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.