What inspired you to create a book about this time period and this war? Do you have a passion for flight?
Yann: I have been a true fan of planes since I was very young. As a kid, I assembled a good hundred of scaled plane models and in the process, I have done a lot of research to discover specific color patterns, or little known cockades, emblems or camouflages… One thing leading to another, I ended up collecting a tremendous number of books, pilots’ memoirs, or specialized magazines, and more particularly, the ones dealing with ”Nose Art”: pin ups painted on the fuselage of the B-17, B-24, B-29 or other flying fortresses. As a matter of fact, one of my very first comics told the fictitious story of one of these “Pin Ups,” whose generous curves were painted against her will on the nose of a B-17. The story was about how the painting brought bad luck on the plane and how the crew was furious with her.
How did you discover the history of the Night Witches?
Yann: In her amazing memoirs, one Night Witch describes the journey of those exalted young ladies, who were often former glider pilots, and often scorned by their male counterparts. In order to exist as pilots, they had to prove themselves in missions that were more or less suicidal, flying outdated biplanes—like the Po-2—during night bombing missions aimed at breaking the morale of German troops on the eastern front. As a matter of fact, the Germans themselves gave them the “Night Witch” nickname. They suffered considerable losses, and having proved their courage and fierceness, surviving pilots were authorized to join a fighting squadron and pilot the formidable soviet Yaks. At last, they were able to fight Nazi pilots as their equals.
How did you decide to incorporate a love story within the war story?
Yann: In fact, it is the opposite that happened. It is precisely because I discovered the story of these young Russian female pilots that I decided to create a war story based on them. As a scriptwriter, I cannot design a realistic fiction story without having a confrontation between solid male and female characters. When possible, this relationship includes emotions between them: rivalry, hate, revenge, or…more tender feelings.
Including a romance implied to oppose two strong-willed characters. To face a ferocious “Night Witch,” I needed an equally strong character. Furthermore, I could not put forward a fanatic Nazi pilot, with whom the reader would not be able to relate, and with whom a love story would be unconceivable for our young Russian pilot. This was a complicated issue. It had been years since that project was sleeping in a drawer, and it is the discovery of an anti-Nazi pilot, who flew on a Focke-Wulf on which he had removed the swastika, that gave me the starting spark!
What kind of research did you have to do in order to draw the time period so authentically?
Hugault: When you draw planes or other vehicles, the best is to be able to see them for real. Hence, I frequently go to museums or to air shows, where you can realize an essential issue: size! WWII planes, even single-seaters, are often huge machines! Air shows have the extra advantage to feature “living” planes, and they provide me with the opportunity to become imbued with flying behaviors, noises, or take-off details for instance. In the case where I cannot have the plane at my disposal, the best is to obtain documentation from scale model fanatics. They are crazy with the tiniest of details, and there are entire books on single plane types, where pictures of all angles and all parts are taken.
How do you choreograph the dogfight scenes?
Hugault: I have watched a lot of “gun camera” films. These cameras were mounted on planes and used to take footage of fights to authenticate victories. It is a great learning source, which allows a better understanding of firing deflections, of the way planes behave under impacts and of issues of shooting ranges. I have practiced a lot on realistic flying simulators to grasp fighting techniques. Pilots from that era could determine if they were facing a rookie or a flying ace only by watching the way the plane was flying.
The Grand Duke original graphic novel goes on sale in comic shops Nov. 21 and in bookstores Dec. 4. You can read a preview here.