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War, love, suicide: 'Terminal Lance' gets serious

December 10, 2015 (Photo Credit: Courtesy Maximilian Uriarte)

In 2007, I — like many other Marines — found myself in the rather precarious position of visiting the Middle East. It was hardly a holiday, as I and 23 other Marines with India Company, 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marines, traveled down Zaidon Road, southeast of Fallujah city. As an 0351 assaultman, my entire section was turned into the company Jump Platoon. There was little need for rockets and demolitions in the sprawling farmland we were to visit, so we were tasked with escorting the company command around the area of operations, among other things.

I was 20 years old, and I was terrified.

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Marine veteran Maximilian Uriarte is creator of the wildly popular web comic "Terminal Lance." His new graphic novel, "The White Donkey," explores more serious themes about his experience in the Marine Corps and his two deployments to Iraq.
Photo Credit: Courtesy Maximilian Uriarte

During our six-month-long work up, we had it drilled into our heads to be suspicious of anything out of the ordinary in the road. Craters, trash, dirt — anything could be an IED. What they didn't tell us is that, in a Third World country ravaged for years by war, there would be craters and trash everywhere. During one of my first mounted patrols in-country, I had assuredly and resolutely convinced myself that I was going to die there.

Then the convoy stopped.

My platoon commander was in the same truck as me, the second vehicle. He got on the radio and inquired about the halt. Over the speaker, I heard with a crackle, "... There's a donkey in the road."

Curiously, I looked to the front of the convoy and saw an animal I'd never seen before: a white donkey, its coat brilliant in the midday Iraqi sun. Peculiarly, it wasn't stopped, nor was it crossing the road. It was dead-center, with no room to go around on either side, and it walked in the same direction we were heading, as if it were leading us.

There were five vehicles in the convoy: four up-armored humvees and a high-back (a humvee with an expanded backside and no turret). We had 23 or so Marines, all armed and armored, machine guns, grenades, and the power and might of the United States Armed Forces behind our every move. All of this, brought to a screeching halt by the most benign of animals: a lone, white ass.

COMING MONDAY: A special print edition of Marine Corps Times, featuring exclusive excerpts from 'The White Donkey.' Find one in MCX stores worldwide.

In actuality, the donkey trotted along for a few meters and then got out of our way. We passed the animal, and I never saw it again, somewhat strangely, since we went by the same place every day for six months.

But the image never left my mind. It plagued me as I tried to find meaning in my experiences upon my return home, if there was any to find. A small, innocent animal stopping our entire convoy. This lone, white donkey made us all look like asses that day.

I began writing "The White Donkey" in 2010. Readers of my regular "Terminal Lance" comic strip may remember that Abe and Garcia appeared as named characters in the strip around the end of that year. Prior to then, Abe was merely an unnamed caricature of myself. As the plot came to me in bigger bits and pieces, I began coming up with characters to fill the rolls. Contrary to common belief, Abe and Garcia were created expressly for "The White Donkey," though it didn't have the title at the time.

I knew I wasn't going to get around to making this graphic novel for quite some time, so I began running Abe and Garcia in the regular "Terminal Lance" canon as a way to get readers familiar with the characters. The two in the book have much the same dynamic as in the comic strip — Abe being a plucky smart ass and Garcia being a voice of reason.

For three years, I let the story bake in my mind, though it went through many changes when it came time to put pencil to paper. I wanted to tell the story of a Marine enlisting during a time of war, from a Marine's perspective.

War movies tend to follow the same tropes, but are commonly told from a perspective of exceptionality. War movies are usually written by civilians, viewing the military experience from the outside, with awe and the standard Hollywood glamour. As such, they tend to glorify an experience that very often lacks glory. Life, death and the return home are often overlooked in these stories in favor of the explosive display of combat and heroism.

I didn't want to tell this kind of a story, because it wasn't true to the experience I had during my two deployments to Iraq. There is a lot to be said of the experience of enlisting in the Marine Corps and going to war, but these blockbuster tales never say much of anything beyond explicit combat. In the end, I just wanted to tell a story that mattered.

I want to stress that "The White Donkey" is a fictional story. While bits and pieces — including some characters — were taken from my real-life Marine Corps experience, it is all a work of fiction.

This isn't a story about Iraq. This is the story of Abe and Garcia, and the Marine Corps infantry experience at home and abroad. You'll find that Iraq only takes up about a third of the entire book, while the rest of the 250-page, fully illustrated story is set in places like Hawaii, Twentynine Palms, California, and Portland, Oregon. Just like my real-life experience, the platoon happens upon a lone, white donkey. Unlike actuality, however, the animal is seen more than once; it haunts Abe throughout his time in Iraq.

The book explores a number of themes, from love and war to death and suicide. I've often seen people lament the cliche of the disturbed, post-traumatic stress disorder-stricken veteran on one hand, while telling you about the "22 suicides a day" epidemic on the other. Veterans are often conflicted in their desire to shield the public image of the veteran with the reality of the suicide statistics that are wreaking havoc across the military. As someone who has not only lost a Vietnam veteran stepfather to a heroin overdose, as well as multiple Marines to suicide, I will say that it is anything but a cliche to me.

In this book, you will see Abe struggle with many things, including the challenges that many Marines face during and upon their return home from war. You will be with him every step of his journey, with the intent of understanding the many issues that plague the veteran community.

There are some laughs along the way, in usual "Terminal Lance" form, but, ultimately, this is a more serious work than what you may have come to expect from the lighthearted comic strip I produce.

This is the first graphic novel about Iraq ever written and illustrated by an Iraq veteran, and there are more drawings in this book than my entire library of over 700 comic strips. If "Terminal Lance" is a body of work, then "The White Donkey" is the thesis. It is a culmination of all of my experiences and the things that I've learned along the way put into one fully illustrated book.

This wasn't an easy process, and, admittedly, I bit off a lot more than I initially expected. This was a monster of a project from beginning to end. The book is somewhat notorious to my readers at this point, as it's been notably delayed over the past couple of years. Even this very newspaper ran a story about "The White Donkey" more than a year ago, and it is only now seeing the light of day as a finished product.

With the resounding success of the Kickstarter campaign, raising more than $150,000 toward the publication of the book, I soon realized that the Kickstarter itself was a challenge I hadn't anticipated. With thousands of backers waiting and watching my every move, organizing it all was arduous and stressful, to say the least. After spending some time getting the rewards in order, I sat down at my desk, ready to create the masterpiece!

Well, had I any idea how to make a graphic novel.

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Maximilian Uriarte's highly anticipated graphic novel, "Terminal Lance: The White Donkey," will be available for purchase on Amazon.com in January.
Photo Credit: Courtesy Maximilian Uriarte

I had never even attempted to approach a project this big before, and I really had no idea what I was doing. There are not a lot of resources available on how to make a 250-page graphic novel by yourself from start to finish, so this was a learning process for me. My initial estimate of six months ended up being grotesquely wrong — which would have been hilarious were it not for the thousands of people waiting on me.

With the story more or less complete in my head, I realized it obviously wasn't going to be as simple as making a three-panel comic strip. This is a big story, so I needed it to be 100 percent completed and locked into place before I could draw a single panel.

I began writing in a traditional novelistic format, but I found that it didn't really lend itself to a visual medium very well. Ultimately, this needed to be a graphic novel. Waxing poetic wouldn't really do me any favors here, since I was the only person who needed to see it in text form. Being an animation graduate and having experience in Hollywood, I decided to write the book in a traditional screenplay format.

This was arguably the most important part of the entire process. I had outlines and charts and all of the story arcs and characters figured out prior to this, but it was in the screenplay that I fine-tuned the story to really work.

Drawing comic panels is also a major time investment, and every detail of the dialogue and storyline needed to be figured out prior to making that commitment. This script went through multiple drafts, and I even completely rewrote the entire beginning from what I had originally intended. This process took months, but it was worth it. The final draft of the screenplay ended up being 145 pages, or otherwise a roughly two-and-a-half-hour-long film.

With the story in place, I came to my next challenge: How the hell do I make this a graphic novel? Unlike most writers, I'm also an artist, and I had every intent to draw this book myself. This is generally not the norm, as most big-name comics are done by a team consisting of writers and multiple artists to expedite things. I probably could have hired people to help me with this, but I'm stubborn, and this was an intensely personal project. This was my book.

I originally began to draw the book on paper with pencil and ink. I did the first 10 pages or so and realized that this was way too slow. I was already way overdue on my time, and doing things with real media just wasn't an option if this book was ever going to see the light of day.

I switched to digital, drawing the book by hand using a Cintiq monitor (drawing directly on the screen), and making sure I kept things looking natural and realistic. This was a lot faster, and I was generally able to do at least one page a day.

Aesthetically, the book is very different than the normal "Terminal Lance" comic strip. With the more serious tone of the story, I wanted to reflect that in the artwork. The book is drawn much more realistically than the exaggerated cartooning of the strip. Conversely, I actually began making the strip even more cartoony to contrast it with the book.

The drawing alone took about a year, and I had no idea what the final page count was going to be until I drew the last page. I found that I kept adding pages in order to accurately illustrate what was in my head, keeping the reader in mind as I planned out each turn of the page. The initial estimate of 175 pages ended up being 250 by the end.

Once every page was finished, I toned and lettered the book, which took considerably less time. But, like every other step, each time I thought I knew how long something was going to take, it ended up taking exponentially longer.

I wrote, illustrated, toned, lettered and compiled the entire book by myself.

Prior to its release, fewer than 10 people have read the book either as a screenplay or in its final form. I've received resoundingly positive feedback from Marines and civilians, but it's still nerve-wracking to be putting out something that has been so intensely personal over the past two years.

As of this writing, the book has just finished printing and is on its way to me. I intend to release the book publicly in January 2016 (the sixth birthday of "Terminal Lance"), and it will be available for purchase exclusively on Amazon for the immediate future. This first run is a fairly limited release, and I'm hoping to find a publisher to carry it on afterward.

A lot of work went into this book, and I'm excited not only to be done with it, but also to show it to the world. I'm confident that it was worth the wait.

Follow Terminal Lance on Twitter: @TerminalLance

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