Creator: Sierra Barnes
COMIC BOOK YETI: This is Byron O'Neal for Comic Book Yeti sitting down with Sierra Barnes. Sierra is a historian turned comic creator whose current project is Hans Vogel Is Dead funding now on Kickstarter. Welcome.
SIERRA BARNES: I am happy to be here Byron. It's good to meet you voice to voice.
CBY: You never quite get the true tenor over social media, so it's always nice to attach the voice to what I have in my head that somebody is going to be like.
SB: Exactly, the next time I drunk text a historical movie, you guys can hear it in my voice accurately like I'm in the room with you.
CBY: I always wonder what people think of me. Does the voice actually fit?
SB: Now we know.
CBY: Now you know. Let's kick things off then. What drew me into your project was this inventive way you're using a combination of history and folklore, taking a Nazi war hero and creating this new anti-fascist mythology for him. For those who are listening in who may not be familiar with the real Hans, could you tell us a little bit about him? Why did you choose him as a central figure in your story?
SB: The real Hans is a bit of a misnomer. There were several Hans Vogels in that time period. It's funny because I chose the name Hans Vogel because it is so generic. Hans is a name that shows up often in fairy tales because it's just John basically, Vogel means bird, but it can also refer to a pilot. All of the names in Hans Vogel are puns or direct references. There was a Hans Vogel who was the mayor of Berlin for a while. There was also an eight-year-old Hans Vogel, who was Jewish and fled Germany to New York and died in, I think, '43 or '44. I come across, quote, the real Hans Vogel all the time, but the Hans Vogel in this book is a fictional character who's based on an amalgamation of various pilots in the Second World War.
CBY: In the book, the piece that encompasses his life is relatively short. Are all the characters then, Fritz and Uli, all these German fighter pilots, are also non-historical in nature?
SB: There are some cameos in the first chapter. None of them are named, but in order to populate the party that happens when Hans gets his medal I took the Der Adler, which was the magazine of the Luftwaffe in World War Two, and I pulled a picture of an actual party and drew people who were in the party. So, at Hans' party, there's Adolf Galland, Erich Hartmann, and Hermann Goering who are all high-ranking Luftwaffe figures which is probably why Hans is so anxious all the time and chugging that champagne. Drink responsibly, kids.
CBY: There you go.
SB: They're never named. If you look, there's a page with a bunch of photographs where Hans is looking very uncomfortable and being photographed next to people. Colonel Klink and Sergeant Schultz from Hogan's Heroes make an appearance.
CBY: Yes. I'll have to go back and look for that. I love Hogan's Heroes.
SB: I grew up watching it.
CBY: That tells me we're probably similar in ages then, because I think that that definitely dates us.
SB: It was a favorite of my dad's. My grandfather fought in World War Two, according to family legend, he walked in on my father and uncle watching Hogan's Heroes, took one look at it and then left, so unsure what his thoughts were, but that's been passed down through my family for sure.
CBY: You chose to tell the story by throwing Hans into the Marchenwald, the forest where the Grimm's Fairy Tales take place. Could you elaborate on the significance of that forest in Germanic culture? You touched on it with the emails that are coming out with the Kickstarter updates.
SB: Marchen means like a fairy tale, or folklore, and wild means forest so it's literally fairy tale forest. We're being literal on the names here. The afterlife that I wanted to give him, there's a long tradition of processing the trauma of World War II through folklore because these German folktales, many of which take place in a forest, have such a strong position within German national identity and German history. There's a huge direct connection between the formation of the German state and fairytales because the Brothers Grimm wanted to create this idea of a pan-German identity, which didn't exist. All the little German states had their own kingdoms, cultures, and dialects. The Brothers Grimm were one of the class of scholars in the 1800s who were like no, no, no, if we're going to compete with the big baddies like Napoleon on the world stage, we're going to need a big Germany. One of the things that they did to try and encourage all of these little states to get along is go, well look at all of these fairytales that we have in common. We all love the forest. We all love sausages. We all love this music that I've suddenly decided is German and not Bavarian or Hessian. Whenever you have a discussion about German nationalism, fairytales always inevitably crop up. After World War Two, a lot of German writers worked on dissecting fairy tales as a way of dissecting German nationalism, what it means to be German, what it means to be German after World War II. This is my love letter to that as a genre and as an idea of dissecting this sort of fairy tale kitsch, I guess you could say, and the harm that it could possibly do. It was important to me to have it be in a forest because the forest features so heavily in what it means to be German, but also in a lot of ways at the time what it meant to be a Nazi.
CBY: Why directly throw Hans in there?
SB: If I was going to dissect what it means to be a Nazi, you got to start at where it all begins in the deep dark forest.
CBY: How many of those Brothers Grimm stories does he stumble into? I think there was reference to seven in the recent Kickstarter update.
SB: There's seven overt references that I could name. There are other folkloric elements that aren't tied to a specific fairy tale or out of Grimm ones. Very few of them are actually named so you'll have to keep your eye out for them. Little Red Riding Hood makes an appearance as a character. She's not named Little Red Riding Hood, but if you know, you know. Wink.
CBY: You have a fox, not fox, named Reineke who joins Hans on his journey in the forest. I did a little digging into that surname and in old German it has a root element that means counsel. That doesn't feel like a coincidence given your background. What is her role?
SB: Reineke is actually the Germanic name for, if you know French, Renard, the fox?
SB: So Hans is terrible at naming things, which is a running joke in this. He calls his plane Emil, which is the model and make of his plane (Messerschmitt Bf 109.) It's the equivalent of naming your car Corolla. He meets a fox, and he's like, well what about Reineke for a name. He just named her fox, which is kind of a little bit messed up buddy. Gotta work on that.
CBY: She's not a fox.
SB: She looks like a fox to Hans, more on that later.
CBY: We won't give too much away. You also have the Erlking, who has taken over the forest. How are you using him as a narrative element to help Hans along his journey?
SB: I'm not sure how familiar the general listenership is with the Erlking as a figure in German mythology. I think the literal translation is elf king, but that makes him sound like a Thranduil figure. He's much more ominous than that. He's sort of a spectral forest King. He's affiliated in some places with the Wild Hunt, just sort of a big baddie who's here to steal you, and kill you, and stuff on the roads. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the famous poet, wrote a poem called the Erlking, two verses of which appear in Hans Vogel. In this universe, he's the spirit of fascism itself. He is turning Marchenwald into a fascist state slowly but surely. In many ways, he's the evil that Hans tried to leave behind by dying in the Battle of Britain, and he can't quite leave it behind. He's got to tough it out and deal with it.
CBY: I always associate him mentally with the Wild Hunt. I think that's how it's often used in science fiction and fantasy literature stuff that I've come across.
Let me switch gears here and get away from Hans and let's focus a little bit more on you. You were a historian first, and then you got your formal training in comics, as I understand it, through the California College of Arts is that right?
SB: Yeah, I was making Hans Vogel for two or three years before I got a master's in comics. I was in the world and wanted to make more connections and get more officially in there so I got an MFA in comics with some lovely people. Shout out to Nikki, who's in the listener chat right now I see.
CBY: Have comics always been a part of your life or is it something relatively new?
SB: Oh, 100%. I grew up reading Asterix and Obelix and Tintin. As soon as I say that anyone European just goes tahn-tahn reflexively so I have to say tahn-tahn but I think it sounds silly like that. Sorry, France. I always loved comics. I read webcomics voraciously in high school in the beginning of the webcomics scene. I was like, oh my gosh, it would be so cool if only I had the skills to make a webcomic, but that will never happen. So, I resigned myself to being a historian or something respectable, and then I went to undergrad and spent a year abroad on a Fulbright Scholarship, came back and went, actually you know what, screw this I'm going to make comics, and then I did that. Cheers.
CBY: Kudos to you for being able to change your life and career trajectory path. I feel you 100%. I have one of those wonderful degrees myself, two actually, in anthropology and environmental science then I found myself 15 years on the road working with rock bands so...
SB: That's a crossover. We'll have to talk about that later.
CBY: You never know where life will take you.
SB: That is true. I don't know about your degrees, but I know that my history and Germanistic degree has definitely paid off in the world of comics. I don't know what I would be making comics about if I didn't have those.
CBY: My focus with anthropology was on Native American cultures and mythology was a specific focus so that's one of the things that really drew me into your project. I was like, oh this is right up my alley.
Your artwork for Hans feels very raw. It has a more rough texture than a lot of your other work, especially with the backgrounds in the forest. Talk to me a little bit about your process of using art to carry your narrative.
SB: It's funny that you mentioned the backgrounds of the forests. I very much took the plunge of starting a comic. Everyone says don't start a comic on a long project. I was like, well screw that, we're going all the way in baby. Hans Vogel was my first real big comic project. I hadn't had any formal art training. I was making a lot of it up as I went. I watched a lot of YouTube tutorials, scoured social media and internet sources for references and art tutorials. When I was living in Austria, I made sure to take a lot of pictures because I had already decided that I was going to make a comic when I was living there. I was like, well, I'm gonna need a bunch of references. I have files and files of beautiful Austrian forests in September and October.
CBY: So, envious.
SB: I know. Yeah, I'm envious of my past self as well. It was very refreshing in a lot of ways, and reassuring I guess is the word that I was thinking of, because I spent so much time worrying about whether or not I was going to be good enough to make a comic that when I had this realization that part of the charm of webcomics specifically is that you can see the growth of the artist as time progresses because a lot of webcomics have been around for 5, 10, 15 years. You can see them grow. I personally never felt when I started comics, oh god, this art sucks. When's it going to get better? I started a webcomic going, oh this is fun, then as it continues you realize the art has leveled up, and the story has gotten much stronger. That growth encouraged me to start where I was and just go for it because I knew that I would get better by making a comic. That's my pro advice, if you don't think you're good enough, you will always get better by doing this thing, by making the comic.
CBY: That's curious to me, because I hadn't really thought about webcomics in that way.
In terms of the creative control has there ever been that point where you just hit that, okay, I have this story in my head. Do you always want to translate them yourself, or do you think it'd be really cool to pull somebody else in? I'm always curious how that works as an artist who's handling multiple fronts of a comic in its development phase.
SB: I'm so used to doing the comic process by myself at this point that I think I would be pretty terrible to work with. I did do a comic collaboratively with one of my cohort members, Sam. We ended up calling it off by issue two because we were just not on the same page with a lot of things. If I have a project, I'm like, this is my baby. I'm probably no fun to work with. I have worked with people, but it needs to be something that I can completely let go of. I can't imagine collaborating with someone on something as close to me as Hans Vogel because, I'm sure, I would be sending Alan Moore levels of references for every page. I would hate that. On the artists side, I'm still adjusting to working with an editor. Lizzie Kaye with Cast Iron Books is great. She and Matt Belford, my agent, handle my insane unhinged 2 am ramblings where I just spent three hours researching hunting culture and forestry, and here's how it connects to the story of Allerleirauh, which is a Cinderella variant, and all of these things, and then there's the Bear Skinner which is this other fairytale. I don't tend to play well with others.
CBY: How did Cast Iron Books come into the picture?
SB: Cast Iron started out as the graphic novel wing of Unbound, which is a crowdfunded book publisher based in the UK. Lizzie Kaye was the graphic novel manager and decided to split off from Unbound and make her own publishing company which was Cast Iron. I had a friend, Geri Gallas, who does a lot of great work promoting in the comics community. She was publishing her book, The Plague and Doctor Caim, which came through Unbound and didn't have a lot of success. It was hopping over to Cast Iron. They were open last year in July for submissions and suggested that I submit Hans Vogel which I had been pitching to no success for the last four years. I was like, I might as well, it could be fun. I'm coming up on the end of Volume One, I will have a completed book and would be cool to see how it does. I was extremely nervous about the whole thing and spent three months chewing my fingernails off. Lizzie finally got back to me and was like, we love your work, super into it, we'd love to do it. After screaming for an hour and a half, I was on the search for an agent. Another two or three months, I got a hold of Matt and that's how the Avengers assembled, so to speak.
CBY: I will give Cast Iron a shout-out because I think they're absolutely killing it with some of the stuff they're putting out right now in the Kickstarter comics community. I've backed three of their projects in the last month. They all look amazing.
SB: Cast Iron does great work, not just saying that because they are my publisher.
CBY: The Kickstarter is for Volume One. I looked at the webcomic and there's five chapters. How many of those are collected in that volume?
SB: All five chapters are collected. The chapter that is currently started is the start of Volume Two.
CBY: Is Hans' story over with chapter one because he died once already?
SB: Yeah, he dies in chapter one. His story is far from over. I have another three volumes planned. We are on Volume Two in the webcomics, I will be collecting it once we finish uploading into the webcomics world so there's more to Hans' story. We haven't even met the Erlking yet. We haven't even met two of our four protagonists yet. I love webcomic pacing. We're six years in, two protagonists you haven't even met, webcomics is love.
CBY: Do you have other historical tales in your head? What is your next project or is this all of your focus right now?
SB: This will be what I'm doing for a long time. I have another project that I will probably be turning wheels on. I have something that I'm not supposed to talk about right now, wink, wink, that is more nonfiction coming down the line. I certainly have at least one more historical fantasy epic coming that's more based on Eastern European, Ukraine, Poland, Lithuania mythology.
CBY: What are lessons learned trying to take a webcomic and do collected volumes as a Kickstarter? What advice would you give people?
SB: Remember what size is standard and be awar