By Hannah Means-Shannon
Greenlight Bookstore has been making an impact as a local independent bookstore in Brooklyn since 2009, as well as keeping up a strong internet presence. Add to that Greenlight’s commitment to hosting author-based book events and you have a major voice for literacy and an oasis for book lovers of all genres. On August 16th, Greenlight hosted a panel focused on one of their favorite mediums, sequential art, to bring the new comics history epic, Leaping Tall Buildings: The Origins of American Comics, to enthusiasts. Co-authors of Leaping Tall Buildings Seth Kushner (photography) and Christopher Irving (profiles) were interviewed by Calvin Reid, senior news editor at Publishers Weekly, about working with some of the most legendary figures in the history of American comics while creating the book.
Early in the discussion, comics scholar Christopher Irving introduced one of the strongest verbal images of the evening when he described the book as a record of a “family tree of creators” which had its original root-system firmly embedded in New York. Joe Simon, who contributed to the Leaping Tall Buildings project at age 98, shortly before his death, was the perfect place to begin illustrating this point. Simon has particularly close ties to the book since crisply lit close-ups of his hands, drafting table, and art supplies appear as a design element on its cover and also within its introduction. Kushner and Irving recounted thier mythological moment meeting the co-creator of Captain America, who was working on a double-page splash at the time. Irving described a “no bullshit” guy who “wrote the language of comics” and not only remained at the drafting table for decades longer than many other artists, but refused to overly “mythologize” himself or sugar-coat the often harsh early days of syndicated strips when comics were the furthest thing from “glamorous”.
If Simon represented some of the earliest New York roots of comics creation, another major mainstay, recently lost to us, was Joe Kubert. Reid, Irving, and Kushner all took a few minutes to discuss Kubert’s career and the impact of his legacy in subdued but personal tones. Irving observed that one of Kubert’s most remarkable characteristics was his ability to continuously improve throughout his long career in ways that fans could hardly envisage given the continuous quality of his output. This “tough guy” and “big dude” who Irving interviewed at the Kubert School in Dover, New Jersey, confessed to having grown up in the environs of organized crime shortly before deciding to take off his glasses, an unusual gesture, for his portrait. The photo portrait itself, taken in front of the school, projected onto a large screen at Greenlight for the audience, became the focus of contemplation. Kubert, leaning against a stately tree showing autumn colors, seemed “almost mythological in his presence”, and as Kushner added, the tree suggested a degree of invulnerability and endurance in the man himself. It also formed an eerie resonance with Irving’s “family tree” image, linking creators together through their New York life and work.
But the network of traditions that Reid, Kushner, and Irving explored at Greenlight had newer branches, too, bringing continuity in comics up to modern day. Irving regaled the audience with anecdotes of working with, and taking relationship advice from, Paul Pope, a “stylistically iconic” guy whose career has spanned many comics genres, as Reid explained. Irving and Kushner caught up with Pope in the Slipper Room in Soho for an intricately arranged portrait featuring Pope’s girlfriend’s Harvest Moon posed stage performance in the background. Pope proved true to the comics creating example of Simon and Kubert by upholding the maxim,“If you are cool, you don’t have to say you are cool”. It just runs in the family.
Families are not exempt from tragedy and loss, as the passing of Simon and most recently, Kubert, illustrated, however, Dwayne McDuffie’s portrait, taken only a week before his untimely death, elicited strong emotions from audience and panelists alike. As Reid noted, the portrait very much represents McDuffie “standing tall” despite health issues. Kushner, who had to stand “on a rock” to meet the imposing McDuffie’s eye-line, nevertheless found this Milestone creator, both “approachable” and “sweet”. His career was particularly wide-ranging and influential, spanning comics and animation including Ben 10 and Static Shock, but regardless of the format, the panelists observed with fannish adoration, he always “injected humor into things”.
Another proudly touted branch of the family tree was Brooklyn resident Jessica Abel, whose work in indie comics and in teaching sequential art has laid distinctive foundations for future growth in the field. Her “strong female voice in comics”, Irving explained, “brings in new perspectives” that are much needed the comics medium is to thrive. Kushner’s Leaping Tall Buildings portraits always contain the seeds of fascinating back-stories, but Abel’s stood out because hers was the only portrait to be re-taken. The span of the book project, over four years in completion, allowed Abel’s to be one of the first, and also one of the last, portraits taken. When both Kushner and Abel expressed a degree of dissatisfaction with the bland suburban background initially used, she suggested an earthy sloped landscape to resemble the surface of Mars, based on one of her upcoming books. The “new” portrait places her in her true role of pioneer, explorer, and trendsetter for comics.
The conversations between Reid, Irving, and Kushner often overflowed into making enthusiastic connections between their experiences as readers and fans and their knowledge of this family tree of influence and tradition. Irving and Kushner may have begun with founding “root” members like Simon and Kubert, but the Greenlight interview with Reid illustrated the ways in which Kushner and Irving have in fact, created a new form of authorized biography for American comics, one that takes into account the increasingly significant branches of independent comics creators. It was clear from the discussion, however, that the continuity and the diversity so essential to the growth and survival of comics still tap the same roots of ingenuity and determination laid down by founders of the form.
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.”