When Max Brooks first published World War Z, some readers failed to recognize that Mel Brooks’ son had written a completely serious oral history of the zombie war. The book has since become a staple of the zombie genre for its inventive style and salient social commentary. When it comes to Brooks’ new book—his first graphic novel, with illustrator Caanan White— The Harlem Hellfighters, his reverence for the subject matter is clear. We spoke with Brooks about what inspired him to document the 369th Infantry, one of the first all-black regiments to fight in World War I. Brooks also talks about the book’s gruesome battle scenes, and his involvement with the Harlem Hellfighters movie.
Bookish: You say in your author’s note that the idea for this book has been with you since you were young. Is it safe to say you’ve been a history buff for a long time?
Max Brooks: Very safe. Before I was a zombie nerd, or even a sci-fi/horror nerd, I was definitely a history nerd. History saved me, and that’s not hyperbole. I was, and am, severely dyslexic, and so school and me were not exactly the best of friends. I’ll never forget that moment in 10th grade, in Western Civ 2, when, suddenly, all the kids were asking me for the answers. That’s when, for the first time in my life, I realized I could actually do something right.
Bookish: How did writing the fictional oral history ofWorld War Z aid you in dramatizing real history?
MB: I actually wrote the first draft of The Harlem Hellfighters (in screenplay format) years before World War Z. In fact, I wrote it even before The Zombie Survival Guide. Harlem Hellfighters has been with me for a very long time. Back in the ’90s, I pitched the idea all over Hollywood. No one wanted it. I would have given up on it if LeVar Burton hadn’t read it and told me to keep going. Even when I was writing for Saturday Night Live, my office mate Dean Edwards and I used to talk about it. Through all my other works, there was always The Harlem Hellfighters.
Bookish: Though you track the main events of the Harlem Hellfighters, some of the characters are fictional. What elements of the 369th did you want to focus on in crafting these original characters?
MB: Only some of the characters are fictional. Most of them are 100% real. I specifically made up my main characters to give me a little bit of artistic freedom. I didn’t want to risk offending the families of the real people. However, even the made up characters like Mark, Edge, Sgt. Mandla, and Lt. Adams are based on real people.
Bookish: The battle scenes are incredibly gruesome—scenes of bodies being blown apart, men burned alive, etc. Did you ever think of shying away from such graphic images?
MB: Never. Everything is based on research. Nothing is gratuitous. I know that some people will have a [reaction] with the level of violence in the story, but unfortunately that’s what really happened. From sniper rounds, to gas, to machine gun fire, to the effects of high explosives on the human body, I made sure that everything you see in this book, everything Caanan drew, actually occurred in the “[War] to End All Wars.”
Bookish: What can you tell us about your involvement in the Harlem Hellfighters movie? What are your hopes for it?
MB: I can tell you that I’ve been hired to write the first draft of the movie. I say first draft because I don’t want to get ahead of myself. Movies go through many drafts, and most of the time have many writers. I’m just honored and proud to be offered this chance. I just had my first meeting with the movie’s producers and I was impressed at how knowledgeable they are about the First World War. I was also impressed at the insight Michael Deluca (the head of Sony Pictures) had about the universal appeal of this story. “The new generation,” he told me, “the Millennials, they’re very concerned with labels and bullying and injustice, in short, everything this story is about.”
Bookish: What’s your favorite indie bookstore?
MB: The Last Bookstore in downtown L.A. It is the Sistine Chapel of bookstores! A converted old bank with wall to wall books. Some of the old volumes have actually been sculpted into tunnels! One of the old vaults is a literal shrine to out of print sci-fi. This is the kind of the store that you could lose yourself in for days! It’s the kind of place I would make my survival fortress in a zombie outbreak!