Chances are that you’re likely still reeling from the thrill of picking up a fresh batch of comics from your local comic book store. Far and away, one of the best titles to hit store shelves this week is Dark Horse Comics’ Rebels #1, the new historical fiction series from writer Brian Wood, artist Andrea Mutti, and colorist Jordie Bellaire. Set during the events of the Revolutionary War, Rebels offers a compelling look into one of the most auspicious confluences of events in world history as the war for independence begins to erupt across the American colonies. In Rebels, we follow Seth Abbott, a young man who is trying to carve out a life for himself as he gets sucked into the inescapable undertow of conflict, and eventually encounters the men who would form America’s first militia. In short, Rebels makes history come alive in a way that neither glorifies nor glosses over the gravity of the events or the brutality of the brewing battles.
In celebration of the newly launched series, I caught up with Brian Wood to pick his brain about the challenges of writing historical fiction, what drew him to the story of Ethan Allen, and what he’s hoping readers will take away from the experience. Wood also kindly curated an exclusive Spotify playlist for your listening pleasure. We recommend putting it on to set the mood while you thumb through issue #1 (or while you read this interview).
Nerdist: “A Well Regulated Militia” starts off innocently enough, taking us through the formative years of one Seth Abbott, but leads us to a climactic encounter with Ethan Allen and his burgeoning militia. What in particular about Ethan Allen and the Green Mountain Boys’ story spoke to you? Why make them the focus for the first arc?
Brian Wood: Okay, here’s the progression – usually I draw a blank when I get questions like this, because sometimes ideas just pop into your head from nowhere, but not in this case. I’m a Vermonter by birth and upbringing, and every kid from Vermont, at least from my generation, knows all about the Green Mountain Boys. So that was where I started doing research at the start, and once I came across the phrase “America’s first militia”, I knew I had my story. That’s just so evocative, both of the past and of the now, where “militia” means something really specific these days. I knew I could play with that.
I also wanted the first arc to be a straightforward one that deals with very familiar themes and images, things that the average person would associate with the Revolutionary War. I can dig deeper into the history in future stories, but for the launch, I wanted to show familiar imagery.
N: When we last spoke about Rebels, it was in conjunction with its announcement at last year’s Comic-Con. It was fascinating to go back and read the pitch document and the first issue’s script compared to the final version. How has the project evolved since then? Has anything unexpectedly changed?
BW: Not too much, at least not in terms of this first arc. I think it became a little more about Seth and his childhood connection to the land than perhaps I originally planned, but for the most part I’ve been sticking to the original outline. The one-shots and guest issues that follow this first arc, that’s where I’ve been more flexible and allowing more recent research to override the older ideas. I think that’s the biggest thing – I’m still researching as I go, as I write, so its good to have some flexibility.
N: Obviously, you’ve done a great deal of research in preparing for this series, but how closely does it hew to the truth of what actually happened?
BW: You mean how close does the research hew or how close do my stories hew? I’m assuming stories. Well, history always has to take a back seat to the story… this is fiction first and foremost, so I do what I can to line up with history, but if it comes down to history vs. the story I want to tell, the story wins. I’ll likely catch some heat for that, but so be it.
But typically I approach a story with a historical event as a starting point. Like, something set at this battle, or during this siege, or in this place where this thing happened. And then I figure out what my point is and what characters I need to make it, and then the story kicks in and the history is there to support me, to add some depth and context.
N: How has the experience of Rebels compared to writing Northlanders? Did you feel better prepared this time? Was it more challenging given that the audience likely has a greater familiarity with the era in question?
BW: Yes, that is definitely true. With the Vikings, its more obscure to the average person, and also there is no real recorded history of the Vikings that was done in real time, so everyone is kind of making educated guesses about things based on available info. But with colonial America, we do have a really solid knowledge of what went down, so I have less wiggle room!
That aside, the biggest difference is I’m writing Rebels to be all ages. By that I mean literally all ages — its not a kid’s book, its a universal book. So there’s not the foul language and the level of violence you got in Northlanders. Its been an adjustment for me, but I think a good one, because sometimes that stuff can be a crutch. Oh, someone’s evil? Have him spit a bunch of nasty languages and disembowel a young woman. Instant bad guy. But that sort of thing can’t happen in Rebels.
N: For better or for worse, you can see echoes of today’s society in Rebels, particularly in some of the skirmishes between the landowners and the Redcoat soldiers. What sort of lessons we can learn from this era through the prism of Rebels?
BW: Man, I dunno. I try not to spell out the lessons, because that’s such a personal thing… it depends on the reader, and I wouldn’t want to get in the way of their interpretations of things. My primary goal here is to write a story that represents the history in an honest way, in a way that’s not colored by either my personal politics or in response to anyone else’s politics.
N: Andrea Mutti’s artwork has a sort of hazy, dreamlike quality to it that works well with the narrative device of reliving Seth’s memories. Likewise, Jordie Bellaire’s color palette gives the story a bucolic, storybook feeling, which makes those bursts of violence pack a real punch. Tell me about what sort of decisions went into crafting the visual aesthetic of Rebels. What were sort of feelings were you hoping to evoke?
BW: Well, I knew what I would get from Andrea… I’ve worked with him before, and I follow him on social media and liked a lot of what I saw of his newer stuff, which had a lot more mood in it, a lot more shadows and atmosphere. But at the same time its very realistic. I thought he would both do a good job of capturing the period details — clothing, weapons, locations — while also delivering great battle scenes, and he has. With Jordie, I went to her with one request, which was to stay away from an overly literal coloring style. I didn’t want this to look like Illustrated Classics. I wanted it to look cool, to have an edge to it. I’m very happy with how it’s all looking. I’m lucky.
Dark Horse Comics’ Rebels #1 is available now.