, but he was a sympathetic one. He had more reason for his actions than “this is the embodiment of badness”. Milton might have argued that what he showed was implicit in the old texts, that a more nuanced Satan was waiting to be found. True or not, it’s a theme that many others have run with.
In the modern world, many of us are uncomfortable with clear-cut truths. The horrors of two world wars, followed by the philosophical wrecking ball of postmodernism, showed us a world that isn’t divided into black and white. We see rebellion as a good thing, not a danger to society and our souls. And once the Devil starts looking like a hero, it’s not a big stretch to these modern portrayals. His interest in pleasure, defiance, and even temptation can become liberating virtues. This Devil is on our side.
All the Angels
I’m sure people are still writing stories with the old version of the fallen angel. After all, there are people who believe in old-school Old Testament Christianity. But they aren’t the mainstream anymore, and so neither is their Lucifer. A new version calls out to us from page and screen. Apparently, he’s not such a bad guy.
Combining the familiar and the novel is one of the most important techniques for a storyteller.
I first learned about this through an article on Robert Kirkman’s Walking Dead comics. The article’s author – sadly, I’ve forgotten who it was – highlighted how Kirkman provided his audience with something familiar and something new. The zombie survival story is one comic readers are used to. Kirkman’s soap opera-style storytelling had novelty for them. Familiarity made the comic accessible, novelty made it exciting, and a hit was born.
You could argue that the same formula, turned on its head, has helped the Walking Dead TV show. The soap-like personal dramas are appealing to a broad viewing audience that wouldn’t normally care about a zombie apocalypse. The formula works in reverse.
It’s a formula I’ve used recently in writing scripts for Commando comics. Commando‘s military adventure stories have a reputation for familiar tropes. They’re usually set during the Second World War. Gruff sergeants abound. Rivalries are overcome, leading to a particular sort of manly friendship. Though the publishers are working to broaden their stories, readers still have expectations, and that means there’s something familiar to work with.
This creates two obvious ways to combine the familiar with the novel. I can either change the setting and keep the tropes or I can keep to the usual setting but tell a different story. For my second Commando script, The Forlorn Hope, I took the former path. I wrote a story set in the Napoleonic Wars, but with the classic Commando dynamic of an indisciplined infantryman finding his place and learning to be a proper soldier. For the script I’m working on right now I’ve gone the other way. It’s set in the Second World War, but instead of focusing on the military it looks at the escape lines, the civilian resistance groups that smuggled Allied airmen out of Europe.
Any time you’re writing a story, it’s worth thinking about these elements. What’s familiar, to draw in your audience. What’s novel, to excite them and expand the boundaries of your genre. Combining the two can make great stories and, if done well, a satisfied audience.
My first Commando comic, To Win Just Once, will be out in April – more details here nearer the time. For updates on future releases, plus free short stories, sign up to my mailing list.
A lot of science fiction and fantasy uses elements from the crime genre, especially the classic murder mystery. From Douglas Adams’s Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency to James S. A. Corey’s Leviathan Wakes, it can provide a solid central plot. A mystery keeps up the tension. It’s very familiar, making the story accessible whatever its more unusual parts. And as a writer, it’s a handy formula to spin something new out of.
Some recent sf+f murder mysteries have shown a change in how this is used, a change that’s arguably for the good.
The traditional murder mystery has an implicitly conservative ideology at its heart. Good order is disrupted by a death. The villain is a disrupter, the hero a restorer. Victory comes through a return to normality, without what passes as “normal” being questioned. In an Agatha Christie book or an episode of Law and Order, good moral conduct lies in keeping the world safe, not making it better.
There have always been exceptions. Christie’s own And Then There Were None (or whichever of its titles you prefer) can be read as a critique of this approach, a story in which murder brings justice. But it wasn’t common for a crime story to become popular while challenging social structures. That is until The Wire, David Simon’s extended crime drama and critique of a broken America. The Wire argued strongly for social and political change, showing that the world the detectives defended, the order they were tasked to restore, was inherently broken. To do good was to change the world, and protecting the existing order could do as much harm as good. Its heroes had to balance the interests of security and transformation.
To call The Wire influential would be an understatement. Its spectacular critical success has had a huge impact on television and the telling of crime stories. Traditional stories are still common, but the interest in less conservative crime dramas has grown.
The problem for anyone writing such a drama is that the real world won’t be changed by their fictional criminals and detectives. If they start changing the story world, it won’t look like our reality any more, and that won’t work for readers expecting mysteries grounded in the real world.
Science fiction and fantasy worlds are already different from ours and their fates can be shaped by the writer. It’s an expected part of the genre. So criminal cases can have huge social and political repercussions that ripple through future books. The forces of order can also be the forces of change.
You can see this in two recent stories.
Anthon Johnston and Justin Greenwood’s comic The Fuse is set on an orbiting space station in the near future. The first case of this ongoing series propels a pair of detectives into a situation with far-reaching political consequences. It promises more disruption to come.
R J Barker’s novel Age of Assassins has an assassin as its protagonist, and one of the book’s many beautiful ironies is that a killer is the one to investigate a death. In doing so, Girton Club-foot becomes caught up in palace intrigues, unleashing a series of events that may make his world a very different place.
It’s fun to see genres renowned for their conservatism combining to put forward a radical proposition – that crime isn’t just an isolated aberration, but that it can reflect the deeper troubles of a society. That its unravelling both can and should lead to transformation, not just the restoration of the status quo. But that’s the argument many post-Wire murder mysteries put forward. It’s an argument implicit in both The Fuse and Age of Assassins. It’s an argument that holds out hope for change, and shows that we can protect society while critiquing it.
In a world already bucking against broken norms, maybe it’s an argument we all need.