♦ Jon Chang’s collaboration with Josh Taylor‘s Black Powder/Red Earth Volume 8 was released in February and is the final installment in this graphic novel series set in the oil realpolitik of the Middle East. Tripwire asked our USA correspondent Jared Davis to talk to Jon about ending the current series and what lies in the future…
What initially drew you into the world of comic books? Do you remember the first comic book you ever read?
I came to comic books through anime. In the mid-to-late 70’s, I was a big fan of shows like ‘Starblazers,’ ‘Battle of the Planets,’ and ‘Captain Harlock’. I was drawn in by the realistic and detailed animation, as well as the complex space opera narratives spanning 25+ episodes per arc. When I finally came across a comic book shop in 1983, the Comico adaption of ‘Macross’ was the first book I picked up, and it was the first book I purchased along with issues of ‘Critters,’ ‘Albedo Anthropomorpthics,’ ‘Warlock 5,’ ‘Judge Dredd’ and ‘Mage.’
What artists in and outside of comics have most influenced you?
I think it’s safe to say I never would’ve started writing comics without the works of Yoshinobu Nishizaki and Leiji Matsumoto, who were the team behind ‘Space Cruiser Yamato’ aka ‘Starblazers,’ which, as I mentioned, was the first story I ever connected with.
Over time, the artists I was most inspired by were Karou Shintani (‘Area 88’), Katsuhiro Otomo (‘Akira’), Yoshihisa Tagama (‘Grey’), and Masume Shirow (‘Appleseed’). These artists were the creators, writers, and illustrators of their own stories, though I understand that several of them may have had teams who worked under them to produce their manga. It’s also impossible to overlook the work of Dennis Beauvais (‘Warlock 5,’ ‘Aliens’), Michael Golden (‘The Nam’), Brett Ewins/Jim McCarthy (‘Bad Company’) and Cam Kennedy (‘Rogue Trooper/Light & Darkness War’), all of which were part of teams that brought to life incredible comic book narratives.
What elements do you think make for a great military comic?
For me, it’s attention to detail, believability of the characters, and unflinching renderings of violence. Those things can all be found within science fiction, modern day, or historical/war stories, and it was those same elements that drew me specifically to anime: the details of the robots, the nuances of animation in the battles (look at the dog fights in the first 2 episodes of ‘Macross’) and the motivations of the characters, which always felt grounded in reality.
How much research have you undertaken during the entirety of this project, and to what extent has BPRE been influenced by real life events??
The settings and events in BPRE were written originally as a work of predictive fiction, specifically informed by years studying the region for some contract jobs I did in late 2008-2009, and while conducting hundreds of interviews with people who lived through the Iraq War between 2003-2009.
What are your thoughts on the way the narrative has, in some ways, come to fruition in reality?
It is exciting for me to have gotten so much right, but it has also been tragic. I tried to capture the human cost of what could happen, and it was (/is) terrible. History is moving in one direction. I believe it is possible to nudge things one way or another, but there has been a cascade of events that dates back generations, even centuries, informing the decisions people make today. Like an avalanche, we can try to take shelter or try to get out of the way, but the only thing that will stop an avalanche is exhausting the raw material that has been displaced.
As a writer, how did you approach the series, in terms of structure?
I typically write a key scene and then build the rest of the series from there. In the case of Series 1, it was Book 3. In the case of Series 2, it was the last ten or so pages that informed the rest of the series. So, it seems that if I get one key scene right, that drives the desire for me to tell the story of how those people ended up there, and in some cases, what immediately followed.
To what extent (if at all) did your anticipated audience influence characterization, plot, and the overall tone of the series?
When I wrote the first series, I didn’t think about a specific audience at all. I wasn’t sure who would like it, but I was compelled to write it because there were no other narratives being written about the war that weren’t sensationalistic. I wanted to write a story without any zingers or artificial stakes, because I felt like the lives that were being affected were important enough on their own, without throwing in a suitcase nuke or whatever.
BRPE has been hailed for its stunning illustrations and visuals. What was the process like communicating your ideas and intentions to the illustrator, and what was your experience like working with the artist, Josh Taylor?
Typically, I provide Josh lots of detailed reference materials ranging from geography to wardrobe to action photos and notes on body language. I worked for several years at a Company that provided training to, among other customers, certain Special Operations units, so I am intimately acquainted with the real world analog of the actions being portrayed in the books. Josh then handles the layout and coloring completely on his own with the occasional exception, where I may want to fine tune an angle or detail, such as a configuration of a weapon, the color of some clothing, etc.
Was ‘Volume 8’ the last we’ll see of the series, or are there any plans to keep the series alive? Any plans for follow-up projects?
Volume 8 concludes the first series definitively.
I am writing a new series called Black Powder Red Earth : Yemen right now, but what we will be doing with it is still up in the air. I tend to write longer format comics and the new scripts are around 30 pages per issue (whereas Series 1 and 2 were around 15-18 pages per issue), so it’s to be determined if we will produce it as a graphic novel series, or perhaps attempt something more ambitious.
What most excites you about your work in comics, looking toward the future?
The prospect of telling new stories.
The panel “Envisioning the Future of Urban Warfare” including Jon Chang can be watched at:
“https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z-5f0ccx-q8&feature=youtu.be” Be warned: it’s around 90 minutes long.
Black Power / Red Earth
SERIES 1 – VOLUMES 1-4
The nation of Iraq, mired in horrific civil war, splinters into three nations: Kurdistan, New Baghdad and Basran. Within 6 months Iranian religious, government and military proxies dominate Basran, host to over 60% of the former nation’s oil reserves.
Backed by Saudi petrodollars, the GCC(Gulf Cooperation Council) Protectorate contracts Cold Harbor, a private military corporation, to wage a war of ruthless intrigue and clandestine violence in the post-Iraq state using American special operations contractors.
SERIES 2 – VOLUMES 5-8
Picking up 6 months after the events in Black Powder \ Red Earth Series 1, Cold Harbor Special Operations Contractors run a kill-capture program targeting jihadists from the Islamic State and paramilitary officers from the Syrian Republican Guard inside the new Kurdish nation-state.
With clients ranging from competing factions within the Kurdish government to Saudi Intelligence and the US Department of Defense, each operation serves multiple masters with their own mission statement and agenda to be carried out.