It is a pleasure to have the opportunity to interview writer and graphic novelist Jeremy Holt. His most recent works include After Houdini, Skip to the End, Skinned (Insight Comics), Southern Dog (Action Lab), and Pulp (comiXology), which IGN has called, “…one of the best one-shot comics of the year.” For this interview we try to cover a bit of everything with a focus on Holt’s most recent title, Before Houdini.
HENRY CHAMBERLAIN: Jeremy, thank you so much for doing this interview. We’re going to focus on Before Houdini, your latest title with Insight Comics as well as do our best to bring out something about you and your creative life. I’ll start with the introduction by comic book writer Matthew Rosenberg for Skip to the End, another work you did with Insight Comics. In his introduction, Rosenberg talks about the urgency of punk rock and indie comics: both are raw and unfiltered. That brings to mind your one-shot, Pulp. I think, in the end, whatever the genre, whatever the vibe, you want your work to be honest, right?
JEREMY HOLT: First of all, thank you for having me, Henry. Over the last ten years of making comics, I’ve thought a lot about the stories that I want to tell. I think, at the beginning, most creators go for those big bright ideas that might get them noticed. I was guilty of that. For instance, I tried doing a zombie story, not realizing that market was pretty saturated. In the course of finding collaborators and pitching to publishers, I’ve found myself taking ten steps backward and having to re-evaluate myself, as a writer and a creator, and really thinking about those stories I want to tell. So, yes, honesty is a very important factor for me.
Share with us how you go about creating a multi-layered character like Jonny, in Skip to the End. He’s got a lot of rough edges. He comes from a certain subculture. And yet people can relate with him. Or maybe sometime from Skinned or After Houdini, whatever comes to mind.
For me, usually it starts with a concept. That’s usually how my ideas begin, with a concept that seems like a really cool idea. Then, from there, I start to develop the main characters, the cast if you will, and then the plot. If those three things don’t actually connect, even after thinking about them for days, weeks, months, I tend to move on. So, as far as characterization, that’s an ongoing process as I’m writing the stories. What I like most about a lot of the projects that I’ve worked on that have resonated with the readers is that, at a certain point, if you’ve done your job as a writer and figured out who these characters are, where they come from, where they’re trying to go, at some point during the writing process, they actually start making their own decisions and speak for themselves. Maybe in an early version of an outline for a specific issue, I may have Jonny saying this but, by the time I am actually writing that scene, so much has happened leading up to the writing of that scene that he ends up saying something more true to his character than I’d even thought to note originally. That’s always fun to see.
Oh, sure, that’s all part of the process. So, share with us what I’m thinking of as a fascination with Houdini. What can you tell us about the creation of the Houdini books?
That’s a great question. To be honest, the idea of writing about Houdini began with the original artist I’d worked with, Kevin Zeigler. We met through mutual friends. We both went to Savannah College of Art and Design. He was a freshman and I was graduating. So, we missed each other by a year. But, through networking, his name kept coming up and so we got together. I would pitch him ideas but nothing seemed to gel. Then I decided to try a really good writer’s exercise: ask my collaborator what they liked to draw. He said he was very interested in Houdini. So, I began to do some research. One book stood out in particular: The Secret Life of Houdini: The Making of America’s First Superhero by Larry Sloman and William Kalush. That book opened my eyes to the idea of Houdini being this covert spy. So, I brought that back to Kevin and we tossed that creative ball around. That is how After Houdini came about, that collaboration.
I’d like you to share something about the storytelling process. You’re a graduate of the the Savannah College of Art and Design, known for its Sequential Art program. I envision you with a skill set to create your own comic alone if you chose to. But you’ve fine tuned your path to focus on being a comic book writer. Should I see you as someone like Ed Brubaker who did create comics in the auteur tradition but ultimately came to the realization he needed to focus on being a writer?
Well, no, not exactly like Ed Brubaker. I studied film. In essence, I was around storytelling but I concentrated on sound design which is more post-produciton, sound editing. I only did that for about a year after college. It really just wasn’t for me. I’d done some writing in high school but I had never viewed myself as a writer. Let’s see, I graduated from SCAD in 2005. I didn’t collect comics as a kid. My oldest brother was a collector. It wasn’t until 2008 that I read The Dark Knight by Frank Miller and that opened up a door and made me want to start writing. I didn’t know anyone. I didn’t know how to start. So, it was a lot of trial and error. That’s what the early years were like.
We all have our own unique perspective on the world and we’re all dealing with something. As a writer, you find ways to dig into a character to one degree or another depending upon the project. Sometimes it’s more direct. Sometimes it’s more subtext. Do you have a preferred approach in your storytelling? More direct or more subtext or does it just depend? I think of your comic, Southern Dog, which basically goes for the jugular.
I try to walk that fine line between both being direct and using subtext. I definitely pull from real life experience as an Asian-American, and being an identical triplet, as well as being adopted. So, identity is something that is at the front of my brain. Skip to the End is probably the only story I’ve written that is not somehow drawing from my own experience. Jonny was a character I knew nothing about firsthand. I’m not a drug addict. I haven’t lost anyone to suicide. So, there was a lot of research I needed to do in order to feel comfortable writing about someone from that perspective. Generally, I try to weave some personal experience into a narrative that isn’t directly taken from my own life since that’s part of the fun of creating stories. You get to live vicariously through these fictional people.
What do you hope readers will get from your Houdini books?
You get a sense of adventure. Before Houdini has a substantially darker tone than After Houdini since it has my take on Jack the Ripper. I think you get a sense of wonder from these two books. You get fun action adventure stories.
You’re living in Vermont. You came from Brooklyn. Maybe you could share with us what it’s like living in Vermont. And I’m also curious if you’ve had a chance to visit the Center for Cartoon Studies, located in White River Junction, Vermont.
I did spend a good part of a day there. It’s a very small town. It’s very distinct. The Center for Cartoon Studies is right in the middle of this one single winding street. I’ve met its co-founder, James Sturm, before. He gives talks around the country. And I’ve met people who have given talks there or taught or went to school there. Vermont is a pretty small state so you end up rubbing elbows with folks. As far as why I’m in Vermont, I’m recently divorced. My ex-spouse took a job in Middlebury, Vermont so I ended up here. My friends thought I’d move back to New York. And I love New York. I lived there for five years. But, honestly, the quality of life here in Vermont is substantially higher in a lot of ways to the daily grind of living in New York City. And I still go back two or three times a year to visit with friends. It makes for a nice balance.
I can see why the Center for Cartoon Studies would want to be in Vermont. You get to share that same mellow easy-going atmosphere.
Yeah, I think so. There are fewer distractions for a writer. I think, when I was younger, I was naive enough to think that the city providing me with inspiration. And in a lot of ways it did. But it also provided a ton of distractions. Since moving to Vermont I’ve become exponentially more productive than when I was in New York thinking that I was prolific. In fact, I’ve produced more, in a shorter amount of time, than when I was living in New York.
What might you tell us about two upcoming projects, Made in Korea and Virtually Yours? Are you still working on them or are you shopping them around?
Both of those have publishers but I can’t disclose who. As for Virtually Yours, I have finished writing and the artist is well under way working on it. And regarding Made in Korea, I’ve scripted two of six issues. I’ve outlined the entire series. I have a very clear idea of where it’s going. I plan to script the rest of it in the next two months. I’ve pitched a couple of new projects this week so I’m waiting to hear back from those publishers. I need to keep my fingers crossed.
It sounds like you’re in a really great position. You have these impressive titles with Insight Comics and you’ve got a number of new projects well under way. It looks like you’re right where you need to be.
I think so. The important thing for any creator to figure out is working at a pace that isn’t daunting. Obviously, early on, I wanted to be a full-time writer and quit my day job. I do tech support during the day. But, to be honest, I am producing enough work in my free time outside of my day job that I’m hitting my deadlines without a problem. I know that, once I didn’t have a day job, my relationship to my creative work will change. I’ll be depending upon that in ways that I don’t now because I don’t have to worry about making a ton of money off my work. And I kind of like that. I like that there’s no pressure and I can just create and have fun with it. So, I’m not sure that I’m going to quit my day job anytime soon even if I have the opportunity because I think it makes me work harder.
And you have something that is really working, a really well calibrated routine. So, you don’t want to mess with it.
I think so. As a creative person, it’s about moving that goal post, not being afraid to say that something isn’t working, that expectations need to change. That allows you to keep working. For creators that don’t make these adjustments, it’s easy to burn out. You can end up feeling defeated or pessimistic about your career. I think it’s totally normal, totally acceptable, and even helpful, to move that goal post, to set expectations that are right for you at whatever place you are in your life.
We could pretty much bring this to an end unless you had anything else you might like to add.
This was great. Thank you for your questions. Thanks for your in depth look at my books. That’s a first.
Well, I found Pulp, for instance, at comiXology. It’s there for anyone to find. I highly recommend it. I particularly appreciate the indie flavor to it.
For me, Pulp was a writing exercise. I wanted to see if I could tell a story within 24 pages. I think, from the beginning of the concept all the way through production, it took Chris and me five days to put it all together. It was ridiculously fast, unnecessarily fast. But I still think it’s one of the stronger stories that I’ve written.
It definitely has that urgency and energy that Matthew Rosenberg was talking about in the introduction I began with.
Well, thank you, Jeremy.
Thank you so much.