Conversing on Comics with Seth Kushner
Some use pen and paper to make a comic, while others employ a stylus and a computer screen. But photographer Seth Kushner moves beyond the idea of utilizing a camera to document life to instead capture images to tell a story in a sequential narrative. Y’know, comics. In the past few years, Kushner has come to be a significant force in comics, both for his photocomix like CulturePOP at Trip City and for his more traditional photography work profiling comic creators. For the latter, he’s best known in comic circles for his partnership with writer Chris Irving, which produced the website Graphic NYC and recently the printed book Leaping Tall Buildings: The Origins of American Comics.
As both a chronicler of comic creators and a comic creator himself, Kushner is an interesting subject to talk about the current landscape of comics. From the American reception to photocomix (as compared to the European adoration for them as fumetti) to his personal and iconic photography of comic creators that’s far beyond the grainy bygone magazine photographs we’re used to. In his work, he allows the comic creators themselves to live up to the lofty nature of the comics they produce. And his comics work, both in the photocomic CulturePOP and his more traditionally drawn series Schmuck, Kushner keeps his personal aesthetic for being “up close and personal” with his writing and treatment of his subjects.
Chris Arrant: Easy one first, Seth: What projects are on your plate today?
Seth Kushner: Funny you should ask. Just this past week I got copies back of the new issue of American Photo Magazine, which contains an eight-page photocomic on me and making photocomix. Talk about meta, huh!? I was completely honored to be asked to do this. It was very, very challenging, and it took some thought, but with only a week to turn it around, I only had one night to figure it out how I’d do it. I ended up titling it “Understanding Photocomix,” a nod to Scott McCloud, and cast myself as the narrator and I appear wearing a T-shirt with a camera on it (McCloud’s cartoon avatar wears a lightning bolt T-shit in his books). It details how I came up with and produced my series (all 29 episodes online for free at Trip City) and I utilize some of my imagery from the profiles, including; Jonathan Ames, Marc Maron, Moby, Harvey Pekar, Chuck Klosterman and others. It’s on newsstands now, and I’m very proud of how it turned out.
I’ve actually got LOTS on my plate currently, including; promoting Leaping Tall Buildings: The Origins of American Comics, (written by Chris Irving). We’ve been doing bookstore signings and presentations and have more coming this summer. We just did a great event at Housing Works Bookstore here in New York, where we reunited the legendary creative team of Neal Adams and Denny O’Neil for a panel discussion, and the whole thing was for charity.
Next week (Wednesday, July 25th) we have an event at Jim Hanley’s Universe, where we’ll do a panel discussion and signing with creators/book subjects; Chris Claremont, Larry Hama, Dean Haspiel, Kevin Colden, Joe Infurnari and Simon Fraser.
Another of my nearly full-time jobs is Trip City, the Brooklyn-filtered multimedia arts salon. Dean Haspiel, Chris Miskiewicz, Jeffrey Burandt and I launched it back in November, and it’s been great. But curating everyone else involved, working on the podcast, etc., has been a ton of work, but I’m really proud of what we’ve created I also work on several personal projects which appear on the site, including Schmuck, my “semi-autobio comix neurotic.” It’s a 12-part coming-of-age story based upon my schmucky days of 10 years ago when I was a single guy living in Brooklyn and trying to find myself while dating and dealing with life in the early 2000s. Each chapter is being illustrated by a different great artist, including; Kevin Colden (The Crow) Sean Pryor (Pekar Project), Bobby Timony (Night Owls), Omar Angulo (Hurricane Wilma), Shamus Beyale (The Grimm Fairy Tales), Ryan Alexander-Tanner (To Teach), George Schall, (Dark Horse Presents) Nathan Schreiber (Power-Out), Leland Purvis (Resistance) and more to be announced. It’s filled with pathos and embarrassing moments involving awkward sexual encounters, diarrhea, etc. Also, there’s the companion to the Schmuck comic, called The Schmuck Diaries, which is a first-person narrative prose series. It allows me to explore certain topics deeper than the comic series allows, and ideally, they should be read together. Schmuck is a completely personal and revealing work and it the story I’ve HAD to tell.
Finally, there’s my essay series First-Person POP where I mix personal stories with pop culture. Recent topics have included; remembrances of the comic stores from my youth in Brooklyn, my junior-high love of pro wrestling, a comparison of my cousin Dave and one-time 007 George Lazenby, how an encounter with Mark Hamill led to my meeting my wife, the connection between my father and Patrick Stewart, and more. They all utilize my photography as well.
For the past four years you’ve been chronicling comic creators in pictures as part of Graphic NYC, which turned into the print book you mentioned, Leaping Tall Buildings. With comics being such an illustrative art form and most comic creators being faceless people to their fans, what has it been like for you documenting them these past years?
It’s true that comic creators (at least most) have been relatively faceless. But to me, growing up reading comics, the writers and artists were my heroes, at least as much as the charters they were working on and creating. I remember being around 9 and just worshiping Frank Miller and Chris Claremont for their work on Daredevil and Uncanny X-Men respectively, and together on Wolverine, and they inspired me want to write and draw and create.
I shoot a lot of celebrities in my freelance photo career and when I started shooting comic creators I decided early on I would approach them visually the way I would any rock star. In most cases that meant dramatic lighting and composition and taking them away from the art tables, where they’ve traditionally been photographed. My concept was to put them in environments and situations which would in some way recall their works. For example, I put Denny O’Neil in an alley in Chinatown, referencing Crime Alley, where Bruce Wayne’s parents were murdered. I hadn’t realized until I researched Denny, but he came up with the concept and name “Crime Alley” during his Batman run, so it was perfect. As an added bonus, he showed up dressed like Jim Gordon!
It was a great thrill meeting and spending time with some of my heroes. I often said I got to sit at the feet of giants, like Joe Simon. It was an honor and thrill to have taken his portrait. He was then 95 years old and he was still working and drawing his co-creation, Captain America (it’s his hand on the book cover) and it was so inspiring for me and Chris to just be in his presence.
I’m always fascinated to see how people live and work and where they make their signature creations. A few examples: Walt Simonson’s art table is in front of big windows overlooking the woods of upstate New York; Frank Miller works in a room high above Hell’s Kitchen filled with antique toys and props from the movies 300 and Sin City; Chris Ware works in the beautiful attic of his Chicago home. I really enjoy being privy to these inner sanctums.
Do you have any interesting anecdotes you can share from your photo shoots with comic creators beyond what their surroundings are?
There were so many memorable photoshoots from the project. Art Spiegelman come to mind. He was a bit tough to get, but I pretty much begged him telling him our book would be “incomplete” without him. He finally relented and chose to do the shoot on the roof of his Soho studio. I remember taking a bunch of portraits of him smoking (he chain smokes) and while I know they would be fine, I wasn’t getting the “ultimate” Art Spiegelman, which was what I know I needed. Finally, he came up with an idea. He grabbed a piece of his child’s chalk and began drawing the Maus version of himself on the brick wall behind him. Then, I had him sit beneath the drawing and I immediately knew I was making an iconic image of him.
In preparing for this interview, I realized that you’re right at the crossroads of a key issue in comics today: the comic creator’s role in comics. Leaping Tall Buildings is spotlighting those creators, and you yourself have posted recently about how your work as a creator, in this case of photographs, is frequently used in both print and online without giving credit or payment to you. How do you see your own struggles with that relating to the struggles of creators in comics?
As a freelance artist, AKA “the little man,” I’ve often found myself holding the short end of the stick. I recently posted an essay, “©Seth Kushner,” where I detailed how my photos have repeatedly been stolen offline for uncredited and unpaid usage. It’s endlessly frustrating, and as a creator I put my heart and soul into my work, so it’s a more than a bit demoralizing to have to it utilized without my permission. That issue coupled with having to sometimes deal with clients who don’t value my work enough to pay me, which has happened several times over the years, has made it difficult for an independent artist to get by. So, I surely feel a kinship with Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, Jack Kirby and other GENIUSES who were under-appreciated and disrespected.
You’ve also jumped into comics creation yourself, doing the comic strips CulturePOP and Schmuck. How’d you turn from observer and documentarian to participant?
I’ve always had aspirations of storytelling and creating my own properties. I just never knew how to go about it! Working on Leaping Tall Buildings brought me into the world I’d so long admired from the outside. I became friends with many of my subjects, primarily with Dean Haspiel, who I actually met while working on my previous book The Brooklynites (with Anthony LaSala). It was Dean who actually helped me come up with the idea for Leaping Tall Buildings, and Dean who encouraged me to create CulturePOP Photocomix and Schmuck. In fact, he’s acted as my unofficial editor and mentor on both projects.
I often think I walk the line of documentarian and creator, and I like that about my life. I have a lot of itches to scratch, I guess.
You entered comics not just as writer, but using your photography as art for the comics. While that’s a more accepted form in Europe, in America it’s still a novelty for people at large. How’d you work with that, and against it?
I’ve certainly seen fumetti over the years. When I was a kid I had an Incredible Hulk paperback made up of stills from the Bill Bixby show and more recently I’d seen photo novellas from Italy, and I remember a couple of graphic novels Vertigo put out about 10-12 years ago, I Paparazzi and Veils. Illustrating a story with my photography has been a dream of mine since I first took up a camera in high school, and I’d made some so-so attempts at it over the years. What changed for me recently, and why I think I’ve been able to create these photocomix successfully, was my entering the world of comics as an observer/documentarian with Leaping Tall Buildings. From seeing how actual comics are created and by becoming friends with the creators, it allowed me to think about and study the language of comics. Sure, I’d probably read over 30,000 comics in my life, but simply as a reader, a fan, I never gave a whole lot of though to how and why they work. But, I’ve learned comic boom storytelling and layout. Also, Dean Haspiel took it upon himself to mentor me and encourage me to make photocomix.
I’m just now putting everything I’ve learned to the test, with a project called Complex. It will be a full fictionalized graphic novel told through a dramatized photocomic. Something I’m directing, like a movie using actors and locations. I wrote a treatment a while back and teamed up with my writer/actor friend (and fellow Trip City curator) Chris Miskiewicz to write the final script, and Dean’s come on board as an editor and co-writer. It’s an allegorical futuristic drama about four lost souls orbiting each other’s lives and making a connection that matters before the end of the world. We just went in to production on the prologue, the results of which we’ll put out into the world soon.
What’s been your experience doing photocomix and how they’re accepted by readers?
For me making photocomix has been tremendously rewarding. It’s been tough to get an audience to accept them because I think there’s a stigma that they’re not “real” comics. By definition, comics are words and pictures that go together to tell a story. I don’t think it states anywhere in the rules the pictures have to be drawn. I’m working on getting people to see this type of storytelling as just another way of telling a story.
How does creating photography to be used to tell a comic story change the way you choose what to shoot?
Working on the CulturePOP series really challenged me and forced me to stretch myself creatively. I could simply shoot cool portraits of my subjects, as I usually get paid to do. Here I had to photograph them in a more reportage way as well, since it’s about a narrative. I’ve been training my brain think in different ways and I think that’s been helping all aspects of my creative life.
And just to get an idea of how much you do that doesn’t see print – how many photos do you generally do for every one that you release?
Because I know I’ll need enough options to illustrate the story, I make sure to take as many photos and situations as I can in order to cover myself. I usually end up shooting several hundred photos. I’m usually the type of photographer who shoots sparingly, confident I mow when I have what I need, but with these, I need so much, so I shoot, shoot, shoot!
And who is someone you wanted to include in Leaping Tall Buildings that you haven’t had the opportunity to do yet?
I would have loved to have included Alan Moore and Warren Ellis, but they live in England, and rarely visit the United States, so it was logistically impossible. I also would have loved to have included Daniel Clowes, David Mazzucchelli, R. Crumb, Charles Burns, Brian Lee O’Malley, Craig Thompson, Jeff Smith, Mike Mignola, Darwyn Cooke, Geoff Johns, Frank Quietly, Seth, Chester Brown, Alison Bechdel and others. But aside from the fact some of them turned us down, we also had a limited amount of space in the book. I’m very glad of who we did get, and honestly, neither Chris Irving nor I are saying our book is the last word on comics; it’s just our words (and pictures). We encourage readers to also check out Gerard Jones’ Men of Tomorrow, Jules Feiffer’s Great Comic Book Heroes, David Haju’s Ten Cent Plague, and many other great books on comics history.
In next week’s installment of Conversing On Comics, Chris talks with cartoonist Ryan Kelly. Kelly is currently illustrating the DC/Vertigo series Saucer Country, while at the same time he does the webcomic Cocotte and his self-published print series Funrama. A former apprentice and assistant of Peter Gross (The Unwritten, Lucifer), Kelly’s gone on to teach the next generation as a comics college professor while keeping up a busy life drawing comics.