SDCC '08 - The Haunted Tank Rolls Again at Vertigo

A new five issue Haunted Tank miniseries was announced at Friday’s Vertigo Panel at San Diego Comic-Con. Written by The Dark Goodbye’s Frank Marraffino with art by Omega Men and regular 2000 AD artist Henry Flint, this is the latest classic DC property to be granted new life under the Vertigo imprint. The series previously was set to a World War Two backdrop, but the revival updates to match current events, with tank haunting phantasm General Jeb Stuart setting up shop in modern Iraq.

General Jeb Stuart and his ghastly assault vehicle last appeared in the bitingly funny Doctor Thirteen backup stories of Tales of the Unexpected. We caught up with the creative team and got their thoughts on the new series.

Newsarama: Tell us about the new Haunted Tank series - what inspired this reboot?

Frank Marraffino: This Haunted Tank is an M1A1 Abrams blazing across the sands of Iraq at the starting bell of the 2003 invasion. Again the ghost of Civil War General Jeb Stuart shows up to act as a spectral combat sage. No longer satisfied with only being a cryptic Caucasian Confucius, Jeb now takes a more active role but the frightful efforts of this plantation-raised, slave-owning, defender of the Confederacy are not entirely welcome by the black tank commander whose name is… Jamal Stuart.

When I heard word from Brandon Montclare that Haunted Tank was fair game at Vertigo, it was immediately obvious that it should be set in Iraq and that the lead protagonist would behave more than a little superciliously towards the Haunter in Whiteness. The sparks would fly, drive and maybe even snorkel.

Brandon and Bob Schreck told me there was only one way to do this – and that was to bring in stealth weapon Henry Flint. With Henry involved, the book could be called the Haunted Wheelbarrow and people would show up to see the destruction of the garden. His art has been nothing short of breathtaking, in both the showy and the subtle moments. When this drops, Henry will no longer be able to bust bunkers covertly over here.

Henry Flint: I didn't want letters in from Abrams tank crews telling me I'd got things wrong so right from the start we got together a fair amount of reference material. Every few days I'd have a dozen or so pictures scanned and emailed to me from Frank from obscure books that I'd have no hope of finding here in the UK. We wanted to get the look of this one right- I spent weeks sketching before starting the first page.

NRAMA: Where does this series differ from previous iterations?

FM: Everywhere you look. The violence here is more brutal, the insensitivities more gleeful, the guffaws broader and the chaos more disquieting. Lee Loughridge's colors are gorgeous and Travis Lanham on lettering is pushing the boundaries of what is possible on the printed page.

This is your Haunted Tank on drugs – bubbling on the skillet and ready to pop.

As a Vertigo book, you can bet the language will be saltier and the bloodshed more peppery. But besides being able to show the wounds, we're going to be poking around inside of them to see just how deep the injuries are.

HF: From the art point of view I didn't know about Joe Kubert's work on Haunted Tank, my local newsagent only had a few titles to choose from. Haunted Tank is something I didn't grow up reading, so we're hoping that people will be able to see I've looked at this from a fresh perspective.

NRAMA: Henry, what are you doing visually to, well, Haunt this Tank, and stylistically sell the paranormal bent?

HF: In a lot of the old stories J.E.B. is a floating head playing a kind of advising role. Frank has given him a more physical appearance, galloping alongside the Abrams giving him a more full on part in the action. I love the idea that he's a ghost, bullets go through him but he can still slice off limbs with his sword...a selective presence.

NRAMA: As you said, there had to be a ton of research to get accurate representations of the hardware, and the geographic layout. From your work on Omega Men, I notice a heavy element of grit to your work, do you think this is part of what made you such a strong fit for this book?

HF: I think the grit comes from working on 2000 AD, which is very much an anti-hero comic so you what to make the page dirty and gritty with heavy blacks. On Haunted Tank I needed to clean up my act as it were. So the first thing I did was make a conscious effort to work with line and not to put objects and faces into deep black shadow; we’re in the desert and the light is reflected off every surface, giving the impression there's nowhere to shelter from the sun. Also added dust gives the feeling of dry heat- working on these pages I could feel the dust getting up my nose. I'm thinking the cover needs an asthmatic warning.

NRAMA: The weak-lunged have been warned. Frank, you're familiar with writing the paranormal on your Tokyopop book The Dark Goodbye. Do you see this as a horror book, a war book, or something else?

FM: Would it be in poor taste to call Haunted Tank an action-comedy romp? We all know that war is horror, but war is also thrilling, and war is absurd. The extreme heightened reality of war is just the right place for Jeb and his tread-head charges. We want people to feel as fully alive reading Haunted Tank as soldiers do during combat, with the same threat of tragedy lurking around every corner.

And the actual Jeb Stuart wouldn't want it any other way. Jeb was a poetry spouting dandy who relished the chance to risk it all for everlasting glory. I think we remain true to his "spirit" by emphasizing just how grand these adventures can be.

NRAMA: What’s more hilarious than ghosts with guns? War comics seem to catch fire when there are real ones going on around us. Do you think of this series as a social or political allegory, or does it stay within its fictional realm?

HF: All I can say is In the UK in the 70's we had loads of British made Second World War comics. Then after the Falklands War they died out; it's a good question.

FM: Both the best and worst of human qualities reveal themselves in war, and during wartime it's difficult not to examine those characteristics, especially in the popular arts. But make no mistake – Haunted Tank is no mere fiction. This is a straight-up "you are there" documentation of the race to Baghdad and the bumps in the road, many of which used to be people. Hopefully any allegory will reveal itself in unexpected ways, and differently to every reader.

NRAMA: Following that, Frank, you're from stateside, and Henry, you're from across the pond. Do you guys think that your nationality colors your opinions on this book and what it should be?

HF: I don't think there's much of a difference, except for me the 4th of July is just another day. From over here I see a great deal of pride you have in your country and army. The need to make heroes out of these people is magnetic and the UK has troops in southern Iraq so there is a kinship.

FM: Sure, our nationalities inform the type of tale we're telling, but look, this isn't The Thousand and One Bedtime Stories for Li'l Abdul – this is an American tank crew who's over there to kick ass and not really stop to take names. This book is about America and the West and how it might not only be the tank that's haunted. The lines we're following don't stop in the sand.

NRAMA: Structurally, is this book about a core group of characters, or is the Tank the star? Does it have a personality, like a spooky KIT or Christine?

HF: Over to you Frank.

FM: The Abrams tank here is not actually possessed, but rather haunted. So the four-man tank crew that Jamal commands must contend with the apparitional presence in their midst. They're all different ethnicities from four sides of America, geographically and otherwise. The way they each handle internal and external conflict reflects upon humanity at large. It's their story, but it's also our story, and it's everyone's story.

NRAMA: So at its core is this story mostly about the soldiers versus the nationals, the crew versus themselves, or Abrams v, Abrams?

FM: All of the above, and more! Threats abound from all around, but sometimes the biggest menace is not the one in front of you - it's what's in your rear view mirror, your repressed memory - and even in your DNA!

NRAMA: Lastly, have you seen this , and is that the Haunted Tank?

FM: Yeah!

HF: Nutters, That's our crew right there.

Haunted Tank #1 is due in December.

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