War Stories, Illustrated: Cartoonists and Veterans Collaborate on New Anthology

Jun 23, 2015

For the last few months students from The Center for Cartooning Studies have been meeting with veterans at the VA Hospital in White River Junction.  The hope is that a collection of veterans stories can be turned into an anthology of visual stories - comic strips based on the veterans' experiences. 

The meeting of the cartoonists and the veterans takes place in Room 103 of Research Building 44 at White River Junction's VA Hospital.  There's plenty of coffee and cookies and plenty of cartoonists.  But as James Sturm, the co-founder of the Center for Cartoon Studies, scans the room, he's not seeing many veterans.

"So like there's not a lot of vets but a lot of cartoonists. So we'll see.  We'll have to figure out more ways to get the word out but in the back of my head I was like "Ok, this could happen.""

Sturm heads up to the podium to begin the process of breaking the ice between the wary groups.  

"You know I've been working with vets a little bit and I've been working with cartoonists my whole life.  And I don't know which one is more awkward... So I don't expect you guys to skip out of here hand in hand ready to collaborate."

After the meeting, veteran Kevin Willey wasn't sure what to make of it.

"It was different. Yes it was. Very different.
Did you have any feeling that you wanted to see your story like that?
Mine wouldn't be combat related or war stories."

Still, Willey puts name on the veterans list. He's willing to tell a cartoonist his story.  He just can't imagine it working as a cartoon.

"My trauma happened after I got out of the Army over 30 years ago."

Veteran Kevin Willey in front of the Center for Cartoon Studies
Credit Sean Hurley

    

A few weeks later, Kevin Willey receives an email from cartoonist Kelly Swann and her writing partner, J.D. Lunt.  

"I was surprised when they contacted me and said they wanted to do my story." 

The three meet together between the river and the railroad tracks in Veterans Park.

"And I just told them the story straight up. I didn't get too graphic, but graphic enough."

Cartoonists J.D. Lunt and Kelly Swann and veteran Kevin Willey.
Credit Sean Hurley

For the six page comic, Kelly Swann will do the art.  

"I'm drawing it and inking and we kind of worked out the beats together."

Writer J.D. Lunt provides a rough sense of those beats - or dramatic pivots - of Kevin Willey's story.

"Farm life. War experience.  Back home.  Trauma. 30 lost years.  Gets a massage. Those words strung together tell a story and also they don't."

As cartoonist Lunt describes the process of turning those beats into a story, veteran Kevin Willey fills them in with personal details.  

Kelly Swann's field sketch of Willey's home.
Credit Kelly Swann

"I grew up in Whitefield, New Hampshire right beside Mount Washington.
I tend to not think in terms of words or images but just trying to get that sense of what is the experience of this beat? What is the emotional territory?"

 In 1977,when he was 17, Willey left his family's dairy farm and joined the Army.  He was stationed in Germany and assigned to a secret "red-eye" unit.

"Most people don't know about it but we used to go across the border and bring people back across into West Germany, into freedom.
How are we going to set up an expectation and surprise the reader with that turn of the page?
Then I got discharged in 1980 and then I went back to dairy farming and then in January of 82 going into 83 is when I went to a party New Year's Eve and on the way home I was walking home and I got picked up in a car with two guys and they asked me if I wanted a ride home and I said yeah. I didn't know who they were. And it was snowing like mad that New Year's Eve. We got a lot of snow.  We pulled into a nearby restaurant parking lot and that's where they attacked me, punched me and beat me up and then they… and that's when they had their way with me. And when they were done they threw me in the snow bank half naked and bleeding and then I managed to get up and walk home. And I never went to the hospital and I never went and got help and from that point on I just hid it for 30 years.
I mean for us the important thing is for Kevin to be able to read the comic we make and go, "Yes, this is the story I want to tell.""

For the next 30 years, Kevin Willey didn't touch another human being.

"No physical contact. No sexual contact or anything. For years I drank and drugged myself.  That was the only way I could sleep at night. I went from New Hampshire to Florida to California to Vermont and Connecticut. I was too restless. Could not settle down. I tried to have a social life but you couldn't do it. Couldn't do it. You know I just always - I always felt different, dirty. I was always strange."

In October of 2013 someone recommended Willey go to the VA. He went through the program, was assigned a therapist, and eventually moved to White River Junction to be the near the hospital.  For the last 17 months he's been an almost daily visitor. 

"You know you get to the point where you repeat the story so many times. You don't get used to it but you get to the point where you don't break down. Course most of the time I haven't heard of any men talking about getting raped except you know on TV and Hollywood. You see it in movies and stuff but even that, I couldn't even watch that.  I'd get sick every time.
You can't just go "Okay ready, stop stigmatizing this." So being able to gently hold someone else's story and share that is the only way I can see change happening.
Finally last year I went to a massage therapist and let somebody touch me for the first time in that many years...and phew...what do I say it's like a snake shedding its skin I guess you could say that.
Farm life. War experience.  Back home.  Trauma. 30 lost years.  Gets a massage.
When I was a kid growing up we read Fantastic Four, Charlie Brown, you know and later on I read Calvin and Hobbes. I could relate to them two."

And once his story is out there, Willey is hoping there's someone in the world who can relate to him. Someone who won't wait 30 years to get help like he did.

"I'm hoping even if it helps one person. You know  I'm not the only vet who's been victimized like this."

When he was 17, Kevin Willey helped people he didn't know from towns he couldn't pronounce over ground laced with landmines into freedom. He never fired his weapon. He was never in any war you ever heard of.  

Field Sketch by Kelly Swann
Credit Kelly Swann

Seven collaborations between veterans and cartoonists are currently underway.  When complete, the Center for Cartoon Studies will publish a print anthology available at the school and VA, with a free downloadable version on the Center's website. http://www.cartoonstudies.org/