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;

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