All’s fair in love and war—though betrayed spouses and mustard gas victims might take issue with that word “fair.” But we get the point: no-one should ever be surprised by anything that happens in the course of courtship or combat.
That said, when we learned in Ben Towle’s latest graphic novel about how slimy slugs, glow worms, rats, seagulls, and other animals were used in warfare over the years, we definitely were surprised. And so was Peter Dabbene, who said Four-Fisted Tales is a “stellar graphic history whose art is exemplary, capturing action, humor, and poignancy alike,” in his review for the July/August issue of Foreword.
Inquisitive as he is, we knew Peter would kill to fire a few burning questions at Ben so we set up the following interview.
What inspired Four-Fisted Tales? Was it a particular story that crossed your path and captured your imagination, or something else?
What would become Four-Fisted Tales had been in a long gestation period prior to being picked up by Dead Reckoning. I believe the genesis of the idea was my happening upon a Wikipedia page listing animals used in war/combat situations and musing on Twitter that that’d make a great anthology. (I had most likely been reading about how Schipperkes were used in WWII—my dad and his wife have had two dogs of that breed.) Anthologies being kind of a hard sell these days, I wound up turning it around in my head a bit and it gradually became potentially a solo book.
At that point it was just an idea, among many others, and I was in the middle of my previous book, Oyster War, but I did what I always do when an idea like that occurs to me: I started a document for notes about it and I began bookmarking any related animals-in-war stories I ran across. When I saw an article later in The Beat about the beginnings of Dead Reckoning, it immediately occurred to me that the book might be a great fit with them, so I tracked down the email address of Gary Thompson, director of Dead Reckoning, and made contact with him.
Tales of dogs and horses utilized in war have found their way into history books before, but Four-Fisted Tales contains some surprises, in the stories of unusual and obscure war creatures like glow-worms and slugs. How did you find and select the stories for the book?
Yes, I very deliberately kept the dog stories in particular to a bare minimum, not because I don’t like dogs (I love dogs, just ask Pixie, my pit mix!), but because, as you say, there have already been a lot of dog (and horse) stories that have found their way into the public eye. Once I had a few dog stories in place, I made a point to select the remainder of the stories from more unusual sources.
As far as where they came from, I read a bunch of books on the subject and kept notes on what I liked and didn’t. Of course, I scoured the internet for stories as well. I made sure that in all cases I had at least two tellings of each story, both to make sure that I wasn’t inadvertently lifting anything directly from a particular telling and also to make sure that they were as accurate as possible. I, for example, found a great story about a supposedly cursed ship’s cat from the Spanish Civil War, but ultimately couldn’t include it because I could only find an account of it from a single source.
Were there stories that you wanted to include, but couldn’t? If so, why didn’t they make the cut, and are there enough to justify a sequel?
Well, I’ll never say never, but I think I’ve got a pretty representative batch in Four-Fisted Tales. Also, to be honest, this type of book is a tremendous amount of work, much more so than a book with just a single story. You do all this research on, for example, what vegetation looks like in Vietnam; what US Army fatigues looked like in that era; you gather reference of guns, land mines, architecture, and, of course, whatever animals you’re drawing; you design characters for the story, etc. Then, once you’ve drawn the five or six pages of the story, you have to do the whole process again for whatever the next story is—maybe WWII, maybe ancient Rome. With a single story, you’d just do all that research and design once.
The idea of animals being put into combat situations can be heartbreaking, as conveyed in the inscription on the London Animals in War Memorial, and recounted in the opening page of Four-Fisted Tales, “They had no choice.” Yet there’s a lot of humor present in your book, and it fits quite well. Was achieving a balance between raw emotion and humor something you set out to do, or was that more of a happy accident?
No, it’s something I was conscious of. Pretty much everything I’ve done, even my older book Midnight Sun, about an Arctic airship disaster, has some humor in it. Life is funny, and even in (and sometimes, especially in) the worst situations, people find something to laugh about. But, on the other hand, you don’t want to be disrespectful of or belittle the animals themselves, or war in general. I think (and hope) that the humor in the book is largely driven by the situation at hand rather than by poking fun at individuals, whether they be animals or people.
Given their obvious usefulness and innocence, discussing the morality of using animals in war would be opening a giant can of worms (no animal pun intended). But having been so close to the subject while creating this book, you must have some feeling on the subject, one way or another. Can you briefly share your thoughts?
Well, of course I do have feelings about it, but I also deliberately tried to not beat people over the head with my opinions. Hopefully, the stories, tone, and imagery will do what I want them to do and simply make people consider the role that animals have played in our wars. Like anything involving animals, animal rights, etc., things are not cut and dry. It’s very easy, for example, to decide you’re not going to eat meat—because there’s lots of benefit and little practical loss involved—but if, for example, as with one of the stories in the book about the French messenger dog, Satan, we had just squarely said, as a society, “we’re not going to use animals in combat,” there would have been potentially immense human costs in lives and suffering. I’m not trying to impart some particular moral stance on animals used in combat; I’m just trying to say, “Be aware of this. This is a thing that we humans do, and it’s morally tricky.”
Four-Fisted Tales doubles as history and entertainment, in large part because of your engaging art style, which seems to strike a magical middle ground between realistic and cartoony. Did you alter your usual method at all for this project, or does this sort of subject just lend itself to your style?
The art style in Four-Fisted Tales is a bit of a “return to form,” as it’s more similar to my few older historical fiction comics, rather than my directly previous book, Oyster War, which was more of a fantasy/adventure book. The style of art in Four-Fisted Tales is most likely just a function of my influences. As you say, I really do love that middle ground between realistic and cartoony, and you don’t see that a whole ton with modern comics, especially not in stuff coming from the bigger superhero publishers. Cartoonists that I tend to really draw from style-wise are people like Roy Crane (Captain Easy), Jacqes Tardi (a French cartoonist who’s done several WWI and WWII books), Alex Toth, Harvey Kurtzman (known for war comics like Two-Fisted Tales and Frontline Combat), and Hugo Pratt (another French cartoonist, known for Corto Maltese). The one big difference between this work and my previous books, though, is that Four-Fisted Tales was drawn entirely digitally.
What’s next for you in the world of comics and graphic novels?
Well, I’m switching gears pretty radically! I’m working on a book called In the Weeds, which is about cooking and playing rock music in the 1990’s. It’s animal-related, but not in the way you might think, given Four-Fisted Tales. The characters are all anthropomorphic animal characters—a narrative conceit known in comics as “funny animals.” I’d started working on it before I signed on with Dead Reckoning for Four-Fisted Tales, so hopefully I can get it wrapped up in the next two years or so. Stay tuned!