Today sees the release of the Wheels of Terror: The Graphic Novel by publisher Weidenfeld & Nicolson, an imprint of the Orion Publishing Group, adapting Sven Hassel’s famous and chilling novel of the same name, largely set on the Eastern Front in World War Two.
Featuring art by Catalan comic artist and illustrator Jordy Diago, the graphic novel has, rightfully, been described by “Charley’s War” co-creator Pat Mills as “an excellent and faithful adaptation of the classic anti-war novel”, vividly captures the violence and inhumanity of World War Two. Here, Michael Hassel reveals the background to adapting the work…
The idea of adapting my father’s work into a graphic novel has somehow always been there. I remember a while ago there was a Norwegian project to make an illustrated edition, but in the end it was never made. Now that Wheels of Terror has finally become a graphic novel we’ve found out that there was also interest to do this in the UK in the 1970s, something we weren’t aware of at the time. But it almost seems like a natural progression for the books. They were written in such a fluid style and the depictions are so visual – they had to be drawn.
In 2011 to 2012, we decided to be proactive and look into what it would actually entail to create a graphic novel. Firstly, we made a general enquiry on the Sven Hassel Facebook page, to see if we had some illustrators amongst the group. We were then referred directly to Jordy Diago, a Spanish illustrator in our home city of Barcelona (Sven moved to Spain in the 1960s). After having a look at Jordy’s blog, we were sold – especially given his strong use of colour, which really set him apart for us.
Around that time, we were looking to create new covers for the ebook editions we were about to launch. So we met with Jordy and told him about the ebook project and also sort of threw out the idea that we were also thinking of illustrating Sven’s work. Jordy was in all the way. He had never heard of Sven Hassel but we gave him an overview of the work, a couple of the Spanish editions and sent him on his way.
And so it all began. We hit it off right away, and after several sessions on the covers, we started work on the graphic novel. Jordy presented a few initial sketches and then we discussed the practicalities: the budget, how best to break down the novel and a rough timeline.
You have to understand that the decision to move forward was a big step for us. Graphic novels were something we had never done before and knew very little about – and we worried a great deal about whether readers would even like the result. We hadn’t decided how to publish and sell the book, but after seeing those first sketches, we were convinced that one way or another we just had to make it happen.
We were first confronted with the important decision as to which of the fourteen novels to choose. The series doesn’t have an actual order, other than the order in which they were published, and this is how we promote them to publishers and readers alike. Now, had we followed the order of publication, Legion of the Damned would have been first, but the chapters are numerous and quite short. Also, that story was Sven Hassel’s first novel and he thought at the time that it would be his only novel – and this is evident in the storyline. So it made sense for us to start with the second instalment, Wheels of Terror, which has chapters of varying lengths that touch on a rich variety of themes, and we knew that, if drawn right, they would give the true essence of Sven Hassel’s voice.
Ideally, we’d love nothing more than to see all fourteen novels adapted to the graphic novel format.
At the beginning we gave Jordy free rein to do what he wanted – and one of the most enjoyable parts of the project was looking forward to a new illustrated chapter from Jordy and seeing how he had interpreted Sven’s way of writing. However, we quickly found that it’s not easy to adapt a novel to graphic format. As with a film script, you have to decide which parts to leave out. How do you possibly do that?
For us, the absolute, most important thing was that the graphic novel was as true to the books as possible, and so we decided to adhere strictly to the original novel for the text boxes and speech bubbles. Jordy had initially tried to give the novel a much looser context and short comic-book-style captions – but it just didn’t work. It’s truly the ‘speech’ that gives the graphic novel that classic ‘Sven Hassel’ feel.
It was equally important to showcase the colourful characters from the books, but here too we had to make difficult decisions (who to include, who to star, who to leave out completely…). We also requested – and Jordy was in agreement – that the violence should be softened slightly, with the more explicit depictions being toned down, so they hint at the horror and leave an afterthought rather than shocking the reader.
Specific weaponry and uniform details weren’t that important to us; it was our intention to put all of the focus on the story. We knew from the beginning approximately how many pages the novel should have, but it was difficult because we would have liked to expand on certain things. We were literally three people doing the work of a whole team in a very short time span. In addition, we were working in multiple languages, starting the project in Spanish, then translating it into English, while keeping the Danish original nearby for reference.
In May 2013, we showed a few random chapters to our literary agent in the UK, Kate Horden, who, to our delight and luck, had worked with graphic novels in the past. Kate really liked what we showed her and started looking into getting the graphic novel published.
By September, Jordy had finished the final pages. We were then left with the huge task of inserting the proper ‘Sven Hassel style’ dialogue in English, as described above. After that, we did round after round of edits – not just textual but visual too, revising some of the vignettes or specific illustrations to make it all fit correctly.
In all honesty, we could still be editing the book to this day. It became such a personal project, and trying to capture another person’s voice – Sven’s voice – and keep it to its truest form was a tremendous obligation. It still feels like a very big burden to carry, in a positive way.
We didn’t finish until spring 2014, when the Orion Publishing Group bought world rights and took over the project with all the final edits and touches. We’ve been thrilled to see the enthusiasm grow around this book, first with our agent, Kate, and then at Orion, in particular with Sven Hassel’s editor, and the whole team there, really. And there was nothing cooler than holding that first printed, physical copy. What an incredible journey!
It feels really special to have been so utterly and completely submerged in this book in a way that we never have before. It’s one thing to read a book and interpret it and another to really study it, break it apart, and put it together again… And truthfully, it’s been a gift. It’s made us revisit Sven Hassel in that world once again, renewing our admiration for the man who we are used to thinking of as a father and grandfather, and not so much as the famous writer.
What would Sven himself have thought of the graphic novel adaption? It’s a difficult question. He was from a completely different generation and would struggle to understand the new world of social media and technology; he’d be considered lost, left behind in the old dust. We watched him look at it all with wonder and suspicion. For instance, in his final years, whenever we’d read Facebook posts to him, especially on his birthday, he’d tear up, overcome with joy by the kindness of all these people, strangers. He couldn’t quite fathom how it all worked. He was humbled by it.
During his lifetime, Sven liked to be involved whenever possible with the publication of the books, especially with the artwork of the covers. In the case of the very first covers to come out, he’d work directly with the artist, explaining his vision. I wish we could have shown him the transformation of his written words into an entirely different format, a graphic novel.
We obviously created the novel with him in mind, first and foremost, always asking ourselves every step of the way if this would be something he would approve of. So yes, I want to (and have to) think he would have liked it very much.
Thanks to Sophie Calder for her help with this feature
Wheels of Terror by Sven Hassel: Chapter Two – A Sneak Preview
The founder of downthetubes, which he established in 1998. John works as a comics and magazine editor, writer, and on promotional work for the Lakes International Comic Art Festival. He is currently editor of Star Trek Explorer, published by Titan – his third tour of duty on the title originally titled Star Trek Magazine.
Working in British comics publishing since the 1980s, his credits include editor of titles such as Doctor Who Magazine, Babylon 5 Magazine, and more. He also edited the comics anthology STRIP Magazine and edited several audio comics for ROK Comics. He has also edited several comic collections, including volumes of “Charley’s War” and “Dan Dare”.
He’s the writer of “Pilgrim: Secrets and Lies” for B7 Comics; “Crucible”, a creator-owned project with 2000AD artist Smuzz; and “Death Duty” and “Skow Dogs” with Dave Hailwood.