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This week writer and photojournalist Seth Kushner launched the Kickstarter for Schmuck, his semi-autobio/anthology graphic novel about his quest to find love in New York City. While portions of the collection originally ran online at TripCity.net, even those aspects will be remastered and/or colored for the 168-page trade paperback.
This collection, which features the work of 22 artists, also marks the inaugural release of HANG DAI Editions. The HANG DAI imprint, which was founded in New York City by Gregory Benton, Dean Haspiel, Josh Neufeld and Kushner, focuses on “limited edition comix, graphic novels, and art books, with an emphasis on personal interaction at events, conventions, and signings”.
Be sure to check out the rewards for Kushner’s Kickstarter–not every one of them offers comic consultations with the likes of Nick Bertozzi, Josh Neufeld, Haspiel or Benton.
As part of his continuing effort to draw attention on the Kickstarter, Kushner did a brief email interview.
Tim O’Shea: What prompted you to explore autobio to a certain extent with this project?
Seth Kushner: I first began writing SCHMUCK as a prose memoir in 2003, when I was single and miserable—actually living the experiences about which I was writing. At the time, I was doing Internet dating, and going on fix-ups and I was mostly unsuccessful. I was experiencing life outside of my comfort zone, and I was sharing these stories with my friends. A close female friend found my tales of woe particularly entertaining and encouraged me to write them down.
When I stared writing I was simply recording the events, mostly as they happened. I found it very therapeutic. After a while, I began shaping the stories into a narrative and making chapters out of experiences that shared a common theme, like a collection of fix-up by my mom with “nice Jewish girls.” Soon, I had the beginnings of a book. I didn’t have an ending, because I knew it had to end with me finding true love, but I kept writing. Eventually I had my ending (spoiler alert!) and after five years of writing, and seven drafts, I had a 392-page manuscript. At the time, I thought I had the great American novel and I was going to be the new Nick Hornby. Looking at it now, it’s very rough and too angry and sarcastic. I suppose that might come from having written it all while it was happening, so the feelings are very raw.
Eventually, while working on my book Leaping Tall Buildings: The Origins of American Comics (with Chris Irving, powerhouse Books, 2012) I decided the best format for my story would be comics, since they’re my first love. Also, I have a great respect for autobio comics. It was Harvey Pekar, who taught me, and the world, that stories don’t have to be extraordinary to be compelling and relatable. That point was certainly driven home to me by other great autobio comics by the likes of Jeffrey Brown, Chester Brown, Joe Matt, Bob Fingerman, Dean Haspiel, Josh Neufeld and Craig Thompson.
How hard was it to step outside of your life and think of yourself and your friends as characters to write?
Something I decided early on was I had to change everyone’s names. I needed to at least somewhat fictionalize my self an my friends if I was going to be able to think of them as “characters.” I chose names that sounded similar to me, just to keep it easy. For example, Seth Kushner became Adam Kessler. It’s got a four-letter first name, a ‘K’ beginning the last name and it sounded Semitic enough.
While I still consider my writings to be “memoir”, when I allowed myself the distance from reality, the stories became much better. The truth is important, but sometimes it needs to be stretched for the purposes for dramatic or comedic impact.
Also, since these stories all take place during my “Schmuck years”, between 10 and 12 years ago, I’m not exactly Adam any more. Calling my protagonist “Adam” allows me to divorce myself a bit from my past.
While I did create this pseudonym, it was very important to me that I be honest in my portrayal. I never wanted Adam to be too “cool.” I wanted him to be human, with foibles and insecurities. He would be superficial and petty at times and he would sometimes be a schmuck, as the title suggests. There are many parts of my story where I could (or should) find embarrassing, but the act of laying myself bare is therapeutic and it’s these aspects that I believe readers will relate the most, whether the main character called “Adam” or “Seth.” There are parts where readers might hate Adam, or feel ashamed for him, but I think you’ll understand him.
Present day Seth Kushner has grown past his inner Adam Kessler, AKA SCHMUCK. I’ve been married for over seven years and we have a 4-year old son. My days are spent working at a studio in Gowanus, Brooklyn and picking up my son from preschool in the afternoon, followed by helping him with his homework, building Thomas train tracks, making dinner for the family and watching one TV show before going to bed at 10:30 to wake up at 6:15 the next morning. Sure, I can still be a schmuck, (ask my wife!) but Adam Kessler’s single life is long behind me.
In terms of pacing the story and capitalizing on opportunities, how challenging was it maintain the audiobio element while deciding when to take story beats in a dramatic direction or to capitalize on a comedic opportunity?
Everything in SCHMUCK is based on truth, but sometimes, for the sake of story, it’s more important that my stories are emotionally true than factually true.
For example: There’s a situation in the very first SCHMUCK comic I wrote, (beautifully drawn by Kevin Colden) where Adam is on a date with a young woman and he’s at her apartment and he starts to feel sick, and ends up having horrible diarrhea in her bathroom. Adam is sure she hears all the stomach churning sounds coming from the bathroom and even though he tries to play it off when he returns to the living she suddenly wants to call it a night. That all actually happened. Well, I was on a date, and I did have diarrhea and she did indicate she had wanted to end the night, but I can’t say for sure it was because she was horrified by the gastric sounds. That’s conjecture, but having her react as clearly as Kevin drew from my script, was better for the story. It was more comedic and more tragic.
Most of the deviances from “truth” in the book are like the one I just described. Others consist of simple things like truncating time, and eliminating or combining characters
Were you concerned about the look of the overall story, given that a variety of artists were involved in creating it?
I’ve always liked how every artist drew their own interpretation of Harvey Pekar and how greatly they sometimes differed, as mentioned by Hope Davis as Joyce Brabner in the American Splendor film. Every artist drew Adam differently and I can’t possibly have a favorite, but it was always a thrill to see. I tried my best to pick the right artist for each story, tonally. For example, Pierce Hargan is a young artist who not everyone knows yet, (but they will) and his expressionistic style was just right for a story about a sad one-night stand. Ryan Alexander-Tanner’s expressive, cartoony style was the most appropriate for a story about Adam’s encounter with a lady with very large breasts. Gregory Benton’s cartoony/fine art style was perfection for a flashback to my Bar Mitzvah. I’ve been very lucky with the matching of story and artist.
SCHMUCK is an anthology. Yes, it’s one with the same writer and where the stories go together to tell a complete narrative, but it’s still an anthology and I think part of the fun of anthologies is having a book with a variety of art styles and that’s what I’ve always aimed to offer with this project.
In setting the rewards for the Kickstarter–what was your criteria for selecting the rewards that made the cut?
In setting the rewards, I chose items that related to me. If someone is interested in SCHMUCK then maybe they’d enjoy my other books, Leaping Tall Buildings, FORCE FIELD FOTOCOMIX, etc. I’ve offered original prints based upon SCHMUCK by artists Dean Haspiel, Gregory Benton and Shamus Beyale, as well as services like commissions by artists George Jurard and Ryan Alexander-Tanner and private comics consultations with Dean Haspiel, Gregory Benton, Nick Bertozzi and Josh Neufeld and photo lessons and photoshoots with me. I’ve also got original art from SCHMUCK offered as rewards. I wanted things that would be special. I hope these things are enticing!
While this has been in development for quite awhile, how good does it feel to be another step closer to the first official book published by HANG DAI?
HANG DAI Editions was a dream shared by Dean Haspiel, Gregory Benton, Josh Neufeld and me. We all have signature, personal works we want to produce, of which we’d like keep control of rights and monetary rewards. We want to be our own publishers. HANG DAI is offering us the opportunity to do this. We four each recently produced one floppy comic – Dean made PSYCHOTRONIC COMIX, Gregory FORCE OF NATURE, Josh VAGABONDS #3, me SCHMUCK Comix, and the imprint is about to debut the anthology, HANG DAI STUDIOS COMIX. We printed a limited amount of these, on the fairly cheap, and we’re putting them out into the world, mostly by offering them at cons and various public appearances. We’ve been referring to this as “HDE Phase 1.” Phase 2 would be to do books, which are much more expensive than floppies, and we want to distribute them to stores, Amazon, etc. The amount of money needed in order to properly produce a book is much more than I could come up with through any other means than Kickstarter, at least legally! SCHMUCK is the first book ready to go, so it’s an experiment to see if the Kickstarter model can work for us. I sure hope it can. Should the campaign prove successful (fingers crossed!) you will surely see more books coming from the imprint soon.