Sunday, July 27, 2014

CHUTZ-POW!: Covering the Artwork (Episode 1 of 3)

CHUTZ-POW! Superheroes of the Holocaust is an art exhibit and companion anthology comic-book which jointly chronicles the stories of specific individuals who demonstrated courage, compassion and resilience during the Holocaust. The former debuted at the Three Rivers Arts Festival this Summer, where positive word about the project spread quickly; the latter makes its formal debut in Pittsburgh on August 14th. As one of the artists involved with both the exhibit and the comic-book, I’m beyond proud of this project, and I’ll be devoting this and the following two blog posts to behind-the-scenes/making-of entries. Here, I’m going to give you some history of CHUTZ-POW!, talk about how I came to be involved, and walk you through the steps it took for me to create the cover artwork for the comic-book.

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In 2013, The Holocaust Center of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh reached out to the ToonSeum, Pittsburgh’s own Museum of the Cartoon Arts, in search of some input for a budding project. Together they brainstormed new and engaging ways to utilize comic-book artwork in Holocaust education. In November, Joe Wos, Executive Director of the ToonSeum, asked our mutual good friend Wayne Wise – author, comic-book creator, educator, and the ToonSeum’s Resident Comic-Book Scholar & Historian – to join the steering committee. All involved would say his participation was a major catalyst for what the project subsequently grew into.

From the beginning, the basic idea was to convey via the comic-book medium the experiences of real-life individuals who, through their upstanding actions during the Holocaust, became virtual superheroes. It was ultimately decided that there would be an art exhibit focusing on international protagonists, and an attendant comic-book which would tell the stories of additional heroes and heroines, all of whom eventually relocated to Pittsburgh. Both the exhibit and the comic-book were to be used in an educational program, designed to reach middle and high school students. In honor of the protagonists, the original working title for the entire project was UPSTANDERS: Superheroes of the Holocaust.

The UpStanders (l-r): Les Banos, Malka Baran, Moshe Baran, Dora Iwler, Fritz Ottenheimer
(Photos of Malka and Moshe Baran, Dora Iwler, and Fritz Ottenheimer by Jen Federer)
Wayne was tasked with providing text for the exhibit, detailing the history of comic-books and the rise of superheroes in the years prior to World War Two, and their correlation with the events overseas in Europe both during and after the war. He also became the writer for all of the stories that would be in the comic-book, which entailed enormous research to keep them verifiably accurate. Wayne elaborates on his experience working on the exhibit (where he also provided artwork of one of the international UpStanders) and the comic-book on his own blog, NOTES FROM THE PLAYGROUND.

When the committee decided to start finding artists for the comic-book, I was one of the first ones they approached. I already knew a lot about the project through Wayne, and I was flattered and eager – and more than a little bit intimidated – at the prospect of being involved. The subject matter alone dictated that whatever story I would be called upon to tell might potentially be one of the most important of my career to date. As we get closer to the book’s release date, I know that early intuition was correct.

Four artists were chosen to illustrate Wayne’s scripted stories – Chris Moeller, Dave Wachter, Mark Zingarelli, and me – and another local artist agreed to do the cover artwork. Unfortunately, due to other work commitments, that artist had to bow out of the project, so the committee asked if I would be willing to draw the cover instead. I said yes, and then we all set about the task of deciding what the cover would actually be.

It turned out that there was a lot to consider in composing the cover artwork. For most of the audience, this would be their first exposure to the project and the UpStanders, so the imagery needed to have significance. This art would also be used to attract additional donors and partners towards getting the book published, so it had to convey the end goals of the project clearly, while still being respectful of the subjects themselves. Plus, it had to be a great looking comic-book in and of itself. There was a lot riding on this piece before pencil had even touched paper.

There was initial emphasis on a specific UpStander because of the dramatic nature of his story. Les Banos, famed Pittsburgh sports photographer, was a Jewish spy during WWII who managed to infiltrate the Nazi party and save the lives of hundreds of Jews in the process. His story is so incredible to read, it feels more fictional than real, and he was included in both the exhibit and the comic-book. My early drafts of the cover art placed Banos front-and-center, striking the superhero “reveal” pose – but I quickly felt that something was off here.

In order for the image to work, one had to already be familiar with Banos’ story. Having the character remove a Nazi uniform to reveal a Star of David beneath was obviously meant to be purely symbolic, and an allusion to Superman. But what if you didn’t know that? Void of context, this image didn’t feel like the best introduction to the message of the project…but I felt like there was something there worth exploring. So, I began to work on another approach.

Trying to fully explore the metaphor, I swapped-out Banos for non-specific figures meant to represent the spirit of all the UpStanders. At this point in the project, there was also more of a Pittsburgh-centric theme to the work, so I placed a nod to that on the back cover, as well as images of the main characters. The word “CHUTZ-POW!” was now being used as the umbrella title for the exhibit/comic-book/educational project, so I incorporated that logo onto the back cover too.

I really liked this idea, but when I ran it past some of my own Jewish friends, the feedback was mixed. Some loved it and fully understood what I was going for, while others were more skeptical about the metaphor, and questioned if this were going to be a book about fictional Jewish superheroes in a concentration camp. The steering committee also had some misgivings about it, for many of the same reasons, and in retrospect, it was all understandable. We all agreed that we wanted to be clear on the message that the cover conveyed, that we wanted it to be powerful and super-heroic, like our UpStanders.

Superheroes are many things, but subtle typically isn't one of them. With this in mind, another approach was suggested – and we now took our cue from an actual superhero comic-book cover.

Released in 1975, GIANT-SIZE X-MEN #1 was the book that re-introduced the super team to comics fandom. The cover artwork by Gil Kane and Dave Cockrum remains an instantly identifiable classic, literally bursting with so much energy that the characters can’t be contained within the story. As different as this design was from what I’d been doing, I was glad we had a direction to move in, so I gave it a go. However, I didn’t want to be overly influenced by the layout, so I proceeded from memory for my next draft.

It had been suggested that we have the UpStanders bursting through a Nazi flag, or a propaganda poster. I found a specific poster that I felt would work well as the background, and used that as a model. Even though this was just a layout sketch, I started paying close attention to some of the faces. Photo-references for our heroes in their youth were scarce at best, and in some cases non-existent, so I had to “reverse engineer” how I thought they might have looked when their stories took place. I especially liked Dora’s and Les’s faces here, but I stopped shy of getting too detailed with all of the likenesses, since that would come later.

I also re-introduced the imagery of Les doing the costume reveal, feeling it would work better in this context. Simply showing him in the Nazi uniform wouldn’t convey his story correctly and would have implied a different theme; conversely, just showing him in regular clothes would have glossed over what made his tale unique. For this layout we were doing away with subtlety, and it felt like everything was coming into place.

The CHUTZ-POW! name had by now been adopted for the entire project, so there is an earlier version of the logo in place on this drawing. The committee liked this draft, but we all agreed that something about the composition wasn’t fully on point. So I went back to the source of inspiration, and discovered something else which helped everything click for me.

Published nearly a year prior to the other book, GIANT-SIZE DEFENDERS #1 had cover art also penciled by Gil Kane in a nearly-identical layout to GSX-M#1. By comparing and contrasting the two, I finally was able to figure out what element of *SNAP!* was missing from my cover. I sent the committee my revised layout, along with two others that held to the general theme, but were less aggressive in tone – less “comic-book-y” for those who might take offense – and which also de-emphasized Les in uniform. Fortunately, I was given the go ahead to draw the cover in the direction we were already heading, and now it was time to work up the actual artwork.

I am methodical, and I also like to keep my clients and collaborators in the loop whenever possible. At each of the four stages of the work – penciling, inking, laying the flat colors, and the final colors – I allowed the team to see how the work had progressed. Everyone was incredibly encouraging, and this was where we all got to first feel the stories becoming tangible.

Wayne, who is also a skilled artist, was on board with this layout from the beginning, and lauded the inclusion of fine details that most eyes might have missed. (He even gave me a technical assist about the type of firearm that Fritz would have carried, which was appreciated.)

Examining the Gil Kane artwork, I likewise tried to keep the overlapping characters distinct from one another, and maintain a sense of clarity. My fear was that all the detail would make the layout needlessly busy. Once it read clearly in inks, I wanted the colors to be appropriate -- comics are generally thought of as being brightly colored, sometimes even gaudy, but the mood of this piece allowed the colors to be the one area where it was okay to be subtle.

I really tried to think it all through, including the incidental colors and the background. I gave each person their own color scheme to make them distinct, and chose specific shades of red and off-white for the flag, and blue for the background, in order to make the figures POP. Where possible, I tried to get the finest details right, including eye color. Two of the UpStanders, Moshe and Malka Baran, were the protagonists of the story I would soonafter be drawing, so accuracy rendering them was especially important. Some elements just came down to educated guess work, but in the end, I’m very pleased with the result.

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Seeing the cover art in print at the exhibit, touting the release of the comic-book, was a moving experience. Wayne and I were introduced to the attendees by Drew Goldstein, Chair of the CHUTZ-POW! project, as contributing artists, and we received an impromptu round of applause that was incredibly gratifying. Being recognized for doing good work is most peoples’ goal, and in the end, this project is all about recognizing the good that others have done, making sure it is never forgotten, and passing along that message.

Forty years after Gil Kane’s artwork for GIANT SIZE-DEFENDERS #1 and GIANT-SIZE X-MEN #1 hit newsstands, it is still remembered for introducing the world to groups of heroes they had never experienced before. With CHUTZ-POW! Superheroes of the Holocaust, we hope to duplicate that feat with stories so great, and heroes so impressive, they can likewise no longer be contained. If we succeed in our mission, maybe forty years from now this book will live on as an inspiration to others for what a true hero should look and feel like.

Because regardless of your colors and your background, a true UpStander always stands out.

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*ADDENDUM (8-6-14): Wayne has posted a mini-blog that reveals a neat bit of synchronicity about the cover art, and how its composition was just quite possibly predestined!

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