Zack Sherman talks about SOCOM: SEAL TEAM SEVEN

zack-shermanYou start with a submarine downed in the Persian Gulf, and a string of mystifying attacks and you end up with the U.S. at war with the underwater Kingdom of Atlantis. It’s war on a grand scale from writer M. Zachary Sherman, a military man himself. Sherman agreed to talk with First Comics News about his new series SOCOM: Seal Team Seven to give readers a better idea of what to expect from the Original Graphic Novel coming from Image.

First Comics News: You are a Marine yourself and you come from a military family, how much realism is there in SOCOM: Seal Team Seven?

M. Zachary Sherman: As a young writer, I remember very clearly sitting in a theater watching “Crimson Tide” with my father.  As a Navy Captain, and head of the Joint Information Bureau for the entire west coast for the US Navy, one of his many duties included being the technical advisor on all films the Department of Defense decided to give their help and assistance to and this film was definitely not one of them.

At one point in the film, a Russian sub is detected and the Chief of the boat starts yelling “Rig for all quiet!  All quiet” over the loudspeakers.  Alarms started going off, people ran around to their stations and lights flashed.  I looked over at my father and notice he’s laughing hysterically at this very dramatic moment.  I asked him what was so funny and he said—“They flip a switch that turns on a light that means all quiet and everyone passes the word on a sound-powered telephone quietly and then everyone shuts the hell up.  If you made that much noise, the Russians would know exactly where you were and blow you out of the water!”

It was at that instant I felt I needed to be as accurate in my writing as I could, making sure that the details in everything I did were as spot-on as I could get.  At the same time, there is a line between exciting drama and a boring light they flip on – what makes a better scene?  I believe it’s the artist’s (writer/director) perception of the moment and the style in which it’s portrayed that makes the difference.  Tony Scott could have chosen to make a very tense and dramatic moment out of the light switch and play it very differently than he did in the final film.  Instead, he decided to have the fast-paced action that actually makes for a pretty cool moment in the film but it’s as inaccurate as you can get.  There is definitely a fine-line there that’s pretty easy to cross.

I try very hard not to cross that line too much because the last thing you want are the people you’re trying to portray, laughing at all of your hard work and dismissing it as worthless pap.  These operators work very hard at what they do and I think it would be disrespectful not to show them the decency to do the research and get the details right.  Best thing about writing SEALs, is they deploy on some pretty electrifying operations, so sometimes when you think you’re making a big technical error, you’re really not.

I’ve read every book I could get my hands on, done hundreds of hours of research, seen every documentary, interviewed and spoken to retired SEALs, conversed with people and friends who have worked with SEALs, my sister is in the Navy, I’m a Marine, and I am also very lucky to have a 26-plus year Navy veteran who was a technical advisor at my beckon call (thanks Dad!).  With that much info at my fingertips, I hope I’ve made it as realistic and exciting as possible.

1st: This comic was coming out from AiT/PlanetLar last July, how did it end up at Image in February?

Zack: Everyone over at AiT/PlanetLAR are great guys, it’s just Image was a better fit for the project.

1st: Why an original graphic novel instead of a mini-series and then collecting it as a graphic novel?

Zack: Since the book was originally coming out from AiT and they usually only do graphic novels, that’s what we did.  Besides, every completed story arch becomes a graphic novel nowadays anyway, so I liked the idea of giving the reader a completed book.  And, sometimes with political intrigue and spy-stuff, you don’t want to break it up too much or people might not remember the subtleties of what happened in previous months!

1st: Why the name change from Seal Team Seven to SOCOM: Seal Team Seven?

Zack: SOCOM is an acronym for Special Operations Command. Their purpose is to lead, plan, synchronize and execute operations against terrorist networks. That doesn’t just mean they just go after guys in the desert, though. They train, organize and deploy combat-ready special operation forces to combat commands all over the world whenever they’re needed. This includes SEALs, Delta Force, Psychological Operations Forces and the newly formed MARSOC (Marine Corps Special Operations Command)!

As a writer, I’ve learned not to limit myself.  SOCOM in the title tells readers that there’s a bigger operational world out there and it allows me an open-ended venue to utilize any of these teams later on down the road.  This title definitely focuses on Team Seven and the men in 5th Platoon, but joint operations between SEALs and other operational teams are not unheard of.  Who’s to say, in later stories, they won’t be calling on the Marines for some assistance!

1st: Was their any conflict with the series of Seal Team Seven books by Keith Douglass?

Zack: No, in fact I was not aware these books were even in existence until after the fact.  When I started writing this project, there was no Team Seven in the Navy, they were only up to Team Six. Of course, I knew about Team Six, which was a very hush-hush Team that was commissioned to deal with rising threat of terrorism in the early 80’s, and I wanted to use a number that hadn’t been created at the time.  In the Navy, all of the Team’s odd numbers are located on the Pacific Coast and I wanted to use a California-based team, since Coronado is the birthplace of the SEAL program, so Seven was the logical choice.  Both Team Seven and Team Ten are newly commissioned Teams formed to combat the escalating situations around the globe.

Originally, I envisioned Team Seven as kind of like the X-Files.  They’d be the team that was tasked to do the missions that were kind of odd and not part of the SEALs charter, but that all seemed too forced and too written.  The Navy would never have that.  So I thought it would be cooler if they just sort of happened into these weird, Sci-Fi elements while conducting real, every-day missions SEALs would be deployed on.  It’s more interesting to see how characters react to weird shit they didn’t know existed than to see them prance up to E.T. and yell “freeze.”  I try to put myself in the character’s situation.  I mean come on, even as a Marine, if I turned around and saw 1940’s Nazis flying out of a time portal here in San Francisco, I wouldn’t be all cool and Bruce Willis-like and say something glib and funny while jumping off a 34-story building.  I’d be like “What the F@%K is going on!?” and start blasting away while crapping my cammies!  Uh, in a very Marine-like way, that is…

1st: What is the story about?

Zack: It’s a mystery, so I don’t want to give too much away…

Iraqi insurgents, sick of the sanctions placed upon them by the US and the new interim government, destroy a Naval blockade in the Gulf of Oman creating the world’s largest environmental disaster we’ve ever seen and sinking one of our nuclear submarines.  This provides the Iraqis a very good opportunity to retrieve the nuclear missile payload.  Enter the SEALs, they are tasked to secure the nuclear warheads, but since it’s in a hot-bed of activity, the Secretary of Defense reactivates on of his best men, ex SEAL and present CIA tactician Commander Griffin for the task.  After finding the sub wasn’t sunk by “conventional weapons”, Griffin believes there is more going on.  His suspicions prove correct when a mysterious army (which turns out to be the underwater Kingdom of Atlantis) begins invading the shores of the world.  The problem is, who initiated their hostilities against us and why?  How do the actions of the insurgents factor in and soon it becomes a race: Can the SEALs find the truth and stop the war before the subjugation of the surface world is upon us.

1st: The main characters are Commander Douglas Griffin, Lt. Commander Jarvis and Master Chief Taggert, who are they? and how do they relate to each other?

Zack: Actually, the platoon consists of 6 men, Commander Griffin, Lt. Commander Jarvis, GM2 Zeck, Ensign Young, Master Chief Petty Officer Taggert and BM3 Mitchell.  It’s a smaller unit because of what they’re tasked to do. Hand-picked men by the Secretary of Defense to handle a mission of utmost importance, the team is led by Commander Douglas Griffin.

Griffin, formally an operator and Team Leader, has since quit and become a historian and investigator for the CIA. During an op in Bosnia, the Team Griffin was leading ran into trouble. Based on the Intel they had from CIA sources, the building they were meant to set up camp in was supposed to be clean and cleared. But it wasn’t. After going in, a momentary freeze in his actions erupted in a firefight, getting several members of his team killed. It was after that mission he decided what had happened to him would never happen to another Team again – so he quit. A graduate of the Annapolis Naval Academy with a degree in Military History, as well as being the world’s foremost expert in Middle Eastern affairs, Griffin is “reactivated” back into his SEAL Team to find out why a nuclear submarine mysteriously sank in the Gulf of Oman. With it’s nuclear payload also needing to be secured, Griffin is assigned the best men for his team – unfortunately, one of those men was with him in Bosnia, Lt. Commander Patrick Jarvis.

Lt. Commander Jarvis is a hard-assed, hard charging “lifer.” A golden-gloves champion boxer in school, he has always concentrated on becoming the best at everything he’s done. Graduating top of his class from the Texas A+M Aggie Corps with a Bachelors in Mathematics, he was given a commission right out of school, bypassing OCS. Jarvis was handpicked to go straight into BUD/S by the head of SOCOM. Acing BUD/S with very little trouble, Jarvis went on to lead his first Seal Team at the age of 22. He was busted down from team leader when he picked a fight in a bar in Coronado with a Marine Gunny Sergeant, but since has worked very hard at keeping his southern temper in check. He was the Team Leader before Griffin was reactivated.  He was also on the mission lead by Griffin in Bosnia and harbors resentment toward him for quitting the teams.

The oldest warrior among them is Master Chief Perry Officer Taggert. Almost 40, the chief has been behind the lines of almost every major battle you can think of, as well as some we’ve never heard of. After lying about his age and joining the Navy back in Vietnam, he and his squad of UDT divers were the first members of the Seal Teams, disrupting convoy routes and supply lines along the Ho-Chi-Minh Trail in Cambodia. His first major conflict was against the Vietcong in Denang where he and his team supported the Marines in the house to house fighting in efforts to clear the city of hostiles. Serving his country for over 22 years as an operator, he knows no other life and is committed to the cause of freedom. Though he’s not an officer, he’s earned the respect of all those around him with his years of service and dedication to the Teams. He’s also one of the first men Griffin ever fought along side of and Griffin values his council.

1st: How did things change from time traveling Nazis to Atlantis attacks?

Zack: Strangely enough, not all that much has changed in regards to the script!  The characters and their relationships have remained the same throughout every draft of the script and it was only the main plot point that transformed.  The Nazi idea (which is still around by the way and will hopefully be book three) was going to be a long story, about 136 pages, so it was suggested to me that maybe, as an unknown writer who was paying for this entire project out of pocket, I would want to do something a bit shorter, say 80 pages, so I came up with the Atlantis Attacks storyline.  Problem was, it came out to be about the same length anyway!  But I think this story is a much stronger one to start with.  We get to see the SEALs in their native environment, fighting a force that’s their only equal in the water – the army of Atlantis.

1st: Comic readers are very familiar with Atlantis, from Atlantic Chronicles, Aquaman and Namor. What is your Atlantis like?

Zack: I really wanted my vision of Atlantis to be as different from any other in look or feel that we’d encountered in comics/books/film or TV because I’ve never really believed any of them. Tell me why a civilization of water-breathing fish-men would need domes around their cities and why would they look like people? These concepts and others have always bothered me about Aquaman and Namor. They’re just not very realistic.  With this book I wanted to try my best to ground the entirety of it in reality. It’s essentially “what if we were invaded by Atlantis today?” What the hell would we do? With the story and the art, I tried extremely hard to keep the characters and situations as realistic as I could to today’s world.

After careful research, I found the city of ‘Atlantis’ Plato theorized about sank somewhere near where ancient Sumeria would have been. Reality dictates it’s probably a city that collapsed during a massive tsunami and was destroyed, allowing it’s remains to sink into the oceans. Realizing Sumeria was the beginning of all civilizations, I though how cool would it be if Atlantians based their entire society on the writings they found in the rubble of this doomed culture? Ancient Sumerian texts speak of massive floods rising from the fury of their gods. Interestingly enough, one of those Gods was Nammu the Sumerian sea goddess. Credited as being the mother of the other gods and the creator of the earth and heavens, I thought how perfect was that, so I made Her the primary deity for the Atlantians. Plus it’s right smack dab in the middle of one of the hottest war zones in history, so that made it perfect for the book. With the massive amounts of fighting we’ve been doing in the Middle East, the environmental impacts on that region must be as dangerous and threatening to an oceanic civilization as a nuclear war could be to us.

With the Atlantians themselves, I saw it like this – when the creature that became man first crawled out of the primordial ooze and came up on shore, there was another that decided to stay in the water and through the millennia of evolution, finally evolved into the being I describe as Atlantians.  The Atlantians don’t breath air – they can’t because they’re essentially bipedal fish – so I have them in pressurized battle armor filled with recirculating seawater allowing them to operate on the surface. They also have weapons that don’t fire lasers, they fire explosive rounds tipped with deadly poisons of undersea animals we’ve yet to discover. Actually, they mostly use a trident-inspired cutting weapon as their main offensive tool that the pistol locks into for increased range and intensified power. Also, Atlantis the city is just the capitol city of a massive underwater civilization that encompasses the ocean’s deepest surfaces all over the world. The tides and streams connect all the cities together, almost like a submerged freeway system. Plus the reason we can’t see them from the surface is they build down from the rocks and jetties, protecting and shielding them from the outside world. The hardest part of designing this book had to have been the Atlantians themselves. They had to be creatures you could not only be afraid of, but ones you could empathize with as well. I felt we really needed to stay away from that crab-armor thing everyone else always does, so Alex Jaeger came up with the idea of making them look like Piranhas. If you look carefully, you can really see it in their faces. I wanted them to be smooth in texture like dolphins, with webbed fingers so they could glide though the water and slice through currents easily.  But it’s really Roberto’s art that captures the emotional impact of the story I wrote.

Some of the other cool characters in this book are the underwater creatures other than the Atlantians we encounter. We’ve got so many toxins and pollutants down there from years of atomic testing, naval battles, and dumping, I thought there would have to be mutations in sea life that wouldn’t be too happy with us either. One of which is a massive humpback whale with the remnants of a WWII battleship that has been fused and mutated onto it’s back that is still operational and manned by Atlantians. Not to mention what’s happened to some of the dolphins in similar situations that have mutated over the years, having torpedoes attached to them from being trapped under radiated wreckage. Almost like biomechanical sea creatures, these mammals have had evolution forced upon them and now it’s their turn to be pissed.

I like to describe this book as “Spy-Fi”: It’s got political intrigue, drama, action and plot points that twist and turn in directions no one (hopefully) sees coming all mired in this sci-fi backdrop of Atlantis.  It’s also got kick-ass tech (a very special thanks to Alex Jaeger for designing the entirety of the Atlantians world) and amazing art by Roberto, who by the way is the key behind visualizing exactly what I had in my head. All in all, a fresh, new perspective on Atlantis that I hope everyone enjoys.

1st: With the Atlantians being native to the water and of course humans are not, how does the battle work? It would seem to me that there would be great difficulty for the Military Unit operating outside of their native region.

Zack: Ahh, but that’s what’s so great about using the SEALs as your heroes – they truly are frogmen!  Now, if we were talking about the Air Force, that would be different, but water is native for SEALs and they train extensively for underwater combat.  Special grappling techniques, knife fighting and training with special hand guns that fire underwater are all musts for SEALs.

1st: Seal Team Seven stated out as a screenplay are you planning using the graphic novel as a stepping-stone to a feature film?

Zack: No, not at all.  I want to write comics.  What people tend to forget is, comics are an art form.  You have to love comics to want to work in comics.  Several friends of mine who work in comics look at my job at ILM and say, “ah, you know there’s no money in comics, right?  It ain’t like the movies.”  And I tell them I really don’t care.  I want to write comics.  I’m so envious of people like Brubaker, Bendis and Waid.  They’re doing what I long to do.  They’re solid story-tellers that have made a living at writing comics.  I’ve wanted to work in comics my entire life, but it’s about as small and tight-knit a group as the SEALs!  I wasn’t sure how to break in, and I just worked my ass off.  Heck, I even wrote a sample Nightwing script and sent it to DC, never expecting to see anything from it.  I was very lucky to not only get my script back, but Bob Schreck had red-lined it, making comments and suggestions personally! WOW!  What an amazing tool to have as a young comic writer and how inspirational!  He told me not to quit and to keep it up.  “Better than most I get” was what he said.  That meant a lot to me and I still have that script with those notes.

As a digital effects artist at Industrial Light and Magic, I’ve had the opportunity to work on some of the best films in recent history, but unfortunately without any creative input. Being a creative mind, I internally think about how I would improve or change a show personally, but you don’t get that opportunity in the roll of digital effects artist because I’m there to help augment and improve creator’s visions to be what they’ve envisioned their films to be. And I do that very happily because you learn so much by just sitting in a room and listening to the decisions being made by people like George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, Michael Bay and Joe Johnston.

Writing for comics has finally allowed me the ability to be that creative force behind projects where I am the “director” of sorts. Approving layouts and final pencils, working with a conceptual designer on the look and feel of the book, and maintaining artistic integrity are something one doesn’t get to do on most projects and it’s a blast. It’s nice to finally get some of my visions out there in projects everyone seems really excited about.

As for a S:ST7 film, I’ve worked in Hollywood for sixteen years and I know the realities of making a movie.  Especially one like SOCOM: Seal Team Seven.  If someone comes to me and wants to make a movie out of S:ST7 trust me, not unlike Roberto, they’re going to have to be the right guys for the job.

1st: Tell us about the art, you have had Joaquim Dos Santos, Alex Jaeger and Roberto de la Torre each do some work on the series?

Zack: Talk about the best of the best!  I have been so lucky to have some amazingly talented friends with me on this journey.  We have all tried to help and support one another with our individual talents the best we could, I am just so happy we’ve all had the modicum of success we’ve had.

Joaquim is an amazingly talented comic artist in his own right.  He and I used to live in the same apartment building in LA and I hired him as a concept artist on “Mortal Kombat: Annihilation” while at the now defunct Todd-AO Digital Images.  Together, he and I designed some of the major effects sequences in that film (not our fault folks, the art kicked ass) and he agreed to be the artist on the book when it was called “THE W.E.B. – The World Enforcement Bureau” (ugh, trust me I know).  He did some pretty awesome prelim work on the book back in 1996 when he was just starting out, but his career took off like a shot.  He was just too crazy-busy with storyboarding the new He-Man cartoon to be the full-time artist on the book and finally told me he had to step down.  Unfortunately, nothing that he’s done appears anywhere in the book, but his initial steps put me on a path.  And for him, it was the right decision because now he’s directing episodes of “Justice League” on Cartoon Network and we all know how kick-ass that show is!

Alex Jaeger is just the man.  That’s it.  THE MAN.  He is the most talented art director/production designer that I have ever seen and would put him up there with Syd Mead.  He and I have worked closely together on different projects for about ten years now.  We finally got the opportunity to work on a comic together last year in Dark Horse’s graphic novel Star War: Visionaries with the story “Entrenched” about the ground troops during the battle of Hoth.  Alex is the one artist I know that can take a simple idea and make it the coolest reality you have ever laid eyes on.  As any artist that has ever worked with me can tell you, I have VERY SPECIFIC ideas in my head and I’m looking for those realized on paper.  Alex can reach into my mind’s eye and see what I see.  He’s amazing that way.  Wait until Seal Team Seven Book Three – his WWII updated tech is AMAZING, and with Roberto drawing it, it’s going to blow people away!

Which, last but definitely not least, brings me to Roberto.  What can I say?  The art speaks for itself.  He’s one of the most dazzling artists I’ve ever had opportunity to work with.  I have a very visual way of writing – if I say it’s an M4 with bi-pod mount and RIS system, that’s what I want to see in the art and I knew this book would only work if I found the type of artist that could deliver that amount of detail. Also, I wanted someone with a dramatic sense about their work-with the ability to place the reader into the best spot to feel the action and the drama with angles and forced perspective. One who could use the black and white format to our advantage.  That’s Roberto.  He’s very gracious towards comments or questions and is open to any changes to the art.  And he is so solid!  He’s reliable and fast.  I was looking for an artist that could capture reality on a “hyper-reality” scale.  He did just that with this book and he’s going to be a huge star.  He’s already making waves with the new Ms. Marvel book he’s working on for Marvel.  I wish him all the success in the world because he deserves it!

1st: Roberto de laTorre is a Spanish artist with little exposure in America, how did you get together with him?

Zack: This was a total fluke.  I was searching for an artist when out of sheer desperation, I posted an “artist wanted” add on Digital Webbing.  I got over 300 submissions!  As an artist, I know how difficult it is to put yourself out there for review and I thank everyone that submitted; I got some great stuff.  Roberto was one of those guys.  After careful review of what I felt I needed for the book, it was down to a list of three guys and I had them all do a sample page from the book.  Hands down, Roberto’s was the best and I hired him on the spot.

1st: How do you get things back and forth between here and Spain?

Zack: We initially started out with me FedEXing him a copy of the script, a CD-ROM with over 2000 reference images on it and a 150 sheets of Blue Line Pro comic paper.  After doing some prelim stuff, he emailed me a layout for the first page.  After making comments on it, I got a different layout the next day and we were off and running.  He’d email me rough layouts; I’d email him my corrections and comments.  Based on that, he’d scan and email me finished pencils then I’d okay it to go to final inks.

1st: As far as I know Roberto doesn’t speak English, how dose he interrupt your script?

Zack: Uh, you know what?  I’m not sure.  I’ve never asked and never needed to.

1st: If this is successful are you planning more comics?

Zack: I would love to write more comics and I hope the readers out dig what we’ve done.  I have four SOCOM: Seal Team Seven books in my head as of right now.  Roberto’s currently working on the second one and we have all the production designs for the third ready to go.  I’m working on a pitch for a monthly for Image and I’m helping several people right now with some self-publishing stuff.  Writing comics is where I want to be and I’m excited to make the best out of it.

About Author