Monday, August 4, 2014

CHUTZ-POW!: The Barans' Story (Episode 2 of 3)

In my previous blog entry, I discussed the origins of CHUTZ-POW! Superheroes of the Holocaust, how I became involved as an artist on both the exhibit and comic-book parts of the project, and how the cover artwork for the comic-book was developed. In this second of three installments, I'm going to discuss what went into creating the artwork for the story that I illustrated in the book.

Picking art to include in this installment has been more of a chore than I first thought it would be. I’m all about maintaining mystery whenever possible, and I want everyone reading this to buy a copy of the book and experience the stories firsthand. But how can I tell you about creating the artwork without actually showing you some of the artwork? What follows is my attempt to show-and-tell without showing or telling too much. So, let’s start this off straightaway with the first page of the story, which will hopefully get you curious, but still give you an idea of what all the fuss is about.

The first page of PARALLEL CHOICES (art by me; script by Wayne Wise) from
CHUTZ-POW! Superheroes of the Holocaust, Volume 1: The UpStanders

As one of four artists drawing stories for this initial installment of CHUTZ-POW!, I essentially faced three main challenges: the first was that of brevity, the second was of historical accuracy and faithfulness to the UpStanders’ experiences, and the third was of personal ability. The last of these wouldn’t have measurable  is-or-isn’t results like the other two, but it proved just as daunting a hurdle to overcome. In ways, it was the toughest challenge of them all.

The subtitle of the first issue of the comic-book is Volume One: The UpStanders, in reference to the term used to describe our five real-life protagonists. Because two of these UpStanders, Moshe and Malka Baran, met and married after their respective Holocaust experiences, the decision was made to tell their stories in a combined installment. Since the page count for the book was fixed, there would be a total of eight pages allotted for the Barans’s stories, four pages per person. Just as with the stories being told of the other three UpStanders, the challenge here was one of brevity. Trying to put together a narrative so short which even suggested the breadth of their experiences would be a daunting task for any creator.

To say that I was intimidated at this prospect is an understatement, but fortunately I wasn’t alone in making it happen. Wayne Wise had been tapped to write the scripts for all four stories in the book, and to that end he delved into a mountain of historical and biographical reference materials. (You can read his description of the development of the script on his own blog, NOTES FROM THE PLAYGROUND.) He was aided in his studies by the staff of The Pittsburgh Holocaust Center, including researcher and project liaison Zachary Zafris, who was another pivotal figure in the development of CHUTZ-POW!. During this busy period, as Zach provided reference materials, Wayne made copious notes and wrote scripts, and I focused on creating the cover artwork, we all started to get an initial sense of what the final comic-book would be like. Even at this early stage, it was galvanizing to think of what we were hoping to accomplish.

Detail of Moshe Baran from cover art.
Detail of Malka Baran from cover art.
It was also at this time I became keenly aware that my cover art depiction of the Barans would also serve as my model for how to render them during most of the sequences in their combined story. Aside from more contemporary photographs of the couple (Malka passed away in 2007, but I had numerous photos and footage of her and Moshe together), there was a specific photo of them as newlyweds in the early 1950s that I revisited constantly. During online searches, I found it on a blog post written about them by their grandson, Boaz Munro, and it was an invaluable resource. I basically used it to reverse-engineer how they might have looked during the war. Once their likenesses were defined to a degree that I could draw and redraw them consistently, it was time to move along to the script.

While he chides himself for over-writing, Wayne’s script for the Barans’ story solidly cleared the hurdle of brevity. He had managed to distill two massive personal journeys down to roughly four pages each in a way that made sense to me. That was important because I make no pretense of being an historical scholar at all. If I could understand what was happening, I could depict that for the readers. Their stories were told in mostly linear fashion, so after rereading the script and getting clarification on some historical points, it became a matter of finding the best way to tell the tales concurrently.

Layout scroll on the floor of my studio.
Being methodical by nature, I love the layout process of comic-book stories. Typically, I’ll lay a scroll of paper on the floor of my studio and attack it with colored markers while going through the script. It’s an organic way of working where everything is fluid and loose, and yet everything is also physically taking shape. Prior to the layout, everything is conceptual; afterwards, things are literal. So this stream-of-consciousness-like stage represents that middle ground where comic-books feel the most like jazz music to me. It’s where I really get to play.

Detail of Page One from
the layout scroll.

One of the things that the scroll approach affords me is the chance to see the entirety of a story all at once. Because of this, there are often opportunities to include visual foreshadowing or callbacks that might otherwise be overlooked. There is a short sequence in Moshe’s story where he finally escapes from one place to another, and I realized that it mirrored a moment several pages later in Malka’s story. I decided to make the composition of his two panels and her two panels identical, even though they occur in different places. The delivery is subtle, but it satisfied my sense of balance between their stories.

Side-by-side comparison of panels from
Moshe's and Malka's stories.
Wayne actually has a knack for providing no more text or suggested imagery than is needed to further a narrative. That said, there were some places where I took liberties with the script’s emphasis on certain points, while there were other “fixed” points that felt key to the integrity of the overall story. Originally Moshe and Malka, as narrators of their respective histories, had individual introductory pages, and Malka’s main story was slightly shorter than Moshe’s. However, I felt like there was a beat missing that we needed to open things up to make room to depict.

By combining the Barans’ introductions into a single page which began both of their stories, we gained back a page which freed me up to depict the sequence I feel is the emotional centerpiece of CHUTZ-POW!. It contains what I consider to be the single most important panel of sequential art I’ve drawn in my career to date. That realization, coupled with the knowledge that I was depicting such a powerful moment in the lives of real people, struck me late one night while I was inking, and my brush hand shook briefly. I’ve never been moved by something I’ve worked on so directly, and it cemented in my mind how potent CHUTZ-POW! could be.

There was a later panel that called for me to depict Moshe’s experience encountering the US Army in 1945 near Hamburg, Germany, mostly to show they were both there at that time and place. I was stuck for exactly how to render it, and left the panel blank, hoping inspiration – or necessity – would strike when I got to it. Wayne then had a request for me: he asked if I could draw his father Keith - who’s own Army unit had been there at the same time as Moshe’s, in that panel.

It was a perfect idea. While it is highly unlikely that Keith and Moshe personally interacted while in Hamburg, this panel now would literally convey worlds drawn closer. For most readers who will never know who this American soldier is, it won’t detract from their engagement in the story. But for those of us who do know, it represents yet one more person who now has an important part of his history documented for the ages.

The call for historical accuracy demanded that I do my work in amassing visual references to make everything believable. In my own comic book, HERO CORP, INTERNATIONAL, I have a lot of autonomy in depicting real life people (most of whom I personally know) in a fictional setting. For CHUTZ-POW!, there would be no cheating my way around making things look correct. This made me nervous at the outset because, frankly, I’m very squeamish, and if you’re seeking visual references on the Holocaust, you will be encountering some of the worst imagery you could ever see. I don’t want to say that I became desensitized to it, but I did start expecting it and bracing for it. Since the Barans’ story focuses far more on survival than death, my final photos were much more bearable to look at than what I initially thought they would be.

The last challenge for me was a personal one: knowing that I was working on a book alongside professional artists Mark Zingarelli, Dave Wachter, and Chris Moeller was almost scary. All of them have impressive credentials in a way that I don’t (although I’m getting there!), so it was essential that I brought my A-game to this project. I tried not to get too psyched out when their preliminary roughs came in, followed by their final artwork. It was beautiful stuff, produced quickly, all of it very different than mine. At times it was humbling to see, and there were a few moments where I thought, “Oh my God – why am I putting my work next to theirs again?!?” In the end, everything is complimentary, and each story has its own place in the anthology. The four separate art styles work much like songs on a concept album, flowing from mood to mood. I think my interpretation of the Barans’ story provides the movement we need at just the right spot.

Malka Baran chose after the war to pursue a career in childrens’ education. I also spent a number of years teaching kids, and I like to think that she would especially be pleased with the educational goals of the CHUTZ-POW! project. I’m honored to have been allowed the chance to put my skills to use in order to share the message of their parallel choices to not succumb to hatred. There are no politics when it comes down to right and wrong, and the spirit of this book is decidedly very, very right. That’s due in large measure to Malka and Moshe. Thank you to the Baran family for allowing us to explore your history.

Thanks as well to The Holocaust Center and TheToonSeum for asking me to participate, mad props to Wayne for his great script (go read more of his musings on superheroes on his other blog, MASKS), and a salute to Zach for his astounding diplomacy. I hope the response to CHUTZPOW! is kind and sustained, and we get the opportunity to tell the stories of even more UpStanders.

They all still have a lot to teach us.

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