A Certain Kind of Slant: An Interview With Jerome Charyn

Literary chameleon, film professor, and ping-pong wizard are some of the labels that come to mind when thinking of American novelist Jerome Charyn, but one label that often slips people’s minds is graphic storyteller. Charyn may have no talent for drawing or painting, but that hasn’t barred him from collaborating with some of the most respected comic artists in the industry, including Francois Boucq, Jacques de Loustal, and Jose Muñoz. The recent re-release of The Magician’s Wife, published by Dover Graphic Novels, marks Charyn’s reintroduction into the American comic book world nearly thirty years after receiving the 1986 Prix Alfred Award at Angoulême for best graphic novel. Despite having many of his comics exclusively published in Europe, Charyn’s comics are written with the same love for NYC that he describes in his Bronx-centric crime fiction.

The Magician’s Wife tells the story of a woman and her turbulent relationship with a traveling Magician with powers that may go beyond simple illusion, and the lingering effects of her broken marriage. The book, masterfully brought to life by artist Francois Boucq, was released this past October and is the first of Charyn’s comics to be published by Dover, soon to be followed by the never-before translated, The Boys of Sheriff Street. Mr. Charyn was gracious enough to talk to me over Skype where we discussed the impact comics had on his early upbringing, his affinity with European artists, and where new talent in the medium may be discovered.

Matthew Laiosa: I’ve read that comics were a major part of your early education. What were some of the comics that inspired you at a young age, and how did those tastes mature into adulthood?

Jerome Charyn: Since I grew up in a very poor area of the Bronx there were very few books so I basically learned how to read from comic books. My favorite was Captain Marvel because even at an early age I felt there was something so unusual about the art. Superman was very realistic, so was Batman, but Marvel had a very strange almost surreal touch to the art and it really pulled me in. I read Donald Duck, the Disney comics, and also Classic Comics were very important to me. They took the place of books, but again the art wasn’t that interesting in the Classic Comics. It was only in Captain Marvel, and that’s why when I went to Europe and I saw some of the graphic art it was a revelation. I had never seen art of that quality in comics. It was a shock.

ML: Many consider you a great American novelist, but almost all of your comics were made in Europe. Why is that?

JC: I got involved with DC, and I did something for Paradox called Family Man, but DC was a real labyrinth. It was not an easy world to break into. I hadn’t done graphic novels here, and they didn’t really know anything about the graphic novels in Europe. There was a divorce between both worlds, and little rapport between one and the other. I offered to do a Batman, but I don’t know how good it would have been. That’s how much of a separation there was.

ML: It’s definitely improved, but some of that divorce still seems to linger considering that many of your comics have still never been translated from French to English.

JC: Most of them are coming out with Dover, and a few of them were published here earlier, but the craze for graphic novels in America is very recent. I think that the great European artists are finally being recognized, artists such as Bilal, Tardi, and Liberatore. I wanted to work with Liberatore, and at first we were going to do it, but then it was just too difficult. Anyway, I was more interested in the European artists. I did love V for Vendetta.

ML: So some of the British stuff?

JC: Yeah, the British stuff was quite good.

ML: The Magician’s Wife won the best book award at Angoulême in 1986. Do you think comics have changed much in that time in either Europe or the U.S.?

JC: I think we’ve seen a more personal approach to comics in the United States, and that’s in part because of Art Spiegelman and Raw Magazine. In fact, he won a special Pulitzer Prize. Art has done extraordinary work. He is a real author.

In France you have more of a tradition of the artist and the writer. You have some artists who do their own work, and others who work with writers, and I think you can create great art in both formats. I’m not sure whether Boucq could tell a long story on his own, but I think when he gets the right story he does extraordinary work. There’s nobody like him, nobody who has that sense of movement. It’s almost like a motion picture. It’s very powerful.

ML: After establishing yourself as a novelist for over twenty years what made you want to write The Magician’s Wife as a comic rather than a novel?

JC: I was in France, and I was interviewed by the magazine, À Suivre. It was a magazine that the Belgian publisher Casterman put out, and what it did was provide a showcase for its own artists by reprinting their graphic novels in the magazine. They happened to review one of my novels, so just out of the blue I wrote the editor of À Suivre and said, “I would love to do a comic, and can you find an artist for me?” They introduced me to Boucq, and I’d always wanted to work with Loustal, so I was able to work with Loustal. I was able to work with Muñoz, and there were others I would have worked with, but it wasn’t that easy to maneuver.

ML: Who were some of the artists you wished you had worked with?

JC: I would have liked to work with Tardi, but the occasion never arose. And there are a lot of Italian artists I would have liked to work with.

ML: Manara?

JC: Yeah. The erotic side would have been very interesting if I had done some kind of sadomasochistic story. (Laughter)

ML: So did any of your peers ever question why you were doing comics?

I think it’s a question of how you make the connection with an artist; that’s the most difficult thing to do.

JC: NO! They wanted to do it. I remember when Joyce Carol Oates read The Magician’s Wife she said she would have loved to do a graphic novel. It’s very powerful because you see the written word turned into images, and when the work is good its every bit as complicated as a novel. I think it’s a question of how you make the connection with an artist; that’s the most difficult thing to do.

ML: Even though you were writing comics for a European audience The Magician’s Wife feels quintessentially American.

JC: Yeah, all of my graphic novels in some part take place in the United States except for the one I’m doing now about Charlemagne, and what I’m going to do is see if we can get a co-production with Dark Horse, or Marvel. If it works out, I’ll have the script in English and I’ll just show some of the sample pages to Dark Horse and see what happens.

ML: What relationship does your comic Billy Budd, KGB, also illustrated by Francois Boucq, have in common with Herman Melville’s Billy Budd?

JC: I love Melville, so I wanted to find some way of using the hero of Billy Budd, KGB as some kind of Melvillian character, so the title is appropriate. I couldn’t use that title in France because the French wouldn’t have understood it. It was called Devil’s Mouth, or Bouche du Diable in French, and that’s just been reissued and it’s doing very well in France.

ML: How do you choose what stories to tell in comics and what stories to tell in prose?

Give me the location, and a few hints and I can put it together in my own way, in my own crazy way.

JC: If I remember, The Magician’s Wife was something I was going to do as a novel, and I realized that it probably wouldn’t work, so I already had the idea in mind. The graphic novel I’ve just done with Boucq, which will also be published by Dover, is called, Little Tulip, and I think it’s the best work we’ve done together. It came from an idea that Boucq had about the Gulag. It can work both ways. The idea can come from me, or from him. So if you give me something about the Gulag, and you want the hero to be an artist, then it’s not that difficult for me to put it together because I love to tell stories. Give me the location, and a few hints and I can put it together in my own way, in my own crazy way.

ML: A lot of your books exist in a sort of augmented reality. Even when you write prose it exists in an almost comic book world of extremes.

JC: I’m not interested in the quotidian, in everyday life: the raising of children, family problems, or ‘realistic stories.’ They just don’t interest me. I always have to deal with a kind of extreme. I like to work at the edge. There has to be a certain kind of slant.

ML: You have also written a few books of historical fiction. What attracts you to these different worlds?

I like heroes and villains. I like adventure, as if we’re telling children stories for adults.

JC: With historical fiction, I’m dealing with people I admire, such as Emily Dickinson and Abraham Lincoln. Johnny One-Eye was about the Revolution and George Washington. I like heroes and villains. I like adventure, as if we’re telling children stories for adults.

ML: Some argue that a comic is a kind of wannabe movie told in still images vs. moving pictures, but as a professor of film, are there certain storytelling capabilities unique to comics?

JC: That’s a good question. I think what you are able to do in a comic, let’s say that Boucq is the closest to action on the screen, but what’s unique to the medium is the stopped frame. In other words, you can stop the action and look at individual images, but you can’t do that in a movie because it exists in time. The propulsion forward is inevitable. There are only certain filmmakers who can slow down the frame, and do that with a constant skill. You look at the films today and they’re ninety-nine percent action, even the very best of them.

ML: And in comics between two panels you can fluctuate time from one second to millennia.

JC: Exactly. You can have a whole world between two panels and you can switch the landscape between the panels, which you can’t do as easily in film. But there is a real connection. Its no accident that comic book superheroes have worked so well in the cinema because it’s basically a very primitive art, and superheroes are just perfect. I’m not particularly interested in that, but in terms of the screen it works very well.

ML: You’ve written a number of non-fiction books including books on film. Have you ever been interested in writing a book on comics?

JC: Not really because I have a very distorted view of comics, and I’m not sure I would be able to tell the story accurately, and also it was like a childhood disease. I mean, there has been great work done with Batman, but that’s because the scripts are wonderful. And I’m not sure I’d be the right person to tell the history of comics.

ML: You have also written a few memoirs. For better or worse, the memoir-comic has become a popular genre within the medium. Are there any untold moments from your life you would want to tell in a comic book?

JC: I started out as an artist, and one reason why I’m so drawn to these European graphic artists is that I admired them and envied their skills. I wish I could do comics, I wish I could be a comic book artist and I could combine the novel with the image and that would be a perfect world, and then I probably would go into autobiography or I would range anywhere I wanted, but I don’t have the gift. I started out as an artist, and I have no talent whatsoever.

ML: You started as a painter right?

JC: Yeah, and there’s nothing I can do about it. On the other hand I’ve done some work for television and I thought I would be so pleased when I was able to hear the dialogue that I had written when it was on the TV screen, but it didn’t do anything for me at all. However, when I did Little Tulip, and saw what Boucq had done with the story, it was completely magical.

ML: What makes Boucq’s art so extraordinary?

JC: If he doesn’t have a good story you’re not going to get a good graphic novel, but if you give him a good story he is going to do a great comic because he can do anything. He can be satirical. He can be lyrical. He can be brutal. He has that gift, and that’s why it works.

ML: I think by being someone traditionally considered outside of comics you have a ‘rules-need-not-apply’ attitude. Do you think the comic book medium could benefit with greater participation from other novelists and/or storytellers outside of the medium? And if so what writer would you most like to see enter the comic book field?

JC: I would say rather than novelists, screenwriters would fit closer with the idea of writing scripts for graphic novels, but since they earn so much money working in film I’m not sure they would want to work in graphic novels. In the future, if someone like Tarantino came along, he would be able to do extraordinary work in the graphic novel. His films are almost like graphic novels in motion.

ML: You mentioned Joyce Carol Oates’ enthusiasm and interest in writing her own comic book, so what keeps her, or say someone like a Don DeLillo from scripting a comic book?

It’s not meant to be realistic. One reason why I love Krazy Kat is that the landscape changes from panel to panel and you never knew where you are going to be next

JC: It would be great if Don did a graphic novel, and maybe if he expressed a wish to do it I’m sure it would be done. I don’t know how interested he would be. I’d have to ask him. Remember it’s special to me because I grew up in this world and it’s how I learned to read. Also, if you look at my writing, it is very related to the graphic novel. The movement from sentence to sentence is like a graphic novel, and this is maybe why certain readers have such difficulty because it’s not realistic. It’s not meant to be realistic. One reason why I love Krazy Kat is that the landscape changes from panel to panel and you never knew where you are going to be next

ML: It’s more dreamlike.

JC: Yeah.

ML: I believe comics have the most potential for breaking new ground in changing the way stories are told, especially when you look at work such as Chris Ware’s, Building Stories, which uses fourteen separate printed components in order to tell a single story that can be read in any order. Where do you see the future of the book and where do you see the future of the comic book?

JC: First of all, you have very young readers who are growing up in a world with images and they’ll be able to deal with all the complexities. Now you need the genius to go along with the vision, and that’s always hard to deliver. You can’t tell where genius will come from. It could be a painter who turns to graphic novels, or it could be a songwriter. I would love to see a graphic novel with a story by Bob Dylan. It would be incredible. As far as books are concerned, it’s very difficult to say where the future lies. I don’t think anybody knows.

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