Flavorwire Interview: Max Brooks on the Secret WWI History of ‘The Harlem Hellfighters’

The 369th Infantry Regiment should be a legend: known as the Harlem Hellfighters, they saw action in World War I and never lost a a trench, a man through capture, or a foot of ground to the enemy. An all-black regiment, the Hellfighters were extraordinary soldiers in a bigoted time — sent to train in South Carolina with broomsticks, relegated to menial labor overseas, embedded with the French Army because the US wouldn’t let them fight side by side with white soldiers. The Hellfighters didn’t give up, volunteered for the most dangerous assignments, and left an incredible record on the battlefield, only to return home to a still-racist America.

It’s a hell of a story that, shamefully, has been erased by history. But with Max Brooks’ fantastic new graphic novel, The Harlem Hellfighters, the infantry can rise again. Featuring powerful illustrations by Caanan White, the work sheds light on phenomenal men who gave it all to fight for their country. Brooks, best known for his zombie expertise as the author of World War Z, The Zombie Survival Guide, and other related texts, has been obsessed with this story for most of his life, and we got him on the phone to talk about the Hellfighters.

Flavorwire: I had heard about the Harlem Hellfighters when I was on a tour in Paris. They said some of the Hellfighters, sick of the racism in America, went to France and played jazz after WWI ended. Do you know what role they played in the development of jazz?

Max Brooks: As far as jazz goes, one of the greatest tragedies was the premature death of James Reese Europe [who was murdered after the war]. But the truth is… I was actually hanging out with Spike Lee a while ago, and he made a really good point, he was like, “before the Duke [Ellington] was the Duke, there was Jim Europe.” And had Jim Europe not been murdered, he would be one of the jazz greats. There would be a statue of him somewhere, and he would be famous. Everybody would know Jim Europe. But because he died, he never got to cash in on the success of this movement that he helped build. And I think that’s a huge tragedy.

Harlem Hellfighters Tyler-sizedDid a lot of the Harlem Hellfighters end up in Paris?

Not all the Hellfighters… Jim Europe’s band was only a small was only a small percentage of the regiment. But what’s so important about Jim Europe is that he understood that jazz really made the United States a country. Because up until then we were sort of Europe-like. Culturally, everything was borrowed from Europe, everything was recycled music from the other side of the Atlantic. Jim Europe understood that what makes a country is its culture. Jazz was the first original sound that we had. He, I think, was one of the most instrumental people to forging the American nation. A lot of other countries are what’s called “nation states,” where there’s a group of people that call themselves the French, and they’re all the same culture. We’re not a nation-state, we’re a patchwork. And jazz knitted us together.

That’s true. When researching this, it sounds like the story’s been with you for years. But you’re a white guy writing about racism in WWI, and were you running it by any African-American scholars at all? There’s a blurb by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and Spike Lee…

No, no. And to tell you the truth, I was waiting for the hammer to fall. So far, I’ve been shocked at the positive response it’s been getting. I think that’s just my personality. I’m always waiting for bad stuff to happen. I mean, especially Spike Lee, he’s not shy.

No, no. Not at all.

He’s not what you’d call a shrinking violet when it comes to opinion. And I used to say to my wife, “ou know, when this book comes out, oh boy.” I thought he would be the first person to slam me. So to get a call from him, and for him to say, “Hey, I really love your book, I’ll totally give you a blurb, why don’t you come by my office and let’s hang and let’s just talk about it.” That was shocking to me. I’ve been very surprised about it, because the truth is, okay, I’m a white guy. I can’t help being born white, but I also can’t help being really into this story. I certainly wasn’t going to not write it —

And no one has written it yet. I mean it’s been mentioned, but not written about a ton.

Exactly. And I was waiting for it. Believe me, had someone else written it — they’ve written historical books — but if someone else had written a fictionalized version, I would have gone on with my day, and I wouldn’t have done anything. But I thought, “You know, I want to read this story.”

024_Broo_9780307464972_art_r1 (1)What’s the conversation between you and the book’s illustrator Caanan White regarding what the novel should look like and the imagery to go with it?

I think that Caanan had a much harder job than me, because when you write a novel, you only have to put in what’s important. But when you’re doing a comic book it’s visual, it’s all there, so you better make sure it’s historically accurate. One of my jobs, in addition to writing this, was to be Caanan’s research assistant and find him as many historical resources as I could. Pictures of uniforms, guns, hairstyles, clothing, fashion, architecture, all these things that he could use.

Not only was that hard enough, but most of the characters in it are real people. So he couldn’t just draw Henry Johnson the way he wanted to draw Henry Johnson. I mean, I’m not an artist, but I can’t imagine there being anything harder than to try to copy someone’s likeness.

Although, then again, it’s the basis of most art, to a degree.

Well, a lot of comic books can be stylized. Nobody’s going to say “Bruce Wayne doesn’t look like that.”

But Johnson’s family could have been like, “this is totally wrong.”

Yeah, like, “That’s not what they look like.” All it takes is some historian, some academic, to just show a picture — it doesn’t have to be an academic, it could’ve been you. You could literally just run this online, run a picture of Caanan’s Jim Europe and then the picture of the real Jim Europe, and you’d be like, “Nice job, Caanan.” That’s a lot of pressure on a guy.

One of the most moving and horrifying parts of the novel involves a real-life column written by Irvin S. Cobb. [“If ever proof was needed … that the color of a man’s skin has nothing to do with the color of his soul …”] What was your reaction when you read that for the first time?

I was actually shocked at the change of heart that this guy had. Because this is a time when racism wasn’t just accepted, it was institutionalized. So for a white southern bigot to do that kind of about-face and to write that, I mean, he’s putting his life at risk.

Did you find out anything else about that writer, after that?

I know a little bit about him, I know he was just a confirmed southern bigot. But the thing is everybody was a bigot. You know, to call him a bigot back then doesn’t really say much. This is a time when the President of the United States screened Birth of a Nation at the White House. Remember that horrible iconic image of the clan having a giant march right in front of the capital building right in Washington, DC? That was after WWI. So the racism of the time didn’t surprise me. It was the lack of it, for some people.

When you were writing the story, why did you make it an ensemble?

The truth is, war stories are ensemble pieces. It’s all of their stories, and all of them coming together, that excites me about a project like that, as opposed to just doing the Jim Europe story or the Henry Johnson story.

It was neat to read about Eugene Bullard. I actually definitely put the biography of Eugene Bullard on a recent list of books about Americans in Paris as a result.

And that you can thank LeVar Burton.

Why is that?

When I was younger, when I had first written the story of the Harlem Hellfighters, it was written as a movie script in the late ’90s. And I pitched around and nobody wanted it. Nobody. So naturally at that point in my career, I thought it was my fault. The very last meeting I had was with LeVar Burton, and he said, “I read this, and there are a lot of Harlem Hellfighter scripts going around. And yours comes closest to the truth, and you shouldn’t give up on it.” There couldn’t have been a greater compliment. We hung out in his office for a while, and we just riffed about the Hellfighters. He mentioned Eugene Jacques Bullard, ’cause I had just put it briefly in for one moment, and he said, “You should do more. He was called the black swallow of death.” And I read up on him, and was like, “You know what? I’m going to make him more of an important character in this.”

That’s pretty rad. Oh man. And you just got a reader recommendation from LeVar Burton like … my whole generation.

Exactly. When Geordi La Forge tells you not to give up, you stick with it.

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Was there anything that surprised you in the process of putting this book together?

I think what was so surprising about researching them was their combat history. Because it’s one thing to tell a story about a unit of black soldiers and just focus on racism as being their only accomplishment: conquering racism. You know, like the story of the 54th Massachusetts in the movie Glory. Not to demean them in any way, but had that unit been white, it wouldn’t be a very impressive story. It would have just been another unit of Union soldiers who all died in a suicide charge trying to take a fort that was never taken. Whereas the Harlem Hellfighters, their combat record was stellar. Had these guys been white, we would already be in our third remake of the movie about them.

That’s really true.

I went to the Harlem Hellfighters armory up in Harlem, met with their commanding officer, and you know, he had a really good point. He said, “The military names stuff after war heroes. There’s a fort that has the Audie Murphy Assault Course. There’s the Sargent York anti-aircraft gun. If Henry Johnson had been white, there’d be a Henry Johnson bayonet. Because he took on 20 Germans with a knife. There would be an army fighting knife that would be called the Henry Johnson. Plus Gary Cooper would have played him in a movie. So that’s what surprised me; if you take out the race alone, you have an incredibly successful combat unit.

The type that would be valorized.

Yeah, oh my god, exactly. James Cagney did a movie called The Fighting 69th about a unit in WWI. Well, had these guys been white, it would have been called The Fighting 369th. It would have been about these guys.

But it will be a movie, huh? I saw that Will Smith optioned it. 

I just met with the producer yesterday. I’m going to be writing the first draft of the script.

Were you involved with the script process for World War Z?

I literally — and I’m not kidding — I did more to get President Obama elected than I did to get that movie made. I phone banked for Obama, I didn’t do anything for the movie.

You just let that baby out into the world.

You had to. I was just starting out, I had no power, I had nothing behind me. Things are different now. Besides, this is a smaller movie. When it’s going to be a big, Hollywood summer blockbuster, the stakes are higher, and then everything changes, but this thing would never be as big, and so I think they’re more willing to take a shot on me. And also, World War Z was written as a collection of interviews, so you could see how people were like, “How are we going to adapt this?” Whereas this one, it’s kind of written like a movie, so it’s not going to be that much of a creative leap.

That makes sense. And will Will Smith probably be in it?

I have no idea. Nobody’s more surprised than me. We’re talking about something that I pitched as a movie for years and years and years and years and nobody wanted, and finally, I was like, “oOkay, you know what? Enough with Hollywood. I’m going to write it as a graphic novel, so that way at least it will live.” So I do. I turn my back on Hollywood, I go, I write it up, I’m ready for it to be on the bookshelves, then I get a call two weeks ago, “Hey, one of the biggest movie stars in the world wants to produce it.” So if that ain’t ironic, I don’t know what is.

Have you heard from people related to the Harlem Hellfighters?

I haven’t heard from anyone yet. That’s actually one of the reasons I wanted specifically to make a lot of my main characters fictional — the core group of main characters — because I didn’t want to risk offending the families. The character of Edge, I could have him saying, “White people paying me to kill white people? Glory Hallelujah.” I couldn’t have Henry Johnson saying that, because you risk his family saying, “Hey! That’s not cool. My great-grandfather never said that.”

And what made you say that this is a graphic novel?

Because it’s visual. This is a very visual story. And I never wanted the reader to forget what color these guys are. Because when you write it as a straight-out novel, sometimes it’s easy to forget. But this is a story about images. This is a story about what we see. The color of their skin dictated their entire lives, so I didn’t want anybody looking past that. I wanted that to be obvious on every single page.