August Uhl makes cameo appearances in the first volume of his own magazine, Full Mag: Veteran Stories Illustrated.
To be accurate, they are artist renditions of Uhl, including one as he’s wrapping up an interview in 2016 with Missoula’s David Thatcher, the next-to-last survivor of the Doolittle Raiders of World War II.
Thatcher died barely a month later, and it may have been the final interview in his Dearborn Avenue home.
For Uhl, 45, it was a sad kind of paydirt. He learned what many others knew, that Thatcher, at 94, was “a warm and kind man” with an incredible memory. In graphic “cartoon” form, Uhl thanks Thatcher after his story is told for his “sacrifice and contribution to our freedom.”
Uhl was working on a unique concept: to tell stories in the words of men and women who served and serve in the U.S. military, “combined with the visual storytelling of some of the best graphic artists in the business,” as he wrote in introducing Vol. I in 2017.
A Florida native, graduate of Clemson University in South Carolina and father of three, Uhl worked on F-16 fighter jets in his own three-year stint with the Air Force in the mid-1990s. He moved 12 years ago to Bozeman, where he’s team leader of the MilTech Department, a clearinghouse for military patents and contracts at Montana State University.
Working with artist Mike DeCarlo, Uhl made Thatcher’s closing words the last and only colorized panel of a 17-page illustrated narrative of his war adventures after the Doolittle Raid.
“I was on 26 bombing missions over there (in Europe),” Thatcher says in his straightforward fashion, sitting upright in his favorite recliner. “In the last of September '43, I got yellow jaundice. I was in the hospital for two and a half months and finally got out the first of December.
“So I didn’t fly any more missions after that. I got discharged in July of '45; I had enough points to get out.”
Kreg Worrest, a neighbor of David and Dawn Thatcher in Missoula and a friend and co-worker of Uhl’s, helped set up the Thatcher interview and accompanied Uhl to it. He’s shown in the last panel taking notes, flanking Thatcher on one side while Uhl sits in question-asking mode on the other.
“We wanted to show a visual to the reader, bring it back so it’s like ‘Hey, he was talking this whole time, these are his exact words,’” Uhl said.
There'll be more such narrative devices in Vol. 2, which is 90 percent finished and should be out in the spring of 2019. Uhl said it will be twice the size, with better quality artwork.
"We do a lot of showing the reader the storyteller is telling the story," Uhl said. "Head shots with word bubbles coming out, doing it in the beginning and sprinkled throughout."
Think a nonfiction version of Terry and the Pirates, Steve Canyon, or The Amazing Spiderman, with even a few battle POP-POPs, BRAT-TATs, ZIINGS and ZIIIPPs thrown in. Mix it up with short, change-of-pace historic pieces illustrated with maps and photos.
“David Thatcher was the first veteran we interviewed,” Uhl said. “The Doolittle Raid has been very well covered in the historic record; however, we knew that SSgt. Thatcher had flown more missions out of North Africa, and that story is less known. We asked SSgt. Thatcher to tell us about that and that is what happened.”
Thatcher’s narrative is followed by a more traditional Q and A with Thatcher on the Doolittle Raid itself. (“Let’s face it folks,” Uhl wrote by way of introduction. “One doesn’t sit down and interview a Doolittle Raider without at least asking a few questions about that most famous of all raids.”)
Then comes a five-page account about Pantelleria, the Mediterranean island that was the target of hundreds of sorties by Thatcher and his wingmen in 1943. It’s written, says another cartoon figure of Uhl, by “the great Air Force historian Herman S. Wolk” and reprinted from Air Force Magazine.
After that, two Vietnam veterans tell stories — a “dustoff” ambulance pilot in 1970, illustrated by DeCarlo, and a soldier on Son Tra Mountain near Da Nang in 1971, illustrated by Russ Heath. The final illustrated story takes place in Afghanistan in 2012.
Three of the four pieces feature Montana veterans, and Uhl said that trend will continue in the second volume, which will include another Thatcher story. Jeff Thatcher was impressed by the work Uhl did with his father and offered a piece he wrote about his brother Gary Thatcher, who was lost in a U.S. Army Medevac crash in Vietnam in 1970.
As for the illustrated stories, there'll be nine this time, up from the four in the first issue. Uhl did most of the interviews himself. The hard part comes after that — transcribing, putting the veteran's words into the flow of a story, going back and forth with the artist, and checking over illustrations and text for errors.
"That can take weeks or months," Uhl said. "It's all freelancers for the illustrations. The life of a freelance artist is pretty hard, I've learned. I've worked with maybe 20 different artists. There are four tasks — pencils, inks, letters and colors. Some can do all that but I'll have multiple artists working parallel on a piece."
Veterans are good storytellers, Uhl said. Many of the comic creators of the past tended to be veterans. Such was the case for Stan Lee, a World War II veteran who died earlier this month. Most of Lee's collaborators at Marvel Comics, including co-writers/artists Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, had military backgrounds as well.
"Surprisingly there's not a lot of people using this art form for nonfiction to begin with," Uhl said. "And very few, if any, are doing veterans' history or military history."
"Since the dawn of mankind, cultures have honored their warriors in art," Uhl told interviewer Matt Grills in the September 2018 issue of The American Legion. "This is just a way of doing that. We're honoring America's veterans using a truly American art form."