More frightening than fiction: Max Brooks’s Harlem Hellfighters
"Brooks told us that he wanted Harlem Hellfighters to be a graphic novel so that readers would never lose sight of the fact that these soldiers were black. "
When he got out of film school, Max Brooks wasn’t planning on a career as our guide to surviving the zombie apocalypse. Instead, he was shopping a script around Hollywood, based on the true story of a regiment of African-American soldiers who fought in World War I. That script caught the attention of actor/producer LeVar Burton (Lieutenant Commander La Forge from Star Trek: The Next Generation), but didn’t otherwise gain much traction in late-1990s Hollywood. Brooks cut his losses and went to New York to work as a writer for Saturday Night Live, just before 9/11. He published The Zombie Survival Guide in 2003, World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War in 2006—and the rest, as they say, is history: the 2013 movie version with Brad Pitt, more zombie stories, regular appearances at Wizard World and San Diego eComiCon.
Brooks never forgot the story of that African-American regiment, the 369th Infantry or “Harlem Hellfighters” as they came to be called by the German soldiers who learned to fear them in 1918. With the clout he earned after the success of World War Z, Brooks turned the Hellfighters screenplay into a graphic novel, partnering with acclaimed graphic artist Caanan White. The Harlem Hellfighters came out in spring of 2014, and Brooks came to Texas Tech this past week to talk with a mixed audience of students, faculty, and members of the community about the book and its subject matter.
The story of the Harlem Hellfighters in World War I has been a neglected chapter in American racial and military history. Woodrow Wilson may have convinced the United States to enter the war “to make the world safe for democracy” but, as Brooks reminds us, democracy was hardly “safe” back home, especially for the thousands of African-Americans struggling to find a place for themselves in the face of white American ambivalence and hostility. The men of the 369th faced prejudice, bigotry, and threats of lynching as they trained for war just outside Spartanburg, South Carolina, only a few months after rioting had broken out in Houston, Texas involving African-American soldiers defending themselves against racist aggression from the local community. They were deliberately excluded from the “Rainbow Brigade” sendoff parade that Manhattan threw for its enlisted men, having been told that, “Black isn’t a color of the rainbow.” They faced obstructionism and malign neglect once they reached France, made to dig trenches and unload transport ships instead of fighting. It wasn’t until they were assigned to the depleted French army that they finally saw action. And what action: they never lost a man to capture, never lost a trench, or even a foot of ground; earned the French Croix de Guerre; were the first regiment to fight their way through to the Rhine. Their regimental band—the best in the army—brought jazz to Europe.
Brooks told us that he wanted Harlem Hellfighters to be a graphic novel so that readers would never lose sight of the fact that these soldiers were black. He also chose the genre for its appeal: where a history book might be dry or boring, a graphic novel can draw a broader—and a younger—audience. Graphic novels like Art Spiegelman’s Maus, or Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, or Guy Delisle’s complex portraits of Jerusalem, Pyongyang, or Shenzhen, have all proved the genre’s ability to treat serious subjects powerfully and give them an immediacy that mere prose cannot. Brooks hopes that Harlem Hellfighters will be no different.
And the turn from zombies to the story of the 369th Infantry is far less of a 180 than you might think. Harlem Hellfighters graphically depicts the terrors of World War I: trenches, rats, lice, gas, bodies blown apart; the mental damage of shell shock, of which Brooks’s narrator tells us: “For me, those poor bastards had another name, one that some of my Creole friends use to talk about: ‘Zombies,’ the living dead.” Yet even more horrific is the treatment those soldiers received at the hands of their own government and the patriotic citizens back home: beatings, lynchings, constant harassment, emasculation, the romanticising of the Ku Klux Klan in the jingoistic 1915 film The Birth of a Nation—all of these are here too, starkly drawn by White and illuminated by Brooks’s narrative. Harlem Hellfighters reminds us over and over again that history, in this case, as in so many other cases, is far more horrifying than any fantastical, zombie apocalypse.