There’s a reason the mountainous region of eastern Afghanistan is nicknamed “Valley of Death.” Under cover of night in October 2007, more than a dozen hidden Taliban fighters surrounded and opened fire on a U.S. military platoon.
Specialist Sal Giunta, only recently enlisted after his job making sandwiches at Subway, charged through bullets to attack two terrorists carrying his friend Joshua Brennan away. Killing one and wounding the other, he dragged Brennan back to safety. Returning back stateside, Giunta became the first living Medal of Honor recipient in 29 years.
Almost all Americans can instantly recognize Black Panther, Wonder Woman, Thor, Aquaman and Captain Marvel. But what about Sal Giunta, whose heroics actually happened?
Joseph Craig invented an idea to remedy this imbalance. Director of the book program at the Association of the United States Army (AUSA), a national nonprofit organization headquartered in Arlington, Craig’s vision would piggyback on the past decade’s superhero craze—at the cinema, on television and in the resurgent comic book medium. The difference is these comic books would spotlight actual military heroes from four different wars. He was not aiming to create an amateur product, but rather to bring the best writers and artists from powerhouses Marvel and DC Comics on board.
The end result was a graphic novel series—the first edition was released last fall—that showcases how America’s military heroes are even more impressive than the fictional superheroes filling up movie screens of late.
“I’ve written superheroes for 30 years, but these are real superheroes,” says scriptwriter Chuck Dixon, who has written DC’s Batman and Marvel’s Punisher, of the characters in the Medal of Honor series. “I love ’em!” he quickly adds of the fictional characters, “but they are just children’s stories at the end of the day.”
These, however, are definitely not children’s stories. A panel on page eight of Giunta’s installment clearly shows him in graphic combat against Taliban insurgents. “These things actually happened,” says colorist Peter Pantazis, “So they’re portrayed as accurately as possible without escapism, sensationalism or being fantastical. It’s graphic in nature, but not exploitative.”
Take the tale of World War I’s Alvin York. He’s perhaps best remembered in popular consciousness today for the 1941 biopic Sergeant York, the highest grossing film of that year that won Gary Cooper the Academy Award for best actor, but a relatively sanitized version of the story. “We purposely didn’t watch the movie” when crafting the comic book version, explains Craig, “because we wanted to base everything on official Army records.”
During a single October 1918 battle, York recorded confirmed kills of 25 Germans, while leading a vastly outnumbered force that nonetheless resulted in the surrender of 132 enemies. Pages six and seven of his comic installment plainly illustrates York shooting a German soldier through the head, with dark blood spurting.
Equally graphic yet realistic are the other featured stories, such as Vietnam veteran Roy Benavidez. After suffering injuries from a land mine explosion and being told by doctors he would never walk again, only three years later the Special Forces staff sergeant ran and charged through open ground to rescue a 12-man Special Forces team trapped at a Lộc Ninh airstrip. Throwing grenades at the North Vietnamese Army, he rescued eight men—removing a man from a flaming helicopter wreck along the way. A panel on page nine depicts Benavidez stabbing a NVA fighter in the chest with a knife.
Only 5’5” and 110 pounds, Audie Murphy was actually rejected by the Marines but accepted into the Army. Good decision on the Army’s part, because during a January 1945 battle in France, Murphy ran across open field and enemy fire to board a flaming disabled tank and man its machine gun. He killed more than 50 enemy soldiers, retiring as the most decorated soldier of World War II, winning the Medal of Honor, two Silver Stars and two Bronze Stars.
“I’d always worked with narrative nonfiction,” explains Craig, who previously served as an editor-in-chief of the national book-club-by-mail company Bookspan. “But I’d seen graphic novel history, and wanted to do something like that at AUSA.”
Relatively unfamiliar with the industry, Craig introduced himself to Jim McLauchlin, president of Hero Initiative. The nonprofit helps and promotes graphic artists and creators, an industry largely based on freelance projects and commissions. It’ll promote comic artists and writers on its website, helping connect them to upcoming projects.
Unlike with relatively simpler newspaper comic strips, rarely, if ever, are professional comics completed by a single person. Rather, it’s a multistep process with a number of contributors. The writer pens the script as though it was a movie or television screenplay, passes that to the penciler and inker who draws all the outlines, then to the colorist, and finally to the letterer who writes the text, captions and speech bubbles.
For this project, that started with Dixon of Marvel and DC Comics. “I’d worked on Civil War comics, and there are experts on Gettysburg’s third day between 2 and 3 p.m.,” Dixon says. “So the smallest changes were not annoyances, because you don’t want to hear from experts after the fact!”
Dixon gives an example of the commitment to accuracy on this project, where he wanted to take artistic license in the storytelling that got nixed. “Originally, I wrote a scene where York stole a Colt 1911 automatic off an officer,” Dixon tells. “Joe [Craig] corrected me.”
Then it went to penciler and inker Rick Magyar, previously of Marvel’s Avengers, Iron Man and Captain America. “The splash panel [the first panel of the first page] often takes the most effort,” Magyar explains. “It’s the establishment shot that hopefully grabs the reader and moves them to read on and turn the page to the next.” The four splash panels are the largest in each installment and visually compelling.
York’s splash panel shows him leading his troops through a misty fog alongside the caption, “From the humblest of beginnings, a Tennessee farm boy became one of the most decorated soldiers of the First World War.”
Murphy’s splash panel features him blasting a machine gun atop an inflamed tank, with the line, “His courage had been recognized in Sicily and Italy, and thanks to his actions in France, the nation’s highest honor would soon be bestowed upon Audie Murphy.”
Benavidez’s splash panel depicts an aerial view of three helicopters descending toward a Vietnam airstrip, one of them hit and spiraling out of control. “May 2, 1968. An airstrip at Lộc Ninh,” the caption reads. “Hueys return after three attempts to extract a special forces team, machines crippled and crewmen wounded by intense ground fire at the landing zone.”
Giunta’s splash panel shows him shooting his weapon over his shoulders as bullets rain down toward him, as he drags an unconscious soldier toward safety. “It was a moonlit night in the Korengal Valley near the Afghanistan/Pakistan border, a place renamed by U.S. soldiers ‘the Valley of Death.’”
Then the comic book went to colorist Peter Pantazis, previously of DC’s Superman, Justice League and Marvel’s Wolverine. “On page 15 of the Murphy installment, I changed it from wooden structures holding up the trenches to just dirt,” Pantazis says. Sometimes such changes prove annoying, but with this project’s commitment to historical accuracy, “I wanted to change it,” Pantazis clarifies. “For example, if the muzzle of a Tommy gun had a certain type of attachment.”
Finally, it went to letterer Troy Peteri. “I draw the word balloons, sound effects and rearrange it on the page so the readers’ eyes move accordingly,” Peteri explains. Asked about the biggest challenge or obstacle on this project, “It sounds facetious, but none!” Peteri laughs. “It was extremely organized—like the military, basically.”
2020 is shaping up as possibly the most polarized year in memory, yet the series takes no sides politically. The final panel of Benavidez’s installment depicts him receiving the Medal of Honor from Republican President Ronald Reagan, while Giunta’s depicts the same bestowment by Democratic President Barack Obama.
Four more issues are planned for 2020, again about various wars and eras in American history. One will be about Daniel Inouye, who lost his right arm by a grenade explosion in World War II but survived to serve eight years in Congress representing Hawaii.
At this point, the first four installments spotlight men who have won the Medal of Honor. Civil War surgeon Mary Walker is the only woman to have received the award.
True, the series has refrained from depicting just about anything too negative related to the military. York, for example, changed his mind about the moral necessity of World War I later in his life, saying, “I can’t see that we did any good. There’s as much trouble now as there was when we were over there.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, that’s left out of the comic book. Any debate over the Vietnam War is similarly omitted from the Benavidez installment.
Whatever direction the series takes in 2020, one thing will remain the same: the quality. “Marvel and DC are the big guns, but then there’s a million independent companies. At some of them, the production value isn’t as high,” Peteri admits. “But the finished product of these really looks like a big comic from a big publisher, with big talent behind it.”
All four installments can be read for free online at ausa.org/moh.