Seldom have I enjoyed a more delightful interview than with the husband and wife team responsible for one of Dark Horse’s biggest breakout series’. Meet the creators of Concrete Park:
Bryan Stroud for Comics Bulletin: How was New York Comic Con?
Tony Puryear: It was really nice to hear the encouragement and to meet the fans of Concrete Park. We got to meet a lot of young press people and young bloggers and people with podcast shows and they really knew their stuff about Concrete Park and it was really encouraging. They knew a lot about it and they asked great questions. We just had a great experience at the Dark Horse booth. It was good.
Stroud: It’s got to be extremely gratifying because your series has been getting so much attention.
Erika Alexander: The attention you’re talking about certainly has been very gratifying. I’ve had very little awareness, so I’m glad to hear you say that. Thank you.
Puryear: We’ve just been keeping our heads down and working. We’ve got two more issues to do on this five-issue mini-series of ours, so we’ve just been working hard to get it finished.
Stroud: So what inspired the title Concrete Park?
TP: Erika’s brother, Robert, who is one of the co-creators of the book with us had this title kicking around and it really caught both of our imaginations. Erika’s and mine, because of course you know the famous joke about oxymorons like jumbo shrimp and military intelligence. Well, Concrete Park struck us as an oxymoron. When you think of Concrete Park, how can it be a park? The funny thing is, though, that I grew up in New York City where all the school yards and so many of the parks that I played in as a kid were Concrete Parks. It wasn’t a joke or an oxymoron, it was a reality.
It also struck a chord in us because it was like the old Ben E. King song, “There’s a Rose in Spanish Harlem.” He creates this whole set of images about this rose that’s growing in the street right out of the concrete. Even in a very rough place there can be beauty and hope. So that was what the title said to us when Erika’s brother Robert sort of blurted this out one day. It led to this idea called Concrete Park.
Alexander: Tony caught the bug and came up with the name Scare City and we were in there.
Stroud: Ah. So kind of a domino effect almost with an inspiring title as a springboard.
Stroud: It’s interesting that you touched on…when I read issue #2 I just read the line and it leaped out at me when it says, “Wherever human beings go there can be hope or even beauty,” and I thought, “What a tremendous line!”
Puryear: Oh, good. (laughter) Thank you!
Stroud: It just was a very powerful statement.
Puryear: It’s also true, if you look in prisons or in the case of finding old Navy ships at the bottom of the sea where sailors have carved their name or their sweetheart’s name or a little heart from hundreds of years ago, a guy was cooped up in the hold of these little sailing ships. Wherever people went, in the weirdest circumstances, they made things of beauty.
Just a couple of years ago we were in Belize in Central America and we were looking at the excavation of these Mayan ruins, and here in the middle of this steaming jungle, where you can’t even imagine people hauling stones up these mountains and carving these pyramids and everything, people were almost compelled to make these things of beauty.
Alexander: Yes and people will make things of beauty just to survive. When Tony and I were talking about the series with Mike Richardson, he heard us pitch it and he said, “Tell me one thing. Does it have hope?” Tony said, “Yes. This is a hopeful series.”
Puryear: The world is full of dystopian fiction, and I like it myself. I love those great, “What if…” stories, but it is true that the side of the street we’re working on, there is hope. I think that sets it apart a little bit from the other stories that are out there.
Alexander: Some of the inspiration that we had for it was “City of God,” which we found incredible. It was beautiful and colorful and hopeful and energetic and sexy and alive and we wanted it to feel like that. Dystopian didn’t have to mean grimy and hopeless. But the conditions were ripe for a lot of violence and maybe a lot of conflict.
Puryear: The stuff of drama.
Stroud: Well, you can’t have a compelling story without a conflict to overcome. It’s nice to know that your goal in the series is to overcome.
I appreciated how you do a recap at the beginning of the story. Jim Shooter told me that’s something he’s found lacking in a lot of modern stories is that they’re not giving the reader a chance. They’re picking up a book at whatever point in the story and can’t tell what’s going on.
Puryear: It was something we wanted and that our editor, Philip Simon, wanted. He suggested it because we have a world that we hope will grow to be as big as the world of, say, Game of Thrones. Every week when Game of Thrones is on, they have to give you a recap. There’s no option. They must, because they have to give you that or otherwise the drama is meaningless. Who just betrayed whom or who is involved with whom. As my mom would say, it’s hard to tell who’s playing without a score card.
We think it’s a good thing to have and that’s been one of the most interesting things to write, month after month, is that little recap section. Trying to be efficient and concise, but also to keep some of the mysteries going. All that stuff that comes into play. It can be a real challenge in and of itself.
Stroud: I think it’s been very effective and I also like the introductions you do with individual captions for each character, which is unfortunately almost unheard of in modern comics.
Puryear: I think of it like a movie freeze frame.
Alexander: Like Trainspotting.
Puryear: Yeah, like the great intro to Trainspotting, which was inspired by the French New Wave. Specifically the film Jules and Jim, where they’re running and then they freeze frame and like Martin Scorcese and obviously Danny Boyle, the guy who did Trainspotting, that kind of freeze frame to catch your attention and stop and sometimes having a caption as well.
More recently filmmakers like the late Tony Scott would do a thing like that. It was borrowed from the French New Wave, with a pause and a quick caption or headline. We thought that could be fun and hopefully not something that will intrude, but rather helps the reader.
Stroud: Since you both have a Hollywood background, what has the transition been like between the two worlds or is there much of one?
Alexander: For me it’s been rough. (chuckle) But you know, only because while Tony grew up reading these comic books, which gave him a vocabulary in his mind, and he understands it very well, I, on the other hand, am new to it. I’ve been in show business for 30 years. Of course I’m very locked in on story and script, which is where everything comes through for me.
We’ll come to a point where we’re doing things and it’s “Why are you doing that?” It’s not as intuitive to me as it is to Tony. Of course ultimately it is storytelling, frame by frame with dialogue. It’s a wonderful, yet very tough medium, because you can only do so much with one shot and without audio to help it along and there’s so much we want to do. So you have to make choices with how much you put into it for the reader.
From my perspective it’s often, “Now wait a minute, why can’t we look at it from this point of view?” Then Tony will say, “I’m not going there, I’m going here.” There’s no time and sometimes Tony will say, “This part is over.” Remember, too, that Tony is doing all the art and the coloring and the inking, everything. All our mistakes are right there to be seen, but we’re doing the best we can as fast as we can and that’s why I say it’s rough.
Stroud: The deadline is a dual-edged sword. I often think of Len Wein telling me that while he often hates deadlines, without them he’d get nothing accomplished.
Alexander: I know that’s right. It’s true.
Puryear: It is true. We just met Len last year down at Comic Con. He’s still very alive to the capabilities of this medium. He’s a very upbeat and enthusiastic guy. He’s right about the deadline. We’re really behind it now for book four.
It’s making us make quick, snap decisions and we have to trust that we know what we’re doing. I’m actually liking the results. We’re moving the story along. We now have 44 pages left to create to bring this mini-series to a really good, dramatic pitch. A pitch of high excitement, that hopefully leaves readers wanting a whole new series.
We know where we’re going, we know where that cliffhanger is, but it’s just like writing a weekly TV show. Something has to come up, even if it’s awful. We’ve got to keep moving and get something out there. We believe it won’t be awful. We believe it will be great. But it’s a big challenge. It has been very eye-opening and very rough sometimes.
Stroud: Deadlines can be a taskmaster.
Puryear: I’m pleased to say I know Stan Lee and I met Jack Kirby as a kid and you have to remember those guys, thinking of Jack Kirby in particular, he was drawing 3 or 4 monthly books. That’s like 80 to 90 pages of material every month. And we’re talking about family men. They had to feed their families. And they didn’t think about it. They didn’t sit around and analyze it. They just did the best they could and some of those guys were just geniuses.
I’m inspired by those examples and Erika and I try to really…(chuckle) it adds an interesting sliver of conflict into a marriage when you’re trying to write and draw and…
Alexander: Oh is that true. (mutual laughter) Good times. Good times.
Puryear: We’re doing it and we pretend we’re Marvel Comics in the 1960s and we’re trying to just go for it. And trust that we know what we’re doing.
Stroud: It’s interesting that you mentioned Jack. When I was reading through the issue it was, “Okay, did I see what I thought I saw?” I’m assuming the Kurtzberg Gate isn’t in there by chance?
Puryear: You’re the first person to pick that up, so this is where the music should sound. Thank you, Bryan, for noticing. Dah-ta-daaa! That meant a lot to me personally. When I first met Mike Richardson, our publisher, he complimented my drawing style. “Oh, I see a little Hernandez Brothers influence with the heavy black outlines…”
I said, “Yeah, you know what’s funny is while I’ll never be as good as those guys and I’m grateful for the comparison, the truth is for the last 40 years I’ve been trying NOT to draw like Jack Kirby. Because, like Hemingway, once you read Hemingway write fiction, the next thing you write will come out sounding like ersatz Hemingway. In my case, the Jack Kirby influence is so overwhelming in my life, it was almost like Kurtzberg, Jack Kirby, was a gate to be crossed. Or to be passed. You have to go through that.
But with the Kurtzberg Gate, we knew we were going to have a gate in the story, so we called it that, the Kurtzberg Gate, to represent our hero, our path through. It’s the initiation into this world. Thank you for noticing that. It made my day.
Stroud: I’m pleased to be of some small service and we’re not far apart in age, so while I went through a drought for a number of years, I appreciate the profound influence of comic books, even though my father didn’t particularly approve.
Puryear: Both my parents were artists and that’s how they first got together. My mother strongly disapproved of my reading comics, because she was convinced they’d make me stupid. So I was sneaking them around, of course, like kids do, but what she didn’t realize was that they were teaching me story-telling and that you couldn’t learn story-telling any better than from someone like Jack Kirby.
In fact, I owe my whole movie career these past 25 years to the influence of Jack Kirby. What would he do? What reversals would he put in? The film would emerge to challenge our hero in that way. This guy was unrivaled and what my mother never saw was that it made me the storyteller that I am. She passed away last year, but she got to see a lot of the work we’re doing for Concrete Park and I know she had to have a laugh at it that here I am at this stage in my life drawing comic books. (laughter)
Alexander: I think it’s important to note that with the comic book, we’re all living it. Everything is generated from The Walking Dead. These amazing, visual visionaries and the children who helped build that monster genre are to be thanked. It’s an amazing thing.
Stroud: One very interesting touch I noticed in the story was the barcodes you put on the characters. What inspired that?
Puryear: I came to realize only later that it wasn’t original with us. As a matter of fact, it’s probably a rather common trope in science-fiction. There was even that Alien picture, directed by David Fincher, the one nobody likes. They were down on this prison planet and it was a colony of all incarcerated men and they all had barcodes tattooed on the backs of their heads.
So that barcode thing, in the back of my mind, was the thought that these people are all property. They were all product. So what do we do with products? We scan them, we sell them, we trade them. It just seemed like the most natural metaphor to have them sporting those.
Puryear: It’s also because it’s very easy to draw. I now have a whole library and each individual character has their own code and if scanned, these characters’ names would come up. So now when Isaac comes up, for instance, I just go to my computer and slap on his barcode.
I just wanted people to be able to look at these characters and when you saw them, even out of context, you’d know that was a Concrete Park character because of what we call the bar and grill. It’s a barcode on your grill, your face. We thought that would be a mnemonic that would always let people know their connection with Concrete Park.
Stroud: Are the Bak Bak guns another Kirby throwback?
Puryear: Ever since the ’60s you’ve faced the problem of having guns that don’t kill. One answer was that you could have your phaser on stun and have a non-lethal thing. In light of current events it’s refreshing to think that back in the 60s they were trying to deal with that.
Now we’re seeing all these controversial police killings and you wish that someone had a phaser you could set on stun. Thus the Bak Bak weapon, which is something you can just use to stun people. Call it a control collar if you want.
Stroud: While reading the book I found myself thinking of older movies like the original Red Dawn, Escape From New York, The Omega Man, Lord of the Flies. Was any of that fodder?
Puryear: Yeah. (To Erika) Didn’t someone just mention Lord of the Flies?
Alexander: Yeah, Lord of the Flies.Escape From New York, although I didn’t think Concrete Park was inspired by that at all. Lord of the Flies, yeah, maybe a little bit. Unconsciously, of course.
Puryear: It’s funny because one of Erika’s big mentors in her life is the British theater director Peter Brook. He directed that picture adaptation of the book Lord of the Flies by William Golding. We were just talking about that today, about what people refer to as The Malthusian War. Named after the philosopher Malthus. The Malthusian War of each against all. That kind of Malthusian anarchy.
That’s very much a feature of Concrete Park, that you never know who’s coming after you and who your enemy is. Everyone is competing for the same scarce resources, so there is that breakdown of the social order.
It’s funny, though. I never really cared much for Escape From New York. I’m from that ’70s kid generation who would have seen it when it was first out. So I can’t say that was a big influence, but as Erika mentioned earlier, the Brazilian film City of God was something we very much liked.
Alexander: I think history, also, such as the British sending their prisoners off to Australia, but we wanted to say something about what was happening now.
Puryear: Another influence is that I’m from New York City where so many political exiles, and I’m thinking specifically of Ho Chi Minh, who cooked in French restaurants in New York City. It’s so bizarre to think the father of the modern Vietnamese state was exiled in New York City. Fidel Castro spent time in New York City as did the great Cuban poet Jose Marti.
These are people who can’t return to their homeland for various reasons. These folks in Concrete Park are never going home and I think there’s a certain poignancy to the exile. In modern times there are so many exiles on the road tonight. People fleeing Syria and fleeing Kurdistan and fleeing Gaza.
Alexander: The Ukraine.
Puryear: Right. These Ukrainians are in this state where, “Please, take us, take us. We’ve got to get out of here.” The question is, will they ever be able to return to their homes?
Alexander: They have to make something new. You always have to make something new.
Puryear: For us the exile story is a very contemporary story.
Stroud: Do you find the min-series format a help or a hindrance? Is it helpful to know how much you have to produce or is it a box you’re stuck in?
Alexander: I find it to be a hindrance.
Puryear: Hindrance? I don’t see it as a hindrance.
Alexander: I knew you were going to say that, Tony. I knew you were going to say that.
Alexander: I just knew he was going to say that. I find it a hindrance because there’s so much we need to do. We’re stuffing it full because we only have 5 issues to do the story. Tony probably sees it as being able to find the end to things.
Puryear: Yes. Very much. If you’d have told me a couple of years ago that I’d be drawing 110 pages of a comic book, I’d have said, “You’re out of your mind. It’s hard work.” I knew it then. I know it in my bones now. It’s hard work.
But knowing we had 110 pages to fill, you could almost draw a line on a piece of paper and place five cliffhangers. Then say, “Well, this has to happen in #1 and this has to happen in #2 and suddenly a story starts to coalesce and to me that was a big help, knowing about that 110 pages.
Alexander: And all I see is a big old cage. I find it to be very frustrating and I just hear “no” a lot around here.
Alexander: Yeah. It’s tough here on our street, but…
Puryear: You know what? I’ll tell you something. I used to be a chef and I can cook a lot of different kinds of things. I remember someone saying to me, probably the owner of the restaurant where I used to work, “You can’t cook every meal you know how to cook. You just have this one plate of food.”
It’s a steak with a potato beside it or a piece of fish and you just have to cook that the best you can cook it. Nobody wants to see that you can also do a lobster. The time for that will come. You just can’t put it all on one plate. I do believe there is no freedom without limits. I don’t want to get too Zen about things, but I believe limits really help you to focus the work you’ve got.
On the other side of things, we just ran into Brian Wood at the New York City Comic Con. He’s the guy who writes that series The Massive for Dark Horse and he said it was always planned that it would be a 30-issue series. They’re just cruising into issue #30 now. And I’m like, “Son of a bitch!” If we’d had 30 on Concrete Park, I don’t believe I could have drawn 600 pages of comic material.
Stroud: That does sound daunting and this coming from someone who cannot draw.
Alexander: (Laughter) I hear you.
Puryear: We were jealous, but at the same time I don’t know if we can ever aspire to that. There is a ton of Concrete Park story that we still want to tell. And we hope that the readers will like it and that it will find a place and that our publisher will say, “Yeah, let’s dig in. Let’s re-up.” And then we’ll see what we can do.
Stroud: A very worthy goal. This is probably not a fair question, but I’ll throw it out just for fun. Is there a line of demarcation in your partnership? I mean how does it shake out? I’ve heard of co-plotting and co-authoring and it’s always been kind of a confusing term to me. Is one person plotting, is one person doing dialogue or is it just a wonderful, mixed-up stew?
Puryear: I’ll tell you right now, it’s a wonderful mixed-up stew. Accept no other answer.
Stroud: (Laughter) Ok. Miss Erika?
Alexander: I have to say from my end, Tony is the big hero. He does the heavy lifting. He draws it, he colors it, he letters it and of course we both co-created and write the book, but he has so much to do every day. He’s responsible for the look of it. And that is coming straight from his mind. And there’s things that have been set up and it’s interesting to see him visualize, to see a person again who had taught himself these things after the age of 50. It’s really inspiring. I speak not as his wife, but as someone looking at an artist and that, to me, is everything, because it is a comic book and therefore it’s visual.
It’s one thing to have a story and dialogue, which is very important, but Tony’s got so much to do. Every single one of those faces that you see, Bryan, he’s thought about what they look like. There’s Luca, there’s Isaac, there’s Silas. They look like faces I’ve seen somewhere. It’s a very beautiful thing. I love watching it, it’s a mixed-up stew, but the person who’s making the base, flavors and making it all good is Tony and he should get full credit for that.
Puryear: Oh. Thank you! That’s lovely. Isn’t that lovely?
Stroud: It’s fantastic and will definitely be going into this piece.
Puryear: It’s been funny too, because this thing really did start out as a joint vision. People who know Erika knows that there’s no gray areas with her. She either loves something or hates it. She has very strong opinions about things and you would ignore her judgment at your own peril. When Erika says, “No, that’s not the way that character would sound,” you have to step back for a minute.
I’ve seen her do that several times to where I trust her creative imagination. This wouldn’t work with somebody I’d just met off the street. I’ve known Erika for a long time. We’ve been together for almost 19 years. As I say, it’s a good formula for arguing with your spouse all the time, but it’s okay. You couldn’t do it with someone who wasn’t like Erika, who wasn’t a tough fighter for her ideas, but also I trust her artistic judgment.
Stroud: Well, good for you, Erika, and good for you, Tony, for recognizing that. You don’t want what I’ve heard called the Echo Chamber Effect, where you throw out a brilliant idea and it just comes echoing back to you by your sycophants. That’s not how a good idea is birthed and conflict isn’t necessarily always bad.
Puryear: I agree. I think our struggle with this book has made the book better. People do seem to respond to these characters. That’s what we seek for the most. Even if we got a little lost sometimes in getting our story across, we would try to show these characters as human, as flawed, and hopefully the reader at some point says, “Oh, that’s like me. I know that guy or that woman. That’s what I would do.”
I always talk about this when I teach screenwriting. You’re halfway there if you can make unforgettable characters. I always use the example, when you hear the names Sonny or Fredo or Michael or Clemenza or Tessio, you don’t know those guys, but in some ways these are people we know better than our own family because we know them from The Godfather so well because they were so vivid. So human. And good storytellers make you never forget their characters and so we’re trying to do all that, directly through all the fights we’re having here over the dining room table. (Mutual laughter)
Alexander: Yeah, and it’s rough. (Laughter) It ain’t for sissies. Writers have a difficult gig. They often see the world in a way that other people don’t, trying to get ideas across and dealing with their daily life and it can be a very deep, hard struggle.
We do fight and maybe that’s why, because once it’s out there, it’s out there. We’re having arguments for territory and possession. You wish you could out-vote the other person.
Stroud: (Laughter) You’re off the island!
Puryear: You’re off the island. Exactly. I’ve voted her off the island many times. (laughter)
Alexander: Yeah, I’ve heard before, “I didn’t come here to make friends.” (laughter)
Stroud: As a happily married man of 28 years I know firsthand that conflict will arise, but I take comfort in a one-liner I read not long ago that said, “If two people are in total agreement, one of them is redundant.”
Are there any things you can share for the readers to look forward to in the series?
Puryear: Oh. Good question. You know, one way I’ve tried to handle this in past interviews is to say that one of the keystones of this series is change. Metamorphosis. I look forward to seeing where these characters are going to go. They’re not all fixed in stone. They’re in a very volatile situation. This is like a pressure cooker. The flavor comes out under pressure. Some things are going to flower and some go flat under that kind of pressure.
So I would tell the readers that we all look forward to the changes that are coming with these characters. We’ve got two more issues and there’s going to be some serious changes in their lives. This fellow Isaac will experience changes like an X-factor that’s going to ripple outward and all these people are susceptible to serious change.
Alexander: Here’s a little tidbit: Within these five issues our exiles have been living their lives on Oasis. They’re going to find out that there are others and they’ll have to do some clean up work.
Stroud: As I wrap things up is there anything I neglected or anything you’d like to share?
Alexander: Oh, this is a good interview. Thank you. It’s been more like a conversation and so it’s been very easy.
Puryear: Very thoughtful questions.
Alexander: The only thing I’d like to say is that we’ve had such wonderful support from people, even before we had a comic book to show them. People showed up to encourage us. They have to know how important that is and how appreciative we are. Those that have come up to us at conventions and wished us well, but also people like you, Bryan, who have sought us out and helped spread the word. If anything, we just want to say, “Thank you.”
Stroud: Fantastic. Tony?
Puryear: What she said. (Laughter) I defer to Erika. What she said is true. When someone asks you thoughtful questions, you know they’ve read it and that means everything. You feel like you’re reaching someone out there.
Alexander: Yes, and reaching them unfiltered. Our work has been manipulated by studios, producers, editors, etc. Here, you’re seeing what we intend. To find a place with Mike Richardson at Dark Horse and a platform to actually do that, it’s what artists want the most. Good, bad or ugly, we’re fine with it.
Puryear: At my age, I can see the things I haven’t done and maybe should have done, but I’m proud of this thing. I know Erika and I can be proud that this thing has come to pass and really, if we wanted to make money, we’d be plumbers. Or what is it they say about funeral homes and having people dying to get in? This is not that. This is heart and soul and we’re doing this obviously for the love. We think we have a story to tell and we want to reach some people.
Jose Marti, the poet I referred to earlier, he wrote the lyrics to that song everyone knows as Guantanamera that they sing at summer camps and everything. Jose Marti said that before I die I’d like to put out these poems of my soul. What else is there? That’s what artists do. They don’t do it for the cash.
It’s a labor of love and we’re glad to have somebody read it. Thank you.