TW Author Interview by Martha Nichols
How Three Comic Book Lovers Weave a Story Together
New York City, 1942. Evelyn comes to live with her bohemian aunt, who is none too pleased to play mom to a grade-school kid. Lonely Evelyn draws her own comics to help cope with her absent parents. But once she befriends Tony, the son of the janitor of their apartment building, things get a LOT more exciting…
Ever wonder how you create a graphic novel?
I was immediately hooked by Pascal Dizin’s art in City of Spies (First Second Books, 2010). Yet the graphics weren’t the only reason this became our featured book for the issue. The story by Susan Kim and Laurence Klavan appealed to me, too.
Pascal says Hergé, creator of the Tintin comics, was his main source—”probably obviously”—although he also looked at the work of Yves Chaland, Daniel Torres, and other comic artists influenced by Hergé.
Pascal told me by email that he drew Evelyn’s own comics in a cartoonier style:
[They were] based more on comics Evelyn herself would have been reading in the 1940s, like C.C. Beck’s Captain Marvel work, gag comic artists such as Roy Nelson, and Casper the Friendly Ghost.”
In November 2010, I interviewed the authors of City of Spies about the storyline, the historical setting, and their collaborative work process. As with their creative projects, Susan and Laurence worked together to determine which one of them would answer each of the questions I’d sent.
TW: For both of you, this is your first graphic novel. Why did you decide to try your hand at writing a comic book story?
Laurence: The decision, in a sense, was made for us. We originally wrote City of Spies—and our other graphic novel, Brain Camp—as screenplays. An agent suggested they would make good graphic novels and, much to our amazement, she actually sold them.
TW: You both have experience as playwrights and screenwriters. Did this help you in writing a graphic novel? If so, in what ways?
Susan: It certainly helped that we’re both playwrights and screenwriters, even though those two forms are surprisingly different. Writing plays is relatively organic and touchy-feely: You put imaginary characters in a situation and wait to hear what they say.
Screenwriting, on the other hand, is a lot stricter. Most follow a three-act structure; everything builds on what went before it. So while we very much wanted a strong personal journey for Evelyn, our heroine, we also spent a lot of time figuring out a three-act structure that would give each character depth and a believable arc, while building suspense as well.
Laurence has written mystery novels, and of course that helped, because it’s such a story-driven form. But then again, so is children’s TV, for which I’ve written a lot. Basically, we have overlapping but slightly different talents as writers, and that was the most useful thing of all.
TW: Did you come up with the idea for City of Spies together—and how did the project develop? What was your process for writing the story as a duo?
Susan: We actually came up with the idea over dinner. An elderly friend of mine had told me a funny anecdote: When she was a little girl living in New York City in the early 1940s, she and her cousin were obsessed by reports of Nazi spies and would wander around trying to find them. I mentioned this to Laurence, and he immediately said, “That would make a great movie.”
Our first impulse was to make it a “boy cried wolf” story—a girl gets in trouble pretending to find spies and then nobody believes her when she actually finds some. But what intrigued us more was the idea of layering in her personal story as well. We worked out most of the plot very roughly that night, jotting down notes on the paper tablecloth.
As for the actual process, we spent weeks just free-associating about the story. Laurence would type up all our notes, and we’d go through them, find problems, add detail, and start building it into an outline. After about three outline drafts, we started writing. Each of us wrote alternating scenes; then we’d swap documents and rewrite the other’s material. When the draft was finished, we sat down together and ripped through it again before rewriting separately. We each took turns doing a full pass at it. Then we finally sat down and tweaked it together, line by line. It was such a purely fifty-fifty collaboration, even we can’t remember who came up with what.
TW: How involved was Pascal, the visual artist, with developing the story?
Laurence: The script was already finished by the time Pascal came aboard, but his excellent illustrations brought it to life, gave it character, and made it work, much in the way a score makes a musical work. And he did question and help improve parts of the story—in terms of plausibility—along the way.
TW: The audience for graphic novels often spans age groups, and City of Spies includes some “risky” material (for example, Holly-Golightly-esque Aunt Lia, with her nude models and drinking pals). What age group did you target in writing City of Spies?
Laurence: We always felt it was for mature kids from ten up, but we also wanted adults to read it. That being said, we were asked to change certain things to make it more “age appropriate.” Pascal reduced the blood in a shooting scene. And, at one point, we had a derelict urinating on a wall. Now, he’s drawing on it. I’d like to say we fought to retain these things, but we basically knuckled under.
TW: This is a historical novel, in many ways, set during World War II, and with artistic and story references to everything from It’s a Wonderful Life to Tintin. Why did you want to write a graphic novel set in this time period?
Laurence: Susan and I have always liked the ’40s, admittedly mostly as they’re comfortingly refracted through old movies: the slang, the fashion, the music, all of it. Using the period allowed us to essentially invent a world that also had a basis in fact.
And since we’re New Yorkers, we had the pleasure of recreating the city before it was the corporate theme park it’s largely become. (Plus, we knew that World War II had a happy ending, so that made it a safe story for kids—and for us, too.)
Susan: As for the clear nod to Tintin, that was very much the decision of our wonderful artist. Pascal felt it was the perfect way to visualize our story, and we couldn’t agree more.
TW: The plotline involving the young protagonists’ often misguided search for Nazi spies could be read as a reference to contemporary hysteria about terrorists, especially with the NYC setting. Did you intend the story to resonate with today’s readers that way?
Laurence: We started the script around the time of 9/11 (that tells you how long these things take). Unconsciously and consciously, we knew it was connected; maybe we hoped writing a story in which a child defeats an enemy among us would ease our own panic. Not that it did, but it was worth a try!
TW: This is also a coming-of-age story, as young Evelyn gets in touch with her own artistic impulses and Jewish background. How much of a story about identity did you mean this to be?
Susan: Well, most stories about growing up have to do on some level with learning who you are and how you fit into your world. So yes, we always intended this to be a book about identity. Certainly, art is a huge part of Evelyn’s life. It’s not only her hobby and passion, it helps her sort through her own feelings, helps her form an immediate bond with Tony, and gives her a very real connection to both her aunt and her late mother.
Similarly, her Jewishness (and she comes from a very secularized Jewish family) becomes a way for her to understand more not just about her family but also how she is affected by world events.
TW: I love the comics Evelyn draws herself and how much they reveal about who she is. Where did you get the idea for the comic-book-within-a-comic-book—the panels involving Zirconium Man and Scooter?
Laurence: We wanted another plane for Evelyn to exist on so we could chart her progress as an artist (and maybe relive our own as kids). Also, it gave us an active and dramatic way to show her growing detachment from her indifferent father (represented by the superhero in her comic) and how she learns to act alone—her growing up, in other words.
TW: At its core, City of Spies is an ode to classic comic books and the identity quests they’ve represented for so many kids from World War II onward. Were you both comic book readers as children? What are your favorite classic comic books and characters?
Susan: We both loved comic books when we were young and favored the usual Action, Marvel, and DC superheroes: Superman, Batman, Green Lantern. As a young girl with two older brothers, I was keenly aware of gender imbalance and very much sought out any comic books that featured superheroines: Wonder Woman, the Fantastic Four, even Supergirl.
At the corner store near my elementary school, new comics were always displayed toward the back on a spinning metal rack; we’d surreptitiously try to read them before the owner kicked us out. We also loved not only daily comic strips (Peanuts, especially, was a huge part of our childhood) but also spent hours puzzling over “grownup cartoons” in the New Yorker (Charles Addams was my favorite).
Laurence: As a kid, I had a neighbor with a basement full of “Classics Illustrated” comics. I can still remember the musty smell. So I first read Treasure Island, Oliver Twist, and other great novels in comic form. As for other comics, I can still recall the pain I felt waking up from a dream in which I got the first Superman and then realizing it wasn’t true. I read them all and only drew the line at Little Archie.
Susan Kim is a playwright and documentary writer, and has written for more than three dozen children’s TV series, including Are You Afraid of the Dark? She has received five Emmy nominations. Susan teaches dramatic writing at Goddard College in Vermont.
Laurence Klavan wrote the novels The Cutting Room and The Shooting Script (both published by Ballantine Books) and won the Edgar Award under a pseudonym. He wrote the libretto for the Obie Award-winning musical Bed and Sofa and has also written screenplays and teleplays.
Pascal Dizin studied cartooning at the School of Visual Arts in New York, where he received the Rhodes Family Award for Outstanding Achievement in Cartooning. City of Spies is his first graphic novel.
You can see more of Pascal’s work at his website. He writes of himself there: “Pascal Dizin grew up in a small town on the West Coast, where he aspired to be either a comic book artist, a secret agent, or Woody Allen.”
Plant you now, dig you later.