Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Chutz-POW!: The Comic Book – Les Banos

The first story in the Chutz-POW! anthology is that of Les Banos. I don't want to rehash all of the details of the story here. That is what the comic book is for. Here's the first page, with art by Mark Zingarelli, to serve as an introduction and teaser.

Les's story was one of the most compelling and exciting stories I worked on. His adventures as a double agent would fill a graphic novel. His life should be a movie, not only for what he accomplished during the Holocaust and World War II, but for the remarkable life he led after. There were so many parts of his life, so many anecdotes, that I had to cut for space.

One in particular stands out to me. I don't have the research in front of me any more, so I am reconstructing this from memory. Some of the specifics are vague, but if there is ever a continuation of his story in any form, this is a tale that needs to be told.

Once, when Les was serving as an SS officer, he was in what appeared to be an abandoned house. I don't remember why, other than his duties took him to investigate this house. While there he heard sounds, human sounds, coming from a grand piano. He lifted the lid and found two young Jewish girls, sisters, hiding inside. They were scared, of course. Les smuggled them out of the city into the hands of his contacts, saving their lives.

This is a gripping tale in itself, but it is what happened much later in his life that gives it resonance.

In Pittsburgh, years and years after the War, Les was attending an event where Holocaust survivors were telling their stories. As he listened to one woman speaker, she recounted how she and her sister had hidden inside of a piano and been rescued. Les met the woman after the event. The sheer randomness and synchronicity of this encounter is magic.

I wanted all of the stories in this collection to have a different structure and a different narrative feel. Les's story was the first one I worked on, and given the nature of the research I had done I ended up approaching it more as a documentary than as a story-like narrative.

I was blessed to have this story drawn by Mark Zingarelli. Mark is a freelance artist who stays really busy. I knew that he was working on an original graphic novel with writer Joyce Brabner (the widow of Harvey Pekar of American Splendor fame). I assumed he would simply not have the time to work on the Chutz-POW! project, but I had to call and ask. To my delight he said yes. When I was telling him about the different stories I was writing it was Les Banos that Mark wanted to work on.

Mark has been a friend for several years now, but his career in comics pre-dates my affiliation with him by many years. In addition to his recent graphic novel work and freelance illustration Mark contributed art to American Splendor and Weirdo. He was also part of the original explosion of independent artists working at Fantagraphics in the early 1980s. He was part of a crowd that included Peter Bagge (Neat Stuff, Hate), Dan Clowes (Lloyd Llewellen, Eightball, Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron, Ghost World), and Robert Crumb (way too many things to list). During this time Mark produced a comic called Real Life.

Working with Mark was an education. I have a habit of overwriting. If you follow this blog regularly you already know this. There's a reason I'm more of a novelist than a short story writer. Though I have written for comics before it has been awhile. It's difficult for me to gauge how much room there actually is on the page for images and text. In this case the problem was compounded by the amount of detail in Les's story. The documentary style I had chosen was a little choppy and disconnected. The first draft I sent to Mark was much too wordy and overcrowded with information. 

Mark called me to talk about the script. He was gentle, but the bottom line was there was no way all of what I had written was going to fit in six pages. I deferred to Mark's expertise. He has far more experience laying out a story than I do. The final version that appears in the comic is due to Mark's editing of my script and playing with the layout of the pages as much as it is to my original draft. The story is stronger for this.

And if Mark and I ever get to work together again I promise to give him more of a comics narrative than the documentary style story he got this time around.

Les Banos passed away in 2008. Many people who had known him for years did not know of his experiences as a double agent. Apparently, like a lot of people, he simply didn't talk about it very much. In one of the documents I read in the research someone asked him in the 1990s why he had never told anyone about his time as a double agent. His response?

“I didn't think anybody would believe me!”

We believe you, Mr. Banos, and I feel privileged to be able to bring your story to the world.

Mark Zingarelli's new graphic novel with Joyce Brabner is called Second Avenue Caper: When Goodfellas, Divas, and Dealers Plotted Against the Plague. It's due from Hill and Wang (the graphic novel imprint of Farrar, Straus and Giroux), in November, 2014. You can see more of Mark's work at his Facebook page HERE or at his House of Zing Website HERE.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Chutz-POW!: The Comic Book

In June I blogged about my involvement in an ongoing project called Chutz-POW!: Real Superheroes of the Holocaust. You can read my blog post introducing the project HERE. I wrote another post about my research and experiences doing a piece of art based on the story of Sophie Scholl (HERE), and another about the whole museum exhibit portion of the project that premiered at the 3 Rivers Arts Festival (HERE).

This blog is the first of several where I will talk about the part of the project I had the most involvement with; The Chutz-POW! comic book.

The steering committee decided that it would be a good idea to produce an actual comic book in conjunction with this project. My experience as a writer and a comic book creator, as well as my background in research, made me the obvious choice to be the writer on the project. I also know a lot of the local comics artists and have good working relationships with them, which is essential in a project like this.

This is the cover for the comic. Artwork and
design by Marcel L. Walker. You can read
his process blog about this cover HERE.

The comic tells the stories of five local Pittsburgh Upstanders. From the beginning we knew that in spite of using the term “superhero” and the metaphor that represents we didn't want to present these stories as superhero tales. We never considered giving super powers to these real life people. Their stories are heroic enough. The goal was to be true to their actual histories.

The Holocaust is a really heavy topic and so much of the focus has been on the atrocities that were committed. While these atrocities should not be forgotten and need to be confronted, we wanted to focus on the aspects of this history that aren't talked about as often; the acts of heroism and selflessness, the spirit of those who did fight back, the tenacity and heart of those who had this experience. Early in this process someone said that “the act of survival was an act of heroism.” That was a guiding principle.

The five Upstanders we chose were also people who continued to serve as inspirations throughout the rest of their lives. They were educators and active in the community, sharing their stories in an effort to help the world understand. We make no claim that these people represent the most important or the only stories. Everyone who lived through the Holocaust has an important story. But for this first volume we chose five people.

Les Banos was a well-known Pittsburgh sports photographer who served as a double agent in the German SS. Moshe Baran was a partisan resistance fighter in Poland. His wife Malka was a survivor of the concentration camps. Dora Iwler escaped from the concentration camps, twice! Fritz Ottenheimer witnessed Kristallnacht as a boy, immigrated to America with his family and then returned to Germany as a member of the U.S. Army.

Les Banos, Malka Baran, Moshe Baran, Dora Iwler and Fritz Ottenheimer

I will talk about each of them in slightly more detail in individual blogs. I don't want to tell their entire stories here. I want you to read the comic.

I left the Holocaust Center one cold February morning with stacks of file folders containing information about each of these people. They had all been interviewed countless times and given first hand reports of their lives. There were newspaper articles and DVD documentaries. I was given a book called Flares of Memory, published locally containing the first person accounts of many Pittsburgh survivors. Both Les Banos and Fritz Ottenheimer had written books. It was a mountain of information to assimilate. The part of me that is a historian loved it.

My challenge as the writer of these stories was to find the moments in these lives that told a complete and meaningful narrative without doing damage to the totality of their experience. And, I need to do it in 4 to 8 pages.

No pressure.

I had a lot of information but much of it was out of context... various interviews and articles with no clear linear history. I spent a lot of time reading through the research, making notes, and constructing timelines. As I narrowed down the moments I wanted to use I began to look for the themes and ideas on which to structure the narrative. I wanted each story to have its own feel. Each artist had a different style, so I thought the stories should all be structured a little differently.

And even though I tried to do my best, the truth is there is a lot of information, a lot of great moments, left out. Given the constraints of page count I had no choice but to cut and condense large portions. These stories are snapshots, important moments, but not the whole story. I say in my writer's note in the book that each of these people deserve an entire graphic novel and it's absolutely true.

I approach writing comics from an artist's perspective. To structure the narrative I need to make my own thumbnails to go along with my script. It's how I figure out pacing and story beats. Unlike prose, comics exist in space, bounded by the page. This constraint helps determine the storytelling and reading experience. It helps me to visualize the final page in a rough stage before I ever type a line of description or narration.

The next step was to send the scripts to the artists. They all had valuable feedback. A comics page done in this fashion is a collaborative effort. Though I wrote my script based on my thumbnails I didn't show these to the artists. I didn't want to limit them by my vision of the final page. They are all professionals who are more experienced at laying out a comics page than I am. The information was in the script. As long as the story beats were respected they were free to play with the script in whatever way they felt best served the story. In each case there were places where ideas and panels were condensed or expanded. Layouts were not what I had thumbnailed, but still told the same story. One artist changed the overall story structure but managed to not only keep all of the details I had written but to enhance the way in which they were presented. In every case the artist's instincts were better than anything I had envisioned, yet maintained a fidelity to the story I had written.

Wherever possible I defaulted to the actual words of the people I wrote about. These are their stories and their words carry more weight than mine. I took my responsibility to them very seriously. There were edits to the final script... fact-checking, some flat-out mistakes on my part, instances where the character's memories didn't match the  historical record.

But in the end I am happy with the result. I believe the stories we told are good representations of their lives. I know I can never really do justice to the reality of their experience, given six pages or six hundred. These are glimpses into their history, a small window on a immense vista. My hope is that these stories will inspire the reader to learn more; about the Holocaust, about these people and others like them, and about their own potential to be heroes.

The release party for the comic will take place on August 14, 2014 at the Toonseum in downtown Pittsburgh. It's a block party with music, food and art. The creators, including myself will be in attendance. Here's the poster;