My weekly (for now) series of interviews from Phoenix Comicon continues with Myke Cole. The Iraq War veteran and Coast Guard reservist is the author of the “Shadow Ops” trilogy of military fantasy novels (he describes them as X-Men meets Black Hawk Down). He is also a powerful voice on the Internet for duty, honor, justice and what it means to serve your country.
His most recent novel, Gemini Cell, is a prequel to the trilogy and an excellent introduction to the “Shadow Ops” world, about a Navy SEAL resurrected as an undead super-soldier. It is also a thinly-veiled examination of the impact of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder on returning soldiers.
In addition to talking about the new novel, we spoke about Cole’s own struggles with PTSD as well as his opinions on Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and gays in the military. Considering the landmark ruling on gay marriage last week, I thought it would be a great time to share my chat with Cole.
It is a departure from the original trilogy. In the original trilogy magic is back in the universe and is freely recognized, there are organizations and steps in place to deal with it. Gemini Cell takes place many years before the events in the first “Shadow Ops” book, Control Point. Magic is still an unknown and the government is trying to take steps to keep it from the public. It has a much more occult feel than the others.
It’s about Jim Schweitzer, a Navy SEAL in an operation gone wrong, who actually gets his life taken. He is then raised from the dead by a secretive government organization that is exploring how to use magic. And he is paired with, for lack of a better term, a demon — he shares his corpse with a demon. This grants him incredible power that the government wants to use for operations.
So the novel is about him coming to grips with himself as a member of the undead, and trying to get back to his family. It’s a very different flavor than the previous trilogy, but I worked very hard to make something new, something that people who hadn’t read my other trilogy would like, but that fans of the original “Shadow Ops” books would still have enough touchstones to relate to.
I thoroughly enjoyed the book, and it’s not the sort of book I would normally pick up. What really struck me about the book was Schweitzer’s struggle against the demon – trying to hold onto his humanity. It reminded me of Alan Moore’s early “Swamp Thing” comics, where Swamp Thing learns that he isn’t human and has to come to terms with that.
When he was fighting the Floronic Man. What was so fascinating about that was not just that he wasn’t human, but that he wasn’t even a single entity. He was an aggregate of plants with a single consciousness. He wasn’t even specific identity. I remember reading that and being blown away, trying to wrap my head around it.
He changed comics with that. Him and Frank Miller’s “Dark Knight Returns.” Those were seminal game changers. They were the first comics that made adults look up and see there was something serious there. I’m psyched you brought that up. Thanks, that’s a huge compliment.
You’re welcome! I know I’ve seen you talk a lot about how the book is an allegory for PTSD.
The thing with me and PTSD… I always feel weird trying to talk about PTSD because it is such an individualized experience and it is so poorly understood… The general feeling with the medical community is that they treat diseases, they diagnose and then prescribe forms of treatment. That’s how it’s been since the dawn of time.
But my experience is that PTSD is that it is a tectonic and permanent shift in the way a person is in the world. And that’s a very different thing than a simple illness and, in my opinion, requires a very different course of treatment. Where I’ve had success, and I think I’ve had a lot of success with it, is by going down a different path.
The thing that makes PTSD so poorly understood, I didn’t know what to expect when I got home from the war. I wasn’t prepared for the experiences I had. And the big experience I had was not flashbacks, or bursts of anger, the things I was warned about. It was the sense of enduring separation and isolation from everything. All of these goals I had set up before I went off to Iraq — get a house, get married, get money, work eight hours a day in an office — the things that had so much meaning before, they didn’t anymore. But they did for everyone I was interacting with.
That makes you feel very alone.
Not only that, but all these people while you’re gone, you’re not just fighting the war, you’re away from everyone and everything. All these shared experiences they’re developing, inside jokes, seeing movies, you’re not developing those. And when you get back, you have no connection to them. This sense of isolation, feeling you don’t know anyone. Even at my own welcome-home party with my family and close friends.
So what I wanted to do with Schweitzer was — he’s dead. Period. There’s no coming back from it. And he now has to connect with a wife and child who are alive. That schism is there and it’s permanent. It requires a complete redefinition of his relationship, not only with them but with the whole living world.
It was a pretty bald-faced allegory, so I pretty much decided to just come out and say, ‘yeah, it’s about PTSD.’ I hope it came off believable.
You mentioned your plans changing when you went to war. Was writing part of those plans?
Oh sure, it was the only thing… Look, I’ve had many careers and many things I loved doing, but the one thing that I’d always wanted to do, ever since I was a little boy, was be a writer.
Do you remember the animated Lord of the Rings by Ralph Bakshi from the 70s? My mom bought me a vinyl record soundtrack for that, and the liner notes were basically the script to the movie to read along while it played. I asked for a pen and paper, took it upstairs and copied it word for word. Then I took it downstairs and told her I wrote a book.
It was always something I wanted to do and I’m willing to make any sacrifice to keep doing it. I was a big kendo player, I was active in the SCA, I even went inactive in the military to make more time to write.
I just turned in Javelin Rain, which is a direct sequel to Gemini Cell. The sixth book under contract has a working title of Render, and will follow the story of an ancillary character named Render from Fortress Frontier in the original trilogy. In this I’m trying to pay homage to Joe Abercrombie, who’s had a lot of success with standalones about characters from his “First Law Trilogy”. (NOTE: Today Myke announced the title of his follow-up to Javelin Rain as Siege Line.)
I also just finished the sixth draft of a grimdark fantasy in the style of Abercrombie, Mark Lawrence, Peter V. Brett, George R.R. Martin, a medieval fantasy called Fractured Girl. I hope this is the draft my agent looks at and says it is good enough to take to market.
I really want to prove to myself that I’m not just a military writer, that I’m a writer with range and versatility.
Before I let you go, I also wanted to thank you for your recent blog post about gay rights and gay servicemen.
I almost didn’t post it. I was nervous about how it would affect my readership. I talked to Peter V. Brett and he told me not to worry. He said that for every reader I lost because of it, I would gain another.
The best man at my wedding was closeted in the Coast Guard under “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” and it means a lot to hear your support for people like him.
I’m sorry he had to live through DADT. We’re just now coming out of the Dark Ages on that. When I joined DADT was still in full force, and it was a source of shame for me. I’m glad there were people strong enough to put up with that crap and I’m glad we’re finally past it.
Frankly it’s embarrassing to me that he had to put up with it. I just feel like, and I don’t want to stand on my soapbox and run for president here, but American ideals have always been equal rights, liberalism, “give me your poor, your tired your huddled masses,” everyone has a place here. Same table, same level. It’s not complicated. The military belongs to the entire American public. All of us. And no one gets to say “you are not welcome” if that person is capable of doing the job.
Well thanks for your time tonight and thanks for your service.
Your welcome! And thanks for your time as well.