By Hannah Means-Shannon
For Seth Kushner, Chris Irving, and many others, the Leaping Tall Buildings event at BookCourt on Tuesday night was the culmination of a four-year odyssey which readers could little imagine when looking at the cover of their neatly bound, lavishly designed exposé on the “origins of American comics”.
A diverse crowd scooted in to BookCourt’s back room to see what the newly released book was all about and to celebrate the kind of commitment it took to pull this off. But what we heard defied expectation. A preamble of staged visual story collaborations between Seth and Tim Hall, the Sucklord, and Dean Haspiel from the CulturePOP series, bringing performance to storytelling and laying down a kind of ground rule for the audience: never forget the part human beings play in creating and living their own stories. On a night about so many icons of comics history that premise might have been alarmingly easy to forget; Kushner wasn’t about to let that slide.
Tim Hall performed his collaborative story “Exile” as a prescient introduction to the role the city plays as a character in our lives, and how absence and presence can define us even as it redefines our view of the past.
Dean Haspiel, reading from “Angel” seemed to place the final pieces in the thematic puzzle by plumbing the potentially “galaxy-sized battle” in the “heart” of humanity. The role of the city, the role of change, and the universes hidden inside us set the stage for understanding the forces as work in the Leaping Tall Buildings book project.
The origin of the book, it turns out, was disarmingly simple: a conversation between Seth and Dean Haspiel after working on The Brooklynites that might as well have been a “What If?” story for the rest of us. What if a Brooklyn photographer tried to capture the comic industry with an eye toward its history and development? A test photograph of Dean turned into a tone-setter for the work, capturing moody architectural sentience in the high spaces of the city. The presence of a human figure in heroic pose suggested the breadth of the view from up there as well as the daring creative mindset necessary to make the most of it. But, as Seth explained, this was a work with many stories and the origin story was only the smallest part.
He took us on a tour that rendered familiar territory exotic as he traced the migratory routes of big game comic creators through New York in search of an image, and even on a hunt to Chicago on the trail of a more elusive species.
Seth took on the air of an expedition leader come home with strange tales as he flipped through slides of his subjects, pausing long enough to give a window on the richness and the challenges of particular encounters. The unexpected and fortuitous was a recurring theme, like when Denny O’Neil turned up looking like a trench-coated Commissioner Gordon for his pose in “crime alley”, but it was Seth’s own flexibility and attitude toward composition really struck home for his enthralled audience. Finding a rubber bat hanging in the corner of Gene Colan’s studio, making a statement with Steve Ditko’s exaggeratedly labeled but firmly locked office door, and foregrounding the surreal in Grant Morrison’s swanky hotel room were all features of Seth’s mode of operation: capture the quarry on their own turf.
Like any real adventure, however, compiling the book had its seemingly impossible moments, when no images seemed to quite get to the heart of the human beings involved. Sheer bloody-minded determination, as well as give and take between the photographer and the subject, finally presented golden solutions for Seth. Art Spiegelman’s bit of chalk, left by his child, brought his double identity to life for Kushner’s lens when all else failed to rise to the occasion.
The event was not without its more somber tones, reminding us of the historicity of comics, a medium that often seems as timeless as it does bulletproof. Seth hit the trail at a crucial juncture in comics history, gathering images of those soon to fade from the scene like Harvey Pekar, Gene Colan, and Joe Simon, as well as making a visual place for Harvey Kurtzman among his fellow luminaries through agile tricks of design.
Sometimes Seth’s visual narrative put a little fear in our hearts, wondering what it was actually like to follow such strange beasts straight into their lairs, sit down with them, or lure them out into the open. Brian Michael Bendis seemed to take the camera by storm, leaving little doubt that he could leap tall buildings, while Chris Ware, tucked safe in his mannered labyrinth, invited Seth to get a little lost in detail in order to find his way.
Haunted and haunting Frank Miller may be one of the most iconic images selected by Seth for the evening’s entertainment. Hunted down at length by Seth, who says that his prime technique to secure a photo shoot is to “wear down” his more elusive subjects, Miller is flanked by Hell’s Kitchen and most clearly evokes a duality of subject and character. As Dean chimed in from slide-casting at the back of the room, the “city is the second character” in these photos, one which we overlook to our peril if we really want to see the heart of these comics giants.
Seth reminded us that his conscious choice in gathering images was to avoid “studio” shots of these writers and artists where their identity might seem static or fixed. Like any good naturalist, he pulled up his boots and went into the jungle to bring back the prize, and not just any image, but “something that made sense” in terms of the contributions each hero has made to their field.
The Leaping Tall Buildings event brought worthy attention to the astonishing feats that contributed to a phenomenal book but it also engaged the audience with the inherent storytelling behind images, and the stories we heard were universes of their own. Like Seth’s images of comic greats, the performances of “real live” creators like Tim Hall, the Sucklord, and Dean Haspiel captured a rare thing: the human in the superhuman.
Hannah Means-Shannon is a comics scholar and medievalist who has published articles on the works of Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, and Grant Morrison in the International Journal of Comic Art, Studies in Comics, the Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics, reference books, and upcoming essay collections. She is working on her first book for Sequart Research and Literacy Organization about Neil Gaiman and teaches at Georgian Court University in New Jersey.
Twitter – @hannahmenzies
Photos by Amy Finkel $ Seth Kushner