Posted March 28, 2013 by Chris Romero in Comics

Interview: Fever Ridge Writer Mike Heimos

fever ridge mike heimos
fever ridge mike heimos

Mike Heimos has made a career as a tax lawyer, but most recently has embarked on a journey into the world of comics. His debut title, Fever Ridge: A Tale of MacArthur’s Jungle War, is an 8-part series blending historcial fiction and social commentary based on the real-life experiences of the US 6th Infantry Division of the 6th Army. Heimos’ story tracks the struggles endured by the “Sightseein’ Six”as part of General Douglas MacArthur’s Pacific campaign during WWII. Geeks Unleashed chats with Heimos about Fever Ridge and his inspiration to write the story, released by IDW Publishing

GU: Fever Ridge is your debut as a comic writer. What inspired you to explore the comic book medium to tell your story?

Mike Heimos: Good question; it is a departure as my background in writing is more “traditional” and “technical”…

So. Several years ago, I decided to write the fiction that was swimming in my head for the 10+ years prior, a time filled with and lost while practicing tax law. But without the technical structure one has in writing legal articles and such, at first the fiction writing was adrift. Then on a nice Friday afternoon, threw some cold water on my face and decided to devote the weekend solely to drinking some beer, making a couple groovy dinners, and just thinking, writing down story ideas…

At this time I lived in Denver and was a huge, devoted Battlestar Galactica fan. During that beer-and-brainstorm weekend, in Sunday’s newspaper there was an advert indicating that the Starfest con in Denver was welcoming Katee Sackhoff as one of the celebrity guests. She was (and is) one of my favorite TV actresses, and I bought the con badge.

On arrival I learned that the comic book folks had a con in tandem with Starfest, so I popped over to see what the comic-con was all about. I had not been a devotee of comics, but I’m an extremely curious guy, love learning new things, and at the con there were seminars about comics creation, writing, and other stuff that tickled my fancy.

Frankly, I had thought these things were only on the order of, “hey look at this extreme bodybuilder/superhero…” etc. But no, there were interesting people giving seminars, having stimulating discussions about art and story telling, technology and marketing and on. Intrigued, I went home and had a few more of those beers (one toasted to Katee of course) and thought rather simply “…a couple of my stories would be awesome to see as well as read. Now I want to see them, or at least parts of them.”

My first level was to think about illustrated novels and novellas, sort of like a Mark Twain or Arthur Conan Doyle things, and the concept just grew that some of my ideas would be very slick as full on graphic novels, in the right hands of course. And one of those ideas was the WWII story that was inspired by my grandfather’s service.

GU: We see the 6th Infantry commandos crawl through the jungle of New Guinea in issue #1, as they endure the harsh obstacles to survive in a deadly climate. Why did you initially choose New Guinea to be the setting for Fever Ridge? Why not a different location in the Pacific?

MH: This was a natural as my grandfather’s experiences were the initial inspiration for Fever Ridge, and he served in the 6th Infantry Division; he was a “Sightseer.” That Division was key to the New Guinea campaign, especially in the northwestern end of the island, known as the Vogelkop Peninsula. The book’s concept fully flowered after researching the 6th Army, the 6th Infantry Division, and finally into the Alamo Scouts. Gen. MacArthur and Gen. Krueger first conceived the Scouts early in the War, and the unit actually came to life when the US Army began operations in the southeast end of New Guinea.

My personal connection/draw to this topic was fortunate for, as I learned from my publishing of tax articles and books, novelty greatly increases your chances of publication. That is, it was clear early on that Fever Ridge would have several unique traits, one of which is being grounded in the New Guinea campaign. Fiction arising out of this part of the Pacific War is fairly rare, or at least, I’ve not found much of it, and most of the storytelling concerning the Pacific War focuses on either the US naval battles or the US Marines’ taking of the rim islands – Guadalcanal and such. I wanted to create one of the exceptions.

Fever Ridge #2 © IDW

Fever Ridge #2 © IDW

Another thing is that New Guinea gives us the opportunity to make great imagery. The native peoples, flora and fauna, the colors and surrealism etc. are going to be visually breathtaking. Not to belittle the Marines on Iwo Jima but really, I wanted my story to be much more complex and resplendent than, “…the guys honorably take a strategically key, bare, grey rock.”

GU: In Fever Ridge #1, we see a conversation between Franz and Erik in which the two American soldiers discuss political systems, government schemes and what will happen after WWII has ended. In what ways is social commentary a focus of your story?

MH: It is going to be huge. In fact, I hope people realize that Fever Ridge aspires to be sort of Hemingway-esque: that it has an incredible setting, and there is loads of action, but all that is just the canvass for the real important bit, which is character transformation. And, here the transformation includes a different perspective or two on the war, and on the relationship between Man and his City, as Leo Strauss might say, than that you normally see in this type of story.

Erik in particular starts out as a naïve, lower middle class guy, and evolves into someone rather different by the end of the book. I also want to be candid, that Fever Ridge is not a rah-rah patriot piece for the US or the Allies – for example, you’ve already seen in the early pages of Issue 1, we allude to civil rights abuses in the US during the war.

In summary, there will be plenty of socio-political issues, philosophy and literary intertextuality woven into the book. Hopefully it will provoke readers into a lot of thought, research and re-thinking of their own.

GU: Your series serves as a tribute to your grandfather, a member of the 6th Infantry Division. What can you tell GU readers about your grandfather’s experiences in the Pacific? When did you become interested in learning about his time with the “Sightseein’ Sixth?”

Yes, as I said in the credits in Fever Ridge #1, the book is inspired by and dedicated to him.

In a nutshell, after his enlistment in St. Louis he went for training in Missouri, California and Hawaii. Then the 6th Infantry went to New Guinea, and were there from early ’44 into the summer thereof. After finishing up in the Vogelkop, the Sightseers went to the Philippines, where they finished out the war. Some volunteered for duty under Gen. Krueger, in the post-surrender occupation of Japan.

In both New Guinea and the Philippines, my granddad (who was actually my paternal grandmother’s second husband, her being widowed at a young age) and his mates were mainly conducting anti-sniper patrols between the big battles, pretty deep in the bush. But in a general sense, by the time they were in the Philippines the fighting changed quite a bit, as the remote-area stuff was conducted by mainly by Filipino guerillas with US support, and the US forces were in bigger, more conventional battles, especially on Luzon. So his experiences included both darkest-jungle type of action in New Guinea, tough amphibious landings in the Philippines, and even urban warfare e.g. in the Battle of Manila. He saw normal combat, behind-lines action, atrocities committed by both sides, had a run-in with a croc, all sorts of things.

I became interested in his War at an early age. He and my grandmother were married just before I was born, it was his first and only marriage, done late in life compared to 99% of the men in his generation, and he never had children of his own. So, I think he enjoyed having the opportunity to tell tales to a grandson, and as we grew older the stories became more detailed and candid. The stories stuck all the while and then, just a few years before he passed away (in the early-1990s), he gave me his trunk of mementos. That stuff contains amazing things and some that are key to understanding unspoken angles to the man.

One story always cut right to it for me: to this day I have the Japanese imperial money, a medal and other mementos my granddad kept of the man he never forgot, that he killed with his hands. We will have an allegory for the incident in Fever Ridge.

GU: At the end of the first issue, the commandos encounter a Japanese sniper in the jungle, highlighting a specific example of “sniper clearing.” What more can you tell us about “sniper clearing?”

MH: I am not a trained military man, but I know enough from reading various sources that it is a simple concept: when an enemy sniper endangers key personnel, it not only impacts the stricken but generally, greatly affects morale, thus someone or some unit simply must be sent off to precisely locate and eliminate the sniper.

You saw a cool example of sniper action in the film, “Enemy At The Gates” (which was based on a book by David Robbins, “The War Of The Rats”), and there the anti-sniper technique was to send a sniper after the sniper, so they basically duel. My understanding is that this is done, indeed, but another technique is to send in a squad or other number of men, what have you, to take out the sniper.

For example, in Normandy, “…the [British] Army is [developed] a new sniper-clearing technique. A section, consisting of sergeant, corporal, and six or seven other ranks is first briefed on the site by an Intelligence Officer, after which the men set to work to locate the sniper. He is then engaged frontally whilst the sergeant carries out a flanking movement with others of the party.” So in one case the sniper was located in a farm building, the clearing party rushed for the cover of the wall just below the sniper’s window.

GU: Issue #1 features an impressive double-splash page of U.S. fighter planes soaring over Camp Young in the Mojave Desert, courtesy of artist Nick Runge. How did you connect with Runge to be the artist of Fever Ridge?

MH: At the Denver comic-con mentioned above, I attended a seminar with Nick on the dais. I approached him afterward about availability and whether he would consider collaborating on one of my ideas. He asked for summaries and in a few days he indicated being most attracted to the WWII story. And wow, am I glad he was!

GU: Fever Ridge #1 includes an essay about the Papuan wildlife. According to IDW’s website, you have said that one of your goals for the title “is to raise awareness of one of the historical, anthropological, environmental, and aesthetic treasures of the world, the island of New Guinea.” What are some other topics you have in mind to include in these essays? Will we see an essay at the end of each issue?

MH: I think my plan is to have essays and/or other supplemental materials to close each issue except for Fever Ridge #4 and #5 (of 8). In those issues, my plan is to fill our 28-page limit with story. We’ll see, as I am still tinkering with the scripts!

As for the essay topics, I’m still mulling them as well. I definitely will do one discussing the post-war history of New Guinea and human rights issues under the Indonesian rule over half the island. And perhaps I will do a “reveal” essay in the last issue (or, save that to supplement the “trade” later in the year), which will give the reader various gobbets useful when re-reading and really digging deep into the story.

GU: How did you team up with IDW Publishing?

MH: The credit goes to Nick…

We were drawing and writing, putting together pitch pages and planning to send them to IDW, IMAGE, Archaia, all of the independents. And we were both planning to go to San Diego for Comic-Con and have some fun as well as to meet some editors and rub shoulders.

During the second day of SDCC, after I was off looking at toys and ladies and t-shirts, returned to Nick’s table in Artist’s Alley to hear that Tom Waltz, editor from IDW, had been by and was impressed with the initial Fever Ridge stuff (actually at that time, we had a different title).

Then we just started talking with Tom and Greg Goldstein at IDW about the story, they liked it, and they especially liked Nick’s incredible art. So here we are.

GU: What are some of the challenges you have faced or have adjusted to as a comic creator and writer?

MH: There is no doubt that for me, the biggest challenge was accepting the fact that I will never see the picture in my mind – for a scene, a sequence, a character, whatever – translated exactly onto paper. It’s impossible, as I cannot draw anything but a stick figure or a naughty doodle, and I must give descriptions to another mind, and so forth as you can imagine. When I learned to accept this, it actually became like Christmas every time I’d receive something from a collaborator, and this is especially the case with Nick’s stuff.

But getting to that stage requires a foundation of trust. I’ve been lucky in finding a few trustworthy folks that care about the stories, and that do their best to take my words as smithed and re-forge them into images of swords or rifles or kissing lovers or even a Bat Hawk ripping apart his prey (see Fever Ridge #3 for a breathtaking opening 3 pages!).

GU: Are there any other projects you’re currently working on that you’d like to share with GU readers?

fever ridge 3 heimos

Fever Ridge © IDW Publishing

MH: Right now I’d say that about 85% of my fiction writing attention is trained on Fever Ridge, but my next two comics projects are intertextually connected to Fever Ridge by a ‘magical realism’ element and are set in other places and ages. One is called Red Forest, a story of the Baltic Crusades against the last European pagans of the 13th and 14th centuries, and the other is called Gilded Steppe, which is a yarn of the Scythians and Sarmatians of the Classical world.

Otherwise… well, that beer-and-brainstorm weekend I referred to, and many subsequent, have yielded a lot summaries, outlines, snippets and so forth, all saved in my Mac. Many are intended to be traditional, non-illustrated works. One example of this is a novella that is very personal indeed, inspired by my own Becky Thatcher-like, childhood love.

GU: Will we see more of your work within comic titles?

MH: I hope so! Again, Red Forest and Gilded Steppe will be graphic novels that I’m hoping to pitch later this year and next year. By the way, I’d love to hear from artists, colorists etc. that would be interested in collaborating, especially for Gilded Steppe (I am working with the super-awesome Armando Durruthy on the pitch for Red Forest right now).

And I have several other concepts that could be way cool comics – a huge space saga, a dystopian-future tale of a USA with a Stasi-like agency, a few comedies, etc. I mention one such comedy on my website, www.kingfishergraphicarts.com.

And who knows what will come to me with my next pilsner?

GU: Thank you so much!

My pleasure, Chris!

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**An earlier version of this interview included personal photos from writer Mike Heimos’ personal collection. They were lost after a site malfunction caused GU to lose all of its original images.

Teacher by day, hero by night, Chris’ superpowers include holding his breath under water for ten solid seconds and unjamming a photocopier machine at work. You can find him at the comic shop every Wednesday afternoon, looking for what Geeks Unleashed readers should be adding to their list. Check out Chris’ weekly comic review column, ComicBurst, for the latest reviews of today’s hottest titles.