Remembering Marvel Veterans: The Modern Day
Kevin Maurer uses his experiences as an embedded war reporter to craft a special Punisher story!
In accordance with Veterans Day this week in the United States, Marvel salutes those who served their country and made their mark at the House of Ideas with a series of features commemorating them
The Marvel Universe has been called the “world outside your window,” taking place in real-world locations such as New York City and tackling real-life issues as they happen.
After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, both the real world and the Marvel Universe changed forever. Marvel comics had played out in World War II, the Cold War, and Vietnam. Now beginning in 2001, the stories took Marvel characters to a whole new warzone: The war on terror.
In 2003, the U.S Military and coalition forces invaded Iraq. An army of embedded reporters who documented and narrated the conflict in real time accompanied the invasion. One of them, Kevin Maurer, a journalist from North Carolina, had no idea that his experience alongside America’s fighting forces would later lead to an opportunity to write Marvel comics.
“I’ve been covering the military for more than a decade,” Maurer says after 13 trips to warzones as an embedded journalist, including time with Special Forces soldiers. “I spent 10 weeks with Special Forces in Afghanistan and wrote a book about that. As a reporter, if you can get close to the ground, get close to the subject, if you can witness it yourself [those experiences] lead to better stories.”
After writing his own non-fiction books and having an ongoing interest in comics, Maurer says, “I ran across Nathan Edmonson who had just taken over PUNISHER and I had helped him with some of his other projects. He gave me the opportunity to write a Punisher story.”
Edmonson and the editorial team were looking for a story about the military, leading them to tap Maurer for PUNISHER #7 and #8. His experience with the troops has helped shape his storytelling.
Maurer relates, “I tried to make to make it as authentic as possible. One of the downfalls of a lot of military fiction is that writers don’t know how guys talk; they don’t understand what it sounds like to speak on a radio. I tried to be as true as I possibly could without over-burdening the reader.” Getting those details right is important because, “a lot of the guys I talked to that were in the military could pick out those little things.” In the story, Maurer even included a few nods to some of the troops he covered. “There are Easter Eggs in there for those guys,” he says, including using the motto of a Special Forces unit, a nod that only those troops would spot.
Thinking about his time embedded with the troops he says, “I can’t believe how many times I’ve seen a Punisher skull. I know one guy who banned his team from painting the Punisher skull on anything; he made his team find a new skull because it was just so prevalent.” He goes on, “I wanted to explain, at least in the Marvel Universe, why every Special Forces guy has a Punisher skull. What better way than if Frank actually goes and sacrifices himself for a Special Forces guy?”
Maurer’s Punisher story was directly inspired by his interactions with today’s military. The story features drone aircraft, now a hallmark of modern conflict.
Maurer says, “I had just finished a book with a guy who is a drone pilot so they were sort of in my head. They just seemed to be a perfect fit: If I were trying to figure out where my guys were, how would I figure out if this bad guy had them? If you could get it into that air space to monitor it, you would.”
The story introduces us to a new Special Forces Character, Tom.
“I must know at least a dozen Toms in the special forces,” explains Maurer. “Tom to me is a hodgepodge of a couple guys I know that are actual Special Forces soldiers. I tried to write him as an ‘every man’ Special Forces guy. I tried to tap into the things that I see most frequently.”
“I like the idea of him being a medic because often times Special Forces is miscast as these guys who go in and break everything.” Maurer goes on, “What makes these forces so special is that they’re really smart guys, they’re really good a building rapport. I tried to make him more nuanced than somebody who could just tote a gun. Special forces medics are some of the finest medics in the Army.” The character has well-rounded skills though; as Maurer notes, “He’s still a stud. He can still hold his own but he can also put Frank back together, which at that point [in the story] Frank had been beaten up pretty badly.”
Maurer’s PUNISHER story taps into themes that he witnessed first hand, including the sense of brotherhood that develops between service members.
“A lot of guys when they’re overseas and on missions, they don’t really care why they are doing the mission,” he says. “The politics of the mission is for guys that are safe. When you’re going outside the wire you’re really there to do the best you can. If you do your job correctly then the guys to the left and right of you will survive. It becomes a real brotherhood.”
Maurer is quick to point out that while, “I’ve seen this brotherhood, I’ve never been part of it because even as an embedded reporter, you can witness it but you aren’t part of it. It’s always stuck with me, this idea that when they are in harms way everybody is pulling the same way because they want to make sure they protect their brothers. It’s an important idea that I thought we could get across here.
“It was a perfect story to express that.”
Maurer gets embedded with the “Punisher”
From Comic Book Resources:
Marvel Comics’ Punisher may not have super powers, but Frank Castle is still far more dangerous than your average human being. Thanks to his Marine and Special Forces training, criminals live in fear of the day when the familiar skull-emblazoned chest crosses their path. Those traits are essential for survival on both the front lines of real world conflicts and the fantastic fire fights of the Marvel Universe.
Kevin Maurer, a military journalist and co-author of the New York Times bestselling book “No Easy Day: The Firsthand Account of the Mission that Killed Osama Bin Laden,” has experienced numerous instances where a soldiers Special Forces training was put to the test. In June, he brings that knowledge to the Marvel Universe for a special two-part arc of the “Punisher,” co-written with Nathan Edmondson and featuring art by Carmen Carnero. We spoke with Maurer about his plans for the arc, which kicks off in issue #7 and marks his comic debut, his love for the medium and his background as a military journalist.
CBR News: Kevin, you’re best known for your work as a journalist covering the military and the author of books like “No Easy Day,” so I assume getting into comics is a labor of love for you. How long have you been a comics fan? And what’s the appeal for you of telling a story through the medium of sequential art?
Kevin Maurer: I started reading comics when I was a kid. When I was in elementary school, my dad worked at the embassy in Paris, so we used to go to some of the American bases in Germany on vacation. We’d stop there and I’d always buy comics. My brother and I would read them in the car.
I was reading comics when I was a little kid, and then I kind of fell out of it until about a year or two ago. It was mostly because I had written down an idea for a graphic novel that I thought would be cool, but I couldn’t sell it. Everybody liked the idea when I pitched it, but when they read it, it didn’t work. I realized I didn’t know how to pace, format and really tell a story through sequential art. I had to do some research.
I’ve really just gotten back into things, but as a kid I read “G.I. Joe,” “Spider-Man,” and “X-Men.” I read mostly all Marvel. I did very little DC. Since then, I’ve broadened a little bit, trying to learn the craft.
How does it feel to have your first Marvel comic only a couple months away from being published?
It’s cool, and it’s really cool that it’s the Punisher, who is one of my brother’s favorite characters. It’s been a goal of mine for a little while, and I’ve really been working at it. So it’s really exciting to get a chance to do this with Marvel and have it come out this quickly.
Your comic writing is bound to be informed by what you saw and the people you talked to in your work covering the military. How many times have you been embedded with military units?
I’ve gone out about 13-14 times now.
Can you talk about some of the things that you saw and heard that have influenced your work as a comic writer?
What I’ve tried to do with the Punisher in particular is to try and treat him like the guys I know and their sensibilities. One of the characters that spends a lot of time with him in the two issues is a Special Forces medic. I tried to convey what they sound and act like. So that was kind of fun.
The Special Forces medic’s name is Tom. You’d be surprised how many Toms are in Special Operations. I’ve run into them constantly. So that was sort of an inside joke to some of the guys I know.
I tried to stay as authentic as possible especially with the details like radio chatter. I tried to capture how they would talk to each other in a tactical situation over the radio how it would sound for real. So there’s a little bit of realism, but you don’t want to make so much into it that it bogs things down and makes the story slow, uninteresting and too jargony. The idea is to give it a little flavor, and the Punisher lends himself to that because of his background and what Nathan let me set him up into.
Comics — the Punisher, specifically — have a pretty big following in the military. What is it about Frank Castle and his four color adventures that resonate with soldiers?
He’s an ass-kicker, and he’s a guy who stands for justice. He’s justice and revenge, personified. I think that appeals to guys, particularly over in Afghanistan. A lot of guys have told me they live every day like it’s September 12. I think it appeals to them in going over to Afghanistan with a reckoning.
Prior to this, you did some work as a technical advisor on Nathan Edmondson and Mitch Gerads’ creator owned Image Comics series “The Activity.”
That’s how I met Nathan and fell in with him and Mitch. I got to know them pretty well, and I had been working on a limited series about a Special Forces mission in Afghanistan.
Then, Nathan hit me up one day and said that he had been talking to some guys at Marvel about doing a Punisher story with soldiers, and asked if I had any desire to co-write it with him. I kind of mulled that around and we pitched them the story of what we ended up doing, which explains why our Special Forces guy and a lot of soldiers like the Punisher skull motif.
What’s it been like, collaborating with Nathan on this story? I understand you’re doing the bulk of the plotting and scripting.
Yeah, I did the bulk of issues #7-8. He helped a lot with making sure the story fit into the continuity of the things he was doing.
When I initially pitched it, the story was going to be an out of continuity one-shot that wouldn’t fold into the normal arc, but they’ve incorporated it into the larger story they’re telling. Nathan has been a really good collaborator; he’s a good writer, he’s smart and he’s helped me a lot by teaching me how to do things well. And he’s been good at embracing the story and making it fit into the book’s larger arc. He has some really great insight into how you do this.
When it came to writing Frank Castle, what did you find most interesting about him?
He was hard to write at first ,because it’s easy to fall into that one-note, mindless avenger. What I thought I’d explore was the fact that he is a Marine. I know a lot of Marines, and there’s a certain Marine mentality, so I tried to see if we could get into a little bit of that and peel away a little bit of the vigilante stuff.
I think Castle is really interesting. A lot of guys have done some interesting stuff with him. I feel like the best way to write him is to try and make him as human as possible.
It does feel like Nathan is leaning towards the character’s more human side in his run, but there have also been highly entertaining takes on the character where he’s been more inscrutable, like Greg Rucka’s run.
I loved Rucka’s run. I thought it was really smart and it brought a lot of this mission-oriented Punisher to it. I think Nathan has tried to infuse a little more personality into him and I try to straddle the line.
Like I said, I think Rucka’s run was fantastic, but I think his Punisher was more of an exterior force. The story was not being driven solely by him and I think Nathan has taken it back to letting the Punisher drive the story. I like both of those runs and I try to embrace both takes.
From talking with other writers, it seems like once they have written Frank, they fall in love with the straightforward and direct nature of the character. Has that happened with you?
Yeah. It’s funny — I was talking with some guys here in Wilmington [North Carolina] at the comic store where I go to get my stuff, and in a matter of 10 minutes, we had come up with a couple more stories for the Punisher. He’s sort of in my head now, and I think it would be fun to play with him a little more, mostly because I think he’s a really interesting character that I can relate to. I can kind of hear his voice. It’s a little easier than some other Marvel Universe characters.
Frank is an interesting guy, and it would be fun to do some more stories. I would like to bring him back to Camp Lejeune and put him in the South for a while, and see how he feels about that.
How would you describe the tone of the story you’re telling with Frank? Does it lean more towards realism? Or does it embrace some of the more fantastic elements of the Marvel Universe?
It’s more realism than not, but there’s a couple comic book things I put in there, including a villain where I thought, “You could only do this in a comic.” When I wrote it, I didn’t think it would fly, but they liked it.
I think it’s a comic book first, and it’s as real as you want to get. Sometimes, that takes away from it. I do play around a little bit, and there’s a couple panels in there that I think are very comic book-y, but kind of cool, I hope.
You talked a little bit about this already, but what else can you tell us about your story? What sets it in motion?
It happens right after [the series’] first arc. We find Frank in Mexico — he’s teamed up with a Special Forces team that’s on a separate mission there, and because of circumstances, they help each other complete their missions. That leads to the bigger theme, which you get to in issue #8. It gets down to explaining the skull patch and why these patches are now all over the military.
The main villain is the head of a drug cartel, but you’ve got to have a super villain and I was really excited with the one they let us play with. We use Crossbones. I stuck him in the story, and I was pretty excited they let us keep him in there.
How would you describe the initial dynamic between Frank and this Special Forces unit?
Initially, Tom, the medic, helps the Punisher. From there, the Punisher has some tricks as well. I tried to make it so both of them brought something to the table and that one of them wasn’t a sidekick or anything.
Artist Carmen Carnero is bringing this story to life. What do you feel she brings to the book as an artist?
The pages have been amazing. They’re better than what I have in my head. They get better and better, and Carmen jumped in with a really good idea early in the script.
I didn’t know [Marvel] characters couldn’t smoke, so I had the Cartel leader smoking a cigar. Carmen had drawn some really cool smoke trails as the character was kind of pontificating with the cigar, but since she couldn’t do that, she came up with a really cool alternative and put something else in the character’s hand, which is kind of a drug related, nasty, evil, bad guy thing. I thought it was brilliant.
I had a lot of fun with the collaboration part of this story; with people chiming in and adding things. Sometimes they’re little and sometimes they’re big, but it’s always very cool to see an idea that started with a blank page spin into this really kind of rich environment story.
The art is probably better than the writing. It really looks good.
“Punisher” is your first published comic work, but you’re developing a series for 12 Gauge Comics called “Skull One-Six” that seems like it would appeal directly to Punisher fans. What can you share about that project?
“Skull One-Six” is a series I’m doing with [artist] Tony Shasteen about a Special Forces team in Afghanistan that goes into the mountains to save the air crew of a helicopter that’s been shot down, and they run into trouble. I’m trying to do this series as realistic as possible. I stitched it together from missions I covered or that guys told me about and tried to make it into one hellaciously tough mission.
It’s a four-issue series, and should be out later this year. Tony is working hard on the issues now. Like I said, it’s more of an authentic military comic. It’s kind of in the vein of “G.I. Joe” more than super heroes. It was fun to do and fun to write, mostly because it was really in my wheelhouse with the SF guys, having spent time with them.
Do you have any other comic work on the horizon? And which of your non-fiction books would you recommend to people who are curious about your writing?
A lot of people read “No Easy Day,” and I have another book coming out this year that I co-wrote. It’s called “Hunter-Killer” and it’s on drones and the Air Force RPA guys. They’re in the news, having got the Al-Qaeda guys in Yemen.
I wrote a book called “Gentlemen Bastards” that gives you a look at Afghanistan and the frustrations there, but it’s not real action-packed. It’s more of a glimpse at daily life there. I’ve also written a lot of non-fiction battle books, like “The Lions of Kandahar” and “No Way Out,” where I just deal with certain battles in Afghanistan.
As for other comics? I did work on a one-shot for another company. I’m not sure where that’s going to go, but I’m hoping to do more. I really enjoy it. Comic writing is hard, but it’s fun. I’ve had a good time, and now I have a whole list of ideas and sort of a wish list building. Hopefully someone will call and my stories will do well so I can get some more work going. This is a really fun medium.