The creator of "Terminal Lance" is back to writing about the heavier side of military life with a new graphic novel that follows Marines in Afghanistan's frigid mountain ranges.
Max Uriarte is taking an all-new cast of Marine characters to Afghanistan's northeastern Badakhshan province in his upcoming graphic novel "Battle Born: Lapis Lazuli." The full-color, feature-length story follows Sgt. King as he leads his Marines in a fight against the Taliban in the province's cold, snowy mountains.
Uriarte, who served as an infantry Marine in Iraq, wanted to do something different from his last book, "The White Donkey," which follows the main "Terminal Lance" comic strip character to Iraq and back. Sgt. King, a young black infantryman, and the rest of the "Battle Born" characters are all new.
"I had never really seen a military infantry story with a black main character and thought that would be really cool," Uriarte told Military.com. "They would say you should make the story that you want to see, so I had decided to just go for it."
Uriarte also wanted to take Marines out of the desert. When he read about the Taliban illegally mining lapis lazuli, the blindingly blue, sought-after gemstone once popular with Egyptian pharaohs, he got the idea to send Sgt. King and his Marines into the valley where the group had taken hold.
Afghanistan has been one of the main sources for lapis lazuli for thousands of years, and the Taliban saw an opportunity in the gem. The group took over a mine once used for generations by an Afghan family in the import-export business, The New York Times reported. In 2014, the lapis trade was valued at about $125 million a year, according to the Times.
"I thought that was super fascinating stuff and a really cool setting for the story," Uriarte said. "And I found that the whole story, much like how I centered 'The White Donkey' around the donkey that sort of becomes a theme, I've centered it around the lapis lazuli, which is where the title comes from."
With an all-new location and set of characters, Uriarte set out to do his research. He was familiar with how Marines operated in the desert, but not the cold. So he embedded with an infantry battalion at the Marine Corps' Mountain Warfare Training Center in Bridgeport, California.
"It was honestly so much worse than Camp Pendleton or Twentynine Palms. Everybody was miserable," Uriarte said. "... It gave me a good refresher on why I left the Marine Corps because you get really nostalgic, right? Then you get back into it, and you're in the field eating [tray rations] for a few days."
"Battle Born" is a more visual story than "The White Donkey," he said, with about a third more pages but half the dialogue. It's also illustrated in full color, a change from the "Terminal Lance" black-and-white style.
"I wanted it to be a beautiful book," Uriarte said. "One that you'll open, and it will kind of take you in, so I went full color. ... And I just wanted a story that was less dialogue, less talky and more, just sort of beautiful to look at.
"I really just wanted to make a war story that was beautiful because I hadn't really seen one."
"Battle Born" touches on serious topics such as colonialism and racism, which Uriarte describes as a very personal journey for Sgt. King. It’s not without some of that salty "Terminal Lance" humor though.
"You'll find all your favorite Marine Corps staples like standing post and other bull---t," Uriarte said.
Overall, however, it's about a well-functioning small unit hard at work downrange. Given the author's longstanding tradition of celebrating junior Marines, it's perhaps only fitting the story doesn't include any pesky gunnys or first sergeants yelling at Sgt. King and his Marines.
"I didn't put a single staff NCO in the story," Uriarte said. "Sgt. King is the highest-ranking enlisted guy, and there's background to why that is in the story. But he basically just talks directly to the lieutenant, the only officer around and it's great. You take all the staff NCOs out, and everything works great."
"Battle Born: Lapis Lazuli" will be published by Little, Brown and Company this winter. It will be available in hardcover and in the Kindle Store.