Robert Venditti, 45, is the bestselling author of popular comics series including The Surrogates, Hawkman, Freedom Fighters, and many others. He ventures into a fact-based tale with his latest work, Six Days: The Incredible True Story of D-Day’s Lost Chapter—cowritten with Kevin Maurer, with art by Andrea Mutti—which tells the story of American paratroopers badly misdropped on D-Day who fought in the June 10-12, 1944, Battle of Graignes alongside French civilians. Venditti’s great-uncle, Thomas J. Travers, died in the fight. Six Days was released by publisher DC Vertigo in mid-May to coincide with D-Day’s 75th anniversary. For this interview, we paired Venditti with a graphic memoirist whose recent work, Flying Couch, also sprang from a personal tie to the war.
You’ve set many stories in fantasy worlds. What made you want to tell this realistic story?
This is my first nonfiction project, and it came about in a strange way. My grandmother had always discussed my uncle Tommy—her brother—and his involvement in World War II. He’d been part of the D-Day invasion, and no one had ever seen him again. The family had never known anything beyond this telegram saying that he was killed in action on June 11, 1944, somewhere in France.
My grandmother passed away close to 25 years ago, and I’d been given a box of things that had belonged to her. One of them was a letter that had been written to her mother from one of Tommy’s friends in the war. It explained the events of his death and how he was killed. I wasn’t aware of the letter for a long time, though.
I was very close to my grandmother. I suspect that I just didn’t want to dwell on losing her. And so—that box of things—I just didn’t go through it.
It was actually on one of the D-Day anniversaries when I finally did. My children were old enough that I was going to find that telegram and tell them about this great-uncle I had who had been killed in the war. That was when I found the letter. So I started Googling. I found references to this battle, and it seemed so extraordinary. Eventually, I came across an image of a plaque at the back of the church in Graignes with my uncle’s name on it, along with the rest of the soldiers and civilians who were killed. All of sudden there were things I could know about my uncle’s life. It just felt like a story that I had to tell.
You felt like you had a mission.
I felt like I owed it to him and I owed it to my family. The contents of the letter are actually rendered into the final pages of Six Days.
That letter is my favorite part, and I had a sense that it was real. I wrote a graphic memoir about my grandmother, who escaped the Warsaw Ghetto, and I incorporated a transcription of testimony she had given to a historian. I wanted to preserve her voice. You had a similar impulse.
The pain and the sadness that’s in that letter. The writer says to my great-grandmother that she must be wondering: why couldn’t her son have been him—the one who made it home?
He writes: “I would have written to all the moms and dads of the fellows I once knew.” But regulations prevented it. For so many reasons, it’s hard for those who experienced these losses firsthand to write about them, so the burden of that falls on the people who come after.
We’re left to fill in those gaps as best we can. My grandfather passed away a little over a year ago—he was in the Philippines, the Pacific Theater—and it wasn’t until late in his life that he started to tell some stories. I think there’s a guilt sometimes. I’m sure you encountered this in your project. You know, why am I the one who got to come home?
I had always heard about World War II from the perspective of those who survived. It wasn’t until I got into Uncle Tommy’s story that I ever thought about World War II from the perspective of someone who didn’t come home.
Tell us more about him.
He enlisted on May 14, 1942, and became a private in Headquarters Company, 3rd Battalion, 507th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division. Before the war, he’d been an elevator operator in New York City.
How did his troop end up in Graignes?
The nine C-47 Skytrains carrying the majority of the paratroopers who ended up in Graignes strayed off course when they encountered antiaircraft flak along the coast of Normandy. This resulted in the paratroopers missing their intended Drop Zone T near Amfreville—inland of Utah Beach—by 15 miles. They were the worst misdropped paratroopers on all of D-Day. They landed in flooded marshland so far behind enemy lines the war hadn’t caught up to them yet. So the paratroopers—182 in all—had a span of relative peace to become a part of the French community in Graignes, which took great risk in deciding to feed and shelter them.
What about the battle?
The Germans who attacked Graignes were from the 17th SS Panzergrenadier Division. They’d been far to the south and had been ordered to reinforce the French city of Carentan, just north of Graignes. With its position on high ground in the surrounding marsh area, Graignes was in their path of advance. I don’t believe the Germans were aware that the paratroopers were in Graignes until recon elements from the German division encountered the Americans, leading up to the climactic battle.
What stands out as unique to me about the events in Graignes isn’t that battle—though that in itself is marked by tremendous heroism, sacrifice, and loss. It’s the days leading up to the battle. The American soldiers had decided to hold the town and dug defensive positions around it. During that time the soldiers and citizens—groups from different backgrounds and cultures—lived together and became a single community. The Americans were in that town for six days: they ate together, got to know each other, and even attended Mass together at the village’s 12th-century Catholic church.
When the main battle occurred on June 11—the day my uncle died—the villagers continued to aid the paratroopers by distributing food and supplies, and using the church as a field hospital. For all of this, the people and the community paid a heavy price. After the Germans took the village, they executed the church priests and caretakers and burned the village’s buildings. Thirty-two civilians were killed in all, along with 49 Americans (and one Australian soldier).
Not knowing your uncle, how did you recreate his character and his experience for the book?
From speaking with my father’s cousin, Joni, who remembers him from when she was young, I learned little things: He was Catholic. He was in Mass every Sunday. He doted on Joni and his other nieces. He wasn’t afraid to be seen pushing a baby stroller. Joni said that she would walk around in his boots. I took moments like that and folded them into the story.
My collaborators and I tried to allude to the life that these soldiers would have had if they had come back home. One of the moments is Uncle Tommy seeing a young French girl and saying, “You remind me of my niece Joni,” and then he dances with her in the way that every father, myself included—I have a daughter—has danced with his daughter.
Those were the most difficult moments of the story. There’s a weight there. But it’s that uncomfortable place that, as a writer, I feel like you need to run toward.
Did you give explicit direction to the artist about rendering characters and battles?
While I have photos of Uncle Tommy, we didn’t ask Andrea to draw him as Uncle Tommy. In a lot of ways, the characters are fictional representations.
With comic books, the most important part is the emotion. Andrea got it right away. He understood that the story was not superheroism and explosions and Hollywood extravaganza. He understood that less can be more.
The characters in the village are a compelling contrast to the soldiers.
There are things we know from the historical record. We know the French citizens helped pull the paratroopers’ supplies out of the marsh. We know that the men in town convened in the church to vote on what they were going to do. When I read that I was like, well, I’ve got a mom and I’ve got a wife, and they wouldn’t be standing around [laughs]. We had the name of the woman who ran the café who oversaw this massive undertaking. So the idea was—before the men even voted—all the women had decided that they were going to start feeding people. I don’t know that that happened, but it feels honest.
Throughout there’s the theme of community across identities. What do you think made the citizens in Graignes so willing to include the Americans in theirs?
It would just be supposition, but I would say it’s similar to the impetus that led people like my uncle and my grandfathers to volunteer. In the darkest times, I think the good presents itself. I’m a hopeful person by nature. I just think that people are good, and they are drawn to a common cause. That’s ultimately what the book is about. ✯