By Hannah Means-Shannon

Chris Claremont, Larry Hama, Kevin Colden, Simon Fraser, Dean Haspiel, Joe Infurnari, and Matt Madden formed a panel of comics professionals discussing their life and work at Jim Hanley’s Universe, hosted by the new photo and text comics history book, Leaping Tall Buildings: The Origins Of American Comics by co-authors Christopher Irving and Seth Kushner. The impressive line-up was moderated by Irving and reflected the remarkable history and contents of the book itself. Since its publication, Leaping Tall Buildings has been making history as well as celebrating it by bringing together legendary comics creators, in the process giving audiences an invaluable glimpse into the lives and stories behind the medium.

The stories that emerged were alternately serious, raucous, enthralling, and always unpredictable as comments from individual panelists jogged collective memory. It turned into an exercise in oral tradition, creating a history of the industry from eyewitnesses on the ground level rather than from the corporate vantage all too common today in box-office figures and mega franchises.

An initial question for the panelists focused on the most crucial human element in comics creation: mentors and influence. How did theses guys get where they are today?  The enthusiasm with which the panelists paid homage to their early teachers and personal heroes contributed to a wider recurring topic for the evening, the intrinsic and crucial role of a true sense of community to the survival of comics. Longtime X-Men writer Chris Claremont paid homage to the intervention of legendary Mad Magazine artist Al Jaffee’s impact on his early career; as a friend of the family, Al redirected Claremont from Mad’s offices to Stan Lee’s at Marvel and the rest is comics history.  Artist and writer Larry Hama, perhaps best known for writing G. I. Joe, cited the influence of his high school art teacher Bernard Krigstein, as well as the later helpful support of Neal Adams.

Then the discussion took a turn that careened straight into the heart of the medium and illuminated how it functions on its most basic level. It’s about “personal connections”, Claremont explained, something that you just “don’t see” in “other business”, Hama added. This level of “personal connection” in their careers wasn’t just about getting a job, apparently, but impacted the process of creation and collaboration. It was about “hanging out” with each other, having informal discussions. This was just “how it worked”, according to Hama, as much a culture as a way of life. Claremont and Hama lamented shifts in the pattern of the comics industry that has moved away from the feeling of “real community” that they benefitted from in the 1960’s to 1980’s. For them, this was the ideal breeding ground for new concepts, based on conversation.

Artist Kevin Colden (The Crow, Fishtown) brought a fresh perspective to the conversation, and testified to the ongoing pockets of a community attitude in comics by highlighting the role of artist and writer Dean Haspiel, “everybody’s mentor”, and Haspiel’s foundation of the web comic platform ACTIVATEcomix, in his own current successes. ACTIVATE’comix’s “collective” mentally is nothing if not “community driven” he commented, suggesting that the ideals of Claremont and Hama haven’t quite vanished from the scene.

A segue in conversation led to a run-down of legendary highly coveted and revered work-desks in comics history, conveying the kind of mythology that stands behind each great creator. Comics are nothing if not traditional. For every astonishing innovation, it seems there is a beaten-up, sacred piece of wood enduring as a personal shrine to comics itself. It begs the question whether continuity in the comics community is as complicated and significant as continuity in the universes comics creators keep alive decade after decade.

An unlikely chance encounter as a shop-tending teen with the portfolio-carrying letterer Ben Oda brought Dean Haspiel into contact with comics as a career path whereas high school art classes fostered his sense of necessary opposition to formal constraint. Real virtuosity in technique came directly from greats like Howard Chaykin, Walter Simonson, and Bill Sienkiewicz at Upstart Studios.

Simon Fraser (Nikolai Dante) told what seemed at first to be a vastly different origin story for his entry into comics, narrating his teen trip from the highlands of Scotland by bus to Edinburg to see Chris Claremont signing at a sci-fi bookshop there, only to be given very practical advice about sending in Xeroxed work to break into the industry. Against the odds, continuity emerged again in Fraser’s story that linked through Claremont back to Jaffee across two continents.

Artist Joe Infurnari (Marathon, Time Fucker) joined the web platform ACTIVATEcomix in 2008 by working in their studios at an empty table and “never left”. Both Infurnari and Fraser benefited from the input possible in a community of professionals, whether much needed criticism or simply feeling like you were no longer on the “outside looking in” at the medium.

Artist, writer, and teacher Matt Madden (Mastering Comics: Drawing Words & Writing Pictured Continued) came to the panel with a diverse background in indie comics from Chicago to Texas, but also felt that Haspiel acted as a “conduit” into the “comics scene” and Haspiel felt, inversely, that Madden had helped bring him closer to the Chicago comics community. These interrelationships suggested that the panelists belonged at the same crowded table together for many reasons and their stories made it clear that they had themselves continued to create the sense of community they were celebrating despite the struggles it faces.

The final discussion topic for panelists testified to the outcome of their shared philosophy. “What’s next?” produced a mind-boggling catalogue of current and upcoming projects including creator-owned work, recent awards, new series launches, and young ambitious collectives that follow closely in the community, such as Trip City. Judging from the level of enthusiasm for both tradition and experimentation in the panelists’ upcoming work, it’s safe to say that a sense community breeds these qualities in comics creators. Irving and Kushner also showed their community support by announcing publicly for the first time their new project related to Leaping Tall Buildings, a six-part series profiling “Independent Spirits” who have helped create their own brand of comics tradition, slated to appear in Image Comics’s Creator Owned Heroes from November’s issue #6 onward. While fans eagerly lined up to have their books signed, the conversation continued. There was plenty of “hanging out” at Jim Hanley’s Universe and in comics that’s a great tradition.

-Hannah Means-Shannon

Photos by India Kushner

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, blogs about Alan Moore for Sequart, and teaches at Georgian Court University in New Jersey.

Leaping Tall Buildings: The Origins of American Comics outlines the history of comic books through the creators, documented in Irving’s interview-based essays and Kushner’s photography. The Wall Street Journal calls Leaping Tall Buildings ”a living history,” while The New York Times considers it “a great survey of many of the talented men and women behind the characters.” Publisher’s Weekly calls it “nearly as epic as the field’s history itself,” while Huffington Post refers to Kushner’s photography as “remarkable.”