Andrea Lorenzo Molinari is one the minds behind The Shepherd, a surreal series in which trauma and redemption are explored within the context of the afterlife.
1. The Shepherd series has strong spiritual overtones as does the title of the series itself. Do you feel that the ideology and imagery of these graphic novels draws solely from Judeo-Christian iconography or that its aesthetic is based off imagery from a variety of beliefs?
ANDREA LORENZO MOLINARI: Disclaimer: I am a professional theologian by trade. My academic training includes three degrees in theology, earned over eleven years, culminating in a Ph.D. My specialty is in early Christian literature and history (the first four centuries). I say this to indicate that I am obviously informed by my academic studies which are primarily based in Judeo-Christian history and literature. However, in the course of my studies, I have also had the pleasure of studying the mythology and religion of a number of cultures such as the Romans, Greeks, Egyptians, Canaanites and Babylonians. I employ imagery from these other religious worldviews as well as imagery from Judaism and Christianity.
I want to be very clear here: The Shepherd is not about trying to proselytize or to attempt to convince anyone of the rightness or superiority of a given religion over any other.
The Shepherd graphic novel series is about exploring ideas about the afterlife and what might happen to us after death. I have always enjoyed learning about other religions, exploring their ideas and reading their literature. As I said, I have used these ideas in our stories. For example, the titles of Volumes 2 and 3, respectively “The Path of Souls” and “The Path of Dogs,” are taken directly from Wendat (per the French: Huron) religious beliefs. When the Wendat looked up at the Milky Way, they believed it was the “path” human souls traveled to get to what they called “The Village.” The Village was a place of peace, security and agricultural/natural abundance, inhabited by their Sun God and his Moon Goddess grandmother. Likewise, the Wendat believed that their dogs would also end up at this Village but that they would find their own “path”.
2. Trauma and PTSD are among the central themes of The Shepherd series. We’ve previously discussed how these themes made the series a hard sell; was it difficult to find a publisher and audience for it?
ALM: Trauma and PTSD are central themes in many comic books. Bruce Wayne was only a child when he saw his parents gunned down. Likewise, Peter Parker was only a teenager when he held his Uncle Ben in his arms and watched him slip away. These traumas become part of the core motivation of these characters.
My point in saying this is that I don’t think publishers are afraid to take on these topics. Now, whether the audiences are willing to engage such troubling themes…
With this said, I would distinguish between The Shepherd Volume 1, which deals with trauma and revenge and its consequences and what we attempt to do in Volumes 2 and 3 The Path of Souls/The Path of Dogs. Volumes 2 and 3 deal with combat-induced PTSD. I think the public is intrigued by war stories. However, I think what separates this story is that its focus is on the damage combat does to the human soul and how that damage prevents its victims from connecting with those they love the most.
The United States and many of her allies have been involved in a host of wars since World War 2, the most recent of which have involved Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria. This latest round of wars has dragged on so long that many on the home front simply do not want to think about it anymore… let alone face the awful truth about what all this fighting has done to the military personnel and the civilians of the embattled countries. It’s ugly and terrible and it’s easier not to look at it… especially since it is happening half a world away.
A study released in 2016, by the US Department of Veterans Affairs found that Veteran suicides climbed by 32% between the years 2001 and 2014. The suicide rate was highest among younger Veterans, aged 18-29. Clearly, this is a very real problem and we as a society owe it to our Veterans, who WE sent into harm’s way, to address it and try to help our Veterans heal. These men and women are our brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, friends and family.
3. Do you find it ironic that in the world of mature comics, publishers are more open to publishing violent power-fantasies or extremely gory horror (not to disparage either sub-genre) than they are to publishing stories that deal with real life issues such as PTSD?
ALM: Publishers want to sell books. They need to sell books, otherwise they will not be in business very long. What genres sell (e.g., superhero) is related to the reasons people read in the first place. I think many people read as a form of escapism, to live out a vicarious adventure or fantasy.
Likewise, they may read to help them cope with the real world. I often think that superhero books are so well-loved simply because they present the world as we wish it was. In the real world, truth, justice and good are often trampled underfoot while evil and corruption seem to win the day over and over. In the real world, when evil is stopped, the price of victory may well be excruciatingly high as when Hitler’s Third Reich was destroyed at the cost of millions of lives. On the other hand, in the comic book world, the villains are stopped and punished for their deeds. The good are rescued and protected and proper balance is restored.
Be assured, there are readers who read to be informed or challenged or introduced to something new and it is precisely these readers to whom we appeal.
I should state here that these types of readers should not necessarily be viewed as hard and fast categories. Rather, it should be understood that readers can be very eclectic in their tastes and read widely across genres, their choices being dictated by their mood. They can be like a wine drinker who may enjoy merlots as their wine of choice, yet would not turn down a nicely chilled chardonnay when offered it.
4. A variety of artists worked on The Shepherd books. What led to this decision?
ALM: In The Shepherd graphic novel series “seeing/vision” is very important. In our conception of the afterlife, what you see isn’t always what is real. Souls see what they want to see. Often they are not open to seeing the objective truth, so their preconceived notions color their view of things.
In Volumes 2 and 3 (The Path of Souls/The Path of Dogs), our protagonists encounter a hospital for souls who are suffering from PTSD. The souls come from different time periods and cultures. Many of them are so focused on the traumatic circumstances surrounding their deaths, that they see the entire afterlife as merely a recapitulation of those events. Every other soul they meet is somehow folded into their individual viewpoint…even if they are a poor fit.
In order to make this clear to our readers, we opted to have each soul’s story presented by a different artist. That way, when the reader is told that soul’s story, they are “fitted” with an appropriate pair of “glasses.” This even goes so far as to impact the way we see our protagonists, i.e., what our protagonists wear when they are interacting with a given soul. For example, when The Shepherd interacts with the Napoleonic soldier, he wears a late 18th century French officer’s uniform. When he interacts with the US Marine who died in Fallujah, Iraq in 2004, he wears USMC “battle rattle.”
This was an artistic decision for Volumes 2 and 3, Volume 1 has one coherent art team as does Volume 4 which is a work in progress.
5. When I reviewed The Shepherd: The Path of Souls, I was impressed by the fact that, despite being part of an ongoing series, it could be read as a stand-alone graphic novel. Was it deliberately structured as such and if so, is each book in the series similarly structured?
ALM: Absolutely. Our books can be read as independent stories. However, these novels are also connected in that the growth and development our characters experience in one volume matters for subsequent volumes. In short, our characters are meant to change and evolve but each of their adventures could stand alone.
6. Your wife works with veterans dealing with combat-related PTSD. In what way did this inform the tone and interactions found in The Shepherd books? Are any of the characters based on people who you know personally?
ALM: My wife is very involved in both raising awareness about treatments available for PTSD and actually offering treatment for PTSD to our Veteran population. My wife works for the VA here in West Palm Beach, Florida. In addition, she co-created a program that offers free weekend therapeutic retreats to Veterans (https://www.quantumleapfarm.org/wmae/).
My wife has shared many stories with me (of course without revealing specific names and details). I can assure you that I have shed many tears listening to these accounts. I have also had the chance to meet and talk with a number of Veterans.
However, in the case of the stories in The Path of Souls and The Path of Dogs, my son and I have relied heavily on real, historical events. For example, in Volume 3, The Path of Dogs, we see Captain J. L. Clark of the 13th Mississippi Infantry die. He gets hit by a cannonball which enters his chest and exits through his lower back. This actually happened. He was well-liked and his death had a significant impact on his men’s morale. It becomes important to our story. Believe me when I tell you, this is just one example. Basically we related true stories and folded in fictional characters, imagining how they might react to the historical events.
However, even with this historical focus, I always had many conversations with my wife about how a person might react to such and such an event. These conversations were highly influential to our stories.
7. I was a bit surprised at the choice not to include cursing in the dialogue. However, I applaud the bold decision to make the book available to a wider age group. What made you decide to do this and to keep the violence and language at a PG-13 level? Who do you picture as the demograph, the ideal target readership, for this series?
ALM: With regard to using symbols to indicate swearing, it is all about trying to cast as wide a net (audience-wise) as possible. Believe me, in real life, I employ no such censorship. (LOL) It might interest you to know that theologians often have reputations for highly colorful swearing (not in public… but definitely around each other). No joke.
As for a demograph, my son and I are looking for intelligent readers of any age who value a good story that will entertain… but, more importantly, challenge and inspire them. We very much want to write stories that are impactful, that leave an impression on the reader. We want to write graphic novels that stay with (maybe even haunt) our readers.
8. The series focuses not just on American soldiers in the after-life but on veterans from a variety of conflicts through the ages. It was a pleasant change from many war comics, which tend to focus solely on the Western perspective of war. Do you feel that this is a problem and that comics in the war genre would benefit from more diverse characters and perspectives?
ALM: Well, I am not sure we were as diverse as we could be. Of the four Veterans we featured, two were Americans (a US Marine, d. 2004 and a Confederate soldier, d. 1862). The other two were a Wendat (Huron) warrior from what is now modern Ontario, d. 1648, and a French soldier who died in Jaffa in 1799. We do, however, give glimpses of some of the countless other soldiers and, of course, there is great diversity there.
I do think that we should tell stories from many different cultures and time periods. For example, I read a deeply moving graphic novel by Ethan Young entitled, Nanjing: The Burning City (Milwaukie, OR: Dark Horse, 2015), which was set during the brutal conquest of Nanjing. Young’s book is a contribution toward raising awareness of these events.
In general, I believe the value of telling war stories is that they can serve as warnings from beyond the grave. For far too long humanity has resorted to violence to solve its differences. History screams at us that war does not solve anything but will we choose to listen… or is the next generation damned to repeat the follies of those who came before?
9. I noticed that there’s precise military jargon sprinkled throughout the dialogue. How did you research the relevant terminology?
ALM: I am glad you noticed. We worked very hard on that! For example, in the case of the Second Battle of Fallujah (November-December 2004), we have a ton of actual video footage (readily available on YouTube) as well as photographic evidence from reputable sources. In addition, there are a number of published books written by soldiers and Marines who participated in the fighting. I also spoke with Marines who served in “the Sandbox” (Iraq) during that period and they were extremely helpful. In addition, I located and used written materials such as Military Operations on Urbanized Terrain (MOUT) a.k.a. MCWP 3-35.3, which was published in 1998, and was essentially the “bible” for the USMC forces fighting house to house in Fallujah. These resources (and many more) were incredibly helpful as we tried to recreate a reasonable facsimile of the conditions faced in Fallujah.
Similar efforts were made to capture Wendat life, culture and religious beliefs/practices. In this case, we were fortunate to have an early 17th century travel account/diary, The Long Journey to the Country of the Hurons, written in 1632, by a Franciscan missionary brother, Gabriel Sagard. This book related Sagard’s experience of living side-by-side with the Wendat and covers a host of interesting things ranging from typical diet, funerary practices, how the Wendat approached warfare and many other aspects of daily life. Sagard also left us a French/Wendat dictionary which gives us our first “hearing” of the Wendat tongue. These resources, while obviously providing a view of the Wendat through a European lens, are incredibly valuable.
10. The writing on the books is a collaborative effort. You and your son work on it together. Did this, in part, inform the relationship between the main characters who are also family?
ALM: Without doubt. Lawrence and Val are, in many ways, reflections of Roberto and myself. We love each other very much and we are very close. We also bang heads (less so now that Roberto isn’t a teenager anymore, LOL!).
Assuredly, family dynamics are a huge part of The Shepherd series and always will be. In many ways, our stories attempt to grapple with the idea of how our love for each other (whether that be as family or as friends) endures and, hopefully, continues to grow… even in the afterlife.