Back to El Empresa

OK, I’ve started a blog. 18 of you have already read it. (Thanks, Joyce!) I’ve written a short story. I feel good. Now, back to this graphic novel script.

First, a primer: graphic novels are neither novels nor are they necessarily graphic, in the sense of having extreme violence or sexual content. They are comic books, either serials that have been published in a single bound volume, or stand-alone, long-format stories written and drawn as a comic. You might see a graphic novel of last year’s Amazing Spider-Man, or you might see Will Eisner’s Contract With God trilogy. In the case of most of the super-hero comics published by the “Big Two” (Marvel and DC Comics), the story is written in script format for editors and artists—assigned by the publisher, generally—to execute. I say artists, plural, because it’s like a movie: you know those scrolling end credits with the key grip and first assistant caterer’s hairdresser, and so forth? Comics are a bit like that: they’ve become specialized. You have pencillers, inkers, letterers, and colorists. To say nothing of the editors who manage the whole project.

In indie (small press, or self-published) comics, the author is all of these.

I’ve tried that. I’ll probably do it again, even.But not now. Here’s where I describe the current project.

The graphic novel I’m working on, tentatively titled Wayward Sister, or the Adventures of Coyote Don (I’ll be referring to Wayward Sister or WS for short), has been outlined many times, and begun many times more, in different genres. It has been a short story. It has been a picaresque series. It has been a novel. It has been a puppet show (!), and I had at one point wrestled with the prospect of drawing myself it as a graphic novel.

The story has mutated, as stories do, but has it’s genesis in a three month long European backpacking trip I took in 1998. This story is twelve years old, and it’s the perfect longer project for me to grapple with right now. In fact, it’s the only project for me to write, because it’s the only story I’ve wanted to tell. Twelve years is a long wait to scratch an itch. It’s the closest I’ve come to an obsession. And readers who know me will be mildly surprised at the image of the excessively deliberate Zak Nelson having anything resembling an obsession. Well, my friends, I’ve put it on ice for far too long, and it’s time to feed and water the beast.

In my leather bound journal from that fateful and magical trip, in which I visited many countries, met many people, let my imagination run rampant, and let the pages fill up with tidbits, recollections, musings, brickbats, sketches and doodles, photos and phone numbers, ticket stubs and wrappers kept as mementos and descriptions or sketches of various things that struck me as interesting or ironic during those three months. At one point I had filled up the journal, and in Seville, in the gift shop at the royal Alcázar, I purchased a new, slimmer journal, slightly larger, decorated in a Moorish tile pattern.

It was in this latter journal that I sketched Prague. I know it’s a cliché but believe me, if you’ve been to Prague, you know that sketching is about the most natural thing to do there. Doesn’t matter if a million people had done it before and would do it after—this, I sense is a theme for me and a lot of people, the seemingly hopeless desire to be different as a creator—and it doesn’t matter that there on the Charles Bridge are a dozen artists hawking their cookie cutter sketches and photographs of the exact same images as the one you are feebly trying to recreate in your journal. Prague is just that kind of city. Kafka could be from nowhere else.The golem could have arisen nowhere else. A poet and playwright could have become president nowhere else.

So: the story. In my journal you’ll find a series of moody sketches in angry black rollerball ink, lots of crosshatching and some kind of attempt to evoke an old woodcut engraving. The trapezoidal roofs with impalable spires, the mystical and cartoony clock tower, the full moon in every picture, the castle looming always somewhere in the background. Then there was Vienna, too. The old Dungeons & Dragons fantasy geek in me was outed at the museum of arms and armor at the Hofburg Palace. I think the story grew out of a hybrid of medieval Hapsburg Austria and the sinister and gloomy Prague.

The story was about a mythical knight/hunter who was summoned by a king to battle a nameless evil that was sweeping the countryside. After the adventure, the knight is retired into some liminal hibernation, to rest until summoned again by the call of that Nameless Evil. Flash forward to Orange County, California, 1998. Progress has turned ugly, and suburban sprawl is killing a beautiful land. The knight is summoned. To do battle, he needs help, and chooses as his sidekick a surly suburban teenager. Here is where I thought the story got its twist: so far it’s a simple call-to-adventure story, right? The boy gets involved, gets pulled out of his protective shell into a magical world of real danger and is transformed or somehow grows up as a result…right? Nope, not me. I want it to seem that way at first, but I want the kid to resist the call to adventure. Sure, that happens, but eventually he’ll accept his destiny (ahem, paging Mr. Skywalker?) and help the old knight out, right? Wrong! Because the boy is the tumor, the physical manifestation of that nameless evil. He was raised in this environment and the sprawl is a part of him. Anything weird or magical scares him. But instead of responding to that fear in a way that tosses him into the mix and makes him a hero, he pushes back, harder and harder each time. Until, at the climax, it becomes apparent that the knight must battle the kid, too.

Heady stuff.

And way too contrived.

Mind you, I was only two years into college, two years away from the place I grew up and the place I left, the place I had to rail against. A lot has changed since then. I’ve changed, mostly. I don’t hate Orange County as much as I used to, though I try. Sure, it’s a land swarming with waspy Republicans and a culture that worships the shopping mall. But it’s nice there, and there’s the beach, the mountains, the canyons, and frankly, plenty of good people doing good things. Yep, I’m sorry, but I’ve grown up in the last twelve years, and so the story has changed.

But it hasn’t left me.

Now: I’ve long since abandoned every vestigial European remnant of this story. How—why?—would a knight get to Orange County anyway? Besides, it’s the wrong kind of fish out of water. There has to be some kind of cultural resonance. You can’t drop a Gypsy song rooted in some Phrygian minor scale into a setting so sunny and capitalistic. I mean, you could, but then you’re working too hard at that part of the story. You have to clip the budding flower to let the plant grow its leaves.

What I came up with was this: a homeless man, who thinks he’s a real cowboy.

And yes, I still have at the core of my story the template that is the mother of all templates: Don Quixote de la Mancha.

Here’s where things get interesting. Once I alighted on the cowboy thing, a lot of other things started falling into place. His name? Coyote Don, of course. A former B-list actor in an early 1970s television Western, at a time when Westerns had long since fallen out of favor (his sidekick in the show was…wait for it…Pancho Sanchez). I set the story in my own Hannibal: the quasi-fictional town of El Empresa (the company, or enterprise). But wait. It gets better. My parents lived—still live—in a condo development sandwiched between the freeway and a golf course called…wait for it…The La Manchas. I kid you not. Every street (driveways, really) is named after a character from Don Quixote: Dulcinea. Rocinante. Anselmo. Lucinda.

Heady stuff. And still contrived, but in a deliriously brilliant way: I didn’t make this stuff up! I just had to put the pieces together.

Enter my own Nameless Evil: procrastination. And my stubborn refusal to write the thing. To do the work. To flesh out the details. Life and jobs kept getting in the way, and were a perfectly vogue excuse to not write. Besides, I wasn’t a Writer. I had no commitment, no skin in the game. No need to really write. Sure, I had bouts of inspiration over the years, where I’d dust off the story—what had become the Story—and try to start it all over again.

I remember one time, working at Shakespeare & Company Bookstore, on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley, a local celebrity and one of my own inspirations walked into the store. Michael Chabon, the author, and his wife Ayelet Waldman, the author, both poured into the shop like a liquid, quietly and quickly spreading out and filling the aisles, making a thorough investigation of the walls and shelves and dusty undiscovered worlds. It was during a period of relative inspiration for me, as I was trying to write the Story as a novel for the first time. And I had just read the Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, a book that had so resounded with me, a book about comics.

Julian, my coworker, nudged me to go ahead and talk to him. This was before I became a book publicist and authors became something a bit less than holy. I approached Chabon, and asked with a gulp if he needed help finding anything. He looked up—he was in the fiction section of course—and smiled and said no thanks. Without missing a beat—I knew the shelves and the location of inventory well, even in the fiction section, which I wasn’t senior enough to be allowed to shelve—I reached back and without looking pulled a paperback copy of Kavalier and Clay off the shelf and presented it to its author. “Then would you mind, when you have a moment, signing this book?”

He did, when he came up to the counter later. Ayelet started asking me if we had any books about Montreal in the 1930s, about bootlegging, about halfway houses for girls during that time, or about health care in Canada at that time. I suggested—maybe too quickly—a library. She smiled tightly, but the twinkle in her eyes told me that she knew I wasn’t being mean-spirited. Well if you come across anything, she said, and handed me her card. Mommy Track Mysteries. A cow jumping over a moon. I looked up, both excited at the invitation and eager to not let the moment slip by. I looked at Chabon and told him something like, “I love your work. I’m a big fan. I collect comics too…”

Yikes! He smirked politely (how is that possible?). I tried again: “I’m working on a novel. It’s my first. I’m not sure how. I’ve got a sense of it. I’ve written an outline. Chapter by chapter [this was a lie]. Any, uh, advice?”

Chabon smiled and said, as he started to leave, “sounds about right. Good luck!”

I knew they were local. I would see him from time to time around town. At Sunday Brunch with their kids at the Thai Cultural Center in Berkeley. On BART. Once or twice again in the bookstore. But I never had the balls to speak up again. Besides, it was rude, let the man have his privacy.

It was too bad. I desperately needed encouragement in order to continue writing. It was too much work, I lacked the discipline, and I was in my mid twenties, living the life of a twenty-something in the Bay Area. I was busy. And writing was something that I liked the idea of, but hated to actually do. Didn’t matter if I was good at it. It was work, and it was frivolous. I was too serious, too deliberate to let myself be a starving artist.

So Coyote Don foundered—no, not floundered, like a flopping fish—he sank. He was always there, in the back of my head. The attempts to write or draw him certainly helped keep him on life support: each time, the story and the characters matured a bit. Each time I gave them some thought, they were there for me, ready to be interviewed. I asked them questions in my head, they answered. Or they said they’d get back to me. But I learned how to draw them. And they taught me lessons, pulling me away occasionally from assumptions that came too easily. They weren’t who I thought they were at first: not Coyote Don certainly, but also not Jeremy (the boy), nor Sal (the Dulcinea character). Things weren’t so tidy in Cervantes’ world, and they weren’t tidy in mine either. These characters had lives when I wasn’t looking. They grew as I grew, and when I turned around to find them, expecting them to be just as I remembered them, they surprised me. But though they’ve changed, they are still the same people.

And I’m ready to introduce them. They need a bit of a social life.

I’ve come back to the Story now and again. As a novel, a comic, a puppet show, and now as the script for what I think will be an excellent graphic novel. Maybe this script is just my outline though. Maybe it’s a way I’ve tricked myself into outlining every chapter of what will someday be an actual novel, as I told Michael Chabon I had done. In any case, I’m doing my due diligence, and writing the damn thing through.

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