A new book about the comics industry is nearly as epic as the field’s history itself. Featuring over 50 cartoonists captured in interviews and photos, Christopher Irving and Seth Kushner’s Leaping Tall Buildings The Origin of American Comics, from PowerHouse Books, weaves a narrative about working in the comics field through the eyes of a diverse array of creators, among them cartoonists Al Jaffee, Chris Ware, Jim Shooter, Dan Didio, Jessica Abel, and many more.
The project began when photographer Kushner met cartoonist Dean Haspiel while working on his photography book, The Brooklynites. During a photo shoot, Haspiel asked if Kushner had ever thought about doing a book on the comics world. Kushner, a life-long comics fan, was definitely interested, and they arranged to talk about the idea after Kushner finished work on his book.
Together they conceived the idea for a simple photography book about the New York City comics scene, and Kushner began work on that with Haspiel as the inaugural subject. “I wanted to have a new approach from photos I had done in other books and other editorial projects,” Kushner said. “I wanted it to be about not so much the cartoonist and their work space and more about an environmental portrait of the creator in a place that recalled their work in some way. I did Dean’s almost like a beta test to see how it looks, do one, and take it from there.”
By coincidence, Haspiel also met writer Irving when he was working on a book about Haspiel. At that time, he was working a full time job in Richmond, Va., and taking a self-imposed break from writing about comics, when he saw Kushner’s photos on Haspiel’s blog and immediately emailed to inquire about the project.
Irving and Kushner were soon working together. Kushner credits Irving with making the book something more complex. “Originally it was much less ambitious, it would literally be a photograph and maybe a blurb,” Kushner said. “It was more of a photo book than the big narrative it became. Frankly, the original idea, in retrospect, wasn’t that fascinating, so I’m glad it became something more and more important.”
“One thing I was very against was having it just be a book of pictures with minimal biographical info,” Irving said. “I felt like something that really gives a sense of that individual, which was exactly what Seth was capturing in his photography. I wanted the writing to match.”
As the work progressed, so did the conception of the book. No longer focusing just on New York City, the team had widened their scope of subject matter. They had also begun presenting some of their work-in-progress regularly as the blog called Graphic NYC.
“One of the best bits of advice we had was to just put it online, because that will help us build an audience, which will help us sell the book,” Irving said. “We started this in January 2008, check the Dash Shaw piece because he’s the first one we put up. We started thinking, oh, this is going to take us a year, we’ll do one profile a week, and it just kind of blew up on us. We decided to make Graphic NYC more of a regular site.”
“We’ll post updates in regards to Leaping Tall Buildings, because we do have that audience and do want to let them know that we are still thinking about them. They’re the reason we were able to do the book. Honestly, that audience has really helped keep us going and motivated.”
For Kushner, the work meant doing exactly what a comic book does — expressing ideas visually. With masters of the comic book form as his subjects, the portraits could turn into collaborations. An uneventful meeting with Art Spiegelman became a dynamic partnership of the moment once Spiegelman began helping to craft the portrait on the roof of his studio.
“I wasn’t getting the ultimate Art Spiegelman portrait that I required,” said Kushner. “And I said that maybe we could try something else and he said, ‘I have an idea,’ and he picked up a piece of chalk that was laying on the roof and he drew the Maus version of himself. It was awesome. He just sat there, and he was smoking, and I knew this is the ultimate Art Spiegelman photo for me.”
In photographing Kim Deitch, Kushner made use of the complexity of the creator’s face with a bit of personal lore included. “He’s really a fascinating guy and a fascinating looking guy,” Kushner said. “On the left side of his face, there’s his character Waldo. He has a collection of these black stuffed cats from way back when and that one next to him is the actual black cat who inspired the original Waldo character.”
The book also gave Kushner the chance to meet some of his heroes, like Brian Michael Bendis, whose personality dove heartily into Kushner’s visual concept of a Marvel Universe New York City.
“I put him in the spot that felt like the most Marvel Universe to me without using the Empire State Building,” said Kushner. “The Flat Iron Building is a stand in for the Daily Bugle building in the Spider Man movies and so I had him meet me there. He immediately got the reasoning for that. Most of the photos are pretty serious in the book. His is not, his is playful. He just started mugging and doing these things. It was great. I have frame by frame of him doing different poses. I like the larger than life aspect of this photo. I was down low and it’s almost like Godzilla attacking New York.”
To promote the book, the team plans on readings and appearances — Irving hopes to be at Heroes Con, with more announcements to come. He’s also worked on a series of video interviews of the book subjects. The best publicity they could get, though, probably comes from their work following the book.
The work on the website and book also gave each of them a chance to broaden their own enthusiasm and expertise into further ventures. For Irving, this has meant the launch of the Drawn Word, a digital magazine that expands his footprint in the world of comics journalism.
“I learned a lot about myself as a writer. I learned a lot about putting something online on a regular basis, in doing Graphic NYC,” said Irving. “I learned a lot about collaboration. It did prove to me that there is an audience beyond the established comics fan for this type of material, and it did prove that there is a desire for this type of approach when it comes to treatment of comic book figures, creators, artists, writers. I took a little bit of what I knew with a little bit of what I’d proven to myself with Graphic NYC.”
For Kushner, the experience has invited opportunities to create work in a format that he’s always loved, but never quite had the appropriate output. He started doing work for Haspiel’s Trip City website, including a non-fiction photo comic called CulturePop Photo Comix and script work on the web comic Schmuck.
“I always felt like comics were some other thing that would never happen and could never end up being a thing,” he said. “Some of my friends who were cartoonists encouraged me to find my voice and make photos. I can’t draw well, but I can tell stories and I can take pictures and so I ended up doing profiles of interesting people but in comic form, using their quotes as narrative facts. It’s one of my loves, so it’s really great just to do it, just to see something that I’ve written or that I’ve photographed in a comic.”