Q&A: American Ace: Joe Foss, Fighter Pilot

Award winning Author and illustrator Hector Curriel tells us how his graphic novel chronicle of a South Dakota hero came to be
Hector Curriel is a fine artist and illustrator based out of Sioux Falls, South Dakota. His new book, American Ace: Joe Foss, Fighter Pilot traces the early life and eventual wartime contributions of Sioux Falls native Joe Foss. Photo Credit: Hector Curriel / South Dakota Historical Press

Arturo Hilario
El Observador

Hector Curriel is our resident cartoonist, who week after week provides us with social commentary on news, politics and life in general. He is a professional artist of many disciplines, from a mastery of watercolor to fine art painting, portrait work, as well as writing and illustration.

Originally from Lima, Peru, Curriel is Based in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, where his connections with his local community through illustrated books, public arts projects, art workshops and residency at the South Dakota Arts Council has garnered him praise, awards and further opportunities for artistic exploration.

In his most recent book, American Ace: Joe Foss, Fighter Pilot, the writer and illustrator sought to tell the story of Sioux Falls war hero Joe Foss, who was at points a Governor, commissioner of the American Football League and an all-around eclectic personality. Although Foss wore many hats throughout his life, Curriel’s book explores the highly decorated war hero’s early history and time in World War II which turned him into a legend in South Dakota lore.

The book, which was released in 2022, was publisher South Dakota Historical Society Press’ first biographical graphic novel, and won the 2023 Spur Award for best juvenile nonfiction book from the Wester Writers of America. This was also the first time a Latino artist has won the award in South Dakota.

Read on to hear about how Curriel came to learn about Foss, how researching, writing and illustrating a biography brought him closer to the fabled American Ace, and what it meant to win an award for his efforts.

What got Joe Foss interested? How did you find out about him?

It was in the year 2016 that I was invited to participate in an art project for the airport of my city, that precisely, was named after the American hero, Joe Foss. Being that, at that time, I did not know anything about him, I decided to do some research, so that my artistic proposal made more sense.  I acquired, from the public library, his autobiography, which I found fascinating, to the point, that I decided to make a graphic novel about his life.

Being primarily an artist, what were the challenges of fully creating a biography and graphic novel like this? Could you remember something that was difficult in the process of creating this graphic novel and how you overcame the obstacle?

The main obstacle was checking the veracity of the information, which led me to carry out a very precise investigation regarding his life, through the lecture of a lot of books and videos that you can find on YouTube, referring to the subject.

Can you tell us a little about what the process of researching and designing the look of this graphic novel biopic was like and how it would tell the story?

As I mentioned, I collected a lot of information to corroborate the facts. The next step was to define the focus of my story. Having many books about his time of glory, during his service as a fighter pilot in World War II, I wanted to focus more on showing his origins and how the circumstances he lived through in his childhood and youth helped him to be the hero who served with great honors on the island of Guadalcanal, in the Pacific, during World War II.

Was there anything new and surprising that you discovered while you were researching for this novel?

Yes, some, but the most surprising thing was knowing that at that time, to be a combat pilot, apart from having great conditions and studies, you had to be between 18 and 23 years old, Joe Foss being 26 years old at the time he enlisted in the Armed Forces, he was ostracized from serving as a fighter pilot, but through his tenacity, he was eventually admitted.

How was the experience of winning the award for best non-fiction young adult book from the Western Writers of America? Please describe the prize and what it means to you to win it?

Well, it was a pleasant surprise that I received from my publisher, who told me the news through an email. This award was given by the organization, Western Writers of America. It is an organization that dates back to 1953 and that awards the distinguished prize called Spur Award, to the best literary publications related to the American Midwest.

This delivery was made at the great Festival of Books, in Tucson, Arizona on March 4, 2023. It means a lot to me, since it is a great recognition of the effort I put into my work, and in addition to being the first Latino, in my state, South Dakota, to receive it. This, in turn, has meant an open door to more projects and opportunities in every way.

Why do you think it’s important for people to know more about this American hero and pilot?

Because his life is a clear example of what the American Dream means. And that if he, who lived through very difficult and adverse circumstances, was able to achieve his dreams and goals, the more can we. As he once said: “It doesn’t matter where you come from, what counts is where you are going and what you will do with your life.” I think that his life example is still relevant and will serve as a source of inspiration for many.

What do you hope people take away from reading this novel when they see the visual representation of this historical person who actually existed and did all these amazing things?

That we learn to believe and fight for our dreams and goals. I think the adversities of life are inevitable and that at some point we will have to experience them. Before that, there remains the path of hopelessness and fear of failure, or the other path that Joe Foss took, the path of not letting himself be defeated, of believing in oneself, of preparing in life and that in the end, as a consequence, we will reap success and we will give a very special meaning to our life.

What is your favorite aspect of creating something like this graphic novel or even the general art you did for it?

I have always liked illustrating war themes, since they carry a strong charge of drama and action, and it is very exciting and challenging to be able to capture all that experience in a drawing.

What was the most important thing you wanted to convey about the life of Joe Foss in the biography?

That like Joe Foss, we all live in a constant struggle, and that we can get ahead. As long as we believe in ourselves and our capabilities.

How can people buy your book or access it?

This book is available from my publishing house, South Dakota Historical Press, or directly from Amazon.

Arts & CultureCARTOONSEntertainmentFeatured