Comic Books Draw Veteran Interest

Some wounded veterans use artistic skills to conquer old demons and help others, and a partnership in Virginia is providing them the means.

Drawing has been a part of Mike Rodriguez’s life since childhood, but a wound that ended his military career also put his illustrator tendencies on hold.

Rodriguez, who served in Iraq from June to November 2004, with Bravo Co., 1st Bn., 8th Marines, as a rifleman, was wounded on Thanksgiving Day 2004 in Fallujah, Iraq. He was shot, losing nerve feeling and fine-motor skills on his right side. His shoulder was dislocated, he said, and he nearly lost his right leg to compartment syndrome (pressure buildup in muscles), among other shrapnel injuries.

Vietnam veteran Don Lomax is bringing back his comic, Vietnam Journal. Originally published from the late 1980s to 1990s, the comic tells stories from the war through the eyes of a journalist. Illustration courtesy of Don Lomax.
VFW Comic Insert

His initial recovery took about eight months to one year. 

“It was years before I could stop wearing my hand brace,” Rodriguez said. “It still hurts, pins and needles non-stop, and I’m pretty limited in things I can do with it. My shoulder still dislocates on occasion, and my right leg tingles a lot from the peripheral nerve damage caused by a double fasciotomy.”

A fasciotomy is a procedure in which connective tissue, or fascia, is removed to relieve pressure.

Roughly two years after he was wounded, Rodriguez returned to drawing to challenge himself, initially using his left hand.

“Just being able to [draw] again is a huge second chance in some respects,” Rodriguez said. “I was retired [from the Marines] because I couldn’t be a rifleman anymore. I just didn’t have the ability to handle a rifle.”

Rodriguez is using his artistic talent in his thesis at Dartmouth College, where he is creating a 150-page comic about energy and national security. A partnership between the Center for Cartoon Studies (CCS) in White River Junction, Va., and the White River Junction VA Medical Center afforded him another opportunity.

The two organizations began working together in 2015 to bring artists and veterans together to create comics that tell veterans’ stories.

J.D. Lunt, co-editor of When I Returned, the first anthology to publish the comics, said CCS Director James Sturm had been volunteering at the VA, which initiated the partnership.

The idea to focus specifically on veterans, according to Lunt, was due to White River Junction being a “very tiny town.” Because two of its larger institutions are CCS and the VA, it was a natural collaboration.

Lunt, along with co-editor Kelly Swann, headed the project for its first anthology, which included the stories of veterans who agreed to be interviewed and have their stories turned into comic form. 
Rodriguez was one of two veterans who contributed his own artwork to the anthology, which was partially funded by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.

While most of the comics focus on experiences while serving in or after returning from war, Rodriguez took a different approach. Along with Iona Fox, his partner from CCS, he looked at how veterans and non-veterans interact, through the lens of his interaction with Fox. 

In the background of the drawings, Rodriguez said, there are stylized photos that a combat photographer took when Rodriguez was overseas. But the piece also includes glimpses of his current job at a library, “interacting with professors and being an illustrator.”

Rodriguez said the focus on a comic as opposed to a more traditional format is “another form of communicating a story.”

“What’s cool about comics is you can do a lot of stuff simultaneously,” Rodriguez said. “You can break time and space because you have a visual that exists there on the page.”

How the project started

For Rodriguez, the fact that illustrating is a “creative enterprise” is what he enjoys about it.

“You get to produce something,” Rodriguez said. “It’s also challenging. It’s not as easy for me as it certainly used to be before the injury. Both of those combined, I think, it’s a fulfilling thing.”
Lunt said he was drawn to the project because he enjoys working on non-fiction projects.

“I also used to work in mental health and through that experience developed my own case of PTSD,” Lunt said, “[I’m] just in a weirdly unique situation of understanding mental health issues both from the clinical and experiential side.”

It also felt “like a really natural fit,” he said, in part, because of working alongside Swann.

“What really drew her to the project is a deep abiding love for people who have served in the military,” Lunt said. “She really has a heart for sharing their stories.”
The story Lunt and Swann told was that of Kevin Willey, who was sexually assaulted after he returned stateside. 

The whole process, from meeting Willey to interviewing him, sketching the comic, drawing it to size and allowing time for Willey to approve the comic took about one year.

“When he finished [telling me his story], he told me that I was the first man he’d ever told the story to … He never felt comfortable sharing with another man before,” Lunt said. “That was a pretty intense moment to realize just how candid this guy was being.”

Female veterans in comic books

CCS currently is working on a second anthology, which will exclusively feature female veterans. As of May, 10 veterans had signed on to participate in the project, which is being funded with a $10,000 grant through the VA Innovators Network, according to Lunt.

Because of the timeframe for the first project, Lunt said, they were only able to work with veterans and cartoonists who were “ready to go,” which ultimately resulted in an all-male pool of veterans.
“I felt like it was a real glaring omission in the first volume, so we just were out front about that,” Lunt said.

Carey Russ, women’s program manager at White River Junction VA Medical Center, met Lunt during the book launch for When I Returned. Russ said women have told her they feel “their stories are unheard,” and that people still question whether women are “really veterans” and what their roles are in the military.

“[Women] continue to be kind of an unheard part of our veteran population,” Russ said. “[The comic anthology] seems like a really innovative and different idea in terms of getting the word out that women have had experiences in the military… It’s a really accessible way to share that with providers here at the VA, but also out in our community.”

Russ has helped recruit women to participate and worked with Lunt to partner veterans with CCS artists. Russ said they reached out to female veterans through informal gatherings, local media, social media and word of mouth.

Stories, according to Russ, will provide a “range” of perspectives, from women who had “outstanding experiences in the military” and others who had “really mixed experiences.”
Gioia Cattabriga, who served in the Army in Germany from 1977-78 with the 4th Infantry Division, is one woman who plans to share her experiences. 

Cattabriga, who saw the first anthology and wondered why women were not included, said she has had people tell her over the years that women can’t be veterans or that they did not know “there were women in the service.”

Her story, which she first wrote in the 1980s, is based on a fictionalized version of her own time in the military, coupled with other women’s experiences. The story, which will be drawn by an artist from CCS, features only two characters — a woman driver, who is based on Cattabriga herself, and a commander. Cattabriga’s contribution to the anthology will include “a fairly brutal rape,” though she herself did not experience that specifically. 

 The female character “wants to be recognized for her intelligence, and the commander really doesn’t like smart women,” Cattabriga said. 

“It was a way just to get rid of a lot of ghosts that were haunting me,” Cattabriga said. “…Some of my Army experiences were very dark and very disturbing. I wanted to put that on paper so it wasn’t in my brain.”

Russ said she hopes the comic “reaches a wide audience,” even beyond veterans themselves.

“I also think it’s important for VA staff and employees to read it [and] the community at large, to understand what women’s experiences have been in the military and as vets,” Russ said.
Comics have “this weird ability to bring complexity to issues that people think are very simple,” according to Lunt.

“[There’s] a lot of misunderstandings between regular culture and veteran culture,” Lunt said, “and, on top of that, veteran culture and women who’ve served… We felt it was really an amazing opportunity to get more cartoonists together and do the work of reflecting what [the] women veteran experience is to a larger audience.” 

The female veterans anthology is expected to be published in late February or early March. Though Lunt expects the collaboration between CCS and the VA to continue, he said he “can’t speak to how that collaboration will manifest itself,” as they are “taking this one project at a time.” 

Get more information on the partnership here

This article is featured in the August 2017 issue of VFW magazine and was written by Kari Williams, senior writer, VFW magazine. Photo courtesy of Don Lomax.