Son of Hitler has a provocative title, but delivers an alternate history story with obvious respect for the actual events of World War 2, conveying the harsh realities experienced during that part of history. Co-writer Anthony Del Col certainly knows how to research for his stories, as the writer of a series involving all of Shakespeare’s most popular characters across numerous plays. And Jeff McComsey, who I’ve interviewed a couple times, is used to portraying war in comics and does so again here very effectively. Their experience shows in a very polished, page-turning graphic novel. I had the opportunity to interview Anthony Del Col about the graphic novel, from its inception to his anticipation for its release.
All art used in this post by Jeff McComsey with letters by Jeff McClelland.
Most graphic novels are first released as individual issues. What made you decide to go directly to a complete edition?
It comes down to the title, really. I mean, anything that has “Hitler” in its title readers, journalists and online commenters will start to wonder if it’s a story that makes Adolf sympathetic, or makes Nazis into heroes. It’s a great title – an amazing title – but is a double-edged sword in that respect.
Our original pitch was indeed as an ongoing series. But it was during one my first discussions with Eric Stephenson that he suggested we tell the story in a graphic novel format to allay any concerns. If people were afraid of the content they can read the book and realize it’s a spy thriller in which all Nazis are bad – horrible, in fact – characters.
Seeing Greg Rucka’s testimonial in the front of the book had me immediately excited to read the book, given his experience writing spy books like Queen & Country. What’s your process for grabbing quotes?
I’m glad that it made a difference for you. I really feel like there’s a difference of opinion about them. Some publishers and industry professionals think it makes no difference whatsoever to sales or the reading experience, but I really think it does.
I am OBSESSED with getting quotes/blurbs for each of my books, and it’s, in fact, one of the first things I zero in on. For a graphic novel, it’s impossible to use media/review blurbs (since the book isn’t shown early) so I worked closely with Kat Salazar, Image Comics’ director of publicity. We put together a list of people that would be appropriate (like Greg) and she reached out to them all. To be honest, it’s always tough because people are really busy all the time with their own projects that to be asked to sit down and read a 200-page book is not a priority for them.
There’s always fun stories along the way. There was one person who really liked the book but was scared to ask their name to a book called Son of Hitler (they’ve gone through some bad publicity for one of their books lately). And one of my heroes – my favorite comics writer, actually – sent me a really nice email saying that they wouldn’t have a chance to provide a blurb due to their schedule but they were really excited to read it. Getting a personalized email from a hero like that really made my day. I wish I could have put that on the back of the book…
Given that he writes the majority of what he draws, did Jeff McComsey lend input to the story of Son of Hitler?
Absolutely. I’m a huge fan of not only Jeff’s artwork but the stories he’s written and told himself. [A]t a very early stage I decided I wanted him involved in all of the key brainstorming sessions so he and I and Geoff Moore (our co-creator) would have long Skype brainstorming sessions talking about our story, characters, plots, etc. Of the three of us, Jeff knows the espionage genre best so he was able to pull in all sorts of references and ideas from classic literature and films.
Did you give Jeff more room to improvise in your script, given his storytelling experience?
I’m going to sound like a broken record here, but… absolutely. Because of his talent and story expertise once the script was sent over to Jeff I let him run wild with it. Sometimes that would involve him cutting a page or two and adding to some scenes with some additional images.
Whenever I start a project with a new artist I always try to sit down with him or her (or at least do so over email) and talk about what they like and don’t like, etc. It normally takes an issue or two to really get into a good rhythm. In this case, it took the first chapter or so (the first 28 pages) to really know how to write for what he can do best. And I love knowing the artist well and knowing what they like. For instance, I knew that Jeff would love illustrating a scene in a P.O.W. camp so included that about two-thirds of the way through the story.
Your research must have required you to get immersed into not just the Nazi regime but into the mind of Hitler himself. Was that an intense experience?
I’ve had to write stories and dialogue for some really difficult and unique characters along the way, from Hamlet to a blind assassin. Writing for Adolf Hitler is probably the most difficult task I’ve ever had. For each character and scene, I have to pretend that I’m them to get into the moment. And the first time we meet Hitler (don’t worry, no spoilers here), there’s so much going on in his life at that moment. What is going through the mind of this man, a man who is perhaps the evilest person of the last century or two?
And to add to that degree of difficulty is the fact that there are secrets being held here – not only by Hitler but even Eva Braun. It’s a really difficult moment.
How did you mold Pierre to embody traits of Hitler yet remain a heroic character?
The topic of nature vs. nurture is one that I’m obsessed with these days, and this is reflected not only in this story but in a lot of what I’m working on. How much are we like our parents, and how much of this is the environment we grow up in.
For Pierre Moreau, the titular character in our story, I wanted to hone in on a few traits that could be genetic. First off, he has anger management issues – he’s able to lose his cool very, very quickly. But he finds peace in his life when he becomes a baker’s apprentice. This was based on Hitler’s love of art and the theory that the man’s major frustrations in life came as a result of his failed art career.
In terms of making Pierre sympathetic, we focused quite a bit on how hard life has been for him. He’s grown up with a lot of shame of being raised by a single mother. He’s had to develop thick skin because of these sorts of taunts and that, combined with his temper, excuses the fact that he can be a loose cannon at times.
How did his childhood in France inform his character as opposed to if he was born in another country?
Well, let’s face it: if he had been born in Germany he probably would have been a Nazi soldier by the time we meet him. But he grew up away from it all. What I really wanted to focus on was that he’s stayed out of the war completely by the time we meet him.
I did a lot of research into what it was like living in Occupied France at that time. People today would think that it was natural for people to join the Resistance but it was never that easy. It was a scary thing to put your neck on the line at that time. A lot of Pierre’s friends in the city of Lille have joined the Resistance but he’s decided to stay out of it completely. He’s always felt like an outsider and has no desire to aid those that have tormented him over the years. Similarly, they don’t trust him, especially with his anger management problems.
Instead of directly conflicting with what actually happened, Son of Hitler weaves around the real-life events of World War II. Did that make plotting and scripting the story more challenging?
It’s actually the most enjoyable part of writing a script. I love having constraints placed upon me as it gives me pillars to build my story around. We had talked very early about making this strictly an alternative history story but quickly decided we wanted this to be treated like a story that actually happened but no one had heard of it.
Without giving away our story, at the very end we see the front page of a newspaper and it’s dominated by a large headline with a major piece of international news. But down near the bottom of the page, there’s another headline to a seemingly unrelated story that no one in history will ever give notice to – but we know that this story is perhaps even bigger than the major headline. It’s something the Jeff came up with and is the perfect metaphor for historical fiction.
The hardest part of the process was the passage of time. We knew that the story needed to begin in late 1943, would really start to gain momentum in the spring of 1944, and then knew the endgame was April 1945. But how would get through some of those time spaces? A montage? It’s important to keep momentum up at all times. It was extremely difficult and involved a LOT of brainstorming. But eventually, we came up with an idea that involved a maniacal Nazi doctor that not only allowed for the passage of time but could make the reader squirm with what’s happening.
Son of Hitler is the first book at Image for you, your co-writer, and the artist. How did it find a home there?
I guess I’ll get the clichéd yet true statement out of the way immediately: it’s a dream come true for me to publish this book with Image. I have been a fan of Image from my very first days in the comics industry for a very good reason: they put out so many of the most unique and original stories not just in comics but all entertainment industries.
In terms of the process of getting the deal… I knew Image’s publisher Eric Stephenson was a fan of what I had done with Kill Shakespeare and when I had created the pitch for Son of Hitler he was the first person I sent it to. What’s great is that he’s very hands-on and he and I had a couple in-person discussions about the story, the inspirations, and the format. I think it was a great entry into the “Image family” – from Eric down to everyone else they’ve been great and helped make this as strong a book as possible.
Son of Hitler is already available at your local comic shop and releases in bookstores tomorrow. Thanks to Anthony for his thoughtful and riveting responses. You can follow him on Twitter @anthony_delcol and visit his personal website.
Matt Chats is an interview series featuring discussions with a creator or player in comics, diving deep into industry, process, and creative topics. Find its author, Matt O’Keefe, on Twitter and Tumblr. Email him with questions, comments, complaints, or whatever else is on your mind at [email protected].