Open Your Mouth: Issue #42

Thu, April 1st, 2004 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
J. Torres, Columnist

Erick Hogan has become the Joan Rivers to J. Torres' Johnny Carson. If you're too young to get that reference, it's this way to the "Teen Titans Go" message board. Everyone else, please read on and remember: CBR will not be held responsible for any lost or stolen items…

NEIL Kleid: FROM STAGE TO (COMPUTER) SCREENBy Erick Hogan

Winning a comic industry award is nice. The notoriety, the respect of your peers, and the sense of accomplishment is all great. But winning an award and getting a nice fat check, heck, you can't beat that with a stick. This week I chat up 2003 Xeric check casher Neil Kleid about his award winning "Ninety Candles," off-Broadway plays, and the gamma powered ATM in his pocket.

Hogan: Your Xeric award winning graphic novella "Ninety Candles" is an improvised work; no script, no layout, no plotting. What motivated you to use such an experimental style?

[Ninety Candles]Kleid: "Ninety Candles" started as a journal comic. I had finished reading James Kochalka's "Sketchbook Diaries" and was looking into experimental work like Matt Madden's comics and the like when I decided that I was going to draw. Just draw. I hadn't really done a full on "narrative" yet, choosing to draw short stories here and there, and the idea of doing an ongoing, connected comic each day appealed to me.

The only thing was I didn't want to do a diary. While there are some really good diary/journal comics out there, most of them are "Oh, look… today I drew in my comic" or "On March 15th, I stubbed my toe and pissed for an hour straight!" Who cares? Not me. And I know no one would give a shit about my day because half the day I'm sitting at a desk and the other half I draw comics with my feet. That's not exciting.

But I liked the idea of creating something new each day… something without a script, without a net. The creation of a story whose only structure is based on the previous day - much like life is structured. And what better subject to draw about than life itself? That's what "Ninety Candles" is at its core - a story about one life with all the decisions made therein, bad or good. Sure, there are underlying subtexts about fatherhood and the state of the comics industry, but at its HEART, it's about life. And life has no map, no blueprint.

Hogan: Since you didn't use a script how did you know you were done?

Kleid: When I decided that the book would be about the life of my protagonist, Kevin Hall, I decided that I would choose three months as an ending point - each day in the month representing a year in the character's life. After three months (or ninety years) the character would die, and boom! The story's over. The only problems were that once I started doing other comics I wasn't able to stick to my daily schedule (also, some personal issues got in the way) and I also realized that ending it that way seemed a little anti-climactic. So instead, I did what every good writer does - I wrote the ending early on. I knew where and how it would end so, I'll admit: I cheated. It wasn't entirely improvisational… I have a decent, cute, entertaining ending that sticks to the spirit of the book… but I came up with it halfway through the process.

Feel free to call me a liar and cop-out. This is the Internet.

Hogan: How has winning the Xeric grant changed your life?

Kleid: Am I allowed to discuss the triplets and the hot and cold running crack sandwiches?

Honestly, it's just given me assurance that I'm on the right track. That there's an audience out there for the work I'm doing. It isn't as if I walk into a comic shop or something and everyone starts whispering "Leopold…! Leopold…!" like old Bugs Bunny cartoons. I'm a nobody. I still pull my gold plated, award winning pants on one leg at a time - same as you, peon.

The nice thing about winning the grant is the folks I've come into contact with who have gone before me. Tom Hart, Ben Catmull, Lauren Weinstein and others… it's like a badge of fraternity when you talk with them about shared experience and the like. And everyone's been too cool about giving me printer/distribution advice.

Hogan: So what's the Xeric process like?

Kleid: It's much like applying for any grant or loan - all you need to know is that you should have all your ducks in order. Imagine you're applying to get into grad school, right? There are at least eight thousand forms to fill out in triplicate and a great deal of information you need to know. If you take your time, follow the instructions and make sure everything is there, you'll do fine. Fill out all the financial info, get some good, high quality copies of the work. I made a checklist of everything I needed and as I went through it, I marked them off. You make yourself as presentable as you can, as professional as possible and you package it off to the Foundation before the date gets too near and hope for the best.

When putting together quotes on how much you'll need, do your homework. Don't accept the very first printing quote you get. I priced the book out at four to five different printers before deciding. Take the time to do the work. There are people out there who are willing to listen and help you. There's no quick and easy method to doing comics and the same applies to grants, pitching, and the like. I must have sent ten to twelve long e-mail questions out to publishers, self-publisher and grant winners before attacking this, and they were all very helpful. These people know. These people are doing the work. And they only want you to succeed in doing it, as well. But if you never ask, if you expect them to come to you then you're never going to get anywhere. You have questions? They have the answers: printing, distribution, financial information, marketing, etc. Just write a polite email, don't be an ass, and you'll be fine. Invest time in your baby.

My one major concern about "Ninety Candles" was that the book wasn't done. The Xeric Foundation asks that the work be near completion and by the time I applied for the grant, I only had about 70 percent done. But folks encouraged me to go ahead and do it, so do it I did. I would suggest to any prospective applicants that you have it 90 percent done with a cover when you apply… I was a fluke, you might not be.

Anyway, after that you wait. I actually didn't think I was going to win - I had stopped working on "Ninety Candles" at least a month and a half before I applied and put it aside to work on another project. I figured I'd get back to it if I won the grant. The night I got the envelope informing me I'd won, I had gotten an e-mail from a friend who had also applied telling me he'd been rejected. I saw the letter and said, "Yeah, I probably was too." But the letter felt a bit heavy to be a rejection… and, of course, it wasn't. Cue the drinking, laughing and calling everyone to tell them I'd won.

Back to the work.

I finished the book as quickly as I could without rushing and contacted the printer whose quote I had enclosed in the package. From there I worked out a printing timeline as well as talked to Diamond about submitting it for distribution and at the time of this writing I am about to receive the funds from the Foundation so I can send the complete book to the printer in mid-April. Now I have to worry about getting it accepted at Diamond and I'm starting to figure out marketing/selling techniques.

But that's less about the Xeric process and more about pimping.

Hogan: Did you actually get an award or is it just a big check?

Kleid: It's a singing telegram - they send J. Torres around in a boater hat and old time tuxedo warbling "You're in the Money." Then they just forward you some checks.

The key to getting J. to stop: huckleberry pie.

Hogan: Your play "American Caesar" just completed a theatrical run in New York. What sort of feedback have you received?

Kleid: Well, "American Caesar" was put up as a five-day showcase to generate some interest by production companies. It ran from March 10-14 and played to packed audiences. Every day at least half the audience came over to tell me how much they dug the script (there's a great twist ending). Ed Mathews, EIC of Pop Image is planning on running a blurb about the play in an upcoming editorial and I've already spoken to a few other production companies (film and stage) who want to read it. As well, I'm planning on adapting the story into a graphic novel with my collaborator, Jake Allen.

So, as a whole it's been received quite well.

It was a thrill to be able to put up the play and see my words take shape, form and structure, you know? I got to work hand in hand with the director and cast who helped mold the story and shape of the work, and since I'm not a diva, I was open to rewrites and changes. It was a wonderfully collaborative process and I'm a bit sad it's over.

But at least I can sleep again, y'know?

Hogan: So which came first: love of comics or love of theater?

Kleid: Oh, comics. I've been reading comics since I was a seven-year-old girl. My dad used to drop a bag of comics off for my brother and I every Friday night to shut us u… er, expand our creative minds and that grew into a love of superheroes and in a warped sense, storytelling. I got into theater and the stage late in life. I acted for 2-3 years when I first got to NYC.

Hogan: Xeric grant winner, successful playwright; are editors ringing your phone off the hook yet?

Kleid: I'll admit that my background in stage/screenwriting helps interest editors and publishers, and winning the grant doesn't hurt. But again, I'm still a speck on the sole of the small press. Editors give me the runaround like everyone else. Sure, they might be more open to talking to me now, but I have a tough time getting projects through, same as anyone.

I'm talking to folks about various things. Nothing's signed. I could always use more, though. I'm looking at you, Will Dennis.

Hogan: Does living in New York make it easier to schmooze editors?

Kleid: Definitely. I think right now, there are three Meccas which allow maximum schmooze potential, comics-wise: New York, San Francisco, and Portland. These are the hubs of the comics/cartoon industry along with Great Britain and Kansas City, perhaps. It's fun to attend an art showing or MoCCA event and talk to DC editors and the like… you get face time, you get known - even if you're just "the kid with the Jack and Coke." Eventually it becomes more than a passing familiarity and they'll look at what you have to show.

But honestly, as long as you're a nice, personable person, can write a professional query letter and have Internet access, you've got as good a chance as I do to schmooze editors.

Hogan: How is writing plays different from writing comics?

Kleid: Folks will say that writing a comic book script is just like writing for stage or screen. Stage direction or cuts and edits are like panel descriptions. But it isn't quite true. They're both collaborative processes, sure - in comics, you write with an artist, a colorist, an editor and a publisher. In the theatre you write with a director, set designer, sound designer, costume designer and lighting designer. But as far as the structure goes, it changes.

In comics, there's an economy of words not present in stage/screen. I can write a ten-minute monologue in a play that can't translate onto a two-page sequence in comics. Also, there's a budget to deal with. In comics, Nick Fury can fly his jetpack over hordes of AIM soldiers while a Helicarrier drops bombs from the sky. On stage, it's tough to even have someone break a window because you have a ten-show run and you can't afford to keep replacing that window. You think more economically in theatre in relation to what you can and cannot do; you think economically in comics in relation to what you can and cannot say - or how much you can and cannot say, really.

Hogan: Do you see yourself leaning more towards comics or plays, or a combination of both?

Kleid: While at the moment I'm going to be focusing on comics, I won't rule out doing another play or screenplay. I know which side my bread is buttered on, dig? I wouldn't have minded doing a stage play as a comic, but Damon Hurd beat me to it with the "White Elephant," the bastard.

I have a few comic projects that would make good plays. We'll see.

Hogan: What comic do you think would make a good play?

Kleid: I'd love to see a "Blue Monday Follies" at Radio City Music Hall; that being said, Joe Matt's "Peepshow," Adrian Tomine's "Optic Nerve," Dylan Horrocks' "Hicksville."

Last year someone sent me a link to a Toronto Fringe Festival play called "Cobra: The Musical" based on the G.I. Joe villains… I was upset I missed that! Wasn't there supposed to be a Batman musical coming out? That'd be whack.

Hogan: Now let's flip that question. What play do you think would make a good comic?

Kleid: "American Caesar," written by Neil Kleid, directed by Mary Catherine Burke.

Sucka!

I'd really like to come up with a good adaptation of "Macbeth"… but for now, I'll say that "Richard III" is perfect - heroes, villains, love and treachery, genius.

Hogan: If Neil Kleid was a superhero what would your powers be?

Kleid: Every time I reached into my pocket I'd be able to make ten dollars appear. Okay, that's not believable. Make that a twenty.

Hogan: What's the last good comic you read?

Kleid: I'm digging "The Losers" by Diggle and Jock - it's the best movie in comic book form I've read in a long time. Other notables are "Persepolis" by Marjane Satrap, "One Plus One" by Krall and Shaffer from Oni Press and "Dork" #7. Dude, that's just effed up. Makes me laugh, Dorkin.

Hogan: If you could write any title for any publisher what would it be?

Kleid: I know I'm going to end up being called a sell-out and get all sorts of flak for saying this, rather than saying "I'd only write my own characters," but I think I'd get a kick out of doing a G.I. Joe arc. I was just reading some of the old volumes and the new stuff and it's so open to interpretation.

Also, last month my roommate decked his room out ladies man/bachelor pad style and the minute he went to go get his lady, my other roommate and I placed eighty G.I. Joe action figures around his room in weird, sexual positions to make him look bad. Seriously, there was a Baroness gangbang with a line of Joes (including the dogs) leading up to her and a bit of Gung Ho/Leatherneck don't ask, don't tell.

I know that had nothing to do with anything, but wasn't that a great tangent?

Hogan: Okay, let's wind this puppy. Neil, tell the folks at home why they should run out a reserve a copy of "Ninety Candles" at their local friendly neighborhood comic shop and give us the scoop on your upcoming graphic novel "Brownsville."

Kleid: "Ninety Candles," a 48 page improvisational graphic novel, will debut at the MoCCA Arts Festival this June and hit stores over the summer. It's a story about fatherhood, legacy and comics detailing the life of one cartoonist a panel per year. There's no script - each panel/year was created based on the previous day's panel/year. The experiment allows the reader to fill in spaces between the panels/years, creating a unique narrative never before seen in comics. Also, it's being printed in a cool hunter green ink, so I got that going for me, which is nice.

"Brownsville"
"Brownsville," a 196 page OGN with Jake Allen, will debut Fall/Winter 2004 from the fine people at NBM Publishing. It's the tale of the men of Murder, Incorporated - the elite band of Jewish killers employed by the NYC Mafia in the late 30s. The story is based on historical events but is by no means accurate. Much of the dialogue and many of the conversations are fictional, but by and large, this is the overlapping road taken by two specific members of the Jewish Mob: Allie "Tick Tock" Tannenbaum and Abe "Kid Twist" Reles. "Brownsville" watches the men go from nobodies to notorious killers and follows them down to the betrayal of the very organization they pledged their lives and honor to.

Familiar faces and noted stories weave in and out of this story, beautifully illustrated by Jake Allen, a talented artist trained at the Kubert School. Jake and I have other projects in the works with NBM but I'm a tad concerned that when everyone finds out how good he is, he'll be snapped up immediately. In the meantime, though, he's mine, vultures!

As always, you can keep track of my comings and going at www.rantcomics.com

Hogan: Thanks, Neil. Now we know why they say there's a thin line between genius and insanity. J. will be back next week unless a horrible accident keeps him from returning from vacation… oops I've said too much. Feel free to join us on the OYM forum where we'll be dividing up J.'s personal possessions.

OPEN YOUR MAIL

Frederick D. Weaver of Washington, DC writes:

Dear Open Your Mouth:

Erik Hogan's panel discussion with Black artists concerning racial issues in the modern comic industry was very enlightening. For example, I had no idea Sanford Greene, Khary Randolph, and Le Sean Thomas were Black. This revelation challenged my belief that it was impossible for new minority creators to find work in the industry. I also was impressed with the fresh ideas the artists brought to this well-worn issue of race in comics. For example, the best came from Mr. Randolph, the first Black creator I know of who's suggested that Black comics could attract a wider readership by focusing more on non-superhero fare. This could work as demonstrated by manga publishers like Tokyopop and Viz. You wouldn't believe how many Black men, women and especially kids I've seen buy popular manga like "Dragonball Z," "Sailor Moon" and "Yu-Gi-Oh" in comic shops and bookstores.

There is one point in the panel discussion that requires correction. Mr. Thomas is mistaken about Disney not animating Black characters in its big screen features. One of the heroic explorers in "Atlantis: The Lost Empire" was a smart, compassionate Black doctor. Not too long after Atlantis was "Lilo & Stitch," which introduced moviegoers to Cobra Bubbles, a no-nonsense social worker and former government agent who also bucked racial stereotypes. Whatever else you may say about the corporation, Disney has a great track record when it comes to featuring minority characters in significant, respectable roles in their animated films.

I hope that Open Your Mouth continues these panel discussions. One idea is to have Black comic writers weigh in on the state of the industry. Two suggestions I have are Christopher Priest (Marvel's "Captain America and the Falcon") and Dwayne McDuffie (co-founder/writer of Milestone Media). The latter's commentary would be especially beneficial to the discussion because Mr. McDuffie could contrast working in comics with writing for popular cartoons ("Static Shock," "Justice League," "Teen Titans"). The discussion doesn't have to be scheduled for Black History Month, exclusively. If OYM devotes a month to interviewing writers about the comic industry's health, that would be the perfect time for this kind of feature.

Thank you for your thought-provoking discussion. I look forward to many more.

Frederick,

Thanks for all your kind words. The wonderful thing about comics is that the race, color, or creed of a creator isn't a factor. All that matters is imagination, creativity, and as J. likes to remind me getting the work done.

Oh, that wacky LeSean forgetting Kida from "Atlantis" and my personal favorite cartoon character Cobra Bubbles. You're absolutely right, Disney has added a lot more diversity to their characters in recent years. Setting up panel discussions take lots of planning, patience, and poking with cattle prods to be successful; I don't know how J. manages to make them look so easy.

Look forward to more thought-provoking discussion in the future on OYM. I have some ideas I want to bounce of J. when he gets back from vacation… that is if he makes it home in one piece.

Erick

Meanwhile, drop by the OYM forum and let me know what you thought of this week's column.

Thank you for your attention.

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