by Margaret Eby)
Long before Max Brooks topped the bestseller lists with thrillers “World War Z” and “The Zombie Survival Guide,” he was captured by a little-known group of soldiers called the Harlem Hellfighters.
Brooks first learned about the Hellfighters, a highly decorated African-American infantry regiment that fought in World War I, when he was 11 years old. Thirty years and several rejected screenplays about the group later, Brooks has finally published his own dramatization of their struggle, “The Harlem Hellfighters,” in collaboration with illustrator Canaan White.
“I think it’s an amazing lesson about the human spirit,” Brooks told the Daily News. “What they accomplished in spite of the racism they faced is incredible. They spent more time in combat than any other unit. The entire unit ended up winning the French Croix de Guerre. If they had been a white unit, we would be on the third remake of their movie.”
Brooks originally envisioned the story of the Hellfighters as a movie, but despite Brooks’ roots in tinseltown—his father is comedy heavyweight Mel Brooks and his mother was the actress Anne Bancroft—no producers took him up on the script.
“If you’re a young writer, you blame yourself,” Brooks said. “I was ready to give up on it. And then I had a meeting with Levar Burton, and he was the one who talked me back into it. I never did give up. I realized that through comics I could tell the story without being sabotaged by Hollywood.”
Brooks’ script seems like a natural fit for a graphic novel, but it was illustrator Canaan White who took Brooks’ ideas and expanded them into comic panels.
“I can’t draw a stick figure,” Brooks joked. “I was essentially his research assistant. And these are all real people. He couldn’t just draw what he wants. “
“When you write a movie, you leave big parts of the look of the movie to the art department. But when you do a comic book, you are the art department,” Brooks continued. “You have to make sure that everything—the hair, the architecture, the vehicles—is accurate.”
The end result is a splashy, fun, gripping number, and an intriguing look at an oft-ignored footnote in the history books. And after all that rejection from Hollywood, it may end up on the silver screen after all.
"Now it's back to the movie script," Brooks said, noting that he had gotten interest from Will Smith's production company about the storyline. "Fingers crossed."