Wayne Vansant’s book Katusha: Girl Soldier of the Great Patriotic War is the first Graphic Novel that we have hosted on DODReads.com. We chose Katusha due to the Wayne’s amazing ability to tell a compelling story combining both words and images. While history books are full of facts and figures, Wayne is able to immerse you in the immense story of World War II through the eyes of a 17 year old Girl; Katusha. If you are interested in learning about a different side of history, through a different set of eyes and through a different medium, Katusha should be your next history book.
I’d Like to thank Wayne for this interview. He put the same detail and energy into this interview as he does all his work. Hope you enjoy our discussion.
What is the story behind Katusha? And why did you decide to write a story about this 17-year-old girl?
Wayne Vansant: I turn 70 this summer, and it took me about 12 years to do Katusha, working between other projects. So, why did a man in his 60s write a novel about an adolescent girl?
I’ve written and illustrated many nonfiction books on military history covering different wars and campaigns (check my page on amazon.com books). Now and then I’ve produced historical fiction books like Days of Darkness and Battron: The Trojan Woman. I frequently discover that my fiction work requires more research than the nonfiction. More detail is required and a deeper understanding of everyday events. I also find this exercise extremely satisfying.
I first heard the song “Katusha” at a party in Odessa, Ukraine, in 1999. It was a love song written by a Ukrainian in the 1930s and was the most popular song in the Red Army during the war. From the time I first heard it, I couldn’t get it out of my mind. I had to do something about it! So in 1994, I drew eight rough pages with a little text and showed it a few friends. They liked it and thought I should pursue it. I already had a vast knowledge of WWII including the Eastern Front. So I began reading everything I could find, especially about Soviet women in combat. I have always been fascinated with tanks and armored vehicles, so this was a natural path to follow. And first and foremost, I wanted to produce a book that I myself would want to read.
In 2005 and 2012, I made two trips to Ukraine to study the subject in depth. I talked to historians and teachers who were more than happy to share their knowledge with me—through an interpreter, of course. I spoke with veterans and civilians who had lived through those days of hardship and heartbreak. I even listened to school children who were happy to tell me the stories they heard from their grandparents. I went to the sites of battles and massacres, and witnessed with my own eyes the unearthing of old, muddy skeletons. I saw the monuments to hell and glory. I found that every town of any size sported an old rusting T-34 tank in its town square, so that nobody would ever forget.
“I’d like to meet her.”
“I feel like I actually have.”
I soaked in everything—the trees, the color of the soil, the pockmarked old buildings…even the earth-stained hands of an old woman born in 1926 who had survived Stalin’s terror famine and the German occupation. I remember speaking with a 91-year-old woman who had swollen feet. She had been an anti-aircraft gunner during the war. She showed me an old photograph of her standing proudly with her three teenaged comrades. When I commented that they were just children, she broke into tears.
I even conferred with several veterans and scholars about the UPA, the Ukrainian Insurgent Army. The UPA fought the Germans and the Russians at the same time. Some of the stories about them were so horrific that I didn’t think I could ever repeat them. I did manage to work some of them into Katusha.
But more than anything else, this is Katusha’s story. She became a very real person to me. At a comic convention, a teenaged kid came up to my table and said, “I’d like to meet her.”
I feel like I actually have.
This is not exactly a story from the book—it’s more like a little illumination of one of the characters. In Book 2, we first meet Oxanna Peripelitsyn when Katusha and her adopted sister Milla arrive at the tank-driving school. Oxanna is a girl from Kirzhach, Russia, who had been born with a severe harelip. We in America at the present time are not often reminded that those born with this kind of birth defect do not get the best medical attention in other parts of the world. Oxanna would have to live with this deformity, facing daily ridicule and ostracism. When the girls meet for the first time in the barracks, Oxanna is angry about a promotion that Katusha has received. The two of them engage in a knock-down, drag-out fist fight, which Katusha wins despite her smaller size. Katusha makes it clear that the fight was not her idea and that she holds no grudges.
In Book 3, the two rivals meet again. It is more than a year later; Katusha has been given command of her own tank, a brand-new T-34/85, and Oxanna is assigned as Katusha’s gunner. By then, Oxanna has mellowed. She remembers how Katusha treated her fairly, and they become fast friends. Katusha has empathy for Oxanna and the tough life she has to lead. One night, while sitting at the campfire talking with Oxanna, Katusha plays matchmaker. She mentions Natan, a boy she knew in school. She tells Oxanna Natan has a sweet spirit and a beautiful singing voice. He is also blind. “When the war is over, come home with me,” Katusha tells Oxanna. “I’ll introduce you to Natan as my sister. I think you two would like each other very much .” Oxanna is thrilled at the prospect.
But before any of them can realize their future dreams, they first must survive a war that has become an absolute hell on earth. The Eastern Front was the scene of horrendous slaughters of millions of people. Unknown, faceless men bellowing war cries of “OOORAHWR!” charged toward blazing German machine guns, only to wind up being shoveled over in mass graves. Old men, women, children—27,000,000 souls died.
Compared to traditional history books, what benefits do comic books and graphic novels have when teaching history?
Building a visual memory is a powerful way to teach anything. I’ve drawn quite a few industrial safety or training guides in comic form. But history books often skimp on visual references. If you’re lucky, they’ll include some maps or a few black-and-white photographs. But this is pretty slim stuff for someone who’s primarily a visual learner. A few black-and-white photos and some diagrams can’t give you the sense of what it was like to be there at the Alamo or Pickett’s Charge.
But seeing the same events in visual form puts the reader in the middle of the action. They can see this other world—the landscape, the trees, foliage, the architecture, the clothing of the period…the reader is there. That sense of involvement makes history much more relatable. And because this is actual history, I researched every detail so that my characters exist in a real time and place. It’s more than having the correct uniforms and military equipment. Katusha’s journey brings her in touch with people of different cultures and classes, and I took pains to make sure her world is authentic at every turn.
One place where the visual medium is far superior to words is the human element. Katusha is a profoundly human story. People who get swept up in war are driven by strong emotions like fear, anger, passion, despair, sacrifice, vengeance…and hope. I’ve always been a big believer in hope. I guess you could say I am like my character in that respect. Throughout the unrelenting brutality of war, Katusha never loses sight of hope. Hope is what gets her though this monumental struggle.
I generally do not have novels or comic books on my website; most of my books are focused on professional development, leadership, and history. Besides entertainment, what value can a reader derive from a novel?
Although I love reading history more than anything, the one thing it frequently lacks is immediacy. All too often, words can distance the reader from a historical event and the players in it. There are some writers who can make even a life-or-death struggle seem as dry as dust. Then there are exceptions like Charles MacDonald’s Company Commander and Audie Murphy’s To Hell and Back. But I think novels like Richard Matheson’s The Beardless Warriors and James Jones’ The Thin Red Line can’t be beat for putting the reader right in the middle of combat.
What books have had the most impact on you and your development?
First of all, the Bible for accurate reporting and descriptions that still stun. Growing, it was Jules Verne, Kenneth Roberts, Robert Leckie’s Strong Men Armed, John Toland, Bruce Catton, Shelby Foote, James A. Michener—and in comics, Sam Glanzman, John Severin, and Russ Heath. In more current times, Alan Furst, Philip Kerr, Dewey Lambdin, Timothy Snyder, Anne Applebaum, and Catherine Merridale.
Why is reading important to the military and our nation?
If you get everything from the media, you can be getting less than nothing. A basic understanding of history is vital to understand the present global situation. I remember when Yugoslavia exploded into a brutal war in the 1990s. It was hard to make heads or tails of it on the TV news because it was clear the anchors did not understand it themselves. Then one day I was watching a reporter interviewing a woman in Bosnia. The translator said, “The Chetniks did this, the Chetniks did that…” I remembered my father had seen a WWII newsreel about Drazha Mihailovitch, and I remembered Tito. I started to put the present situation into context. If you have a basic understanding of history, you can start to put it all together. If not, very little about the world will make sense to you.
Can you provide a specific example where reading has helped you learn from others’ experience?
Well…I guess this applies, in a way. Around 2002, I was getting my license renewed at the State Patrol office in Marietta, Georgia. In the waiting room was a very cute young brunette girl. This guy about her age, a muscular jock type, was obviously interested. He walked up to her and asked, “Where ya from?” She smiled and answered, “Bosnia.” The boy looked flustered and said, “‘Bosnuh’? Where’s that?!” If he had a basic understanding of history and current events, he might have stood a chance with her—or at least not looked stupid.
Where do you recommend people buy your books, if not Amazon?
You can’t beat Amazon. Of course, on the Naval Institute website, and a lot of book stores.
Where can people reach out to you?
There are two ways. A friend of mine maintains a Facebook site called The Art of Wayne Vansant, and my agent maintains the Facebook site Katusha Girl Soldier. They’ll get word to me. I’m not online because I’m way too busy drawing. And I love that.
For more than 30 years Wayne Vansant has been writing and illustrating comics and graphic novels on historic and military subjects, beginning with Marvel’s Savage Tales and The ‘Nam. Since then, he has produced Day of Darkness, Battron: The Trojan Woman, Blockade, The War in Korea, Stephan Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage, Normandy, Grant vs. Lee, Bombing Nazi Germany, The Battle of the Bulge, The Red Baron, and others.
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