Max Brooks is best known for writing World War Z, a fictional oral history of a zombie outbreak that sets itself apart from other undead lit via its detailed imagining of what geopolitics and military strategy might actually look like if a hellish plague of lurching, man-eating monsters overtook Earth. Brooks’s ability to mix the incredible and the plausible is on display again in his latest project, The Harlem Hellfighters, a research-driven graphic novel (illustrated by Canaan White) about the remarkable 369th Infantry Regiment, an all-black unit of the New York National Guard that saw heavy action in France during World War I. Brooks spoke with Vulture about the Hellfighters, the inspiring words of LeVar Burton, and what might have motivated thousands of black men to volunteer to fight for the ideal of democracy at a time that their own allegedly democratic country gave them barely any rights at all.
When I heard about the subject of the book, I thought, Wait, really? A heroic all-black unit in World War I and I’ve never heard about them before? It’s surprising that the story is not better known. How did you learn about it yourself?
There was a young man working for my parents [Mel Brooks and Anne Bancroft] who was also working on a Marcus Garvey project, and he told me about it in a casual conversation when I was a kid. I was blown away by it and remained interested. What I was shocked about is how little there was out there about them. When the movie Glory came out, I was waiting for this one to be made too. Then TNT in the late ’90s did two TV movies, one on the Tuskegee Airmen and the other one on the Buffalo Soldiers, and I thought, The time is right. So I started doing serious research and I brought a Hellfighters script to TNT — and they said no, and everyone else said no. LeVar Burton was my very last meeting, and he said, “Don’t give up.” He said there were several Harlem Hellfighters scripts, but “yours comes closest to the truth,” and that was the best compliment I’ve ever gotten.
Flash forward several years — you’ve published The Zombie Survival Handbook and World War Z, but you’re still interested in pursuing a Hellfighters project.
I had started to get into comic books, and when Random House said, “What’s your next project?” I thought comic books would be a great way to tell a big visual story about the Hellfighters and not have to worry about budget. That was a big reason I kept getting rejected all over town. They said, “That’s a big movie, and let’s face it, black stars aren’t as bankable.” I was told by the Hollywood execs of that era that black stars simply weren’t bankable; I knew they were wrong, and given that 12 Years a Slave, The Butler, and 42 have all [been box-office hits], history has proven me right!
And then, once you’d finished the graphic novel, Sony decided to make it into a movie.
Within 48 hours of galleys going out, I got a call from Will Smith’s company. When the [original] script had gone out: nothing. I got a job on SNL and the writing team won the Emmy, and I said, “Send the script out again”: nothing. My first book comes out: nothing. Second: no interest. Then the movie [World War Z] came out, and I think it did pretty well, but still not a lot of interest. So when the graphic novel was gonna come out and they were sending out the galley copies, I thought, This is just a formality.
The story is obviously very different from World War Z, but one thing it has in common is that people get disemboweled.
All the violence in this book is based on actual research — nothing is gratuitous. I read about what high-explosive shells do to the human body, and the artist conveyed that. The rock star of the project is [artist] Canaan White — if the project is successful it will be because of Canaan, not me. He had a very unenviable job because he was drawing something historical, which means he had to do as much homework as I did. I was essentially his research assistant.
Some of the text, as well, is taken from archival accounts, including a memorable column praising the unit by a writer named Irvin S. Cobb.
He was a bigot, and the Hellfighters brought him to have a change of heart. For him to say that thing about the N-word being another way to say “American,” wow.
Were you interested in the genre of historical graphic novels before you started this one?
I’ve always liked historical graphic novels. There’s a wonderful graphic biography of Malcolm X. My 8-year-old son just got into reading and reads a historical comic book every day — he read a biography of Rosa Parks, and now he’s reading one about World War II. There’s a French graphic artist named Tardi who did two amazing graphic novels about World War I. Those set the bar for me. He didn’t screw around — his bibliography is as long as the book itself, and his level of detail is stunning.
This unit was, of course, from Harlem. Do they have a legacy in the neighborhood today?
First of all, unlike the Tuskegee Airmen — there’s no more Tuskegee squadron — the Harlem Hellfighters are still a unit of the New York National Guard. They are still fighting today — now they’re a sustainment brigade, a supply unit; I think they just did a humanitarian mission in West Africa. You can go to their armory — they have a historical society; I encourage everyone to make a donation or become a member. Their headquarters is amazing, it’s massive. They have a museum, and right across from it is the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, which is amazing. The “Colored Man Is No Slacker” poster in the book — Canaan White drew that from an actual poster I found there.
One of the real-life Hellfighters, Henry Johnson, was posthumously awarded the Legion of Merit medal in 2002, and there are people who believe he should still receive the higher Medal of Honor recognition as well.
I think eventually he will get the Medal of Honor, but there are so many other black heroes who haven’t gotten anything — there are so many whose petitions were denied in World War II, Korea, Vietnam — and as much as Johnson deserves it, there’s a long line to recognize those other individuals first.
That points to the biggest question the book gets at, which is: Why were these men, so badly treated in their own country, willing to fight for it?
They understood what it meant to be an American more than white Americans. We live in a country of really rare ideals and rights, and I think a lot of people take those for granted. I think these guys were aware of ideals because their country hadn’t lived up to them. This was the first war for ideals we’d ever fought. It wasn’t a revolution or a land grab. It was to “make the world safe for democracy.” You can’t appreciate democracy until you don’t have it. I could be wrong, but I think that resonated with them.
And yet it still took decades for the country to even begin to fully extend democracy to black Americans.
They came back to a tremendous backlash. You should google a newsreel of the KKK march in Washington, D.C. There’s an iconic image of thousands of Klan members marching with the Capitol in the background. That’s in the ’20s; that’s after the war. They endured a tremendous backlash. But even that backlash ultimately pushed the cause of freedom further. They didn’t benefit from it. But their children did.
Max Brooks will read from The Harlem Hellfighters tonight at 7 p.m. at the Barnes & Noble at 86th St. and Lexington Ave. in New York.