Saturday, August 22, 2009

Breaking the Fourth Wall: Episode 4

To review: Twelve years ago I sent in my pitch for an updated Haunted Tank story in which, a generation after World War II, General J. E. B. Stuart finds himself dealing with a new war and a new tank crew headed by an African-American tank commander. And though the pitch wasn’t picked up by Vertigo at the time, within the past year they did end up publishing a Haunted Tank series based on this premise. Only, I didn’t write it.

So, what was the story I sent in exactly? And how did it differ from what Vertigo ended up publishing? Today we’re going to take a look at how two writers working from the same idea can come up with completely different stories as I compare the details of my pitch with the actual published series written by Frank Marraffino.

[Note: before I go any further I want to reiterate that Vertigo and Marraffino in no way, shape or form “stole” my idea; we just happened to have the same idea at different times. I also want to say that though I have read the first three issues of Marraffino’s five issue series, I have been unable to locate copies of the final two issues, so on some points I will necessarily have to focus more on my own pitch due to incomplete information]

In general, the differences between our two stories fall into three major categories.

1. Setting

This is both the most obvious and the most important difference between our two stories, and in many ways the other differences can be seen to stem in large part from this. When I developed my pitch in 1997, the United States was not currently engaged in any widespread warfare; what military actions we were undertaken (or had recently undertaken) also weren’t really much for tank warfare. The only recent conflict with any widespread tank use was the Gulf War of 1991, but that war was so brief in terms of actual combat that it didn’t really seem like the proper setting. With these factors in mind (as well as some others I will discuss shortly) I decided to set my story in Vietnam.

Marraffino’s story, on the other hand, takes place during the war in Iraq. Echoing my thoughts on the Gulf War, he has chosen to set the story during the actual combat phase of the war, i.e. in 2003, rather than making the story contemporary to when it was coming out in 2008-9. I’m assuming at least that his reasons were similar, anyway – that is, this is the one section of the war where tanks were not only being used widely but also when actual, classic combat situations were taking place. Tank vs. tank or tank vs. soldier battles were happening rather than just a police action with tanks just tooling around as a show of force while they try to avoid land mines.

The effect that setting has on both stories is significant. There are some similarities, of course; the parallels between Iraq and Vietnam are obvious and have been a talking point in discussion of Iraq since day one. In this sense, then, most of the benefits of setting the story in Vietnam are also shared by the setting in Iraq, while the modern setting has several additional benefits, which can pretty much all be summed up with the blanket statement that setting the story in Iraq makes the story more immediate and relevant to modern readers. People reading about Iraq are going to have a more visceral reaction to the material based on the immediacy of the action.

Of course, this also means there is some benefit to setting the story in Vietnam instead: namely, if you don’t want them to have such a reaction. Setting the story in Vietnam instead allows for a more studied take because it removes that immediacy from the equation for both the reader and the writer; people are going to take their preconceptions about the Iraq war into a reading that they probably aren’t going to have about Vietnam. With this in mind, I think that the Vietnam setting probably better suited the story I was planning to tell than an Iraq setting would; and likewise, Marraffino’s story seems to be better suited for Iraq (as we’ll see momentarily).

I’d call this difference a wash, then, except I think the modern setting gives the story a certain element of both relevance and legitimacy because of an assumed realism the story gains from being “ripped from the headlines”. So though I think the difference in setting is caused largely because of when we developed our respective pitches, I have to say I think the Iraq setting works better than the Vietnam setting.

2. Characters

One of the other effects setting has on the development of the story is the type of characters it suggests. In the previous section I mentioned that the Vietnam era was more suited to my story, and one of the main reasons is because of what it allowed me to do with my African-American tank commander, Jeb Stuart Gray.

In my story, Jeb Gray was the son of the original Haunted Tank’s black member, Gus Gray, and was named for both the original tank commander Jeb Stuart and their protective ghost. By setting the story in the Vietnam era, it allowed me to craft a complex character who was of a piece with that turbulent political time. I wrote Jeb Gray as an intellectual, a deep thinker who was involved in the nascent black power movement and had become deeply distrustful of the government and what “the man” was selling at the time. Yet, he had been raised to believe in America and that service to the nation was both an honor and a duty. So at the start of our story, he is deeply conflicted, having left put his college education and his political and social beliefs on hold in order to fight in a war he doesn’t believe in for a government he doesn’t believe in.

Likewise, my treatment of General J. E. B. Stuart was influenced in large part through the Vietnam setting. One of the main focuses for General Stuart was the nature of the war itself. The Civil War was a war where both sides passionately believed in the righteousness of their cause, and so for Stuart the details of World War II might have been surprising but the ethos was not. It was another “good war”, one where people believed in what they were fighting for. It was recognizable, honorable. By putting him in Vietnam, then, I wanted the General to be faced not just with a tank commander who challenged his belief system, but with a war that itself inherently challenged his beliefs. So while the two would initially be faced with the obvious black/white conflict, the underlying issue of the war itself – and how it undermines their faith in, well, everything – would eventually become a common ground.

Marraffino’s take is in most ways very different, and again much of this is either caused by or reflective of his choice of settings. His black tank commander, Jamal Stuart, isn’t an intellectual, even an angry one; nor are any of his crew worried too much about philosophical issues. Even though it’s set in 2003, it’s essentially a “post-racial” crew for lack of a better term. Jamal isn’t going to be brooding about civil rights or political injustices; he’s going to be killing bad guys and telling the general to take his outdated racism and jam it up his ass.

Likewise, his General Stuart is not really the type of guy to be worrying too much about the difference in the military ethos between, say, Antietam and Tikrit. He’s really more interested in seeing some action – getting out there and kicking some tail. A major difference between the Stuart of my story and the Stuart portrayed by Marraffino can be seen in their respective ghostly backstories (and here I am taking some details from online reports of the last two issues of Marraffino’s series). In Marraffino’s series, Stuart claims to have become a ghost as the result of a curse dooming him to watch over his ancestors, but we later learn that this is just an excuse for Stuart to pursue his love of adventure and battle.

Some readers have criticized Marraffino for his portrayal of Stuart, specifically his historical details regarding Stuart’s ownership of slaves, but in this case I think Marraffino ‘s take is a pretty good one. Stuart was an adventurer and was known for his exploits; he craved action and the resulting adoration. I think it’s a perfectly valid reading of the character.

It’s not what I was going to do with my Stuart, however. In Haunted Tank #2, Marraffino has Stuart relate the famous incident at Gettysburg where he left Lee’s army blind while he chased glory on a useless excursion with his mounted troops. Lee tells Stuart that “there is a lesson to be learned here”. But it’s clear from his actions in Marraffino’s series that Stuart didn’t actually learn his lesson. In my story, on the other hand, this same event is the key to Stuart’s backstory; essentially, because of this action and the fact that it (arguably) doomed the Confederacy to defeat, Stuart is cursed, becoming a ghost doomed to wander the afterlife until he makes amends for his mistake. My Stuart was someone who was chastened, who had learned his lesson; no longer a thrill seeker or an adventurer, he was a cautious and thoughtful spirit who was earnestly trying to make up for the wrong he had done at Gettysburg.

Again, in terms of the characters, I have to say that Marraffino’s choices lend themselves to a more modern take on the story; at one point the members of the tank engage in, well, a rap battle with the General. Their seeming superficiality appears to be intentional on Marraffino’s part, a comment on the superficiality of our culture in a way; these characters don’t get into deep moral discussions of racism with the General in part because they don’t think of race the same way, but also because they aren’t really capable of that kind of thought to begin with. That’s not to say the issues don’t come up, they are just dealt with differently (for example, there’s a nice sequence where Jamal tries to tell the General why he shouldn’t use the n-word anymore and is completely undermined by his tank crew rapping behind him). While I had a story where the characters were self-aware and thus discussed their differences and the issues, Marraffino has a story where the message is subtext, a subtext created in part because the characters are not self-aware. Obviously, it’s not what I would have done, but I think it’s a perfectly valid creative choice and it may very well resonate more with today’s readers than my story would.

3. Plot

Lastly, one of the major differences between my story and Marraffino’s is the plot. Marraffino’s story essentially treats the burgeoning relationship between Jamal and the General as the plot; that is to say, while there are battles, fights, explosions and encounters, they are pretty much random (as they might well be in the day to day life of a tank in a battle zone) and serve either as background for the conversation or as a prod for the next character bit. The development of the characters and the arc they go through are the narrative force for the series and the action is incidental.

My story was quite different. While the relationship between the characters was the important part, it took place within the context of an action story that also had a complete arc. My hope was to provide a character arc for people interested in character and a straightforward action story for people interested in action. I won’t get into it too much, but basically it had to do with the use of a mystical artifact that the North Vietnamese had obtained and which was being taken to an ancient temple; thanks to the supernatural background of the ghost, the crew of the Haunted Tank ended up being the only ones who could track it down. In the end there were some ninja-monks and the summoning of a dragon along with some mystical ghost-catchers that would give our gang a lot of difficulty.

One of the main uses of setting the story in Veitnam, then, was the ease with which I could introduce the magic elements of the storyline. This was important to me because I wanted to make the General a more active participant in the story; in most of his original appearances he basically did nothing except to show up and give a cryptic warning here or there about enemy troops or upcoming battles. By bringing in mystical enemies that could pose a threat to the ghost, I wanted to make him an integral part of the action instead of just a mascot. After all, he’s supposed to be protecting these guys, not just watching them helplessly as they get shot to pieces.

Marraffino also seems to have been thinking along these lines, but again his solution is very different. While I crafted a plot that would bring in other magic elements, Marraffino settled on a simpler plan: he just gave the ghost the ability to affect the physical realm. In Haunted Tank #3, for example, he runs roughshod over a whole mess of Iraqi tanks, slicing shells in half and running people through with his sword. In essence he can become solid when he wants to and remain a ghost the rest of the time.

Both takes are valid. I tend to want my character work to take place within the structure of a larger storyline, but on the other hand, my pitch probably went a little overboard in some areas. By setting the story in Vietnam, it allowed me to bring in some other DC characters that were in Vietnam, including cameos and supporting roles from the likes of Travis Morgan and Richard Dragon. In retrospect, it might have been better to cut some of this stuff out and focus more on the core story, something that Marraffino is able to do unencumbered by twisty plots and ongoing concerns.


My Haunted Tank was the story of a tank commander caught up in the racial and political turbulence of the 1960’s and a serious ghost looking to make amends for the mistakes of his past. The confrontations and debates between these characters took place over the course of a plot that blended action and magic in order to make the General a more active participant.

Marraffino’s Haunted Tank was the story of a group of typical modern soldiers, caught up in the day to day details of the Iraq War and a ghost more concerned with action than with learning from his mistakes. The post-racial arguments between the ghost and the crew comment as much on the superficial confusion of modern society as on the issues themselves.

It’s interesting for me to compare these stories, because in many instances I think Marraffino and I are dealing with very similar themes and concepts (as you would expect when working from the same concept) but approaching them from almost opposite directions. While I wanted to overtly discuss the issues raised by the core premise, in part by creating characters capable of rationally discussing them, Marraffino would rather covertly comment on them in part by creating characters that are incapable of rationally discussing them. While my story used plot as a major element, Marraffino’s story instead used the setting of Iraq to fulfill many of the same narrative needs; likewise, the more emotionally distant setting of Vietnam suited my more rational characters while the emotionally charged setting of Iraq suits Marraffino’s more visceral story better.

Both, I think, are valid takes on the story; and in a way, I think each is more suited to the time when it was created, as I think my original story would have fit in better with the Vertigo of 1997 than Marraffino’s would have, while the reverse is also true. I can’t say I particularly enjoyed Marraffino’s series, but by the same token I don’t think it was meant to be enjoyed per se but rather was meant as a statement about both the war and modern American culture, and on those fronts I think it succeeded. I can only hope that had my story been published it would have succeeded as well.

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