Jerome Charyn’s latest novel encompasses the decline of the Third Reich as seen through the eyes of a special set of characters. It’s about a country that has lost its soul and about a young man who hungers to feed his soul. Charyn conjures up a narrative punctuated with powerful imagery such as when he steadily rolls out thoughts of Georges Rouault, artist of sad kings, clowns, and Christ. Most prominent of Charyn’s recurring themes comes from the silent film classic about the diabolical Dr. Caligari and Cesare, his somnambulist slave. What better metaphor for someone claiming that they were trapped into following orders. That is the life of the “Cesare” in this novel, one Erik Holderman, a small but vital cog in search of redemption.
Still from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, 1920
The ways of the world are writ large here. This is the story about a Caligari and a Cesare as well as a whole people who became, as an incisive bestseller so phrased it, “Hitler’s willing executioners.” Yet even in this dark world there is room for light. Erik is not merely a zombie slave. Nor is Canaris merely his Dr. Caligari. Between the two of them, they mean to undermine the Nazis as much as they can and save Jewish lives, one life at at time. This is mostly a dark world and yet one that somehow allows for the existence of Emil, a mystical dwarf who could have walked right out of a Georges Rouault painting.
The Little Dwarf by George Rouault, 1938
Erik, the obedient assassin, finds his fate inextricably linked to Lisalein, a most beguiling woman who equally courts sympathy and danger. All comes to a head when Lisa’s life is in peril once she ventures too close to the false paradise of Theresienstadt. She can’t help but follow her father who is convinced that the little cultural hamlet will prove to be his haven. The narrative definitely has much of the energy of a thriller as Erik must run to keep up with events. But there is so much more here. This is a very dark world, after all, and that requires the fine scalpel of a master storyteller to reveal truth. Much in the same spirit as Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, with its underscoring the tragedy of the Allied bombings of Dresden, Jerome Charyn underscores the tragedy of Theresienstadt, an all too real place that trapped and killed–and haunts to this very day.
Saturn Devouring His Son by Francisco Goya, 1819–1823
Jerome Charyn has a highly distinctive voice in the same company with other literary greats like Saul Bellow or Isaac Bashevis Singer. Part of Charyn’s magic is his use of sustained imagery and metaphor. He has his favorite motifs which include wolves, werewolves, magicians, criminals, and tattoos, all sorts of things that either evoke something disturbing, supernatural, or otherworldly. In this new novel, for instance, he describes Hitler as a magician with his henchmen wolves. And it makes sense that Charyn would gravitate to the Nazi way station of Theresienstadt. It hadn’t been enough for the Nazis to deceive and/or kidnap Jews into this glorified holding pen. The Nazis forced Jews to oversee each other and even determine who would be next to go on to Auschwitz. That brings us to one last Charyn motif in this novel, one of the most sobering depictions of unbridled inhumanity, Goya’s Saturn Devouring His Son. In a novel full of its share of the grotesque, it takes an artist with a precise touch such as Charyn to achieve such artful results.
Max in America: Into the Land of Trump by Henry Chamberlain
A lot of my readers are familiar with my various creative pursuits. And I think a fair amount have followed a particular project I’ve been developing. It all began with a hot air balloon ride. Our hero, Maximo Viaje, a well-intentioned artist living in Mexico, suddenly finds himself an “illegal immigrant” at an especially heated time, the Trump era. We’ll revisit the progress of this book as it begins to make its way onto various platforms. As of this writing, you can find print copies at the Comics Grinder store right here.
We can always use a laugh and some food for thought.
Whatever your politics, it’s safe to say that we live in quite surreal times. I’m confident that readers will enjoy a narrative that incorporates light humor, food for thought, and a rollicking joy ride of road trip misadventures. No one ever said achieving the American Dream was going to be easy and it’s an even bigger challenge for Maximo, who had been happy to simply daydream! He can’t afford to daydream any longer.
Rico is ready for his Instagram close-up.
Once Maximo is in the United States, he meets Leslie, another lost soul who feels trapped and is ready for change. A series of eerie coincidences form an inseparable bond between Maximo and Leslie. If they can rely upon each other and rise to the occasion, they might be able to overcome adversity. One coincidence could prove fatal. Leslie is convinced that she is married to Maximo’s twin brother. And if that did not seem enough, Maximo strongly suspects he has some special connection to the Kennedy dynasty. Ultimately, Maximo and Leslie are on the run while also juggling a promising comedy touring act.
Will JFK save the day?
This book is fully illustrated which will definitely add a nice touch to the reading experience. The content here is mostly focused on satire and is suitable for any age. As both a writer and a cartoonist, I can clearly see this book having a lot of crossover appeal. It could easily be sold within the context of work in comics and illustration as well as prose. The humor and the hero’s journey will appeal to a wide range of readers.
No time to lose.
Max in America: Into the Land of Trump is currently available only at the Comics Grinder store.
What has a superhero ever really done for you? That’s a tricky question. It depends upon who you ask. First, superheroes aren’t real and are owned by corporations, at least all of the household names. It’s a cold-blooded business when you look at it from the perspective of co-creators who were not given credit or a fair share of the profits, like Jack Kirby or Steve Ditko or Jerry Siegel & Joe Shuster. Comic books are a mass entertainment focused on profit, right? And then there’s the perspective of thoughtful and dedicated fans, the ones who take it to heart, who even write and draw in tribute to beloved characters. Bill Schelly is among that group of fans who know, despite any ugly realities, how to harness the super powers of the likes of Superman and Spider-Man. If you believe enough, especially in yourself, all sorts of dreams can come true. Bill Schelly set out to be an author, a “writer of books,” and buoyed up by the power of fandom, achieved his wildest dreams, including a respectable fanzine while still a youth, A Sense of Wonder, all the way to a memoir of the same name that has recently been expanded, A Sense of Wonder: My Life in Comic Fandom – The Whole Story, published by North Atlantic Books. It is like the most compelling of pop culture scrapbooks come to life.
Do people still even keep scrapbooks? Thankfully, some do. Yes, even digital files count. There will always be those who are compelled to document, dig deeper, and pay it forward. In the case of Bill Schelly, it all began with a fateful train ride. The Schelly family was on a trip to visit relatives back in 1960. To help keep nine-year-old Bill preoccupied on the long ride ahead, his father bought him a comic book. But it wasn’t just any comic book. His two brothers chose regular issues of ten cents each. Bill was excited about a special issue, Giant Superman Annual #1 with its enticing cover promising numerous thrills. It cost a whole quarter. At first, his father balked but ultimately relented. Schelly’s recollection of this scene is quite moving. He goes on to describe a boy besotted by all the larger-than-life stories found in the brightly colored pages. This is the pivotal moment that set young Bill on a lifelong journey. He already knew that he wanted to be a “writer of books” and, only a few years later, he would discover his ability to draw. What really set Schelly apart was a specific interest to better understand the underpinnings of comics. As much as Schelly wanted to become just like the comic book creators he so admired, he was driven by an intellectual need to know and a compelling desire to share his findings with other enthusiasts. This led to a number of boyhood fanzines, home-made magazines with a focus on a fan’s passion. And the best iteration of this process was a fanzine he called, Sense of Wonder. He became a teenage editor and publisher with subscribers all across the country. Young Bill confidently knew that he had set the stage for big things ahead but had no clue as to what exactly he would achieve or how he would get there.
Giant Superman Annual #1
Over the years, Schelly pushed himself to evolve as a writer and, in turn, as a person. As he had done with his boyhood fanzines, he learned from his mistakes and was driven to improve. While he honored the egalitarian spirit of fandom where every fan was an equal, he also wanted to lead the way and make his distinctive mark. As he had discovered early on in life, fandom is a close-knit network of like-minded souls and, in general, fans support fans. You never knew which friend you made today might lend a hand in some unexpected way in the future. It was through the world of fandom that Schelly found his way. And it is around the age of 21 that the first version of Schelly’s book, A Sense of Wonder, ends. This new version picks up from there and unveils what lay ahead. For one thing, the reader learns how the Sense of Wonder book evolved and how it was a building block towards other books. It’s surprising, with hindsight, to discover that Schelly did not reveal being gay in the first version of his coming-of-age book. In fact, he had given Howard Cruse, one of the most notable gay cartoonists, an advance copy in hopes of getting a back cover blurb. Cruse expressed regret that Schelly wasn’t ready to come out but was more than happy to provide a blurb. It was in a later version of Sense of Wonder, when Schelly was ready, that he added some of his best writing on growing up gay. And it is this latest version that beautifully brings it all together: Schelly’s dreams, his passions, the arc of a life. In the book, the reader follows Schelly as he relentlessly strives to create his magnum opus. As a young man, he hitches his wagon to the star of silent movie comedian Harry Langdon and creates his first attempt at a biography. Later on, he tackles the life of legendary cartoonist Joe Kubert. Finally, he achieves mainstream success with quite a substantial biography of another pop culture legend, Harvey Kurtzman. But, when it is all said and done and there’s finally time to take a breath and look back, Bill Schelly’s memoir is what rises to the top, a book that shares the trials and tribulations of a man who just wanted to dream and be a “writer of books.”
Bill Schelly (1951-2019)
Sense of Wonder: My Life in Comic Fandom – The Whole Story is a 392-page trade paperback published by North Atlantic Books.
This season has seen the appearance of a prestigious anthology, DrawingPower: Women’s Stories of Sexual Violence, Harassment and Survival, edited by the veteran artist Diane Nooman (Abrams). It has also seen, more recently, a scrappier creation from the “World War 3 Illustrated” crowd: Shameless Feminists. Although this also marks WW3 #50, it is best seen as a thing-in-itself, a 192pp anthology edited by a special crew, Isabella Bannerman, Sandy Jimenez, Sabrina Jones and Rebecca Migdal. Unique among them is the Bronx-born cartoonist and erstwhile schoolteacher Jimenez, unique by his gender.
At any rate, it’s a whopper, and not only by virtue of something beyond the dreadful experiences described in the other anthology, but also by a certain sense of history and a very particular experience. One of the editors (spoiler alert, it is Sabrina Jones) was “invited to create her first comics for issue #3,” that is, about 1980 in WW3. The collaboration is, properly seen, historic and marked by three earlier feminist anthologies as WW3 issues, in 1992, 1999 and 2000 (it’s been a long pause this time).
It’s global, it’s interracial, it’s sometimes pretty dreadful—rapes and near-rapes, humiliation and frustration. But it’s got a pretty persistent note of…persistence. And the occasional victory, not something very likely to be noticed beyond a circle or friends or even perhaps among them, but a personal triumph and sometimes a collective one.
Sabrina Jones offers several high notes along these lines, as well as the main figure of a dreamy, collective front cover. In one of her two strips she reveals her self-daring, a teenager wandering into dangerous places, a young woman choosing to live in sketchy neighborhoods, engaging in multiple affairs for the sheer joy of it, later on pressing herself to stay limber. Later on in the anthology, she makes up her mind to ride a mountain bike over part of the Pyrenees mountains from France to Spain, inevitably meeting dangerous men, and by this time, in her fifties. All of this adds up to the life story: I will not be intimidated. Indeed.
She stands for others in that sense. Lou Allen and Teresa Cherubini separately relate how their “body image” was just never good enough for herself or her boyfriends until…each one broke from the socially-created trance. Jennifer Camper offers a menstruation metaphor through her protagonist’s life. Artist Regina Silvers is the solid leftwing grandmother who joins an antiwar Granny Brigade. And so on.
There is no summarizing the artistic approaches except to say that they are starkly different and also remarkable. This is a book that draws upon great creativity and honesty, and should inspire the same.
Paul Buhle‘s next comic, drawn by Sharon Rudahl, is a life of Paul Robeson (Rutgers University Press, October, 2020.
Tom Spurgeon, a heroic champion of comics, especially small press comics, has passed away. It saddens me greatly to find this out today. There is definitely a personal note to this. Tom was always a great supporter of independent comics and all of those folks within that orbit through his regular posting on his blog, The Comics Reporter. He was gracious enough to include me among this group and would mention my efforts here at Comics Grinder from time to time. I did get to meet Tom a couple of times in person and he was always the gentleman, generous with his time and always upbeat. The comics industry knows his name very well. He will be missed.
There is this amazing new graphic novel that tackles, for the first time, the life and work of Rod Serling. It is The Twilight Man: Rod Serling and the Birth of Television, by Koren Shadmi, published by Humanoids as part of their new imprint, Life Drawn. I have a lot to say about this book, in no small part, due to the fact that I have my own graphic novel that overlaps on some of what’s going on in this book. I’m still in the process of getting my book out but I think it’s actually good to see a book like this out there. This is Koren Shadmi’s Rod Serling and his take on related events. There is definitely room, and interest, for more such books. One perfect example is what appears to be an ever-growing number of graphic novels on Andy Warhol. But I digress a bit.
I am familiar with Koren Shadmi and his work. I had the privilege of interviewing him in 2015 for one of my podcast interviews. In fact, I made a reference to The Twilight Zone and discovered that Koren, in Israel, had not grown up with the original Twilight Zone like so many of us did in the States. I don’t know about you but I’ve always had access to it. As a kid growing up in the seventies, TZ was well into syndication and very well accepted as part of the culture, even better than during its original run from 1959 to 1964. Anyway, Koren is a masterful illustrator on a fast professional track. Is it any wonder then that he was able to create this book in such a relatively short amount of time? I’d peg it at sometime during or after his previous book on Gary Gygax and Dungeons & Dragons which came out in 2017. Koren’s book on Rod Serling is fascinating and goes into as much detail as possible, even daring to cast Serling in less than a favorable light.
Rod Serling, chasing his dream.
If you want to see Rod Serling cast in an unfavorable light, look back fifty years ago. It was on November 8, 1969 that a TV movie was broadcast on NBC starring Joan Crawford, directed by Steven Spielberg, and written by Rod Serling. It was to be the pilot for the ill-fated anthology series, Night Gallery. It was pitched as something like Twilight Zone but turned out to be lackluster. Shadmi spends a good bit of time showing us the Rod Serling after The Twilight Zone and it’s not a pretty picture that he paints. Instead of wrapping up his graphic novel on an upbeat note, Shadmi has no qualms over depicting Serling as falling from grace, a little desperate and seeking approval in all the wrong places. We see Serling doing very un-Serling things: appearing in commercials, hosting a game show, and giving up all creative control all for the sake of being back in the game with Night Gallery. And, the coup de grâce for any Serling fan: Shadmi makes a reference to Serling engaging in an extramarital affair. I can only chalk it up to Shadmi compelled to show the man warts and all. But, if you want to see Serling at his best, well, there is plenty of that, enough to overlook a man’s weaknesses.
A good part of the book going in covers Serling as a brash young man eager to see combat during World War II. And that he does. While considered too short to be a paratrooper, Serling’s persistence wears down his company commander. Serling, cut from the same cloth as Hemingway, pushes himself to his limits, working as hard on his writing as his proving his manhood. Repeatedly, he pursues physical thrills and danger in the boxing ring and on the battlefield. He leaves the army permanently shell-shocked, experiencing nightmares for the rest of his life. It is such a uniquely talented and driven man who finds his way to writing for radio and later for television in New York City during the dawn of the golden age of television. And, on the strength of his landmark work on Playhouse 90, Serling ultimately finds himself on top of the world as one of television’s original show runners for The Twilight Zone. All of this and more, Shadmi faithfully brings to life on the page. It is more than enough to forgive him for daring to show the great man when he was down.
The Twilight Man: Rod Serling and the Birth of Television is a 180-page trade paperback in duotone, published by Humanoids.
Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Adapted by Peter Kuper. Foreword by Maya Jasanoff. New York. W.W. Norton, 2019, $21.95.
It is difficult to bring to mind a classic novel more overinterpreted than Heart of Darkness, and the reason has far less mystery than the novel itself. Joseph Conrad projected himself, his Victorian Britain, upon the African (more specifically, Congo) landscape, and intellectuals but also readers ever since have projected themselves upon his distinct literary creation.
Teachers have been assigning Heart of Darkness for well over a century, reinterpreting Conrad again and again, at least as frequently as literary theories shifted. Anti-colonialism and Negritude offered the sharpest criticism, amounting sometimes to rejection of the idea of writing the novel at all. Neo-colonialism, the reigning reality of our time, has renewed the ambiguity. The jungle and all its flora and fauna are under extreme assault. That the US/CIA chose to have a foremost African champion, Patrice Lumumba, assassinated just three generations ago pointed up the living contradictions that Conrad glimpsed or perhaps did not glimpse.
Peter Kuper is an artist for contradictions and for graphic novel adaptations. An adopted son of Manhattan, he has depicted the city with as much dread as any painter, filmmaker or musician could manage. His adaptation of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle outdoes his adaptations of Kafka, in my view, because the horrors of that urban giant, Chicago, are themselves monumental. Did Kuper suspect he would go from jungle to jungle? We wonder.
At any rate, Kuper makes every effort to be as faithful to the sprit of Conrad as he can. He wants to make an immanent critique of colonialism as seen by the soldiers and statesmen of colonialism. They are coldly calculating in their pursuit of riches and fame, including the extermination of all the dark-skinned humans in sight, by outright murder or working them to death. And yet they are also mentally twisted adventurers, for who else would participate in such an ugly and dangerous mission?
Marlowe, as demonstrated in the novel, can understand horror when he sees it, and as a commercial agent is very much part of the machinery of it. The vanishing of the mysterious Mr. Kurtz, the need for the trek into the jungle, is the test of Marlow and arguably, the test of artist Kuper, who has traveled widely, lived for extended periods in Mexico, not to mention being part of a peacenik, anti-imperialist political magazine collective for forty years and still going.
Kuper offers us several remarkable pages of explanation, in his introduction, of how he approached what he calls “the fraught history of cartoon stereotypes.” (p.xx). He explains technique as well as purpose of subverting Conrad’s text while still being faithful to the literary quality—no mean trick.
Whether this is successful, we can best judge as the pages pass and we find ourselves deeper in the jungle, deeper in the horrors of managing the ghastly enterprise. Actually, of course, Marlow is mostly halfway on the outside, a fellow white man, looking in. And becoming more savage than any black man or woman of the jungle.
Kuper manages to explain, with the brevity of a single panel, the deepest desire of the one intellectual, Kurtz, through his protege: that booty would remain but every black skinned human would be exterminated, an insane and impossible task.
Kuper saves his darkest dark for the final pages, Marlow’s return home to London, where he meets but cannot truly confront the belief in Kurtz’s eminence. These last pages drip with blacks and grays, driving home the point.
Children observe the movements of the US Border Patrol agents from the Mexican side where the border meets the Pacific Ocean, Tijuana, Mexico, on Friday, November. 16, 2018. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)
The Nation, a magazine known as America’s leading source of progressive politics and culture, has published a rare open letter cosigned by over 40 prominent authors, who are also immigrants and/or refugees, decrying the abhorrent and inhumane conditions reported in detention centers at the border.
A Call to Put an End to Inhumane Conditions at the Border
An open letter by Ariel Dorfman, Gabriel Byrne, Gary Shteyngart, Neil Gaiman, Khaled Hosseini, Viet Thanh Nguyen, Wayétu Moore, Ilya Kaminsky, Reza Aslan, and more.
The signers—which include Gabriel Byrne, Neil Gaiman, Khaled Hosseini, Gary Shteyngart, Viet Thanh Nguyen, Wayétu Moore, Ilya Kaminsky, Ariel Dorfman, Colum McCann, Reza Aslan, and countless more—implore public officials “to takeimmediate steps to rectify the atrocious conditions for asylum seekers being detained today.” They urge Congress to use its appropriation power to pursue four concrete actions to mitigate the crisis.
Dozens of immigrant/refugee authors—novelists, narrators, poets, memoirists, Pulitzer Prize winners, Oprah’s Book Club selections, and bestsellers from five continents—urge Congress to address the atrocities happening on America’s southern border.
Dear Members of the United States Congress:
We, like many of our fellow Americans, are appalled by the inhumane conditions in detention centers for asylum seekers at our southern border. The reports of death, abuse, overcrowding, untreated illness, malnutrition, and lack of basic hygiene are abhorrent, especially since many of those affected are children.
We appeal to you as published authors who are also immigrants and/or refugees. Many of us came to the U.S. as children and shudder to think how this country would treat us now. As such, we urge you to take immediate steps to rectify the atrocious conditions for asylum seekers being detained today.
The past three years have compelled millions of Americans, and many of our civic institutions, to reaffirm that this country remains the land of immigrants. People across the U.S. stood up to protest the White House’s refugee bans; faith leaders opened their communities to aid asylum seekers; local, municipal and state governments and the judicial branch exercised their powers to uphold and defend immigrant rights. Congress must act as well.
Many of you have defended immigrants and refugees with righteous eloquence, invoking our nation’s past and cherished symbols such as the Statue of Liberty. As writers, we appreciate the sublime power of words. But as immigrants, we also remember the brutal reality: when you’re walking in a strange land, herded by strange men who speak in strange tongues, when you’re stripped of basic human needs, when you’re hungry, cold and helpless, words aren’t enough.
We urge Congress to use its appropriation power to direct the following actions:
(1) Immediately direct all resources necessary to shelter migrants with decency and dignity by providing them access to medical care, nutrition and hygiene;
(2) Reverse the massive backlogs in the immigration justice system by allocating resources for judges to hear cases efficiently, with due process, as well as strengthening legal orientation to ensure every person understands every step of their proceedings;
(3) Forbid tax dollars from being spent on forcing asylum seekers to wait in Mexico or other unsafe third countries where they face danger;
(4) Reestablish safe and legal channels for migrants by tying immigration enforcement spending to the reopening of legal channels for migrants fleeing persecution and reversing the White House’s evisceration of the refugee resettlement program.
Polls show that the vast majority of Americans are horrified by the suffering unfolding in the camps. We call on you to leverage that public support to meet our moral obligations by ensuring those held by our own government receive elementary necessities like sanitation supplies and access to medical and legal personnel.
We remember well the experience of utter paralysis that’s part of nearly every immigrant’s journey: of standing before the US immigration system, praying to not be found wanting.
Today, those enduring unspeakable conditions at our border are praying, just as we once prayed, when it was our turn. They may be praying to a different god, or different gods or different entities, but it doesn’t matter; what matters is that the power to address their prayers lies with you, the United States Congress.
Please, do not let them go unheeded.
Alex Abramovich, author, writer, and professor, Columbia University School of the Arts
Mohammed AL Samawi, author and interfaith activist
Reza Aslan, author, commentator, professor, and producer
Ishmael Beah, author and human rights advocate
Livia Blackburne, author
Gabriel Byrne, actor, director, producer, and cultural ambassador
Lan Cao, author and professor, Chapman University
René Colato Laínez, children’s book author and bilingual educator
Ariel Dorfman, author, playwright, essayist, and professor, Duke University
Boris Fishman, author, journalist, and professor, Princeton University
Neil Gaiman, author, screenwriter, director, producer, and activist
Lev Golinkin, author and journalist
Reyna Grande, author and inspirational speaker
Roy Guzmán, poet
Roya Hakakian, author, poet, and journalist
Khaled Hosseini, author, physician and UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador
Abdi Nor Iftin, author and interpreter
Ilya Kaminsky, poet, critic, translator, and professor, Ivan Allen College of Liberal Arts
Angie Kim, author and essayist
Imbolo Mbue, author
Colum McCann, author; member, American Academy of Arts; and professor, Hunter College
Yamile Saied Méndez, author
Maaza Mengiste, author and professor, Hunter College and Princeton University
Wayétu Moore, author; memoirist; journalist; founder, One Moore Book; and lecturer, City University of New York’s John Jay College
Paul Muldoon, poet and professor, Princeton University
Azar Nafisi, author, essayist, scholar, and fellow, Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies
Viet Thanh Nguyen, novelist and professor, University of Southern California
Bao Phi, poet, essayist, spoken word artist, and community activist
Garry Pierre-Pierre, photographer; founder and publisher, The Haitian Times; and professor, Brooklyn College
Carolina Rivera Escamilla, author, director, theater actor, and producer
Fariha Róisín , author, editor, poet, podcaster, and writer-at-large/culture editor, The Juggernaut
Nikesh Shukla, author, editor and podcaster
Gary Shteyngart, author
Jim St. Germain, author, social entrepreneur, presidential appointee, and co-founder, Preparing Leaders of Tomorrow, Inc.
Chimene Suleyman, poet, writer, editor, and spoken word performer
Monique Truong, author, lyricist/librettist, and essayist
Anya Ulinich, novelist, graphic novelist, and short story writer
Ocean Vuong, poet, author, essayist and professor, University of Massachusetts at Amherst
Sholeh Wolpé , poet, writer, literary translator, and inaugural author in residence, UCLA
Rafia Zakaria, author, columnist, book critic, and resident scholar, The City College of New York
Signers have endorsed this Open Letter as individuals and not on behalf of any organization.
About THE NATION: Founded by abolitionists in 1865, The Nation has chronicled the breadth and depth of political and cultural life, from the debut of the telegraph to the rise of Twitter, serving as a critical, independent, and progressive voice in American journalism.
BEFORE HOUDINI, script by Jeremy Holt and art by John Lucas
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?
PULP, script by Jeremy Holt and art by Chris Peterson
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.
SKINNED, written by Jeremy Holt and Tim Daniel and illustrated by Josh Gowdy
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.
SKIP TO THE END, script by Jeremy Holt and art by Alex Diotto
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.
Page from BEFORE HOUDINI
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.
Page from BEFORE HOUDINI
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.
Page from PULP
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.
Here are two cartoonists that need to be on your radar, David Lasky and Greg Stump. And, if you’re in Seattle, then you have an opportunity to take a very special comics course from them. This is an in depth look at “graphic humor,” as expressed by artists, writers, and cartoonists. “Graphic Humor” is a 6-week course at Hugo House: Saturdays from 1 to 3pm, starting April 13 – and is described in the Hugo House catalog:
“Two experienced, allegedly funny cartoonists will guide you through the process of creating a wide range of humorous comics, from New-Yorker-style gag cartoons to page-long stories, rants, and satire. We’ll examine work—from subtle to slapstick to surreal—of some of the medium’s funniest artists and writers en route to generating material for a class anthology comic book. While prior drawing/cartooning experience may be helpful for this class, it isn’t absolutely essential; however, be prepared to collaborate and share work.”
Comics by Greg Stump
Lasky and Stump aim to reveal a wide range of techniques and approaches to humor through a variety of prompts, forms, and experiments. The list of artists and writers covered in the course include Dan Clowes, Julie Doucet, Will Elder, Lynda Barry, Raymond Pettibon, Donald Barthelme, Kate Beaton, Saul Steinberg, Edward Gorey, Lisa Hanawalt, Jeffrey Brown, Ernie Bushmiller, Joe Brainard, David Shrigley, and many others. Students will work towards creating a comic book at the end of the sessions which everyone will contribute to and receive a copy. This is the first time Stump and Lasky have focued on humor for one of their courses. They look forward to engaging with their students.