Meet the Comics Artist Who Draws War in Meticulous Detail
Wayne Vansant brings a historian’s touch to comics from the Eastern Front to Vietnam
This story originally appeared on March 17, 2015.
Wayne Vansant, the son of a World War II veteran, grew up on war stories. As a child, he loved hearing adults talk about the war, reading about it and watching movies about it.
As a result, the 65-year-old comics writer and illustrator has had a lifelong fascination with military history. He’s best known for his work on Marvel’s cult-favorite war comic The ’Nam. But his other projects range from stories set in Normandy, the Eastern Front and Korea.
Vansant has made something of a name for himself with his military history comics — distinct for their painstaking research and realism. He recreates uniforms, equipment and landscapes in exhaustive detail.
While he mostly writes and illustrates non-fiction historical comics, he’s recently made forays back to his roots as a historical fiction writer. In Katusha, his ongoing webcomic trilogy about World War II on the Eastern Front, he jokes that the T-34 tank is one of principle characters of the story.
“It’s in so much of the book, you have to get the details right,” Vansant told War Is Boring.
At top and above — scenes from the Eastern Front. Wayne Vansant art
From an early age, Vansant loved comics. He was an avid reader of 1950s-era funny books. He was never especially drawn to stories about superheroes — by far the art form’s most popular genre — but instead gravitated to war comics and westerns.
But concerns over violent comics and their impact on children led to a crackdown on the industry in the ’50s. Comics in the horror, crime and war genres suffered under guidelines imposed by the Comics Code Authority — a voluntary industry rating system put in place as an alternative to government regulation.
Vansant began to lose interest in comics as he got older, and as family-friendly superheroes took over the racks. But he maintained his love of art.
After a stint in the Navy, he went to art school. After that, he worked a series of odd jobs until he landed a gig managing security at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, Georgia.
While working there, he returned to reading comics, particularly Marvel’s Savage Tales anthology.
Marvel published the anthology without the CCA’s seal of approval. Freed of censorship, it allowed artists and writers to tell edgier stories. This meant more monsters, more sex and more violence. Horror, crime and war were back.
On a whim, Vansant decided to submit some art to see if he could get it published in the anthology. He thought little of it at the time, and after a while, forgot he’d even done it.
But then he heard back from Marvel.
The publishing house told him they were interested. Vansant began submitting stories based on historical battles he’d always considered interesting.
His first was a story he wrote and illustrated about a German tank crew on the Eastern Front during the Battle of Kursk. His second was about British Chindit commandos fighting the Japanese in Burma.
Eventually, Savage Tales editor Larry Hama asked him if he’d be interested in doing some fill-in work on Marvel’s latest special project, a war comic called The ’Nam.
Of course he was.
Marvel’s The ’Nam was the brainchild of Hama and comics writer Doug Murray — both Vietnam veterans. It was an ambitious project. First published in 1986, the creators intended the monthly series to chronicle the war starting in 1966.
Each issue would represent one month in the life of American grunts in Vietnam — an approximation of the war in real time. The back of each issue had a glossary explaining G.I. lingo and history.
Murray had writing duties — infusing the script with his own experiences “in country.” Initially, artist Michael Golden illustrated the series. Golden was a highly regarded artist, and his work on The ’Nam was well received.
But Vansant explained that Golden had a reputation for not wanting to stick to a single project for too long. As a result, Hama asked Vansant to substitute for Golden when he got too busy with other projects.
When Golden left the series, Vansant became its regular artist.
The ’Nam was very different from Marvel’s other comics. Vansant explained that the closest thing the company had ever tried — up to that point — was Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos, a comic Vansant admitted he’d always hated.
“It was just so unrealistic,” the artist said. The adventures were cartoonish and the action was over the top — not to mention it threw historical accuracy almost completely out the window.
It was everything the gritty ’Nam was not.
Though the comic released to critical acclaim and had loyal readers, it never had an especially large readership. It was certainly never one of Marvel’s flagship titles like The Avengers or X-Men.
Editorial changes at Marvel eventually led to Murray leaving the series. Afterwards, some editors and writers played with ideas like adding Marvel superheroes to boost sales and abandoning the chronological timeline.
Though characters like Captain America and Spider-Man never joined the fight, Marvel ultimately inserted U.S. Marine Frank Castle — The Punisher — into the The ’Nam in several guest appearances.
Marvel had always established Castle’s character as a Vietnam veteran — so he could easily enter the story without greatly changing the series’ overall tone. And the appearance of the popular character did boost sales.
The series ultimately came to an end in 1993 after 84 issues.
By the time The ’Nam was out of print, Vansant had left his security job at the museum to live the life of a full-time starving artist. He loved his job, and he knew drawing comics was what he wanted to do for the rest of his life.
But without the steady work The ’Nam had provided, he had to be incredibly proactive in finding work. He freelanced furiously, doing everything from comics, graphic design and technical drawing.
Penguin Books eventually contracted him to do a graphic novel adaptation of the civil war classic The Red Badge of Courage. Not long after, he met creative agent David Bernstein at a comic convention. They decided to pitch graphic histories.
Many of the publishers they pitched to had never done graphic novels or comics before. Intrigued by the concept, several agreed to give it a shot.
Vansant had found a specialty.
The cover of Normandy, part of the Zenith Graphic History series. Zenith Press illustration
Today, Vansant overwhelmingly illustrates military history, but has also chronicled the Abolitionist and civil rights movements.
He’s worked with writers like historian Dwight Jon Zimmerman and political activist Joyce Brabnar, and has frequently done his writing and research solo.
To tell historical stories in a visual medium, Vansant has to be meticulous. For him, it’s not enough to just to get the events right. It has to look right.
That means looking through thousands of photos, visiting museums, and going to the actual battlefields. In Vansant’s eyes, no detail is too small.
“I want the trees to look right, the ground to look right,” the artist said.
His attention to detail isn’t just about self-gratification. He recalls meeting two young Korean students from Georgia Tech at a convention — the two were fans of his work.
One of them had brought Vansant’s graphic history of the Korean War, which the student previously took with him to Korea one summer. The student showed his family and other Koreans who’d lived through — and fought in — the war.
He and his friend told Vansant that his attention to detail impressed Koreans. The American artist had been able to accurately recreate the time and place — everything from weapons and uniforms to period architecture and clothing for civilians.
Vansant said that the endorsement was incredibly important — knowing that he’d been able to faithfully recreate the experiences of others.
But at times, he needs to do something more than just illustrating the events of major military campaigns. “After awhile it begins to feel like a term paper,” the artist said.
He’s done a little bit of historical fiction — creative stories he’s written that are still heavily grounded in real history. Here, he’s still able to do the research he loves, but has more creative license over the characters in the story.
He’s written stories about an elite French Foreign Legion soldier named Battron — a character he said he’d like to eventually revisit.
But the project he’s most proud of is his Katusha series about a teenage Ukrainian girl fighting against the Nazis as a member of the Soviet Red Army. “It’s different from anything I’ve ever worked on.” Vansant said. “It’s the best thing I’ve done.”
An excerpt from the opening scene of Katusha. Wayne Vansant art
Katusha depicts the Eastern Front through the eyes of Ekaterina “Katusha” Tymoshenko — a female child soldier. She begins the war as a naive 16-year-old Ukrainian guerrilla and ends it as a hardened 20-year-old Soviet tanker.
The war on the Eastern Front was a vicious one. It was the bloodiest battlefield in history’s bloodiest war. The Soviet military had the highest casualty rate of the whole conflict — which meant that the Soviets couldn’t afford to turn away recruits.
Women frequently found themselves in combat roles, fighting as guerrillas, gunners, snipers, fighter pilots and yes—even tankers.
The young Tymoshenko is hardened by years of battle. But while Vansant said she loses her innocence during the course of the war, it was important to him that she maintains her moral core. The war may make her a killer, but she doesn’t lose her capacity for empathy.
Katusha is a complicated tale about a complicated conflict. When the Nazis invade, many Ukrainians are unsure where their loyalties lie — or which side they should take. Both the German army and the Soviet forces represent oppressive and brutal dictatorships.
“She has family members fighting on both sides,” Vansant explained.
The war forced Ukrainians to make hard choices. Nothing is black and white, and the characters’ decisions have consequences — some of them tragic. Tymoshenko, when faced with the Nazis’ genocidal nature, ultimately decides the Soviets are the lesser evil — but still watches communists commit horrible atrocities.
Vansant said it’s the moral complexity — and the political history behind it — that attracted him to stories of the Eastern Front.
Ekaterina “Katusha” Tymoshenko. Wayne Vansant art
So far, Vansant has completed two Katusha books, with the third and final volume in the works.
The series gets its name from a love song written in the 1930s that became popular among Red Army troops during the war. He learned about the song while traveling to Eastern Europe in the late 1990s.
During his travels, the artist fell in love with Ukraine, its people and its history. He visited battlefields, made friends with the locals and heard countless stories about their experiences with the war, and the brutality of Nazi occupation and Soviet rule.
“Some of the stories they tell you are just so horrible that you feel like you need to tell it somehow,” he said.
Vansant observed that the legacy of World War II is still alive in Eastern Europe — far more so than in the U.S. and Western Europe. He said that memories of both fascist and communist atrocities played a huge role in the Balkan wars of the 1990s and continue to deeply influence Eastern European life and politics.
He’s been back several times to do research. His last visit was in 2012, before the war between Ukrainian nationalists and pro-Russian separatists.
“It’s free publicity, though maybe not the right kind,” Vansant said of the events unfolding in Ukraine.
The artist said it saddens him to see war envelope the country and its people once again. He said that though Russia and Ukraine share a common bond from World War II, continued Russian attempts to subjugate Ukraine have broken it.
“Russia has tried to keep Ukraine under its boot for 200 years,” Vansant said.
At the moment, Katusha is self-published. Vansant said the book sells well at conventions, but he’d still like to find a publisher to give it a larger audience.
As the final book of the trilogy comes closer to the end, he’s already bouncing around ideas for his next project. He said he’s considering a story set during during the Italian campaign in World War II. He added that the prospect of traveling to Italy to research it is an exciting one.
“Imagine all the wonderful meals I’ll get to eat,” he joked.
Finding his next story likely won’t be difficult. Humanity’s violent history means there’s an endless supply of inspiration. There will always be another war story.