Maximilian Uriarte, the creator of “Terminal Lance,” a satirical comic strip devoted to the boredom and belligerence of the Marine Corps’ “permanent underclass,” has recently released his second graphic novel, “Battle Born: Lapis Lazuli.” The 352-page full-color book tells a story of Sergeant King and his squad operating in the Sar-i-Sang mountains with one objective: disrupt the Taliban’s influence in the area, where the group has turned lapis lazuli — the blue semiprecious gemstone — into a conflict mineral. The vast landscapes rendered with vibrant colors bring the reader into the snow-capped mountains in Afghanistan’s Badakhshan Province, while rhythmic textures of earth and flesh keep you there. Themes of heartbreak and racism weave through the narrative, creating a very somber contrast to Uriarte’s more irreverent narratives of the infamous enlisted Marine.
I sat down with the author and artist to discuss “Battle Born” and the process that got him there. Here is an edited and condensed version of our discussion.
It is evident that racism is alive within Sergeant King’s squad. With racist sentiments fresh in our minds, and the Marine Corps’ recent banning of the public display of the Confederate battle flag, “Battle Born” has a timely and enlightening place in current events. What are your thoughts on racism in the corps?
You know, somebody asked me recently, “Did you personally experience any racism in the Marine Corps?” I was like: “Yes. I mean, I’m Jewish.” And as soon as people found out I was Jewish, then all the jokes became about me being a Jew. They’d leave a Star of David made out of pennies on my cot and say: “That’s your Jew gold. You’ll pick it up.” When things like that happened, I became very aware of my own privilege as a white guy, because typically, I had never been targeted by any racist.
The whole scene that revolves around a specific racial slur in “Battle Born” comes from one of my own experiences in the Marine Corps. And you know, it’s not about putting the military on blast, but about having an authentic conversation about it. It’s about being honest about where we’re at and how these issues are being dealt with within the ranks. I don’t even consider that a political thing. I don’t think racism is a political issue. I think that’s a human issue that we all need to deal with.
In “Battle Born,” Sergeant King’s stoicism and Lance Corporal Forrest’s bigotry provide a stark contrast. Once divided by race and creed, and then fused by empathy, they find common ground to accomplish their mission. What should readers take away from this relationship?
I knew Forrest needed to be a character that was going to butt heads with King. I didn’t want the audience to necessarily hate Forrest, because I knew guys in the Marine Corps who were pieces of [expletive], but somehow you live with them and you work with them and you deal with it. I don’t think they’re necessarily horrible people. They’re just ignorant, and they don’t know what they don’t know. They’re miseducated. So I feel like it’s important, as we see with King and Forrest, to find common ground with each other.
Would you consider telling a more historical, pre-Sept. 11 story?
I’m not really interested in nonfiction. Everything I do needs to be some sort of creative fiction, because that’s just how I am. So if I did something that was set in the past, it would definitely have a fictional take. I think there’s a lot of interesting stories to be told, though. I like to look at points of view of people who haven’t had that voice heard in their own narratives. As a Jewish person, World War II would be an interesting topic to explore in the future.
In your new graphic novel, you use cinematic techniques to elevate the visual pacing. Do you consider film while working in a static medium? If so, what directors have inspired your work?
My degree is in animation, which is a film degree, so most of my work is grounded in film. “Battle Born” was inspired heavily by John Milius’s 1982 film “Conan the Barbarian.” “Conan” has one of the most beautiful visual and film soundtracks of all time. The first 30 minutes are some of the greatest shots ever made, and then the movie kind of goes on for another hour and a half. I pulled a lot of imagery and motifs from “Conan” into “Battle Born.” I’m always looking at movies and directors that don’t focus so much on dialogue, and focus more on visual storytelling.
What do you hope readers without military backgrounds will take away from this narrative?
I don’t really think of “Battle Born” as a Marine or a military story. I think of it as a human story of love, connection, loss, sorrow and revenge. These core human emotions are what drives the narrative and the characters, because the Marines are human. If anybody takes anything away from my work, it’s just that we’re all human, we’re all flawed and we’re all working with the same stuff.
In 2016, the military opened all combat jobs to women, though they have not yet deployed into combat as part of a Marine infantry unit. You included a female Marine within Sergeant King’s squad. What was your goal in developing this character?
I started coming up with “Battle Born” around the same time that the women-in-the-infantry stuff was blowing up, and Chavez was originally a male character. At the time, everybody was freaking out, like: “Oh, my God, women in the infantry! The end of the Marine Corps as we know it!” And so I was like, What if a woman was in the infantry and it wasn’t an issue? As a thought experiment, I changed Chavez to a woman. It changed the character dynamics a lot in a way that I really liked. I ended up falling in love with Chavez as the character, you know. I wanted to have more Chavez, but I didn’t want the story to revolve around her experience, so I kept it very low-key. I’m sure there is a great story to be told about women in the infantry, but this particular story was King’s, and I didn’t want it to become about that.
Josh Terry, a former Marine infantryman, is a graphic designer for T Brand Studio, The New York Times’s branded content studio.
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