It’s love, not war, in Dark Horse’s new graphic novel War Birds from Stephen Parkhouse and Geoffrey D. Wessel. Landing in comic shops on March 22, and bookstores on April 18, it’s a tale of a bipedal robot soldier uniquely connecting with an injured, flying drone. They flee their warzone to seek their own lives, but their builders want to stop this happily ever after.
It’s a story that Wessel affectionately calls “drones in love” — a war story with a sci-fi twist not too far off from our own reality. With robots and drones popping up in war, and even in police departments nationwide, it surely is an apt time for just such a weird and wonderful little book.
Both Wessel and Parkhouse spoke with us ahead of the TPB’s release, tackling topics like their interest in drone-related technology, their favorite war stories, and the agelessness of certain stories, among many other tidbits.
AIPT: Can you unpack the statement, “Drones in love”?
Geoffrey D. Wessel: “Drones In Love” was something that popped into my head one day, unprompted, and War Birds is what happened when I had to figure out what that all meant. Turns out, it meant what I’d thought very literally. Two drones, in love with the other, and how society would react to that notion of two machines finding emotional connection, when we still collectively, as a society, have issues with certain segments of humanity doing the same thing. Quite a lot of human beings are not allowed to live, love, or exist without being persecuted here on planet Earth now, I’m pretty sure that it would go without saying that anyone not naturally produced would have similar problems would it come to that.
AIPT: War Birds seems quite well-timed, especially given San Francisco approved drones to kill suspects last November. Can you tell us a little about the history of War Birds‘ creation and how long it has been in the works?
Stephen Parkhorse: I didn’t know about this. I imagine we’re talking about airborne drones? Yeah. I mean, they’ve become instruments of assassination in the last twenty or so years, specifically in war zones. It was only a question of time before they were commissioned into civilian life to nullify active criminals. And the next step would be drones vs. drones until the human element simply retires. Again, Geoffrey’s experience in I.T. could illuminate this topic, and I couldn’t say with any accuracy how long his fevered brain has been working on this story.
GDW: Well, Steve, first off, it’s not airborne drones (YET). They’re going to arm the robots used as bomb disposal units for this purpose. Which is, of course, horrifying, and goes to the further militarization of our alleged civilization. I had assumed it would be the Boston Dynamics dog-type drones that have suddenly become en-vogue as far as potential police and military usage. You might remember we added some into the book late in the day, not because they weren’t some high-concept sci-fi thing but because they were being used now, in these times!
But to answer the question actually asked, once I’d had the three words of fate pop in my head, this would have been 2014 or so. Originally, I was developing this with another artist, whom I won’t name here, save to say this artist also has now worked with Dark Horse, among other publishers, but it just didn’t work out. Then I had a chance meeting with Steve on Facebook in late 2016, scant weeks before I deleted my account, and luckily we’d emailed one another by then. Somehow I managed to show Steve I knew what I was doing as far as storytelling, so when we were deciding what to collaborate on together, I remembered I had War Birds, and that was decided.
Steve was, of course, also busy with Resident Alien for Dark Horse at the time, so it took a little time to get our demo pages together, but we finally did around Fall 2018, which I managed to dovetail that into my first-ever trip to the UK, so Steve and his partner Annie were gracious hosts to me in their home.
BUT THEN! Two things happened along the way – first, Resident Alien got optioned for TV and has since become a runaway hit on Syfy, so Steve and writer Peter Hogan have done more Resident Alien comics than originally planned. And then, the world ended! So the combination of the two prolonged the completion and release of War Birds, but hey, we’re here now!
AIPT: Given the length of time this project built towards its release, is it a sad thing to say when it comes to war and its themes, books like this are ageless?
SP: Unfortunately, true. I’ve got to admit, though, I’d been itching to do a war story for years. Why? Because it’s so far out of my comfort zone. I was forced to tackle a lot of my weaknesses in the drawing department. But I take your point, the human race seems very far removed from the idea of global peace. Events in Ukraine demonstrate the far-reaching consequences of human conflict, with vast industrial complexes cashing in on the excesses of various psychopaths. It seems that technology is driving these tribal conflicts as if it’s an independent force. It’s been a common theme in science fiction ever since I can remember. But then, war without technology would just be a fistfight. Maybe there’s room for satire there?
GDW: Absolutely true. We’ve been in such a war culture for decades now, it’s hard to see where we’re getting out of it. Not to mention the continuing fascism creep in the USA, the UK, and all over the world. My younger brother did two tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan during his time in the Army. My son is 18, graduating from high school this year, and he’s known nothing but this culture, and indeed just before I started answering this, an Army recruiter called to chat him up. My partner relates a story of how gobsmacked she was attending Lollapalooza in Chicago in the mid-2000s, and there was an Army recruitment tent. Police departments are using MRAPs, the military is all over American sports, and the majority of superhero movies are thinly disguised military propaganda films. Where’s the breaking point, where do we as a culture finally say No to all this? We’re as far removed from the Age of Aquarius as we’ve ever been, and let’s not forget that story ended with the dude cutting his hair and going to Vietnam instead of his buddy so he could live happily ever after.
As much as I just horribly dated myself, I do hope War Birds is timeless, especially since reality just slapped Steve and myself across the face the last couple of weeks, as the areas where the horrific earthquakes in Turkey and Syria happened is right where War Birds takes place. So we’ve been feeling that resonance a little too keenly.
AIPT: Steve, I love your art. The war feels gritty and real, and the vehicles are cool. I actually thought of the Dark Knight batmobile with some of the tanks. Who are some of your influences?
SP: Very good question. I’ve never considered myself to be a technical artist, but I admire those artists who can create convincing vehicles or other forms of technology with apparent ease. In the case of War Birds my major influences were actual existing military hardware. I don’t think you can beat the real thing, which has been designed and built by experts to fulfill a role and a function in combat situations. Those readers who keep abreast of current hardware might argue that future vehicles would have moved on within the time-frame of this story. But I would argue: not necessarily so. Military hardware takes a long time to be developed and is often in service for decades before innovations take over. So with that in mind, I would like to think I got away with it. Just as a footnote, though – it’s occurred to me in the past that quite a number of comic book artists possess real talent when it comes to technical drawing. Clearly they have a technical background.
Dave Gibbons springs to mind, an artist I worked with for a number of years on Dr. Who. He could design virtually anything from a spaceship to a motorcycle and make it look functional. It’s a talent I’ve never been blessed with.
AIPT: Dark Horse continues to consistently put out great graphic novels like this, though I must ask, do you think a series like this would work in a single-issue format?
SP: I’m not sure I understand the question. Are you asking if War Birds would work in episodic form, as a miniseries? In which case, I would answer quite possibly. But then, Dark Horse would have to be prepared to invest a lot more money in a serialized story. WarBirds is an economy title with a very small budget. I don’t blame them for that – the current market is dominated by tried and tested characters, and WarBirds contains more than a few contentious elements. It wasn’t an obviously commercial proposition. But it does have a narrative that would lend itself to multiple episodes, and the characters are sympathetic enough to carry reader’s interest. Who knows? Sometimes a maverick can overturn received wisdom – and naturally, I’ve got my fingers crossed for just such a thing.
GDW: As it happens, when I was first working up the idea for War Birds, I originally thought of it as a 16-part serial, five pages per episode, to be posted online. Then after four episodes, it could become an issue, so four issues each, then a trade later. As you do.
When we first pitched War Birds to Dark Horse, it was as a miniseries, keeping with the original format ideas, but then it became a full original graphic novel when it was all said and done. And honestly, I was very OK with that, and maybe our editor, Philip Simon, was too. It felt good to get the whole story on paper at once and then make it all flow together as a cohesive unit. Plus, there’s the added benefit of getting War Birds into bookstores right out of the gate, although a few weeks after release to comic shops. But also, I know where the chapter breaks are, haha.
AIPT: If there were “further reading” after putting down War Birds, what would you recommend as far as comics or even movies with similar themes or themes you’d like to impart delivered in this graphic novel?
GDW: For me, I would say the PBS Frontline documentary Drones: Remote Control War because there was a line in that doc from someone saying how they live in fear of a sunny day because it increases the likelihood of a drone strike, which leads to a scene in the opening sequence of the book. As far as mirroring machine beings just wanting to live, you can’t go wrong with Alex Garland’s movie Ex Machina. As for war comics, Jacques Tardi’s books about WWI are a great read, It Was the War of the Trenches and Goddamn This War!
SP: Two films I would strongly recommend…not that they mirror the themes in War Birds…but because they’re extremely well made and tell a very authentic story of early 20th century warfare. The first is 1917, which is still on Netflix (I think), astonishing for its production values and apparently filmed in one shot. A single take. But not really. The second is All Quiet on the Western Front — an updated version based on the novel by Erich Remarque. I watched the original movie at my school film club in the 1960s (yep, I’m really that old), and it blew me away. It’s a fictional account featuring a group of school friends who end up in the trenches of WWI. It’s from a German perspective, which is unusual and also very revealing. Give it a try if you can still find it.
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