Brian Wood may be the best history teacher you never had. Throughout his four-year viking epic Northlanders, the intellectual comic scribe spun addictive tales of love and war rooted in years of research. Now, Wood shifts to a new continent and era for Rebels, an engaging look at the confrontations and turmoil that ignited the American Revolutionary War. Aside from the rigorous reconstruction and innovation of a period that’s oft-overlooked in the study of the war, Wood, illustrator Andrea Mutti, colorist Jordie Bellaire and cover artist Tula Lotay provide a tangible sense of context rarely found in historical fiction to this degree.
Within these pages, colonial teenager Seth Abbott joins a makeshift militia—the Green Mountain Boys—to combat England’s growing dominance in land ownership, taxation and military occupation. Wood’s stoic characters dart through the dense forests of New England, injecting a new, kinetic life into these immortalized events. Next month’s issue features Abbott and best friend Ezekiel Learned storm Lake Champlain in a classic showdown between a growing empire and the small band of rebels bound to alter history. The militia also storms a British camp to reclaim important land documents in an escalating struggle between colonial farmers and a king across an ocean. Dark Horse Comics and Wood provided Paste with an exclusive preview of the issue as well as answered some questions about this sterling new ten-issue miniseries.
Paste: Thank you kindly for your time, Brian. So, to start off generally, what drew you to a project about the inception of The American Revolutionary War? And why now?
Brian Wood: Well, for several years I’ve wanted to get back to writing some historical fiction comics, and there was an assumption—on my part as well as my readers—that I would pick up from the cancelled Northlanders series and do another book about vikings. But at some point I asked myself why this was my default thinking, and perhaps it was better for everyone if I went outside the box and did something unexpected. I mean, at the time I announced Northlanders, that was very unexpected coming from me, so I should be pushing myself again, challenging myself again.
So I’m sure colonial-era America seems pretty out of the box to most, but I’m cheating a little. This is already something I care about deeply, something I already know about, and because I grew up in rural Vermont, something I have an emotional connection to.
Paste: You had said before that it took you approximately a year to research Northlanders. What was the process like for Rebels? Were there any insights or perspectives that surprised you as you dove deeper into the history?
Wood: I did research vikings for about a year before I started Northlanders, but of course I kept researching even after I started, and for the life of that series. In retrospect, it was probably too much research. I think I got a little obsessive about it. So with Rebels I’m relying heavily on what’s already in my head, trying to mostly write what I know, and then crack open the books when needed. It’s healthier, and more efficient.
As far as being surprised, I think realizing just how much I cared about this was the biggest surprise. It may sound a little cheesy, but I have a lot of pride for all of this. It’s made me more patriotic, it’s made me proud to be a part of it all.
Rebels occupies an interesting place in your library. In DMZ, and to a certain degree Channel Zero, you tackled the fictional future of America’s inner strife and Civil War, and now you’re working backwards. Were any of the conflicts you imagined in your previous works present in America from its beginning?
Wood: I think where DMZ chose to examine the absolute worst aspects of American politics and social decay, Rebels is brimming with optimism and opportunity. Don’t misunderstand, I’m not sugarcoating anything in Rebels, but it’s sort of hard to escape the positivity and excitement of those times, and I want that emotion to come through in the writing. But you’ll see a few things in there, about veteranss issues, women’s issues, and the plight of the soldier, that are consistent with parts of my past works.
Paste: This specific narrative covers the Green Mountain Boys, the colonies’ first militia, and specifically the fictional rebel Seth Abbott’s and historical figure Ethan Allen. What was the process like for taking years of dense history and cherry picking events to form a cohesive narrative?
Wood: I wanted to avoid retelling the stories everyone’s already heard, the famous people and battles and events. Or, if they do show up in the stories, it’s being told from a fresh or unusual point of view. The Green Mountain Boys are a fantastic way to do this: America’s first militia, profoundly homegrown and honest. I take a lot of interest and delight in the historical contrasts between what a militia was then, what it was and what its function was, and what an American militia is now, and what that means in today’s culture.
Paste: This second issue previewed here focuses on the Green Mountain Boys’ assault on Fort Ticonderoga and Lake Champlain. Were there any individual stories you came across that inspired the heroic acts here, or did you improvise Seth’s role, as well as his partner Ezekiel Learned, as they attempt to sabotage an immense barge? What does this event represent?
Wood: On the surface, I wanted to make sure this series had plenty of action, and that the battles were exciting and visceral, not the gentlemanly affairs you might imagine with columns of trained soldiers trading musket volleys. I want panic and stress and firepower and confusion and power and brotherhood and violence and pain… I want to present this historical war in the same way we see modern war in films and games.
Going a little deeper, I wanted to underscore the important of the Boys’ contributions to the war. This event you’re talking about is fictional, I made it up, but it represents the idea of a small, local resistance force dealing a significant blow to a major power via unconventional means. It’s essentially terrorism, what’s happening here, but in this context and with an undeniable rightness to their cause, it’s something to celebrate. That sort of thing interests me.
Paste: Going back to the research, how did penciller Andrea Mutti replicate the garb and historical details? It sounds like it would be an incredibly complex process.
Wood: I helped him out as much as I could, but he’s already sort of a geek about this time period, so he handled most of it himself. I give him a lot of credit because it’s hard to make this stuff look cool, to not look like a costume. We’re talking about soldiers in tight pants and wigs.
Paste: The one thing I love about Jordie Bellaire’s colors are just how red the British redcoats’ apparel is, which sounds simplistic when written out, but is striking on the page. Those coats almost look like an invasive, bleeding wound compared to the earthy brows and greens of the rest of the landscape.
Wood: Yeah, I really stressed that early on. Some of her early samples had the redcoats more muted as part of an overall muted palette, and I like muted palettes, but this is the redcoats we’re talking about, that vivid color that defined centuries of empire and colonial power. It’s hard to imagine anything more iconic in warfare. It has to scream from the page, every time you see it. She did a fantastic job with that, and really the whole thing, capturing the unique greens of the New England forest, and, in later issues, the icy landscapes of winter, the haze of the battlefields, the fall colors of the trees, and so on. It’s probably really easy for a historical comic to come off like some sort of Illustrated Classics thing, but she elevates it into something sophisticated and cool.
Paste: The emotional anchor of Rebels revolves around the burdens of war, mainly what Seth sacrifices for his domestic life with his lover, Mercy. Why was this important to you, especially in a war whose costs seem justified in the historical cultural narrative?
Wood: It was important to me to show the costs of Seth’s adventures on the home front, on his house and on his bride. I think in fiction dealing with these times, the wife is usually shown to be a hard worker… really, her work never ends, and it’s shown as noble and honorable and ultimately something passive and pleasurable. Think about Ma Ingalls, making butter and sewing clothes and cooking. At the end of the say, you get the sense that she is satisfied, that she takes her pleasure in serving her family. Now, I love Little House On The Prairie, but I wanted Mercy Tucker to be a different sort of character, one that truly suffered from the toll that the revolution took on her and her family.
Paste: Seth Abbott works actively to repel and separate from the looming governance and Empire of England. Your other upcoming historical fiction comic, Black Road, conversely focuses on an individual—Magnus the Black—who attempts to bridge two conflicting parties together between the Pagans and conquering Christians in 900 A.D. Are these two projects meant to be in conceptual dialogue in each other?
Wood: Maybe subconsciously? I don’t know. In my head they are two radically different things, but I see what you’re saying and it’ll be interesting to see how Black Road develops.
Paste: What can we look forward to in future issues of Rebels? And ideally, what do you want readers to walk away with?
Wood: In Rebels, we’ll follow Seth through the early days of his war and through to the liberation of Boston. We also have a few stories that don’t feature Seth. We have one about the folktale of Molly Pitcher and turns that into something a little tragic about the role that women played in combat. We have a story told from the POV of an average British soldier in America, and also one about a young woman operating an illegal underground print shop in occupied Boston. And when all is said and done, I want to have told these stories with accuracy and honesty, a counterpoint to how too many people these days use this history for modern political warfare… used to divide us, when it should be a unifying thing in this country.