Post Mortem: Marraffino on Haunted Tank

Post Mortem: The Haunted Tank

Haunted Tank #5

War comics were a big part of the industry during the 1940s and for years later. Enduring icons such as Captain America, Nick Fury, the Unknown Soldier and Sgt. Rock sprung forth from those classic tales and this year they were joined by another brother in arms.

Earlier this year, DC’s Vertigo imprint released a new Haunted Tank miniseries which saw the embattled ghost of Confederate general J.E.B. Stuart returning to combat once again. This time, he’s the wingman for a M1 Abrams tank during 2003’s Operation Iraqi Freedom. The concept of Haunted Tank is a bit wild – and has been from its creation back in 1961 – so marrying it with such a real-world scenario as modern-day Iraq makes for a gripping and evocative story.

In this modern series, the ghost General is partnered with a tank helmed by an unlikely relative – an African American descendant named Jeb Stuart. The interplay between J.E.B.’s confederate-era morality with the modern reality of war. The miniseries is a contemplation on the modern military, racism and the brotherhood of war. With the fifth and final issue released in early April, we caught up with series writer Frank Marraffino to talk about it.

Newsarama: It's good to talk to you, Frank. In the recently completed Haunted Tank miniseries, you've got the returning ghost General J.E.B. Stuart following a modern tank during the Iraq conflict. J.E.B. is following a tank led by Sergeant Stuart – an African American man who's his unlikely relative.

Although the General and Sergeant Stuart are at odds for most the series, at the end they come to some sort of understanding – enough to work together, at least. How would you describe the development of their relationship?

Frank Marraffino: Like most relationships, the one between J.E.B. and Jamal is fluid and evolves based on how they both behave and what they learn about each other. They both bring preconceived notions to the table and at first it seems like they’re looking for differences rather than any similarities they might have. But if you spend any amount of time with someone, you begin to see other facets of their personality that might not have been readily apparent at first. You might begin to forgive someone’s faults, especially if you benefit from their positive qualities. Or your resolve may stiffen and your viewpoint be re-confirmed. Regardless of differences though, when you’re in a foxhole taking fire you can’t help but work with the guy next to you and in that way you’re forced to find common ground, even if it’s only temporary. I don’t think you have to have been in the military to experience that – it happens often enough in any workplace.

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NRAMA: Your scripts for The Haunted Tank had a surprising amount of humor in it – usually The Haunted Tank isn’t pictured as all that funny, but it works really well here. What brought that about?

FM: On the surface J.E.B. didn’t appear to be all that serious as far as ghosts go. He has a zest and a flamboyance that serves him well but might not scare anyone that he isn’t killing. As an officious know-it-all he shows up expecting to be treated with great respect but gets the opposite reception. That allowed for some humorous possibilities but also was a way to deal with the un-reality of the situation. Then I started to see just how often humor is employed by the troops serving over in Iraq, and comedy became part of the reality. Humor is a great way to bring disparate people together, and it can be a coping mechanism when dealing with awful situations. Of course, the higher your whimsical spirits are, the greater the fall when tragedy arrives.

NRAMA: Your script also displayed dialogue that seemed fairly realistic in the way soldiers talk. How did you come about getting the dialogue accurate without being too over the top or unrealistic?

FM: I completely dove into any documentary I could find that featured the troops and videos of them in the midst of battle or just hanging out being themselves. Never before in war has there ever been so much material available so immediately that civilians can access to learn about the people in the middle of the conflict. What you witness repeatedly, other than the sometimes cryptic nomenclature, is the incredible matter-of-factness in which the troops carry out their duties. Soldiers and marines have been well trained to deal with all manner of obstacle as if it were another day at the office. And if they have a bad day? They re-adjust. They apply the lessons learned to the next business day. All of this seemingly routine behavior is sprinkled with large doses of humor. There is flippancy and playfulness on display that is vibrant and surprising. A lot of the jokes revolve around cynicism or insults, and that kind of commentary can help spark debate and insight. It happened with the real troops on the ground, and hopefully it also happened in Haunted Tank.

NRAMA: Writing a character such as General J.E.B. Stuart, especially in such modern surroundings, could be quite difficult. What did you do to ground him in his own time without turning him into some sort of cliché?

FM: I tried to embrace the cliché that started as factual actuality for many Confederate generals of the Civil War. J.E.B. was a true Southern gentleman who believed in duty, honor, God, and fraternity. He was talented, well educated, and enjoyed all that life had to offer. He had many qualities that are still admirable today, so it makes sense that readers like J.E.B. because he really was a very likable man. He was also raised on a plantation and took some of his family’s slaves with him into war while at the same time railing against the Union’s disrespect for independence. That complicated dichotomy may seem dated, but you don’t have to look far in today’s world to see that double standards abound everywhere and it’s not only people who don’t practice what they preach, but governments also.

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NRAMA: For the miniseries you worked with British artist Henry Flint. How was writing for him in mind?

FM: Working with Henry was a fantastic experience. I knew what he was capable of artistically, but what blew me away was his storytelling prowess. His ability to convey multiple pieces of information together succinctly is stunning. There were a lot of ideas crammed into this series - both visual and verbal. One of the themes of this Haunted Tank is the interconnectivity of everything, but all of the separate threads could have ended up being one big mess. Henry made sure that wouldn’t happen by giving a lot of thought to how each issue and each page and each panel should be presented. Go back through the book. Look at the facial expressions. Look at the body gestures. Look at the panel layouts on the page, and the details within the panels. This is a book that reads incredibly well without the word balloons. Brandon Montclare believed in Henry when he brought him into the Vertigo fold, and knowing the effort necessary to slog through my scripts in order to get that art onto the page, I am a believer also. I hope others are converting now. But I tell you, being relatively new to this field it was a real eye opener to me just how crucial the efforts are by every member of the creative team. Lee Loughridge’s light sourcing and color palette added emotional and dimensional depth. Travis Lanham’s font choices and balloon placement helped provide an effortless read over very dense passages. I’d take this crew in my foxhole any day.

NRAMA: Were you familiar with the earlier Haunted Tank issues before beginning this miniseries?

FM: I was mostly familiar with Joe Kubert’s stunning covers which presented the perfect trifecta of what a cover should be: visually dynamic with wonderful design elements and storytelling that hints at what’s inside. I was crazy about the whole Haunted Tank concept based on those covers alone, and most of them don’t even feature the ghost who’s doing the haunting. Thank goodness DC has put out Showcase editions of Haunted Tank so I could brush up on the past history of the series.

NRAMA: Could you see more stories with the General, Stuart and the M1 Abrams tank depicted in this miniseries?

FM: Absolutely. The miniseries ends less than a month into the Iraq conflict in April 2003 with a lone American tank company in Baghdad surrounded by millions of Iraqis. The thinking is that as soon as other American troops arrive it will be smooth sailing, but as J.E.B. hints to Jamal on the final page, their mission might not yet be accomplished. So historically there is a lot of ground to cover between that moment and right now, but there’s also a lot more room left to explore J.E.B. and Jamal – how their relationship reflects the war, America’s relationship with Iraq, and society at large. The concept of the Haunted Tank is a great springboard for examining the human condition.

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