By Seth Kushner
Growing up, my mother often called me a “Schmuck.” It was part insult and part term of endearment. “Schmuck” is a Yiddish insult, an obscene term for penis, usually referring to someone who did a stupid thing. It was the first title that sprung to mind for the manuscript I started writing in 2003.
Schmuck is a very personal. It’s based upon a period of my life when I was dumped by my then-girlfriend and while depressed, I went on a journey of blind dates, Internet connections and hook-ups. I endured painful, comical, tragic and comically tragic situations, and it’s those that helped me grow into the man I am today and on which the story mainly focuses.
I wrote Schmuck to shed a realistic, brutally honest light on love and relationships. My “character’s” internal monologue is filled with the standard superficial, inane, perverted and self-deprecating thoughts we all have but are often ashamed to admit.
Adam Kessler, the “hero” of the tale is based on me ten years ago – a pop-culture-obsessed photographer torn between attempting to please Mom by finding a nice Jewish girl, and figuring out what he really wants. Meanwhile, his shit-talking, sex-obsessed Brooklyn boys stand-by, and give their own advice.
Schmuck began life as a prose novel, nine years ago. I spent five years writing it, off and on, and it wasn’t until I began working with and befriending the amazing comic book creators on the project which would become my upcoming book, Leaping Tall Buildings: The Origins of American Comics, that I decided to turn my story into a graphic novel.
In 2008, I began adapting my manuscript to comics format. Using Brian Michael Bendis’s Powers Script Book, a Neil Gaiman Sandman script and some material on Brian Wood’s site, I learned how to form a comic script. Neither a book nor a screenplay, it’s something else. The writer must pre-envision the layout of the page, deciding how many panels on a page, whether horizontal, vertical, some combination, and also what will be told in dialogue, caption or through art.
Over a week’s time, I eked out 17 pages of comics script. I started with my intro (or prologue) and then, moved on to a later chapter. It was challenging but a learning experience.
Reading it over, I felt pleased, but my lack of experience left me wondering if it was good. I sent an email to my friend, cartoonist extraordinaire Dean Haspiel and asked if he’d mind taking a look at what I had. Dean (God bless him) came back with great, constructive feedback.
Dean said don’t use too many words, a mistake many novice comics writers make. He told me don’t be afraid to let the pictures tell the story; there’s no reason for the text to describe what’s already seen. He also pointed out I was using too many panels per page.
I took another crack at it, eliminating as many words as I could. There was no need for a caption: “He opened the door,” if the panel shows the character opening a door. I also broke up some pages into two, allowing the whole thing to breath. Dean explained the need for finding the beats of the story and figuring out the best place to end each page…on a cliffhanger of sorts.
With my freshly polished script,it was time 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, who’s work I admired from his Xeric award winning comic on ACT-I-VATE, Fishtown, since released as an Eisner-award nominated graphic novel (IDW) Currently, Kevin is producing Baby With A Mohwawk on TRIP CITY.
I was nervous. 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 he was interested in. We agreed we’d make a proposal and pitch it to publishers as a graphic novel.
A few weeks later I received the first four pages from Kevin, fully inked! It was an unbelievable feeling to gaze upon Kevin’s visual translation of my words. I loved Kevin’s depiction of the main character, Adam Kessler walking through SoHo in the snow on his way to meet his friends at a bar.
Kevin drew Adam, in a way that doesn’t exactly look like me, but feels like me. The way he walks and slouches was very familiar to me. Kevin told me he observed some of my mannerisms and included them. He also designed Adam a bit “rounder” than me. I loved the way Kevin drew the city and how he paced the panels. The whole thing came alive, and finally felt real.
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 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 pals. While Schmuck tells a relatable story, I feel it is told from a fresh perspective. Kevin’s sensibility and ability to tell a story made him the ideal collaborator. I
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, but then Dean had says. “You’re a photographer. Your main character is a photographer, why aren’t there photographs?” Yeah why weren’t there photographs!
So, I’ve weaved flashback sequences throughout the narrative which are done photographically in a fumetti style, blurring the lines between art and reality, fact and fiction. I found excellent subjects to portray the characters, and went through the very odd experience of recreating moments from my own life. I decided to utilize a style of imagery which is obscure, lots of shadowing and blurring to create a dreamlike effect representing hazy memory.
I’d long planned on doing a graphic novel using sequential photographs and text so I was excited. There have been comics that have utilized photography before, but as Kevin said, “we’re making a photo-comic that doesn’t suck.”
With the “photo pages,” we had 23 completed pages, which was to be shopped around by our agent. But first, Schmuck was serialized on the ACT-I-VATE.com over six weeks. At the time I had just produced and directed (with Carlos Molina) the “promo-mentary” The ACT-I-VATE Experience and was greatly honored to have my work included with the works of such comics luminaries as Dean Haspiel, Tim Hamilton, Simon Fraser, Mike Cavallaro, Leland Purvis, Roger Langridge, Joe Infurnari, Tom Hart, Warren Pleece, and so many more.
The proposal was shopped around to publishers but didn’t sell. We tweaked it, and our agent re-shopped it the following year, but, again, no go.
I moved on to other projects, including CulturePOP Photocomix, (utilizing and evolving the fumetti style I first began with Schmuck) and wrote some more scripts, but Schmuck never left my thoughts.
Last November, I helped launch TripCity, a venue for a select group of creator/content makers to show the work they had to show. 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 started itching.
The way the comics industry (or publishing in general) is these days, it’s increasingly difficult for an independent creator to find a publisher who will pay him for his “new” creation. They’d rather spend dollars on safe bets featuring long-running characters. So, rather than wait, many creators 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 in all, eight to twelve pages each, and contacting artists. I got several GREAT cartoonists to agree, including; Sean Pryor (Pekar Project), Bobby Timony (Night Owls), Omar Angulo (Hurricane Wilma), Shamus Beyale (The Grimm Fairy Tales), Ryan Alexander-Tanner (To Teach), Nathan Schreiber (Power-Out), Chris Sinderson (Twisted Savage Dragon Funnies) and more TBA.
I haven’t given up on seeing Schmuck published as a book. I plan to pitch it to publishers in this new–and I believe more interesting and cohesive–form, after it finishes it’s TRIP CITY run next year.
My digital publishing plan: Kevin Colden’s original pages plus my photo pages (all re-mastered) will act as chapter one, and be subtitled, “Beer, Babes and Bowel Movements.” From there, a new chapter will appear on TripCity.net every second Monday for one year. Additionally, every fourth Monday will see the release of a prose piece titled, “The Schmuck Diaries.” These will act as supplements/companions to the comics and will hopefully be one day collected alongside the comics to tell the whole story.
Things to expect from upcoming installments: heartbreak, diarrhea, painful STD removal, rejection, Kung-Fu, Natalie Portman, vomit, boobs, self-loathing Jewishness, unkempt genital regions, sex with an ex, drunkenness, sexual dysfunction, depression, misogyny, and somehow, hope.
My influences for Schmuck include; Harvey Pekar’s American Splendor, Alex Robinson’s Box Office Poison, Bob Fingerman’s Minimum Wage, Dean Haspiel’s Street Code, Curb Your Enthusiasm, works by Nick Hornby, Woody Allen, Adrian Tomine, Jeffrey Brown, and Joe Matt.
Schmuck is aimed at anyone who’s a fan of anything I’ve just named, or is interested in smart, funny, gross, awkward and touching stories about a guy on the road from man/boyhood to actual adulthood.
My mother always called me a “schmuck.” Now it’s paying off.
Art by Kevin Colden
Schmuck launches at TRIP CITY on Monday 1/9.