Wednesday, November 18, 2009

For the Love of Comics #05: My Schmucky Endeavor

Words: Seth Kushner

Schmuck: The term entered English as a borrowed pejorative from the common Yiddish insult, where it is an obscene term for penis. It a range of meaning depending on context. In its most innocuous use, a schmuck is a person who does a stupid thing, in which case "dumb schmuck" is the appropriate expression. A schmuck's behavior ranges from pesky and inconsiderate, to obnoxious and manipulative.

Growing up, my mother often called me a “Schmuck.” It was part term of endearment and part beratement. The word “shcmuck” always struck me as a funny sounding Yiddish word, and I suppose from hearing it as often I have throughout my life, it was the first title that sprung to mind for the manuscript I started writing in 2003.

Schmuck is a very personal story for me. It's based upon a period of my own life when I was dumped by my girlfriend and while depressed, I went on a personal journey of blind dates, Internet connections, break-ups, etc., all in hopes of finding the then abstract concept of my one true love. Along the way, I endured many painful, comical, tragic and comically tragic situations, and it's those on which the story mainly focuses. Though it falls under the category of "memoir," the names have been changes to protect the innocent, and the guilty.

I wrote Schmuck to shed a realistic, brutally honest light on love and relationships. I hope by reading it, both men and women will humorously cringe at the all-too-human moments we all can relate with. My main character's internal monologue is filled with all of the superficial, inane, perverted and self-deprecating thoughts we all have but are ashamed to admit.

As I’ve said, the main character is based on me, a pop-culture-obsessed photographer who is torn between attempting to please an overbearing Jewish Mother by finding a nice Jewish girl, and figuring out what he wants for himself. Meanwhile, his group of name-calling, sex-obsessed Brooklyn boys stand-by, and give their own brand of advice on the subject.

Schmuck began life as a prose novel, back in 2003. I spent five years writing it, off and on, and it wasn’t until I began working with and befriending all of the amazing comic book creators on the Graphic NYC project that I had the idea to seriously pursue turning it into a graphic novel, something I’ve always dreamed of doing.

Nearly two years ago, I quietly began adapting my manuscript to a proper comics script. Using Brian Michael Bendis’s Powers Script book, a Neil Gaiman script in the back of a Sandman trade and some material on Brian Wood’s site, I learned how to form a comic book script. I learned that writing a script for a comic is a unique thing. It’s neither a book nor a screenplay, but something else entirely. The writer must pre-envision the layout of the page, deciding how many panels will be on the page, whether they will be horizontal, vertical, some combination, and also what parts of the story will be told in dialogue, or caption or through the art. Over about a week’s time, I managed to eke out an adaptation of two different portions of my manuscript into 17 pages of comics script. I started with my intro (or prologue) and then, as an exercise, moved on to a much later chapter. It was a challenging but rewarding experience and most importantly, it was a learning experience.

Reading over my script, I felt it was working, but my lack of experience left me wondering if it was any good, and I knew I had to seek advice. I sent an email to my friend, cartoonist extraordinaire Dean Haspiel (Billy Dogma, The Alcoholic) and asked him if he’d mind taking a look at what I had. Dean (God bless him) came back with some great, constructive feedback. He told me to watch out for using too many words, which is a mistake many novice comics writers fall into. He reminded me that the story in a comic is told 50% through words, and 50% through pictures. In other words, don’t be afraid to let the pictures tell the story and there’s no reason for the text to describe what is already seen. Of course – duh! I’d never thought of it that way before. Dean also pointed out that I was sometimes using too many panels per page, which would make for cramped and difficult-to-follow pages.

With Dean’s advice, I immediately took another crack at it and eliminated as many words from each page as I could, as I could then see that I was indeed over-explaining. There was no need for a caption to read, “He opened the door,” if the panel shows the character opening a door. I also broke up a few of my pages into two pages, cleaning up the storytelling and allowing the whole thing to breath. Dean also explained the need for finding the beats in the story and figuring out the best place to end each page, making the reader want to read on to the next page.

Man, did I go to the right person, or what?

With my freshly polished script, I decided it was time to find an artist. But how does one go about doing that? I had no idea, so I went back to Dean and asked yet another favor of him. He thought about it for a moment and said, “Why not bug Colden?” He was referring to Kevin Colden, an artist who’s work I admired greatly from his Xeric award winning comic on ACT-I-VATE, Fishtown, which has since been released as a graphic novel (IDW Publishing, November 2008) and was nominated for an Eisner Award. I had met Kevin a few months earlier when I photographed he and his wife, cartoonist Miss Lasko-Gross for Graphic NYC, and liked him a lot, but was nervous to ask him to look at my script. But, having come this far already, I was determined, so I sent him an email explaining the project and attached my script. The next day I received Kevin’s response, which was that Schmuck was just the type of project he was interested in working on. We discussed and agreed that we would make a proposal and pitch it to publishers as a graphic novel.

A few weeks later I received an email from Kevin, and attached were the first four pages, fully inked! After spending so much time writing something for so many years, it was an unbelievable feeling to first gaze upon Kevin’s visual translation of my words. I was immediately struck by Kevin’s depiction of the main character, Adam Kessler walking through SoHo in the snow on his way to meet his friends at a bar. He drew Adam, a character based upon me, in a way that doesn’t exactly look like me, but feel like me. The way he walks and slouches is something I recognize from looking in the mirror. Kevin told me that he observed some of my mannerisms and included them in the character. He also said that he designed Adam a bit “rounder” than me because he’s somewhat of a combination of him and me.

Looking past the character design, I loved the way Kevin drew the city and how he paced the panels. He took my page and panel descriptions and gave me much, much more that I asked for. The whole thing seemed to come alive for me, and finally feel real.

A few weeks later I received 14 pages, all inked and lettered, which was the full prologue of my script and would comprise our proposal. Again, Kevin gave me so much more than I expected; He found creative solutions for making pages of talking heads look interesting. He took moments of humor I had written and gave expressions to the characters that helped to sell the jokes. He made things meant as outrageous and made them uproarious. And, somehow, he took character based upon my friends and made them actually look and feel like the people on which they were based.

While Schmuck tells a universal and relatable story, I feel it is told from a fresh perspective through both my words and the visuals Kevin Coldon. Kevin's sensibility, style and ability to tell a story in a way that feels both fresh and natural make him the ideal collaborator. I got lucky.

Kevin and I felt good about our proposal and were ready get the thing sold and get crackin’ on finishing the rest of the planned 200 pages, but then Dean had an inspired suggestion. “You’re a photographer,” he said, “Your main character is a photographer, why aren’t there photographs in this?” Yeah, I thought, why weren’t there photographs?

So, adding to the uniqueness of the package, I’ve weaved flashback sequences throughout the narrative which are done photographically in a fumetti style, blurring the lines between art and reality, fact and fiction. I found excellent subjects to portray the characters in the story, and went through the very odd experience of recreating moments from my own life and photographed them. I decided to utilize a style of imagery for the photographs which is obscure, using lots of shadowing and blurring to create a dreamlike effect represent hazy memory.

I’ve long planned on doing a graphic novel using sequential photographs and text to tell the story so I’m excited to be experimenting with that approach with Schmuck. There have been comics that have utilized photography before, but as Kevin says, “we’re making a photo-comic that doesn’t suck.”

With the “photo pages,” we have 23 completed pages of story for our proposal, which is about to be shopped around to publishers by our agent. But first, Schmuck will be serialized on the awesome webcomics collective site, over six weeks beginning Thanksgiving Day. Having just produced and directed (with Carlos Molina) the “promo-mentary” The ACT-I-VATE Experience and being immersed in the work on that site for so long, I am greatly honored that the braintrust of the collective saw fit to included my work with the works of such comics luminaries as Dean Haspiel, Tim Hamilton, Simon Fraser, Mike Cavallaro, Leland Purvis, Roger Langridge, Joe Infurnari, Tom Hart, Warren Pleece, and so many more. I feel some sort of validation.

Who is Schmuck’s target audience? My influences while writing include: In lierature; Portnoy’s Complaint, the works of Jonathan Ames and Nick Hornby. In media; Curb Your Enthusiasm, Woody Allen films, Good Will Hunting, and Entourage. In comics; Harvey Pekar’s American Splendor, Alex Robinson’s Box Office Poison, Bob Fingerman’s Minimum Wage, works by Adrian Tomine, Jeffrey Brown, and Joe Matt.Schmuck’s is aimed at anyone who’s a fan of anything I’ve just named, or is interested in smart, funny, awkward and touching stories about a guy on the road from man/boyhood to actual adulthood.

After reading comics my whole life, I’m now making comics.

And it feels great.

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