Robert Venditti spent much of his childhood hearing about an uncle who died during the D-Day invasion, mentally filing the tidbit of family lore away as a distant, detached war story.
But years later, when Venditti looked into his uncle’s death, he discovered a surprisingly emotional story about a group of American soldiers and a tiny town of French citizens uniting in community and facing overwhelming odds together.
Six Days: The Incredible Story of D-Day’s Lost Chapter, an original graphic novel by Venditti with co-writer Kevin Maurer, tells the story of Venditti’s ancestor, who died in the battle of Graignes during the D-Day invasion of World War II. Through his eyes, readers learn about how some U.S. paratroopers were mis-dropped behind enemy lines in June 1944, and how a group of them formed a community with the citizens of the small French town nearby - people who helped them prepare for the war that was all around them.
Featuring illustrations by Andrea Mutti, the book tells much more than a war story. As Venditti puts it: “It’s a story as much about the citizens as it is about the soldiers. And it’s mostly about those two different worlds coming together.”
With the release of the book in comic book stores today, Newsarama talked to Venditti and Maurer about why this story was so fascinating to them as writers and what readers can expect from the completed project.
Newsarama: Rob, you’ve mentioned to me before that you’ve got a personal connection to this story. How did you discover the story behind what happened to your uncle during D-Day?
Robert Venditti: When I was growing up, I would hear this story about an uncle who had gone off to the war. And they knew that he had taken part in the D-Day campaign and that he had died there, but there was never any knowledge of where that had taken place or what the town was or any of those kinds of things.
It was just sort of a family mystery. None of my cousins or anybody knew.
It was a few years ago, on the anniversary of D-Day, that — my kids are older now and I was kind of thinking about it. So I went through some of my grandmother’s things to get the telegram from the war department that I had gotten from her when she passed away, talking about Uncle Tommy’s death.
Somehow — I’d never seen it, and my grandmother hadn’t seen it, I guess, because nobody really knew about it — there was a letter in these papers that was from one of Uncle Tommy’s war buddies that he served with, that he had written home to my great-grandmother on his return to the states from the war, giving the name of the town where he had passed away.
And so, it’s crazy to think that all these decades had gone by and nobody in my family knew what happened to him, and here I had this letter and I literally went to Google and Googled the town’s name and started reading about it, you know? That’s how easy it is now, how research has changed our access to information and things.
Reading about it, it was just a very fascinating story. It was as much about the French citizens as it was about the American soldiers.
It sounded so interesting and fascinating, I was like, gosh, how do I know if he was really in this battle?
And then I found a photograph on a French tourism site of the memorial at Graignes, and in the back of the church is a plaque with all the soldiers who died, and there was my uncle’s name.
It was the first time, after all these 60-something years, that my family knew the circumstances of it.
Nrama: So how did that turn into a story for a comic book?
Venditti: Yeah, so go forward a little bit, and I was doing a signing at a comic book store with another writer in Wilmington, North Carolina, which is where Kevin lives, and I had met Kevin before, years earlier, at a writer’s conference. And so he came by the store just to say hey and catch up, and I was telling him about this story in passing, not really knowing a lot about the military or the 82nd Airborne or any of these kinds of things.
Kevin just started telling me a lot of his experiences, and things about the 82nd. And he was like, “you’ve really got to tell that story. That’s a really cool story.”
My fear had always been, I knew there was a story there, but I don’t do these types of stories. You know, I do science fiction. I do superhero comics.
So immediately, I though, it would really be great, Kevin, if you did the story with me and we wrote it together. I have this sort of personal family angle on it, and you have the background covering the 82nd Airborne and knowing the ins and outs of these kind of situations, having been embedded in war zones and things, and maybe we could do this story justice together.
Nrama: So Kevin, why did you think this would make a great story? Rob said you brought knowledge of the 82nd to the table. Can you describe your history with them?
Kevin Maurer: I started my career as a reporter, and so I spent a lot of time covering the war in Iraq and the war in Afghanistan, and the unit that I covered was the 82nd, because I was based out of Fort Bragg, which is the home base of that unit.
So I sort of fell in love with this story. Because I had covered the 82nd for so long, I knew paratroopers. I’d been on jumps. And so I also had studied their World War II history. I didn’t know the story like I should have, but I was familiar that history.
When Rob brought it up at the signing, it was right in my wheelhouse and was something that I was desperately interested in.
But mostly, I was interested in the fact that he had such a family connection. Being a reporter and a guy that does non-fiction, when you can get something that deep, a family connection like that, I just love those stories so much.
So those are the two things that attracted me to it.
Nrama: Rob, the challenge of any non-fiction event from history is to make it into an interesting story for modern audiences. So what angle did you take?
Venditti: We used my uncle as our main character. But you know, it’s a story that’s based on real events, but there’s so much of it that’s been lost to history.
Even interviewing family members, the few that I have that I was able to talk to that had ever met him had such few memories of him that they were very vague, you know?
He liked to tell jokes and, you know, he was involved in the church. He like to play with the nieces and nephews and things like that. It wasn’t like he didn’t like kids or he thought kids were annoying. He thought kids were fun and that kind of stuff.
But just from these very basic facts, we would try to extrapolate out what this character would be like in that situation, because there are so many things you can’t know.
We just kind of used Uncle Tommy as our North Star and tried to follow him through the story, and then we did that with some other characters as well that we knew from historical record.
You know, there was a woman who ran the cafe that fed the town, so we had a character that we based on that sort of circumstance.
But like I say, there’s so much that’s just unknowable that it ends up having to become “based on a true story” as opposed to an actual historical document, because when you’re telling the story and you need the dialogue and the character beats and the interactions between different individuals, those things are just lost.
I think it was a lot of the research and the detail work that Kevin really excels at, combined with taking that information and trying to find a story thread and weaving a narrative through it that we’ll be able to hang on the events that we know that were true.
Nrama: Kevin what was the experience like for you to work with Robert and artist Andrea Mutti on this book?
Maurer: I had written a few comics previous, but this was a master class in it. Not only did my writing improve with each draft that Rob helped me work on, but Andrea’s art — working in words is one thing, but when you see what you see in your head and you try to communicate it through words, and then when an artist like Andrea sends you back pages, it’s better than what’s in your head.
That’s the thing I love most about this kind of work is I love that you get to see the story play out in the art. And it’s always different than what I envisioned and it’s always better.
I learned a lot about how to write with economy. I learned a lot about how to write imagery and using the format to help tell the story much more than just telling the story.
That was what excited me the most about telling the story is taking some of the skills that I’d developed as a reporter and applying them to a medium now that was challenging and I was learning a lot about.
Nrama: Are you doing more in this medium?
Maurer: Not at the moment, I’m not. But not for lack of trying.
Nrama: Well maybe this will lead to something. Let’s talk about the art. I don’t know how much influence you guys had on choosing the artist, or on what the style of the book would be, but can you talk about how the art on this evolved, why it looks the way it does and what that process was like?
Venditti: We had already written, gosh, I think the first couple chapters — we kind of rotated, so I’m trying to remember. I think I did the first drafts on chapters 1, 3 and 5. And Kevin did 2 and 4, which were the real battle-heavy portions that, I mean, I just wouldn’t even know where to begin with something like that. He has so much expertise in those areas that I don’t.
I want to say we had already done the first couple of those chapters when DC started talking to us about artists. And they sent us quite a number of different artists’ — at least 10 or 12, I think — sample pages, and why they thought they’d be good for the project for different reasons.
Andrea Mutti’s was the one that both Kevin and I, completely independently reviewing those things, were like, here’s the guy. It was just such a perfect style for the story, not just because of the ability to draw uniforms or weaponry and all those kinds of things, but his capacity to do battle sequences and all the drama of that, and also do two guys sitting in a foxhole, talking to each other, and do all the emotion of that.
It’s exceedingly rare that you find an artist that can excel in all of those things. And that’s exactly what he does. If you go through the book, you really feel the chaos and the danger and the drama of the battle moments, but you also get the sly humor of a joke from one soldier to another, or the way that — we have a scene where my uncle dances with a young girl in the cafe, like any father would ever dance with their little girl. You know, that kind of thing.
To be able to capture all that stuff, you just know that’s the guy, because this is much more than a war story. It’s a story as much about the citizens as it is about the soldiers. And it’s mostly about those two different worlds coming together and living together and basically forming a community for six days while the world is at war all around them.
So it’s not your typical war story, and we really wanted somebody who could handle all those elements. And it was apparent, just from his samples, that this was that guy.
Maurer: My favorite scene in the whole book is that scene with Tommy dancing with the little girl. I thought it speaks, not only to the art, but it also speaks to the writing. I think the action scenes, it’s easier to write action because it’s got the built-in drama. I just think that Robert did such a great job with the quiet moments. And I think the quiet moments and those interactions with the village really do bring you to the soul of the story. And it’s done with such skill, I think that’s why the book is as good as it is.
Venditti: It was also very difficult, you know, Vaneta. We’ve talked a lot and done a lot of interviews. You’ve read a lot of my stuff, and none of it’s ever been like this. You know.
To write a story — I’d only ever thought about World War II from the perspective of people who survived it, because those were the only people who would ever tell me stories.
This was the first time I ever had to think about the war from the perspective of people who did not survive it.
And to write that scene, with him dancing with the little girl, and I’m thinking about how I used to dance with my daughter at the daddy-daughter dance when she was in elementary school, and how this guy never got to come home and do that…
I had to walk away from it after writing that. It was very hard stuff to do.
Kevin, he wrote the moment where my uncle is actually killed in combat. That’s a real person. For him to be able to handle those kinds of things and not have it be, you know, I don’t even know — to do it with the respect and the weight it deserves and not make it, you know, cheesy or melodramatic or any of these kinds of things is exceedingly hard.
It is a much different story than anything I’ve worked on before.
The emotions of it got very difficult sometimes.
Nrama: Having read it, I felt like it’s not just a war story. It’s a people story.
Venditti: Yeah, we knew from the beginning that that was what made this story so different. If you think about the war stories that we get in our films and on TV and things like that, they’re always told, the majority of them, from the perspective of the soldier. The citizens and the towns that they roll through and things like that don’t play much of a part in it.
But here was a story where my uncle, first of all, was a part of this small group of guys that were the absolute worst mis-drops of any U.S. airborne unit in all of D-Day. Like, that in and of itself is an interesting thing. What happened to the worst mis-drops of all of D-Day? Well, this is that story.
And they were so far off their mark that they landed in this town and basically formed a community for six days — eating there, and living there. The town voted to allow them to stay, at great peril to themselves. The citizens got in their boats and helped retrieve their supplies out of the swamp, and they supported the soldiers any way they could.
And when it came down to it, the soldiers defended the town the best that they could against overwhelming odds, against a vastly superior force.
These are two people who don’t even speak the same language, and come from different countries and knew nothing about each other, and literally half of them fell out of the sky on top of the other half. And yet they come together as a community and work together.
I think there’s something — even though the end of the story, there’s certainly some tragedy attached to it — I think there’s something very inspiring and hopeful about that and what it says about people.
I think that is a lesson that’s always going to be important and always something that we should reflect on.
Nrama: You think this is something you’d like to do more, Rob? These real stories from history? Or is it just this one time because of a personal connection and you kind of want to stick with superheroes that you don’t have to walk away when you get too emotional (although I’m sure sometimes you do even then…)?
Venditti: Yeah, I think I would. I really enjoyed the experience and it’s been great working with Kevin. I like how this story challenged me in that way.
But it is emotionally exhausting sometimes.
I think if the story is right.
It’s one of those things where I kind of never know what I’m going to work on next. I’m sure, Kevin, it’s the same for you, right? You kind of don’t know what you’re going to do and something presents itself and you can’t get it out of your head, and now that’s the thing that you have to do.
You never know what’s going to happen, but I wouldn’t say that I would never want to do stories like this again, because I’m very proud of the book.
It’s one of the things in my whole career that I’m probably the most proud of.