SCHMUCK It Up: Seth Kushner on (semi)-Autobiography, Dating and How Mark Hamill Changes LivesA comics interview article by: Keith Silva
The world (I include comics) needs truth-tellers like Seth Kushner, artists who are willing to be their own WikiLeaks and admit their faults, foibles and fuck-ups. Somebody's got to do it, glad it ain't me.
Kushner (apparently) has no shame. He seems like a bit of a (over) sharer and let's not forget, honest. So he's ready to admit to the world: he's a SCHMUCK or was, he got better. SCHMUCK is a 168-page trade paperback of one schmuck's awkward, embarrassing and far too relatable quest to find love and evolve as an artist and as a man. As part of (I'm sure) some multi-step process Kushner has written everything down and found twenty-two cartoonists to share in this best-drowned-with-whiskey part of his life; if it were so easy.
To get his SCHMUCK on wheels -- that's a Goodfellas reference, every intro needs at least one -- Kushner needs schmucks (reformed, at-large and women) to help him out and back his Kickstarter. Kushner is more than a schmuck, far from it. He's a guy who wants to make a comic and realize a dream of telling his story, our story and to make the world (again, comics!) safe for (former) schmucks.
Keith Silva for Comics Bulletin: Define 'schmuck'?
Seth Kushner: The dictionary definition of schmuck is a stupid or foolish person and its origin is literally, penis. According to my mother, the definition of schmuck is me. She always called me 'schmuck' whenever I did anything foolish. That was her go-to term for me. The period of my life covered in my graphic novel was a difficult one, and those difficulties were mainly caused by a chain of schmucky decisions. I thought of myself over others, but convinced myself I was doing the right thing. That's schmucky. However, I believe we all have an inner-schmuck, so my motives are surely understandable, but my current self does not condone them.
To me a schmuck is a person who makes bad decisions, is hapless, not self-aware and is selfish. We're all schmucks sometimes, but during my 'schmucky years,' my inner-schmuck was in the driver's seat more than usual.
CB: Blind dates, hook ups and comically tragic situations make for primo autobiography. Why put yourself out there like this? Wouldn't you rather, deny, deny, deny (like the rest of us)?
Kushner: I don't actually think my life is particularly interesting. But, I learned at art school art can be whatever we put a frame around, and I learned from reading the work of Harvey Pekar that one's life need not be extraordinary in order to be compelling and relatable.
Writing SCHMUCK taught me to be a writer. I started writing it back in 2003, as a prose novel. At the time, I was living the events I was writing about, so my writing had a raw, diary like quality. It was therapeutic. As I kept writing, I started incorporating narrative and I learned to find the beats in the story. I was ascribing to the 'write what you know' school of thought. I wasn't ready to write a dystopian sci-fi epic or a hard-boiled period piece. I didn't know how to do that. I learned how to write about my schmucky life. Having done that, I can now write the other stuff.
As for putting myself out there, well, I've never felt the need to be mysterious. I have no dark secrets to protect. I think there are universal truths with which humans can all relate. Who hasn't had diarrhea on a date? Who hasn't had a crush on their significant other's friend? Find me a guy who hasn't be caught staring at a woman's chest? What's the big deal? This is the stuff we can all understand and laugh about, so to me that's good subject matter.
CB: If you could 'time travel' back to your early twenties, would you want to help early-20's-Seth or allow him to suffer because, someday his (your) pain will make for a kickass comic?
Kushner: I believe it's the butterfly effect that says if you go back in time and kill a butterfly the whole future comes apart…or something like that. As much as I found my experiences difficult, I wouldn't change any of them if I could. I would reject any time machine options because I believe if one could change his past in an attempt to make his future what he'd want it to be, the results would be much different that he'd expect.
In one of my favorite episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation, ''Tapestry,'' Captain Picard is given the chance by Q to relive a crucial moment from his past. As an impetuous young cadet, Picard got into a barroom brawl with a group of villainous Nausicaans and ended up being stabbed through the heart, which leads to his having an artificial heart. Picard always regretted his actions, so when given this second chance he avoids the fight. This change in decision has repercussions on his future, where instead of becoming a captain and a hero, he ends up an ordinary, low-level officer. Picard realizes that without the near-death experience, he never realized how fragile life is or how important each moment must be, so he never seized opportunities. Picard is then given one final chance and is sent back to the faithful moment with the Nausicaan and he goes back to his original decision and enters the fight and is stabbed in the heart by the enemy's blade and he laughs. His life now restored to way it's 'supposed' to be, Captain Picard says, ''There are many parts of my youth that I'm not proud of... there were loose threads... untidy parts of me that I would like to remove. But when I pulled on one of those threads... it had unraveled the tapestry of my life." That was my very long way of saying I wouldn't change a thing. I needed to have my experiences in order to become the man I am today. Oh, and I wouldn't go back and kill baby Hitler either.
CB: How will readers know you're not making this stuff up? Admit it, Kushner, memory is flawed and you know it. You're strictly in this for the comedy, aren't you? Confess!
Kushner: Memory is flawed and perception is everything, which is why I chose to add the word, 'semi' before the term 'autobio.' I like to think that covers me. Look, everything in SCHMUCK is basically true, or at least has a basis in truth. I did start out writing pure memoir where I thought of the 'truth' as paramount, but as I went on and changed my character's name from Seth Kushner to Adam Kessler and divorced myself a bit from reality, my writing got much better.
I changed things for the purposes of dramatic or comedic -- as you've suggest! -- impact, so while my stories aren't always necessarily factually true, they are emotionally true.
CB: As a memoirist (autobiographer) how big is the temptation to edit, not share this or that embarrassing detail, who keeps you honest?
Kushner: I made a promise to myself very early to be honest in my portrayal of Adam. I never wanted him to be too cool. He does plenty of embarrassing things and he can be petty, superficial and downright schmucky. He's an everyman, an every-schmuck; which means even though you might not always like him, you will understand and relate with him.
CB: You've changed the names in these stories to protect the guilty. How do you decide what stories to recreate and which events were either too tragic or too ridiculous or too dull to share?
Kushner: In choosing my stories to turn into comics, I tried to pick ones that felt visual and not 'too internal.' As much as I absolutely love so many of Harvey Pekar's comics, I didn't want to have pages of panels of Adam talking directly at the reader. I admire Pekar on so many levels and he was certainly an inspiration while writing SCHMUCK, but I didn't want to emulate how he did comics. I wanted to do more dramatic narrative.
No story was too tragic or too embarrassing. I cover everything from diarrhea to STD to sexual dysfunction. This book is warts and all. I feel anything less would feel insincere and not be compelling.
CB: You're an accomplished photojournalist. You've won awards. Your 'day job' is hanging out with rock stars and movie stars. You've met Robert Kirkman! Wouldn't a book about all the behind-the-scenes stuff (what Frank Miller requires on his rider, stuff like that) be more interesting than a comic about you recalling bad dates you had a decade ago?
Kushner: My 'day job' since graduating School of Visual Arts in 1995, has been freelance photography. I've been lucky to have had the opportunity to photograph many people of note I've admired starting with my very first shoots for the NY Times Magazine of John Waters and Eric Bogosian, and continuing with heroes like Patrick Stewart, Edward James Olmos and Mark Hamill and fascinating folks like Martin Landau, Jay leno, Marc Maron, Steve Buscemi, Rosario Dawson, John Turturro and many, many more.
This work actually led me to making SCHMUCK into a graphic novel, in a very roundabout way.
In 2008, I was working on my second book, Leaping Tall Buildings: The Origins of American Comics, (co-authored with Christopher Irving, published by powerhouse Books) which was a passion project that allowed me to focus my photography on my first love, comics, specifically, the creators behind the comics. My part of the book was taking photographic portraits of over 75 top creators. Spending time with them and befriending them, gave me the notion it was possible for me to write my own comic. I became fast friends with cartoonist Dean Haspiel, and it was him most of all who encouraged and mentored me.
Adam is a photographer in the comic, and I do show him doing a bit of photography, and in fact, there's an important turning point near the end (spoiler alert!) that comes out of his shoot with Hamill. Beyond that, my shoots have mostly been set-up productions in controlled environments, so there isn't much adventure involved, where they'd make particularly compelling visual stories.
CB: SCHMUCK uses an anthology approach to the storytelling i.e. a different artist draws each chapter/story. How did you decide on which artist would tell which story and why did you choose to structure SCHMUCK this way?
Kushner: There are a few reasons why SCHMUCK is an anthology with 22 different artists. Back when I first wrote the script for what at the time was a proposal for publishers, I had to find an artist. I had no idea how to do that, so I went back to Dean. He thought about it for a moment and said, 'Why not bug Colden?' He was referring to Kevin Colden, whose work I'd admired from his Xeric award-winning comic on ACTIVATEcomix.com, Fishtown, which has since been released as an Eisner-award nominated graphic novel from IDW. I was nervous to approach Kevin, since he was an accomplished artist and, I thought, wouldn't need to work with me. But, having come so far, I was determined. So, I sent him an email explaining the project and attached my script. The next day Kevin said SCHMUCK was just the type of project that interested him. We agreed we'd make a proposal and pitch it to publishers as a 200-page graphic novel.
A few weeks later I received 14 pages, all inked and lettered, which was the full prologue and would comprise our proposal. Kevin found creative ways of making talking heads look interesting. He took moments of humor I had written and sold the jokes with the characters expressions. And, somehow, he took characters based upon my friends (none of whom he'd met) and made them look and feel like my real-life pals. Kevin's sensibility and ability to tell a story made him the ideal collaborator for me.
Kevin and I felt good about our proposal and were ready get the thing sold and get crackin' on the rest of the planned 200 pages. We got an agent and the proposal was shopped around to publishers. The timing was not great since the economy crashed just a few weeks earlier, and not too surprisingly, the book didn't sell. We tweaked it, and our next agent re-shopped it the following year, but again, no go.
I moved on to other projects, including CulturePOP Photocomix, (utilizing fumetti [photonovel]) and wrote some more scripts, but SCHMUCK never left my thoughts.
In November 2012, I helped launch TripCity.net, a venue for a select group of creator/content makers to showcase their signature works. I began by continuing my CulturePOP Photocomix series and writing a series of personal/pop-culture essays, but it wasn't long before my SCHMUCK itch started up again.
One thing I'd learned about the comics industry (or publishing in general) is how increasingly difficult it's become for an independent creator to find a publisher who will pay him for his 'new' creation. They'd rather spend their dollars on the safe bets of long-running characters. So, many creators decide to self-publish or post online in order to get their signature work seen. That's what I decided to do.
I formulated a new plan: SCHMUCK would be an anthology series with different artists illustrating short 'schmucky stories,' which when collected would tell my complete narrative. I excitedly began writing scripts, 12 at first (eventually 21), eight to twelve pages each. I began seeking artists to draw my 'schmucky shorts' and because they were all relatively short it wasn't too difficult to get artists to commit.
Managing this massive project became a part-time (and sometimes a full-time) job. There were many delays along the way, including artists dropping out, having to find new artists, those artists getting paying gigs and needing extra time, etc. My 'monthly' series became sporadic and took over two-years to complete. Along the way, I made a stapled B&W mini-comic and the color floppy, SCHMUCK Comix #1 [HANG DAI Editions] to sell at cons and in local stores, mainly to help get the SCHMUCK name out there.
Working with such an array of artistic talent, from super-talented newcomers like Shamus Beyale to acclaimed seasoned pros like Nick Bertozzi has been an amazing experience and I learned from every one of them. Writing SCHMUCK has been comic book school for me, which has prepared me to graduate to other projects.
CB: Your work as a photographer requires you to have a specific visual style. How difficult was it for you to turn that responsibility over to someone else?
Kushner: While I am a very visual person, I realized early on in the process to let go and allow the cartoonists to do their thing. I write a spare script, with lots of room for the artist to make the story their own. When the look of something is key to the story, I'll write up a more detailed description, and when a specific location is important, I'll send reference photos. I think because I am so visual, I have a bit of an advantage over other writers because I can pre-envision page layouts and give the necessary descriptive terms to get what I want. I've been blessed to have worked with so many ultra-talented artists who make my stories better by adding their own personal aesthetic to the mix. I always tell them to use my script as a guide and if they have a better idea, then they should just do it.
CB: You mentioned some of the stories in SCHMUCK have been previously published as limited edition floppies from HANG DAI Editions. What advantage does offering SCHMUCK as Kickstarter provide versus distributing your work through HANG DAI EDITIONS?
Kushner: HANG DAI Editions is an imprint born out of the shared desires of Dean Haspiel, Gregory Benton, Josh Neufeld and myself, to make and keep control of our signature works. We each have made books for traditional publishers from which we made little to no money. Traditional publishing is not set up for the author to make money, but instead for the publisher not to lose money. It works differently if your name is Stephen King or J.K. Rowling, but of the rest of us, it's hardly a living. Since the four of us have all self-published, we understand how it's done. As I am not independently wealth or have access to a publisher's deep pockets, I must look elsewhere for funding. If I am successfully funded, (fingers crossed!) Kickstarter will allow me to raise the money to properly publish SCHMUCK and retain all rights to my creation, as well as all potential profits.
CB: What did you learn about yourself and about comics working on this project?
Kushner: I think my SCHMUCK years were a necessary thing for me. I think we all have to have it tough sometimes in order to appreciate the good times. I think the situations I endured while looking for love are universal and I think schmuckiness is too. My writing about this period was therapeutic and there was an element of making lemonade from lemons.
Interestingly, the self-examination aspect of writing this comic let me to some important revelations about myself. I wrote the penultimate chapter just a few months ago. In the story, Adam has a dream where he's a superhero called 'The Schmuck' and he has to confront supervillain versions of all his ex-girlfriends. I had the concept before I started writing, but as I was typing the words coming out of the mouths Adam and the girls, I had a major revelation, just as Adam did. Even after years of actual therapy, something new occurred to me while writing the comic, and right then and there, after eleven years, I had a deeper understanding of how and why I ended up in my schmucky situation. It was kind of amazing. So, I encourage everyone to write his or her own schmucky stories!