The story behind the writing of my graphic novel, The Wake-Up Call, comes from three sources, which I wrestled into shape over a long period of time. I wrote a short story, or long monologue combining them 30 years ago; then changed and reworked it recently – during the year of COVID lockdown – to come up with the current incarnation.
The first source is based on a true story, that of a slumlord being forced by a judge to live in his own tenement apartment for 30 days, as part of his sentence for being convicted of building violations. This happened many years ago, I think in LA, and then again in Santa Barbara 15 or 20 years ago.
I combined that idea with a story a friend told me, an ER Doc I worked with in Santa Monica in the early 80’s. He’d been in the Air Force, stationed in the Philippines, and told me the rat story actually happened to a friend of a friend of his in the barracks – the rat story that forms the core of The Wake-Up Call. “Friend of a friend” stories are usually urban legends, but I never heard that story again, anywhere else, so I just filed it away as a cool tale.
And the last idea I incorporated arose out of a 1964 movie, The Pawnbroker, starring Rod Steiger. He plays a Holocaust survivor who’s lost all faith in humanity. There’s a scene at the end (spoiler alert) where he slowly, consciously, pushes his hand down on a receipt nail in his pawnshop – just to be able to feel something again.
So I took those three visual/narrative/thematic elements and wove them together into the story that became my graphic novel. A story about a self-satisfied man forced to face himself one long, dark night of the soul, and how he emerges with a glimmer of hope about the possibility of change. It’s a story about the masks we wear to cover our own inner truths, the lies we tell ourselves to justify our daily behavior. It echoes, for me, old Twilight Zone episodes – both narratively and tonally – as well as Poe short stories, like the Tell-Tale Heart. The power of the mind to punish ourselves for the things we feel guilty of.
It wasn’t going to be a novel initially. I was either going to package it together with several other short stories I’ve written, into a collection; or possibly a photo-montage video, which I would narrate to a series of evocative pictures. I’ve done that with a couple other narrative monologues I’ve written, such as Murphy at War, which you can see here: https://youtu.be/Q99DOk-Sdts
Not sure how the idea of making it a graphic novel came up. Might have been a suggestion of my wife, Jill, just tossing ideas around with her. I’d been a fan of graphic novels ever since Watchmen first came out, but I can’t draw the kinds of illustrations I saw in my head. On the other hand, that made me realize was I was, in fact, seeing illustrations in my head. So I decided to find an illustrator.
I went to a freelancer platform, Guru.com, and just started scanning all the graphic illustrators who showed their work there. The one I really liked, Sebastian Kesiak, was Polish, and living there. I’d always loved the Polish animators whose work I’d watched at animation festivals – there was a darkness and a kind of “off-ness” that matched the mood of my writing this story.
So I contracted with Sebastian. I referenced some of the illustrations on his site as conforming to the tone and style I was looking for. Then I decided which images in my story I wanted illustrated – around 40 in all – and sent him the list, with my ideas of how they should look, what should be foreground, what the POV should be. He would do a first draft, send it to me, and I’d give him notes – change this, lose this, love this, focus on this. Then he’d send a final draft, and move on to the next. It was not a short process.
Once I had all his illustrations, I connected with Annie Gallup, a singer-songwriter and the graphic designer who’d previously designed some of my CD covers and one of my book covers. I told her which pieces of text I wanted accompanied by which illustration and she composed the pages in that sequence. Then I told her what artifacts I wanted strewn across some of the blank areas on pages with limited text. Sometimes I had specific ideas – shattered glass shards on the first page, to match the text and to give a feeling for tone. And I knew I wanted that iconic photo of Eichmann from newspapers of the time.
Sometimes I had general ideas – like find some thing that a man who likes to indulge himself would have – and she came up with the fancy toiletries packet. Sometimes I wanted artifacts that illustrated the text, and sometimes that illustrated the subtext. For example when we hear the man thinking “these people” don’t care about themselves, so why should he – I asked Annie to come up with something that showed how proud they actually were of themselves, to show some kind of nobility. She came up with the Proud Parents of a US Marine bumper sticker.
And sometimes we came up with artifacts to help tell the meta-story – Annie came up with the image of the man’s fancy shoe at the beginning, then I suggested she find a dirty sneaker for the boy at the end.
While we were working on that, it turned out that Sebastian, in addition to illustration, also does simple animation – his day job is video game graphics – so I hired him to do an animated short video of the novel, with me narrating the text – which was one of the things I first imagined doing with the story. I did the narration at David West’s small local music studio where I record all my music, Play Ball Studios.
And then finally I asked Melissa Burch, a book designer and media promoter who I worked with on my last novel to format this book and interface with Amazon/Kindle to publish, print, release it, and do some promotion; and Jeanette Lundgren (Mother Hen Promotions), the social media maven I’ve worked with for years on both music and book promotion, to spread the word on all the platforms she uses, to help get eyes on the finished work.
So it was a very collaborative project. It’s rarely worked out for me, in the past, to collaborate on writing projects, per se, with other writers. But collaborating across media has been a really satisfying experience, and this graphic novel would certainly not have been possible without all the help and input from those people.
The book is in release, on Amazon, at https://amzn.to/2RnMPxL
I’ll be sending the animation to festivals soon.