It truly is a new Golden Age of comics, not just because of the fantastic output from such publishers as Image, Fantagraphics, Oni, etc., but also because of how many great comics are going unnoticed. The market is brimming with material that has gone largely undiscovered. I experienced that in a big way with Shawn Daley’s TerraQuill, and have experienced it again with the small press graphic novel Wolves of Summer, about the Hitler Youth during World War II. I spoke with the creators Tony Keaton and Andrew Herbst, about the book’s already-fulfilled Kickstarter, the story, the art and their future as collaborators. Read that conversation below.
What inspired Wolves of Summer?
Tony: Initially, the opportunity to work on another creative project with Andrew was all the inspiration I needed. He’s been a close friend since the 3rd grade, and up until this point all our collaborations have been strictly musical. We’ve always worked well together. Musically, it would be like we were finishing each other’s sentences. When I learned that he was passionate about becoming a cartoonist, there was no question that I had to write something for him to illustrate. As far as the actual book goes, I was attracted to the fact that this kind of a story wasn’t being told in comics or really in any other medium. I was honestly shocked. There was enough reality in this story of the Hitler Youth in this particular era of WW2 to make it feel urgent, and at the same time, there was plenty of room to explore the what-ifs of history, so that none of it felt too dry or clinical.
How did it come together?
Andrew: I met up with Tony shortly after I graduated and he told me about this story of the Hitler Youth and I thought it was really unique. It was unique but at the same time it felt like this is the one aspect of WW2 that hasn’t been told yet, so there was immediacy to it. I felt like we had to jump on it and I’m glad we did! Tony had a rough outline and I believe a few pages written with this amazing group of kids. I got a Stand By Me vibe to it so I was excited to start working on designing wayward youth. We kind of planned out what it would end up being as we went along.
How does the adolescent perspective add an extra layer to a war story?
Tony: We’ve all seen the adult perspective in war stories, and we’ve seen the stories told with absolute perfection. I honestly wasn’t interested in that. I wanted to explore fear and influence and madness from a different lens, and from the wrong side of history. Sure, we hit some of the same notes that any war story is going to hit, which is just the nature of the genre, but those notes resonate differently when it involves children. These aren’t adults choosing to fight and die for their country. They have no real life experience. Some of these kids think they’re heroes, avenging their occupied homeland. With these particular kids, at their age, this is a time when Nazi ideology was all they’ve ever known. They’ve grown up under Hitler’s rule, and all through school they’ve only been exposed to one way of thinking. Every other opinion has been stomped out. So, while they’ve been trained to sabotage and to kill, somewhere inside, they’re still 13 year olds, with 13 year old senses of humor and this mostly-naïve world perspective.
Andrew: I love that push and pull that the book has on our viewpoints about Nazis and children. Assuming that the reader has disgust for Nazism (we hope), these are Nazis but they are also so young that there is a grey area concerning their responsibility for what they do, also considering that they were brainwashed. They are the focal point of the story and you get to love them, despite that. So when I read it, it’s like: ugh, they’re Nazi jerks, but they’re kids, but they’re Nazis, but they’re kids… and so on.
How does the protagonist’s old age in the present make a good contrast to his time as a young adult?
Tony: Well, throughout the 1945 arc, we follow Hans Kruger, who’s taking this leadership position. He’s all in, running full speed into terrible decisions with these long-lasting consequences, and he thinks he’s going to die a hero. At the same time as this unfolds, we see who this person has become at age 40, circa 1971. Once we meet Johnny, he’s on a path to complete self-destruction. So we don’t know exactly what happened yet, but only that whatever is about to unfold with these kids isn’t going to end well. It was fun playing with this sense of dread and inevitable tragedy hanging over the kids.
Andrew, I love your use of blacks. How do you decide when to use a silhouette instead of a detailed figure?
Andrew: Thanks! I spend a lot of time spotting out the blacks, so that’s nice to hear. I try to be aware of the way that the blacks help move the reader’s eye through the page. So I try to incorporate that into the storytelling as much as possible. If there is something in the foreground or if I can show emotion through a silhouette rather than a detailed figure, and it helps move the story, I’ll give it a shot. I love that stuff.
Why was the dot tone effect right for this story?
Andrew: It was setting and time frame, mostly. I wanted to blend what drawing style came naturally and something that looks like older comic book techniques. I know that the effect is probably used more now than it even was back then (maybe), but I still wanted that in there. I also use ink wash and other grey tone effects just because I like to experiment. This whole book was an experiment for me; I’d like to think that I didn’t stop myself from trying stuff.
Wolves of Summer was published originally through ComiXology. Was print always the plan eventually?
Tony: Yes and no. At the start, I think the first issue came out around March of 2013, we were thrilled, and maybe a little shocked to actually get on Comixology. We’re published digitally through Alterna Comics, and we’ll always be grateful to Peter for giving us the opportunity to reach such a wide audience. While, we always dreamed of one day going to print, we still experimented with optimizing certain sequences for Guided View. There is definitely a balance that I think works in print, as well as digitally. It’s a different experience.
Kickstarter was always an option, but the idea of trying and failing at Kickstarter was enough to keep putting it off. And I’m glad, because it gave me time to really research what not to do with a Kickstarter project. I couldn’t be happier that we made it to print. The book looks fantastic.
Tony: In the beginning, I really pushed for color, but I think there’s a richness to Andrew’s work that would be lost in that process.
Andrew: I don’t think that I would have wanted it colored either way. I like the black and white look for this story. If there were to be color, it would have been simple and I’d have to find a right way to do it. The only place that I think color would have added to the book is having different colors for John’s story and the kid’s story, but I did that in other ways. Really though, I just feel like I was more comfortable with working in B&W and felt that I would somehow mess it up if I attempted color. It was kind of go with what you know. But I’m excited to use color in future projects.
I rarely get to talk to someone after a Kickstarter campaign is fulfilled. Was the experience easier or more difficult than you thought it would be?
Tony: Definitely more difficult, but I don’t want that to sound discouraging. It was an incredible experience. In a Kickstarter campaign, you’re really putting yourself out there in a way that can be completely terrifying and exhilarating. You’ll find support in the most unlikely of places. If you do your research, you’ll be fine. But be prepared to sweat.
For us, it was the post-campaign that gave us the most trouble. Actually putting together the book from digital proved to be more difficult than we anticipated, at least time-wise. Everything that could go wrong pretty much went wrong. Even with a fair-enough deadline, we still had to push back the release. It was a learning experience, but overall, a positive one.
Andrew: Yeah, it all comes down to time. EVERYTHING takes longer than you think it will, so it’s a matter of planning for that. I’m still working on fulfilling backer rewards! It’s tough; you think that these things would take way less time. But ultimately, it’s really rewarding knowing that these people were interested enough in the project to back us. A labor of love, for sure.
With your Kickstarter duties done, what do you do next to get attention on Wolves of Summer?
Tony: We’ll be hitting some conventions this year and the next. Can’t wait for that. We’ll be trying to push the book on Amazon, price it competitively, and try not to annoy our friends too badly with our self-promoting craziness.
Andrew: I was just at Autoptic in Minneapolis and sold some books there. Amazing convention by the way! From the beginning was so excited about getting out there with the book and getting it into people’s hands. I had such a great time and I just want to keep doing more of those. I’ve got the book in a few stores and it’s just going to take some time putting into more. Also, interviews like this really help, so thanks!
Do you guys have further work planned together?
Tony: Absolutely. It’s taken some time for our schedules to sync up again, and for the right idea to present itself, but I think we’ve cracked it. It’ll be called ADINA NAPALM. It’s a little more autobiographical than WOS. It’s about these runaway kids growing up in Florida, circa 1999, who could easily have been us if we made some really bad decisions. It’s got a kind of crime romance black comedy thing going for it, with a lot of room for us to go off on some crazy, fun tangents.
You can now order Wolves of Summer on Amazon from Tony Keaton as a third party seller, and I highly encourage you to.