Johnny Recruit: Interview with Theo Houle Behe

Theo Houle Behe & Johnny Recruit
  • Hi Theo welcome to TeenLibrarian, can you introduce yourself to the audience please?

Hi, I’m a British-Canadian student Theo Behe. I live in London and love football, video games and reading action adventure novels. My favourite subjects are Biology, Spex and History – and I’ve been interested in WW2 and planes since seeing the Duxford airshow when I was two. One of my favourite shows ever is Band of Brothers (its follow-up Masters of the Air is being made in the UK now) and I love having lunch at the Eagle pub in Cambridge a few times per year – which is a historic RAF pilot drinking establishment. I also am particularly interested in the August 1942 Dieppe raid (also one of Johnny’s adventures) – which is now seen as Churchill’s “test-run” for the D-Day landings where over 900 Canadian troops were killed.

  • How would you describe Johnny Recruit to hook a potential reader?

You’re 14 years old – and you’ve just found out your uncle (and mentor) has been captured by NAZIS.  So what do you do? If you’re Big Johnny, you lie about your age and join the war to go RESCUE him.   Big Johnny might only be a young teenager but he’s the BIGGEST kid everyone knows.   An awesome bush pilot and an expert moose hunter, he’s also pretty dominant at ice hockey.   So when Johnny learns that his uncle Bert is being held by Germans across the ocean, he’s 100% sure there is only one person in the whole world who can save his best friend  – HIMSELF.   But when this pompous British pilot named Billy threatens to tell everyone his real age, Johnny faces big tough decisions no kid really should have to make.

  • What inspired the creation of Johnny Recruit?

In primary school, I created a comic book in a notepad about my great uncle, Bert Houle. He was a Canadian World War Two RAF ace who earned two Distinguished Flying Crosses – and he shot down 13½ Nazis.  In this short storyboard I told a little story about his time in Egypt. I was always amazed by what he did. I am very close to my family in Canada and stay all summer with my great uncle’s extended relatives in Northern Ontario every year, including Manitoulin (the world’s largest freshwater island), where the story begins. I also share his name – Houle is my middle name. So when I visited Juno Beach a few summers ago I saw the Dieppe memorial, and my family talked about about Uncle Bert and his heroics. After that it made sense to write an action hero book about him, World War Two, Dieppe, Canada, and Germany. 

  • At age 14 you are the youngest comics writer to ink a deal with publisher Markosia. How did this come about?

I had a football match against Norwich FC U13 Academy last summer. Harry [Markos], the publisher, lives only 40 minutes from the training ground, so we drove up after the game to his house to meet him. In his garden I told him about the idea and story arc – and my dad also helped sell the concept too. Harry’s place was very cool – he has tonnes of graphic novels all over the place. Markosia has published something like 400 titles.  After we signed the deal, I found out Markosia as a publisher has an agent in Los Angeles called World Builder Entertainment. This was very interesting to hear as they had made the Trolls films happen. Although they’re not my cup of tea, they’re a very successful set of movies. I guess that means I have an agent for Johnny Recruit in Hollywood!   We went back up again exactly one year later after another Norwich match, however this time we brought some treats to celebrate the book being released on May 30!  

  • How did you connect with comics artist Thomas Muzzell?

My dad knows lots about comics artists. He had a few in mind but we reviewed the websites of several illustrators in order to find an artistic collaborator who could bring the story to life on the page. We decided to contact Canadian illustrator Thomas Muzzell.  He is a scenic layout specialist so his style was perfect for what we were looking for. In an amazing coincidence, it turned out that Tom also had an ancestor named Bert (no relation to Bert Houle) who had been a captive of the Germans. I guess it was meant to be.

  • Can you let us know how long this project took – from initial concept to publication?

The project took about 18 months – it started with me bouncing ideas off my dad on car journeys to and from football practice. An office wall of random sticky notes was then converted into a storyboard that we shared online with artist Tom.  Next, my dad helped me create a page-scripting matrix template to write out character descriptions, scenic layout, and key actions. As I added details page by page, I also found photographs on the internet which helped show how Tom could imagine scenes, people, places, and objects on the page. Finally, I drew a rough sketch of each page to give Tom an idea of layout for penciling and inking. I was so happy seeing the pages come in – first the pencils (to make any minor changes) then the final inks. That is over 50 exciting emails to open with amazing artwork in each! The publishing bit took about 4 months and my dad covered that off. And now we are promoting the book so it’s definitely not over yet. My dad said I was very disciplined working through the creative process, and I think the final result is a good action story. At the same time it makes the point that things cannot really end happily for child soldiers.  

  • Did you do much research into the history of child soldiers and, underage combatants in WW2?

We researched everything about the book –  the story of Bert, key events in WW2 and small details for each page. As we learned more we realised that thousands of kids were child soldiers in WW2.  The name “Johnny Recruit” was a term used by seasoned troops in reference to soldiers new to the war – even Camel cigarettes ran a successful ad campaign around the term.  But the best marketers at that were brought in to create powerful WW2 propaganda posters.  The book’s double-page spread design are like the campaign posters and popular wartime comic covers – themselves often encouraging enlistment, war bonds purchase or blood donation drives. In the 40s Canadian, British and American “dime comics” featuring mainstream superheroes such as Superman and Wonder Woman battled Nazis, the Japanese – or sometimes just their leaders.   Such influential comics resulted in thousands of underaged kids signing up to fight in WW2, the youngest being Tom Dobney who became an RAF pilot at 14 – only caught out when his father saw a newspaper photo of him shaking hands with the King.  Big Johnny is an epic pilot, an expert shot and leader among his men – this is what many kids dream they might be from believing all the hype and stories of heroism.  I’m sure seeing all the cool war posters and comic covers with superheros leading the charge would make kids go wild about the war, and want to go fight and be the hero.  Even my great uncle Bert was used for the Allied conscription drive. After he was injured he traveled around the Commonwealth telling his war stories to encourage men to sign up to WW2.  But joining a war isn’t like this at all. It’s cold, brutal, painful and deadly.  And for many kids who join wars today such as in Africa, Columbia or the Ukraine –  once they’re in and find out what’s really going on, it’s too late to turn back.  

  • Are you a comics fan? If you are, can you recommend any titles for fans of Johnny Recruit?

I do like superhero comics – they are so well written and illustrated.  I’m not sure if people know the effort the artists put into pencils, ink and colouring each page – it’s so many hours. But I like novels. I used to read all the teen hero books like Alex Rider and Percy Jackson – but now it’s the military, action and history novels like Reacher and from Chris Ryan that I like the most.

  • What advice can you give other aspiring comics creators looking to break into the industry?

Writers should create something they like but will also teach people or other kids a lesson. Looking at the final book, maybe Johnny Recruit could be a good learning tool for the classroom. We talked about making these pages the opposite of “rapid-fire” social media streams. I think the book’s big double- page landscapes encourage people to calmly find the clues to piece the story together. And the reader can use their imagination to fill in the gaps between each page. This is all pretty good for comprehension and analysis.  Most of all I hope Johnny Recruit can show other kids they too can tell a story without being an expert artist or writer – they can work with others to bring it all to life.

  • Have you ever done any talks with teen library groups? If not, is this something you would consider doing in the future, to connect with other teens interested in creating comics?

I would love to do a talk. I handed my book to my school librarian last week and she has scheduled some talks with students – but that probably doesn’t count as I know nearly all of them. I’d be happy to speak to new people and encourage them to work on their projects and ideas. Most teens interested in comics will already have their favourite webcomics and some will have tried their own. Maybe some help working through a story plan and believing in their concepts could help take their own story where they want to go.

Johnny Recruit by Theo Houle Behe & Thomas Muzzell was published by Markosia on June 30th and is available now!

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