Max Brooks dips into history for his new graphic novel, ''The Harlem Hellfighters,'' the tale of a decorated all-black infantry regiment

By Jeff Labrecque
March 28, 2014 at 04:00 AM EDT

After best-selling author Max Brooks told Random House his next project would be a black-and-white graphic novel about a little-known all-black World War I regiment, he was likely met with an awkward silence. But the publisher probably had doubts when he pitched a book about zombies, too.

In The Harlem Hellfighters, the creator of World War Z resurrects the heroics of the mighty 369th U.S. Army Infantry Regiment in WWI. The unit faced appalling bigotry: They were forced to train in hostile South Carolina, issued broomsticks instead of guns, and eventually dumped on the depleted French army — and then became one of the most decorated Allied fighting units.

Brooks, the 41-year-old son of Mel Brooks and the late Anne Bancroft, has been ruminating on the story for three decades. When his screenplay was repeatedly rejected, he partnered with artist Caanan White on the graphic novel. Less than 48 hours after the finished book made the rounds, Sony picked up the movie rights for producer Will Smith. Brooks dreams of a big-name cast like that of 1962’s WWII classic The Longest Day. But he’s also cautious. “Whether this movie gets made or whether it doesn’t, the book lives,” he says.

The story of the Harlem Hellfighters has been ignored by most history books, but you’ve been obsessed with it for 30 years. How did a 10-year-old discover them?
My parents had assistants, and part of their job was picking me up from school. They had this one guy, Michael Furmanovsky, a university student getting his degree in history. He was picking me up from school, and he said it just as a throwaway: “Hey, did you know that there was a unit of black soldiers that the U.S. government set up to fail in World War I?” I couldn’t believe it. To a 10-year-old white kid from the west side of L.A., that kind of injustice was incomprehensible. But what made it stick was the fact that I was just a weird kid — I was interested in that kind of stuff.

When did you decide that this was a story you wanted to tell?
In the late ’90s, when TNT did Buffalo Soldiers and [HBO did] the first Tuskegee Airmen movie, I thought [Hollywood] might be interested in the story. It went beyond race, because the truth is, if you take out the color of their skin and just look at their combat record, the Hellfighters spent more time in combat than any other American unit. The first American to win the Croix de Guerre was one of them. And they brought jazz to France. If these guys had been white, they would’ve been part of our American narrative since the 1920s. So I wrote the script and nobody wanted it. Everyone was like, “No, no, no. We’re not going to do a story about black soldiers in a war nobody cares about.”

A lot of authors write a graphic novel hoping it will become a movie. You went the opposite route. When did you shift?
That was five or six years ago, right around the time I was actually working on Zombie Survival Guide: Recorded Attacks, my first foray into comics. The great thing about a graphic novel is that you don’t have to worry about money. The stakes are much smaller. It could be as long and have as much information as I wanted. So when it came time for Random House to ask me, “Well, what’s your next project?” I said, “I want this to be my next book.” I think they were kind of hoping for World War Z: Part II.

After I read the novel, I did some homework to see if you had embellished the slights that black U.S. soldiers endured from their own government. Of course, you hadn’t embellished at all.
Since I’ve been working on this for 15 years, there were a couple moments where I had to actually go back and revisit my research material, because I didn’t believe it. That secret letter from General Pershing to the French [telling them not to commend black soldiers], you can read it in its entirety at the library. It’s shocking, the lengths that our own government would go to — the energy expended on defeating its own soldiers instead of defeating the Germans.

The character Edge is fictional, but you named him after a professor of yours in college.
Wayne Edge was an amazing professor. He told me that the greatest crime white people ever committed against black people was erasing their history. That stuck with me. It’s hard to face your future when you don’t have the confidence of your past.

You use pop culture from the period as crucial plot elements, including D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, a blatantly racist film that reflected attitudes of the time — so much so that Woodrow Wilson screened it at the White House.
I had seen Birth of a Nation in college, and it just blew me away. The movie itself didn’t blow me away; it was the reaction to it. Like you said about Wilson, people loved that movie — white people. That was the Star Wars of its day.

After years of rejection by studios, your story is now in development at Sony. Was it just a matter of having something tangible to hand someone, or did 12 Years a Slave perhaps represent some shift in Hollywood?
It’s funny you ask that, because I get asked that all the time about zombies. Like, when I wrote Zombie Survival Guide, nobody was writing about zombies and now zombies are everywhere and why is that? I don’t know. Maybe it was a combination. Maybe it’s a combination of The Butler, 42, and 12 Years a Slave. Maybe the Trayvon Martin case has brought racism back into the forefront. Maybe there’s just so many times you can call the President of the United States a subhuman mongrel before people get angry. I mean, Ted Nugent just called President Obama a subhuman mongrel. He’s talking about race mixing. Race mixing, we have to remember, used to be a hanging offense in this country. On racism, I think we’ve made unbelievable strides, obviously. But clearly, as Ted Nugent reminds us, we still have a ways to go.