By Henry Hanks
Early this year, comic book writer Nathan Edmondson set out to tell fictional stories based on the super-secret U.S. government paramilitary organization once named the Intelligence Support Activity (or ISA).
But it turns out what Edmonson created from his wildest imaginations hues pretty close to reality about the little known, seldom discussed agency.
His stories focused on a specialized subset of the organization that was a "technologically advanced, mixed-gender team of first responders with backgrounds in a variety of military and spy disciplines."
In reality, the ISA has been around since the 1970s. Originally hidden from the Pentagon and Congress, its existence has never publicly or officially been acknowledged.
"The ISA is a secret kept from the Army, it's even a secret kept from itself," said Edmondson. "If you're in the ISA, you may not know who else is in it. It's the military equivalent of telling a story about aliens in space. You're reaching out for that great mystery, that void to see what you can pull out of it."
The mystery around the group alone seemed like a natural for storytelling. Then a funny thing happened as Edmondson started publishing the Image Comics title: He got a lot of things right.
"There were parts of this group that we crafted as fiction that we later found out were not as fictional as we thought," the writer told CNN.
Once Edmondson discovered this, he made a point to have the right people consulting on every issue.
He reached out to a few contacts from his days having worked in Washington, as well as the U.S. Army Entertainment Liaison office.
"We're [often] working with some special ops group, whether it's Green Berets or PSYOPS Delta. We don't let an issue go by without consulting people to see how we can make the issue richer in terms of special ops activity."
The most recent issue, "The Activity" #7, had the participation of Navy SEALs, who co-plotted a major scene in the story.
"What happens in this particular scene has a domino effect on the rest of this book," he said.
"We contacted some rather elite Navy SEALs - in fact, we can't say with whom we consulted. We were instructed not to," he said. "We gave them our scenario and asked how we would go about doing it. They gave us a step by step of how they would execute this mission, down to things they would say or not say. The first 10 pages goes into what the SEALs told us, down to gear and weaponry too."
If you haven't heard about the ISA, that's by design, as Edmondson pointed out when describing how he researched this idea for a comic book.
"I'd been reading a lot about Delta Force or as they're more commonly referred to, 'The Unit' [the subjects of a recent CBS TV series]. In the course of reading about them I discovered some things about the ISA – their name changes every year to protect them. They are commonly known as Orange, the counter-terrorism of Delta Force - they wanted a group in the army who could do all these things. You can go a lot of places with that," Edmondson said, talking about possible story ideas.
Edmondson said that many of his ideas come out of conversations he has with those involved in various special ops areas. He has also done various panels at conventions with members of the special warfare community.
Comic books and the military have been connected going back to troops reading them in World War II to Marvel Comics' recent special issues for service members. Edmondson's writing on this and other books such as "Dancer" has gained him a following in the comics world, but it goes beyond that with "Activity."
"We have an e-mail account set up into which we receive e-mails from soldiers all over who appreciate the accuracy and attention to detail. Officially working with the military on this is tricky as they cannot to this day acknowledge the existence of the ISA, but we have received much support in general regarding simply our respectfulness of the armed forces."
Edmondson will also be visiting a few military bases in the near future.