Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Chutz-POW!: The Comic Book – Fritz Ottenheimer

It was a bright, sunny yet freezing cold early March morning when I met with Fritz Ottenheimer, the subject of the final story in the Chutz-POW! collection. Fritz and his wife Goldie welcomed me into their home and were very gracious. Fritz is a small man, in his late 80s. He reminded me of my father, at least in terms of general build. He was more than willing to talk about his experiences in Germany and in World War II. Here's the first page of his story, with art by Christopher Moeller.

Fritz was very humble about his contributions and accomplishments, giving most of the credit for being Upstanders to his parents who helped smuggle many people across the German border into Switzerland when he was a boy. His family immigrated to America in 1939 while he was still a teenager. In 1945 he returned to Germany as a member of the U.S. Army to fight against his homeland.

My impression of Fritz is that he is a brilliant and well-read man who has spent much of his life trying to understand the Holocaust and the larger questions about life and humanity that it raises. He spoke with insight, compassion, and dignity about every topic that came up. He wrote a marvelous book about his experiences called Escape andReturn: Memories of Nazi Germany that goes into far more detail than we were able to cover in the hour I spent with him.

I've known the artist, Chris Moeller, for probably twenty years or more. He is an illustrator, comics creator, and one of the more gifted painters I've been privileged to know. I knew Chris was at the tail end of major and very personal graphic novel project so I didn't really think he would be available. To my delight, he said yes. Chris's art stayed very true to my original script. There were places where I told him very openly that while I knew what words needed to be on the page I didn't know what would be the best images to accompany them. In those cases he had carte blanche to do whatever he thought worked best. I wasn't disappointed. His storytelling instincts are golden.

Chris's work includes JLA: A League of One and JLA: Cold Steel. He was the cover artist for the Vertigo Comics series Lucifer and Batman: Shadow of the Bat. He has provided illustrations for Marvel, IDW, FASA, Topps, West End Games, Wizards of the Coast, Blizzard Entertinment, WizKids and White Wolf Games. He created a pair of creator-owned graphic novels called Iron Empires: Faith Conquers and Iron Empires: Sheva's War, currently available from Dark Horse Comics. He recently self-published the thrid book in this series, Void, through an amazingly successful Kickstarter.


Fritz Ottenheimer was enthusiastic about the whole Chutz-POW! project, understanding the message we are trying to share. It was Fritz who provided the quote, without any prompting from me, that is on the back cover of the book. I think this sums up the goal of this comic and the educational legacy we hope it leaves, better than anything I could have written.

When you're acting as a superman, you're teaching your children to be supermen.”

Friday, August 8, 2014

Chutz-POW!: The Comic Book – Dora Iwler

The third story in the Chutz-Pow! anthology is that of Dora Iwler. As a teenager Dora managed to escape from Nazi captivity, twice! Here's the first page of her story with art by Dave Wachter.

Though it is the third story in the collection it was the last story I wrote. Dave was working on another major project and told me he couldn't even think about doing this one until at least April. That gave me extra time. I needed it. Maybe it was because I knew I was writing this one last that I just couldn't really grab the thread of Dora's narrative. I read the research I had on her but for some reason the details of it didn't stick in my head. There were elements of Malka Baran's story that I conflated with Dora (mainly the post-concentration camp events). Buried in the tons of research I had I suppose some loss of detail was natural. I do think that I was so focused on the previous stories that I just didn't allow myself to really focus on her until the others were finished.

In the end this turned out to be a good thing. For page count reasons Dora's story needed to be only four pages. As I delved into her story I realized that it was as rich as any of the others. I had already felt constrained by page with every other story. Now what?

Luckily by this time I was more aware of my tendency to overwrite these scripts. I tried very hard to condense Dora's story into specific but powerful images. Luckily I was aided in this endeavor by the amazing art of Dave Wachter.

I met Dave around five years ago when he moved to the Pittsburgh area. Since then his professional comics career has exploded (see his bio/credits below). Due to other projects Dave had fairly limited time to work on this story. As I expected he turned the assignment around in a fairly short period of time and gave me four beautiful pages.

Dora's story proved challenging for other reasons as well. Her experiences included a couple of scenes of pretty intense violence. Now obviously the entire Holocaust was filled with violence, but in the other stories in this volume it was peripheral to the anecdotes I chose to relate. But with Dora it was a central part of her experience and survival. I needed to find a way to show the violence that wasn't exploitive or voyeuristic but that also didn't sugarcoat it. This book is going into middle and high schools as well, so a PG-13 rating was in my mind. On a personal level I also felt that if I was too graphic in this depiction it would be like committing the violence against Dora again.

I found a way to address this in my script and Dave's art perfectly conveys the horror without being graphic.

Dora's spirit of resistance and defiance are perhaps her defining characteristics. I hope this story does justice to that.

Dave Wachter’s professional career includes his artwork for Robert Bloch’s That Hellbound Train, Godzilla and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and the mini-series Night of 1,000 Wolves (all from IDW Publishing). In 2012, he was nominated for the Russ Manning Most Promising Newcomer Award in comics, and he was the artist for the mini-series Breath of Bones: A Tale of the Golem for Dark Horse Comics. In 2014, Dark Horse will release a hardcover edition of his Eisner and Harvey Award nominated web-comic The Guns of Shadow Valley. You can see more of his work at http://davedrawscomics.blogspot.com/ where he recently posted a process blog about working on this project.

As a fun personal note that has nothing to do with Chutz-POW! I wanted to share this. In one of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles issues Dave drew he drew Marcel Walker and me into one of the scenes. I've pasted it below.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Chutz-POW! Cover Synchronicity

Marcel has talked about his process creating the cover for the Chutz-POW! comics anthology. You can read about it at his blog. What I want to mention in this short blog is a great little visual synchronicity that happened a couple of weeks ago. First, here's the cover as a visual reminder.

Art by Marcel L. Walker

As I mentioned in my last blog my father, Keith Wise, served in the 7th Armored Division in World War II. When I showed him a proof copy of the comic he started talking about some of his experiences. Dad doesn't really talk about the more difficult experiences of the War. He drove a jeep and was part of the division that held Saint Vith against the German assault during the Battle of the Bulge.

While we were talking he brought out a small well-worn booklet that he was given after the War detailing the activities of the 7th Armored. I had seen this book before but it had been a long time.

The booklet is an overview of what the 7th Armored did during the war with tons of pictures and and maps of their route through Europe, ending near the Baltic where they met the Russian Army.

When I turned the book over and saw the back cover I was stunned.

I had completely forgotten this image, and Marcel never saw this picture until well after the book went to the printer. Our cover was simply meant to be.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Chutz-POW!: The Comic Book – Moshe and Malka Baran

The second story in the Chutz-POW! anthology is actually two stories in one. Moshe and Malka Baran met in a displaced persons camp in Austria after World War II. They were married and spent the rest of their lives together. Though their experiences during the Holocaust were very different I thought it was important to tell them as one tale, linking their lives both before and after they met. Given the complexities of telling two stories in one this ended up as the longest story in the book at eight pages.

Here's the first page of their story with art by Marcel (M.L.) Walker.

Moshe was a partisan resistance fighter. He lived in the forests and swamps of Poland for two years fighting a guerrilla war against the Nazis. One of the questions that people seem to ask when trying to understand how the Holocaust could have happened is, “Why didn't the Jews fight back?” Historically speaking there are probably lots of answers to this. Moshe's answer is direct and simple.

I fought back!”

Malka was imprisoned in a labor camp when she was a young teenager. She spent over three years there, wearing the same clothes, forced to clean shell casings in a Nazi war factory. She survived until the camp was liberated. But there is another piece of her story that is so amazing that it sounds completely unbelievable, though completely true. It's the focus of the story in the book, so I won't relate it here in full, but...

Malka and the other women prisoners kept a small child in their barracks, hidden from the Nazi guards.

In all of the stories I tried to use the actual words of the Upstanders wherever I could. These were their stories and in most cases their words carried more weight and were more powerful than mine. In the case of Malka this was not only easy, but was also a joy. Malka was a poet and spent much of her life trying to communicate her experience through her art. In her written words and in interviews, both on paper and on video, she was elegant and powerful. For many of the panels in this story I decided to just step out of the way and let her speak.

The story was drawn by Marcel Walker and of all my scripts this is the one that went through the most structural change from the written page to the final artwork. Wanting to tell both of their stories in the same piece presented a structural challenge that was unique in this volume. I essentially wrote Moshe's story, then wrote Malka's. The question then was how to unite the two. In my thumbnails I played with having one of them in its entirety, followed by the other, then uniting them on the last page. I toyed with the idea of alternating pages, one at a time for each of them.

For the framing sequence I came up with the idea of the older versions of them speaking at an event, telling their stories to an audience. This allowed some leeway in the way the stories were presented.

Marcel read the scripts and rearranged the information I gave him, maintaining the stories I wrote but presenting them in a sequential order I hadn't considered. It made the story stronger (you can read his process blog about drawing this story HERE).

Marcel and I added a personal reference to the story.

My father, Keith Wise, served in the 7th Armored Division in World War II. He drove a jeep for his company Captain, William Borcherding.

In Moshe's narrative he relates how, near the end of the War his group of partisans joined the Russian army. He then recounts how they met the American Army near the Baltic in the first week of May, 1945. My father was there, so Marcel drew him into the story.

Dad has told me stories of meeting the Russians and sharing food and cigars with them. When I read Moshe's story I remembered those stories. Now I realize that the chances of Dad and Moshe actually having met are remote, but it made for a very personal connection for me that I felt I had to slip into the book.

Marcel Walker writes and draws his own self-published comic book called Hero Corps. You can read more about his work at http://www.marcelwalker.com/