Out Now – Rats in the Rubble

Berlin, April 1945. Sergeant Nikolai Kulikov is part of the Russian army advancing into the city. When his unit is sent to clear out an apparently abandoned orphanage, they discover that the children have been left behind. Faced with enemy aggression and his own men’s indifference, can Nikolai get the children out alive?

This week sees the release of my latest Commando comic, Rats in the Rubble. It’s a story about the devastation of war, about struggling to survive, and about the power of stories. You can get a copy now through Comixology or direct from the publishers.

Cover art by Neil Roberts

Rats in the Rubble

Berlin, April 1945. Sergeant Nikolai Kulikov is part of the Russian army advancing into the city. When his unit is sent to clear out an apparently abandoned orphanage, they discover that the children have been left behind. Faced with enemy aggression and his own men’s indifference, can Nikolai get the children out alive?

This week sees the release of my latest Commando comic, Rats in the Rubble. It’s a story about the devastation of war, about struggling to survive, and about the power of stories. And of course, it’s also a reflection of the bits of history and culture that fascinate me.

The Battle of Berlin

This spring marks the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Berlin, one of the last and most destructive battles of the Second World War.

Cover art by Neil Roberts

By April 1945, Germany was on the brink of defeat. The Allies were storming across the country from both east and west. The armies of the Reich lay shattered. Its European allies, such as Italy and Finland, had long since fallen away. On the 16th of April, Berlin, which had so briefly been the capital of a huge and cruel empire, finally came under attack.

The Battle of Berlin was a vital moment, for both symbolic and practical reasons. As the capital of Germany, it held the remains of a collapsing government, its genocidal leader, and much of the grandeur of the Reich. Taking out this city would behead what remained of the German war machine while signalling the nation’s defeat.

For Germans still dedicated to the fight, this was a last stand. Children, old men, and the walking wounded took up arms. If Berlin fell then all was lost. While many in the city just wanted the war to be over, others would fight on to the end.

Desperate Germans weren’t the only reason why the fighting was so terrible. Mid-20th-century warfare was a colossally destructive business fought on an industrial scale, with high explosive bombs and shells shattering entire cities. That destruction now rained down on Berlin.

And then there were the attackers. For reasons of politics and geography, the task of capturing Berlin fell upon the Soviet Union. Its people had suffered particularly badly at the hands of Nazi-led armies. Millions had died, soldiers and civilians alike, and the great cities of the Soviet heartland had been left as shattered shells. Many in the Red Army were out for revenge and felt that the Germans deserved every awful thing that could happen.

Writing Heroism into Horror

Even at a distance of 75 years, it’s hard to write an action story set amid that destruction, given the risk of romanticising a battle in which thousands of innocent civilians were robbed, assaulted, and killed. But even in the darkest moments, there are acts of heroism, and I wanted to reflect that.

This is where Nikolai Kulikov comes in. The hero of Rats in the Rubble is an idealist. He might fight with all his strength and brutality, but he still believes in protecting the innocent, and when we realises that there are children at risk he becomes committed to looking after them.

In some ways, his heroism shines more brightly against the darkness. Rats in the Rubble shows the destruction of Berlin, from the falling bombs to the callous disregard of many in the Red Army. It’s story about surviving a moment of horror, morally as well as physically.

My Raid Story

This is one of the more compact stories I’ve told for Commando. Rather than taking place across days, weeks, or even months, the action is contained to just a few hours and a single military action – one infantry squad assaulting an old orphanage.

In terms of story structure, this is my military history take on Dredd and The Raid, two of the most tightly contained action stories on film. Just like in those movies, the protagonists have to fight their way up through a single building, confronting dangers on each floor, as they try to defeat a deadly enemy who uses the building to their advantage. It’s a style that’s well suited to the Battle of Berlin, an intense, claustrophobic conflict fought amid the buildings of a shattered city.

Parallel Stories

This is also a story I’ve used to play with comic-writing techniques.

In Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud talks about the different ways that words and pictures can interact. One can dominate over the other, they can work together to provide meaning they couldn’t on their own, and sometimes they even duplicate each other or tell separate stories. It’s something I’ve been wanting to play with for a while, and in this story I got to do that.

There’s a section in Rats in the Rubble where the pictures and the words part ways. While a character tells a fairytale story, the images show a dark moment in his past. In a sense, it’s what McCloud would call a parallel relationship, but in another sense it’s interdependence. These apparently parallel stories together show how Kulikov views himself, how the war has touched him emotionally, and what he is trying to achieve.

It’s one of my favourite bits of script I’ve ever written, and a technique I’m hoping to play with more in the future.

The End

Because of its subject and timing, Rats in the Rubble is also about the end of the war. It’s coming out around the 75th anniversary of VE Day, when the war in Europe ended, and that’s reflected in the end of the comic itself. As I said before, this is a story about survival, and that means it gets to celebrate being alive.

That seems a suitable point to end this. Rats in the Rubble comes out on the 30th of April, when you can get it through Comixology or direct from the publishers. If you enjoy claustrophobic action thrillers then check out The Raid and Dredd, and if you’re interested in reading more about how words and pictures work together than I really recommend McCloud’s Understanding Comics – it’s an accessible and insightful discussion of how comics work.

Happy reading!

The Bear’s Claws – Writing a Different War

The Bear’s Claws is an unusual book for me. I guess it’s an unusual book full stop, a story of a war that never happened, concerned as much with the politics and traumas of that war as with its action. It’s picking up the “what if World War Three comes?” genre that was popular during the Cold War and running with it, even though we know that war never came.

So where did this book come from? And what did we do to make it stand out as something different?

The Origins of the Story

This story starts out in the real world, with my friendship with co-author Russell Phillips. Russell and I have known each other for over twenty years now, ever since they came to Durham to visit their partner, who was part of the same live roleplay club as me. We got to know each other through games and student socialising, then went off our separate way, as often happens.

Years later we reconnected over writing and became accountability partners, meeting online once a month to check in on progress, celebrate our achievements, and push each other to write more. Russell has done a lot to keep me motivated over recent years, and I like to think that I’ve done the same for them.

Russell and I write in very different genres. While I’m away in my imagination creating worlds of fantasy, steampunk, or science fiction, they’re grounded in reality, writing non-fiction about military history and technology. But we were keen to collaborate on a book and so Russell came up with an idea.

We would write a story set during the Cold War, using the technology and tactics he was familiar with, but altering history, creating something that headed away from reality. We’d both enjoyed Tom Clancy’s Red Storm Rising, the best-known story about a Cold War turned hot, and it was the sort of story we were both interested to tell. Between Russell’s technical knowledge and my creative writing, we felt we could create something cool.

The seeds of the story came from Russell. While there’s a whole sub-genre of books telling Cold War turned hot stories, they wanted to do something different from the rest. They wanted to tell the story from the Soviet point of view instead of the Western one. It would give us a different angle and a unique hook with which to entice our target audience.

And so a story was born.

Writing Differently About War

Both Russell and I have an unusual perspective for people writing war stories. We’re lefty, liberal, pacifistic types who would rather everybody just stopped shooting each other, but we were also raised on war stories and feel the thrill of those tales. Personally, I’ve never been near war but I know plenty of people who’ve served in the military, and respecting their perspective and experiences is important to me.

This creates a difficult balancing act. Writing a war story that will show the skill and courage of individual combatants while trying not to glorify the war itself, trying to get away from narratives of good guys versus bad guys, is difficult, especially in a conflict as ideologically charged as this one.

To that end, The Bear’s Claws tries to show different sides of its characters’ experiences. There are moments of skill and daring, but there are also more troubling ones. There’s sudden and arbitrary death, soldiers struggling with the trauma of war, problems of discipline and corruption. Most of all, there’s the experience of war as an ideological challenge.

As Vladislav Rakovich and his men head west, they find that neither the world nor the war they’re fighting in is as they were promised. While the outcome of the war is a central question of the book, so is the outcome for Rakovich. Can he hold true to his beliefs as his world is shaken? Should he?

The Other Side of the War

When Russell sent me their first draft for the start of The Bear’s Claws, I found something surprising – a scene away from the war. Following Rakovich’s sister Anna, this showed reactions to the war back home in Leningrad.

When I started expanding out a plot from those starting scenes, the strand around Anna grew. She provided an interesting contrast with her brother, as well as a different perspective on the war. After all, wars transform nations, even away from the fighting front. Politics, industry, culture, it’s all affected. The history of a war isn’t just military history.

Anna’s strand is about rebellion and resistance. Looking back, we know that the Soviet system was on its last legs in the 1980s, but at the time that wasn’t clear. Speaking out against the government was dangerous, and that’s the risk that Anna eventually takes.

Writing this section let me get into one of the great issues about how societies respond to war. There are many examples that show nations pulling together, with an external threat used to distract people from internal dissent. But other examples also exist, most notably in the latter half of the First World War, when the strains of war encouraged revolution. So do wars inherently pull people together, with only defeat undermining this effect, or can they go the other way? Can war become an opportunity for dissent?

We decided to go with the path of revolt. This was partly a storytelling choice, to create drama in the home front chapters. But it’s also a reasonable speculation based on the state of the Soviet Union in 1982. The strains of a broken system were starting to show. It’s not impossible that people would have taken a great disruption as an opportunity to push for change.

A Different Take on World War Three

The Bear’s Claws is an unusual war story in a lot of ways. It’s co-authored. It’s about a war that never happened. It walks a delicate line in its treatment of war. It’s a war story that’s also about the civilian side.

It’s not a book that’s going to be for everyone, but if any of this has intrigued you then you can find it as an e-book in all the usual stores or as a print book from Amazon.

History, Emotion, and the Unwomanly Face of War

Human life is driven by emotion. Yet most history books show little feeling, focusing on facts over experiences. This is particularly true of military history, despite the intense emotions war evokes, from the exhilaration of combat to the depths of grief.

The Unwomanly Face of War breaks this pattern in extraordinary style.

A Powerful Read

The Unwomanly Face of War was researched and written by journalist Svetlana Alexievich. It details the experience of women serving in the Soviet armed forces during the Second World War. When it was first published in 1985, it was a groundbreaking work, revealing a side of the war that fitted poorly with the USSR’s official accounts. Extraordinarily, despite its huge significance and international impact, it only appeared in English last year, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.

Most of the book is filled with veterans’ own accounts of the war. These provide powerful testimonies to the experiences of these soldiers, sailors, pilots, and support staff. Their struggles, their traumas, their losses, their fleeting moments of joy, all are laid bare on the page. From saving lives by leaping upon burning tanks to losing a baby while hiding in a swamp, both the details and the way they are presented catch at the heart in a way that most military history doesn’t.

In this book, we read the human experience of war in a way seldom seen elsewhere.

The Author’s Shadow

Like any history book, this isn’t a simple presentation of facts, but their careful cultivation to prove a point. Alexievich is open about this, making her role explicit throughout. She describes finding and meeting these women, talking with them, and making difficult decisions about what to include.

Making the audience aware of the author can often create a sense of distance. In this case, it brings us closer to the story. Alexievich describes her own reactions and those of the women to being asked about their lives. The way the war still affects them decades later adds to the power of what these veterans have to say.

Another Side of Humanity

This book is important because it shows the underrepresented role of women in fighting the Second World War. It explores the extra challenges they faced and the way the war transformed their lives. It pays tribute to their courage, skill, and tenacity.

In doing so, it reveals how incomplete our view of military history is. These women struggle to express their stories, for a range of social, political, and personal reasons. Yet they are able to reveal aspects of war that few men could discuss, indoctrinated as we are to bury our feelings and hide our weaknesses. I have read dozens, probably hundreds of books based on men’s accounts of war, and never felt like I had a complete view of it as a human experience. The Unwomanly Face of War fills an important gap in that picture.

Reading these stories, it feels like an act of madness to have ignored them for so long. But perhaps that ignorance was protective, a way of hiding ourselves from the traumatic reality of conflict. Never having been a combatant, I’ll never truly know, and I’m grateful for that. But I’m also grateful to Svetlana Alexievich for revealing to me another face of war.

Tears for a Yeramba – a flash historical story

Yeramba_spg_(AWM_p04301_007)“They can’t take her,” Alf said, sticking out a petulant lower lip. “It ain’t fair.”

Bernie looked from his mate to the half dozen other artillery drivers stood around the yard, waiting impatiently by their vehicles. Yeramba self-propelled howitzers were ugly buggers, squat boxes on tracks with a gun protruding from the front. Like their crews, they were showing the wear and tear of the past seven years. And like their crews, he wouldn’t have traded them in for all the rest of the Australian army.

But it wasn’t his choice.

“They’re obsolete, Alf,” he said, taking off his beret and scratching his head. “Sorry, mate, but we’ve got to let ‘em go.”

“Who you calling obsolete?” Alf glared. “This girl and me, we’ve got a few years in us yet.”

“It ain’t about you, Alf. It’s about her.” Bernie laid a hand on the sun-warmed metal plates of the Yeramba’s body. “You’ve got to let her go.”

“Shan’t.” Alf clambered in through the hatch and squatted there, staring out.

“Orders are orders,” Bernie said with a sigh. “We’re taking them to the depot to be dismantled. Do you really want this to be our last memory of the regiment, you crying like some little girl?”

Alf’s lower lip trembled. Tears welled in the corners of his eyes. Bernie looked away, embarrassed.

“We’ve had some good times, haven’t we?” Alf asked, his voice heavy.

“We have,” Bernie agreed. “We were a fine regiment, and these were damn fine girls to drive. But unless you’re planning on setting up your own one-man army, it’s time to let go.”

He looked back at Alf just in time to catch a glint in his friend’s eyes. Was that tears, or was it something else?

“What’s that look for, mate?” he asked.

“Oh, nothing.” Alf laid a hand on the hatch.

“Don’t you go doing any-”

“Are we going yet?” someone shouted impatiently from the other side of the yard.

“In a minute.” Bernie strode over to the rest of the drivers and lowered his voice. “Look boys, I know you’re all impatient to get this over with. I ain’t enjoying it much either. But Alf needs our help right now.”

“I’m not sure that’s true, chief,” a man said.

The clang of a steel hatch shutting was followed by the low rumble of a twin diesel engine.

“Alf?” Bernie hurried back across the yard. “What are you-”

“Saving her!” Alf’s voiced was clear even through the walls of the Yeramba and the engine noise. “Going to be an army of our own.”

With a crunch of treads in the dirt, the Yeramba rumbled towards the entrance of the yard. It smashed through the barrier pole and out onto the road, building up speed past a mighty twenty miles per hour.

“Who’s obsolete now, you bastards?” Alf’s shout filled the air as he disappeared.

“Shit,” someone muttered. “He’s bloody lost it.”

“Shouldn’t we stop him?” someone else asked. “I mean, this is mutiny, right? He could get in all kinds of trouble.”

Bernie shook his head. Sadness and frustration turned to laughter. Maybe this was the perfect way to see the regiment out – strong, defiant, and a little futile.

“With all his fussing, Alf didn’t get to filling up on fuel,” he said. “He’ll have run out within a mile. Lets go pick him up before he wanders into the outback.”

They got into their Yerambas, revved the engines, and headed out the ruined gate, running towards one final mission at a stately twenty miles per hour.

* * *

 

The Yeramba was used by the Australian army between 1950 and 1957. You can find out more about it from this article on Russell Phillips’s blog. And if you’d like to read more flash fiction, often with historical and military themes, then why not sign up to my mailing list at this link – you’ll even get a free e-book and a story straight to your inbox most Fridays.

Masses of Military History

From A Foreign Shore - High ResolutionMy fascination with military history is a little contradictory, given that I’m a pacifist. But story is about conflict, and conflict doesn’t get much more direct and dramatic than war. The courage, the chaos, the carnage – there’s a reason it features so prominently in fiction.

That’s probably why I’ve ended up writing for War History Online, a site full of short articles about military history. If you’re interested in history, then you might want to go and check out my articles there. They’re quick overviews and list articles rather than anything in depth, but I’ve rather enjoyed writing about subjects like 10 great moments in military engineering or the early career of Napoleon Bonaparte.

And of course if you like your history fictional rather than factual, you could always grab a copy of From a Foreign Shore, my collection of historical fiction and alternate history.