Friday, June 11, 2010

Book Event: Sons of Liberty writers/artists at MoCCA

So New York has a ridiculous number of museums, dedicated to pretty much anything you can think of. I work across the street from the Museum of Sex for goodness sake (main page, at least, is safe for work - haven't thoroughly explored the rest of the site, but I have been to the museum!). So you'd think I'd have heard about the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art before this week. But I hadn't - so I'm thankful to the Random House Kids Twitter feed for introducing me not only to a quirky new museum, but a pretty great-sounding graphic novel, Sons of Liberty.

Usually I only go to book events where I've read the book being discussed, or at least have read the author's other work before. In this case, I went knowing next to nothing about the book except that Liz Burns calls it X-Men meets Octavian Nothing. Well, that sounds interesting, plus I needed a birthday present for my brother and a signed graphic novel sounds pretty awesome to me, so I schlepped myself down to SoHo in the rain (after complaining on Twitter that I didn't have a pen. The nice people at the museum let me borrow one!)

For those of you who, like me, haven't read this yet, here's the summary from the story section of the website:
In Colonial America, Graham and Brody are slaves on the run-but then the two young runaways gain extraordinary powers. As they test the limits of their new abilities, they come under the care and protection of two very different mentors. One is Benjamin Franklin, who urges the boys to keep a low profile. The other is Benjamin Lay, an eccentric abolitionist who has another idea-one that involves the African martial art Dambe . . . and masks.
But by escaping to freedom, Graham and Brody have made more enemies than allies. A plantation owner wants them captured. A slave hunter wants them dead. And Benjamin Franklin’s son William has the wickedest ambitions of all.

The creative team behind the book consists of four men: Alexander and Joseph Lagos did the writing, Steve Walker did the pen and ink drawing and Oren Kramek did the colors.

Joseph was the first to speak, describing the origins of the project in a dream of Alexander's. Alexander dreamed he was in a movie theater watching two masked characters jumping around buildings and being attacked by British troops. When the characters removed their masks, Alexander saw they were two African American men, which surprised both of the brothers a little because they'd never associated the Revolutionary War with African Americans. The Civil War is when we start thinking about the role of slavery in this country and it's thought to be the big event affecting the roles of African Americans in the country.

Alexander jumped in at this point and said that through their research they really uncovered that all sorts of cultures had contributed to the founding of America - it wasn't just a struggle between Britain and colonists of British descent. The stories of many of the cultures have been forgotten in the intervening centuries, and so in the graphic novel they worked to achieve a balance between the fantasy elements as well as the very interesting real history. He elaborated a little bit during the question and answer period at the end, saying that at one point they considered making it a more straight forward historical fiction graphic novel, rather than including the superpower element. A large part of the story could have stayed the same, apparently, because there really were masked vigilantes running around during the Revolutionary period fighting against injustice (why, oh WHY doesn't that get mentioned in school? Revolutionary history would have been much cooler if a teacher had said people were running around like Batman). Ultimately they obviously chose to keep the superhero element, because you can take some of the commentary farther with fantastical elements.

Steve joined the process after Alexander and Joseph had been working on the story for a few years. Alexander had very clear ideas about what he wanted, and was very passionate, which made Steve passionate about the project in turn. In conversations with Alexander and Joseph he started getting mental pictures and immediately knew what many of the characters would look like. Coincidentally, the very first full drawing he did for the project was what went on to become the final cover.

Oren, the colorist, was relatively quiet, but tons of praised was heaped upon him for his coloring and, especially, the way he used light. He explained near the end that he treats light as another character - a bright, high contrast approach is needed for a big action scene, but a subtle scene requires more complimentary colors and subdued lighting. He says that if you think of a comic as analogous to a movie, color is what provides the soundtrack. I only got to read a few pages of the book on the way home (was finishing up another novel), but the use of lighting is definitely very striking. I might not have realized it without hearing several people mention it at the event, especially since I'm not much of an artist, but there's definitely a striking visual style in this book. I really love the soundtrack metaphor.

There were some really great audience questions, tonight, which is always great. One of the first questions was about how far the series is intended to go. Right now they're contracted for four books (the second book is due to be published next spring) and are really taking it one book at a time, but they're definitely planning on making it through the Revolutionary War and if the interest and passion is there, they'd even like to take it all the way through the Civil War.

The next questioner stole my original question, which is why go for a graphic novel format? (I'm such a word-nerd that I always want to know why someone would do something other than a narrative novel - it's just the natural format for me!) Alexander responded that since his dream took place in a movie theater, his real first desire was to get this made as a film, but as he was talking with Joseph about it (who brought the literary heft, he'd noted earlier), they realized that graphic novel was the perfect visual medium, especially since they were telling a superhero story. Joseph noted that it was a challenge to write such a multi-layered story in the visual format, but Steve chimed in later that that is actually the beauty of comics, because of how you can present different ideas in words and text. He considers comics to be the most fun playground. Alexander also said this is a story with something for everyone, and here said something that gave me pause: it's a coming of age story for boys and for girls there is relationship stuff. I always dislike the notion that girls are into stories strictly for the relationships - but I'm also not going to put too much weight on that comment for the moment, because this was a pretty casual discussion and I haven't read the book completely. Just wanted to make a brief note of it, because it was the one thing I heard all night that made me pause and go "hmmm" (that is exactly what I wrote in my cramped little notes).

I got in the next question about research, especially since Alexander and Joseph had noted several times they were pulling up stories about real people that virtually no one has heard of since the Revolutionary War. Joseph apparently has a huge collection of strange history books, like "Strange True Stories of America," and that's where they found a lot of things. Steve's research method for the art is to go on Google images and spend 5-8 hour days researching everything he can. Apparently all of the trees drawn in the book are actual native Pennsylvania trees. Also, since the series is going to take us through several years leading up to and through the Revolutionary War, he also had to research how things like military uniforms and weapons evolved to help show the progression of time. He never set out to copy any particular item or setting, but wanted to make sure that everything he was drawing at least looked like it would have existed in that time at that place.

We also had a great time talking a bit about inspiration and other superhero franchises - especially as Alexander really, really wants this series to be made into a movie some day, as Hollywood is all over comic adaptations right now. Steve brought up something I've been thinking about a lot: with the Avengers movie that they're working on, there's going to be nine movies about all different characters that will all contribute to the same continuity. Comics have, of course, been doing that for decades, but movies have never tried something that ambitious. Like Steve, I'm really excited to see how that all turns out. Also, while Alexander and Steve are 100% confident that Hollywood is ready to make a period piece superhero action movie staring two African Americans, I brought up that just a few weeks ago people were freaking out that there was a very distant possibility an African American could be cast as Spider-Man. Sure, part of that was a knee-jerk reaction to any sort of change to an establish continuity, but as the linked article also points out, it's perceived that there's "no international audience for black actors" and "we are all expected to identify with the white heterosexual male." While I think this story definitely sounds like something that could make a great film, I myself question whether it will actually happen any time soon.

On the other hand, YA books are the biggest trend in Hollywood adaptations right now. Combined with the love of superhero movies right now, maybe Sons of Liberty: The Movie will be on its way before we know it.

I definitely want to thank the Museum of Comics and Cartoon Art for hosting this event, and the entire creative team for coming out. It was incredibly interesting and I'm looking forward to finishing the graphic novel!
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