Thursday, April 14, 2011

HAIKU STORYTELLING: A Conversation with Deborah Vankin

My friend and colleague Deborah Vankin has had quite a week with numerous appearances and interviews surrounding the publication yesterday of her first graphic novel Poseurs. Set in the illusion-heavy netherworld of the L.A. nightlife circuit – something she knows quite well after covering it for over a decade for the L.A. Weekly and the L.A. Times (read her controversial feature on Koreatown here) – the surreal and quick-witted book follows the intertwining stories and urban adventures of three young Angelenos: Jenna, a mixed-race proto-bohemian from Echo Park with ambitions toward photography and a horny cougar mom; Pouri, a vivacious but damaged Thai latchkey kid (here called a “parachute kid”) from Arcadia with plenty of time and money and no parental oversight; and Mac, a backwards-baseball-hatted Valley white boy who hides behind incomprehensible hipster slang (“Mirthquake,” “Rexy Crawler,” “Youniverse”) as a protective shell.

Hilarious hijinks and self-discovery ensue, with brief noirish stops in the darker corners of Tinseltown. We won’t give away any spoilers but the plot is more complex and multi-layered than any book for Young Adult market has a right to be. L.A. artist Rick Mays combines Manga influences with the crisp black-and-white definitions of 1980s commercial artists like Nagel; this along with Vankin’s cheeky sense of humor, vanguard take on modern language and frequent breaks in the hallowed Fourth Wall (characters comment on the action directly to the reader) creates a beautiful deception that she says “could only happen in Los Angeles.”

Vankin, who is orignally from Philadelphia, is already working on a sequel that she says was halfway plotted out when she was writing the last page of Poseurs. “It’s a year later, the three main characters are seniors, there’s some new characters” is all she will divulge before adding: “Instead of poking fun of the nightlife world, this is more of a play on the tabloid-journalism world.”

We sat down recently with Miss V at a conspicuously quiet Chinese restaurant to discuss how, in the age of the podcast and 24-hour news cycle, she managed to find any time at all to write anything.

THE BEAST: So Deb, you’ve already done a bunch of comic-book panels in L.A. and San Francisco. What’s the reaction to Poseurs and who is reacting to it?
DEBORAH VANKIN: I went to WonderCon last weekend and some middle-aged guy walked up to the signing and was like, ‘I would like to buy your book’ very straightforward like that, and I went, ‘Really?’ That’s the joke of this book: It’s written for teen girls but so far the people who are buying it are like nerdish thirtysomething-type guys. [laughter] So you can’t choose your audience, but so far it’s resonated with dudes in their mid 30s who are channeling their inner teenage girls.

I mean, the plot and the interlocking stories make the book more complex than I thought it would be. How did you start on this long road to crafting it?
It was originally supposed to be a Minx book, which was a series from D.C. Comics that was aimed at teen girls. I picked the backdrop of the L.A. nightlife scene because I thought that would appeal to them, but just because it was for teen girls didn’t mean that I had to talk down to them. I felt like there was an opportunity to be deep and complex and layered. I mean, kids are so much smarter and sophisticated people give them credit for, and there was no reason the characters could be multi-faceted and sophisticated. Even though the story is about L.A. nightlife on the surface, is really a story universal to all teenage girls: self acceptance, the search for identity, finding your place in the world—your "tribe" so to speak. All the characters have a tribe they are a part of. Jenna, for example, is half Jewish and half Cherokee, Pouri finds her tribe in the nightlife world and Mac defines his world by language because he doesn’t want the world to define him. So that was a very conscious effort, and that would be the infrastructure for the characters personal journeys. I sort of developed them from the inside-out rather than the outside-in.

What do you mean?
In the sense that the characters themselves generated the story. First, you come up with a backdrop and sort of high concept. You decide what world you want to penetrate – Food trucks? Underground art events? Nightlife? – and you find a stage that’s textured and colorful and provides an opportunity for drama to ensue. Then you choose your sort of high-concept jumping-off point and that’s the skeletal structure that you hang the story on. Those things felt very artificial to me, almost like building a theatrical set. Once I had my characters, it became more organic. But it was a very long process germinating in the back of my mind…

There was no “eureka!” moment there?
Ohmigod no! The characters went through several names, ethnicities and identity crises. Rick drew six or seven different versions of each character and then, partially influenced by his designs, I would change the internal structure of the characters. All of this was done even before we had written a word of the script. That’s particular to D.C. Comics to develop the characters so heavily before you start writing the story. My editor Shelly Bond, who is truly a genius, had me fill out one of those old 50’s-style black and white spiral notebooks. I literally went though magazines and cut out images that I saw that rounded out each of the characters and pasted them in the notebook. I came up with iPod playlists that they would listen to, what kind of house they lived in, what kind of clothes they were into, what was in their bedroom top drawer…

“What’s in your refrigerator?”
That was one of them, yes. And I thought it was the stupidest exercise in the beginning and I really resisted doing it. Here I am a journalist of ten years writing art and culture stories and I’m spending my weekends making character collages! I found that through that process the characters really emerged for me, and I built and built until I had very rich backstories for all of them. Rick and I spent two months developing our characters back and forth that way and when we finally met we had the visual representation and the internal landscape of these characters and we were ready to start writing. And it just flowed from there. If anything I felt hemmed in a little bit by having to tell the story in a limited number of panels per page and a limited number of dialogue bubbles per panel, so it’s very much like a mathematic equation. It's like writing a novel in haiku form. You need to be very lean and direct in what you include and when you’re trying to do that on multiple levels it's really hard.

Most of the reviews thus far for Poseurs focus on that tag line “Party Noir.” How would you describe that term to the uninitiated?
A joke. [laughter] Image originally wanted to put that on over the bar code on the back where it names the book’s genre but we didn’t want to be too cutesy. I came up with the phrase because the whole idea of “poseurs” is that things aren’t what they seem. The L.A. party scene is bubbly and glittery on the surface but there’s this darker underbelly that’s sort of intriguing and pulls people into situations where it’s easy to cross the line and get in over their heads and maybe come out stronger as a result of it. That’s why I thought the noir element would be fun to use. It’s not exactly original or anything; L.A. is the land of noir, but to tell an L.A. story with a bit of mystery to it, how could you not tell it with a bit of that seedy noir threat? I wanted to bring that into the comic landscape, but because it’s a world of teenagers and parties and all those Gossip Girl elements, “party noir” started to sound very interesting to me.

It is. Especially the way you turn noir on its head. Usually the story starts in normalcy and gradually become more sinister, but you do it in reverse. Take that scene with the vaguely threatening gang member Omar sitting alone in his car reciting William Butler Yeats’ “A Prayer for My Daughter.” It’s creepy and mysterious at first -- very David Lynch -- but later has a totally plausible explanation that deepens this character considerably. You take an typically noirish scene…
…And flip it on its head. That was totally intentional. You totally got it! In the next book I’m doing, Omar takes much bigger role and takes the characters into this whole new set of adventures and double entendres.

There’s lots of “doubles” in this story…
Yeah, it gets pretty dense. The idea of things not being as they seem and double identities and double meanings – I’m obsessed with that stuff anyway. But I also felt that comics was one of the most misunderstood genres to be working in and I wanted to make the story sort of an ode to that.

How so?
Comics are misunderstood as something you could bang out on your lunch break. They tell the story panel-by-panel and try to contain dense layers of meaning and use the poetry of words. It has more heft to it than you would think.

Grant Morrison once compared graphic novel writing to screenwriting and Patton Oswalt commented that if you read comics as a kid you were basically reading film storyboards. How similar are comic books to filmmaking process?
They are so similar. The graphic novel you write in script form. It doesn’t look exactly like a final draft of a screenplay but it’s very close. You have your action description at the top where you tell your artist what to draw instead of telling a cameraman what to shoot. You literally have to shot direct it like you’re filming a movie: “close-up,” “overhead shot,” “wide shot.” Then underneath you have your dialogue that runs down the middle of the page.

The Author signs her work
Skylight Books, 4/12

So you’re basically the writer, director, art director, editor, director of photography wrapped into one...
I did panel last week at Meltdown Comics curated by Gary Phillips where we were all talking about how similar comic-book writing is to screenwriting and how it’s really one of the last art forms where one can be a true auteur, especially if you draw your own comics, which a lot of writers do. It’s like a film that you’ve written, shot, directed, edited, did the wardrobe, looped all yourself. When you work for Image Comics, which is more of an indie publishing house, you have a lot more freedom. When this project was a D.C. book we had a production department working with me. When the Minx line folded I brought the project over to Image and had to art direct the whole thing myself.

Was that the hardest part of writing this book?
Without a doubt! Because I didn’t know film language at all. My editor sent my first draft back to me with notes saying, ‘You can’t go from a close-up to a wide shot; you have to go from a close-up to an over-the-shoulder shot to a medium shot to a wide shot.’ I had never heard those things before. She sent me a film script so I could see how scenes flow and what the directing guidelines were.I has to do breakdowns of these scenes and that was how I learned the language of comic books.

In the transition from D.C./Minx to Image are you hoping to reach wider audiences?
Yesterday I got an email from a 22 year-old girl in Athens, Greece, who found the book on Facebook and sent me a message saying, “I loved it! All of our friends are going to use all this L.A. slanguage that’s in the book.’ From a 22 year old girl in the Mediterranean to a 45 year old dude in California? I don’t know, you tell me.

There’s a very sweet scene between Mac and Jenna that sort of tapdances on the edge of sensuality before pulling back with a sort of sarcastic aside…
Yeah, I had to pull back a lot more than I would’ve liked.

Yeah, I mean you can’t mention the L.A. club world without getting into music, sex and drugs. How did you know where to draw the line in depicting those things to young adults?
Again Shelley Bond had a clear vision for the Minx line and they were all PG-rated for the most part. The idea was they were meant to empower girls—basically non-superhero stories where they are the superheroes, so they didn’t want it to get too seedy. An example of that in my book was where Shelley suggested at we alter a party scene that established that Jenna doesn’t drink, which wasn’t a bad thing at all. Now that’s its reaching a wider audience, I wish I had time to go back in and rewrite stuff and loosen it up a bit. Naturally I want it to be a little edgier.

As for music, it’s an unavoidable staple of L.A. nightlife. Did you listen to any particular music while you were creating the world of Poseurs?
My musical tastes are so all over the spectrum that I could have been listening to Tegan and Sara one night, Daft Punk another and Crosby, Stills & Nash another—my tastes are like a pinball! It doesn’t influence my writing like some people. But someone recently asked me what song I would choose to represent the book and show the vibe and the song I picked was “Get It Get It” by Girl Talk. It’s a mash-up of nineteen different racks from Lady Gaga and New Order to Aphex Twin and Jane’s Addiction -- and it’s only five minutes long! I picked it because there’s so many "parties" in there, from classic Hollywood premieres to underground speakeasies to private dinner parties to wacky and weird warehouse parties downtown. So for one song to sum all that up would be impossible! This one track that had a party spirit and was danceable and was a mix of different styles seemed to fit. And it had the word “girl talk” in there.

You have a lot of references to real L.A. musicians, artists and landmarks – DJ Diplo, Joel-Peter Witkin, Tiki Ti – but with slight funny little changes: “DJ Dipaolo,” “Joel-Peter Whitkin,” “Tiki Time.” What was behind that?
D.C. was really careful about using real logos. But I love how Rick came up with a way to get around that: In the background, you’ll see “AMG” instead of AMC Theatres or “” for It looms just real enough that your brain identifies it without even realizing it.

It also adds to the story’s sense fabulism and sense of illusion – like you’re in a sort of parallel universe.
But then there’s also scenes rooted in real places, like Arcadia or the L.A. River.

Yes! A very important scene at the L.A. river, where Jenna looks upon it and “feels the strength of two tribes.”
Yes, that’s one of my favorite scenes, her third-act moment in front of an empty river. I just thought it’d be funny. In the back of my mind I was thinking more about spiritual cleansing. In the beginning, she talks about her dual identity, of Rosh Hashanah from her Jewish heritage and the Full Moon Ceremony from her Cherokee heritage, I wanted to go back to that because there’s a religious theme that’s runs through some of the panels. Rosh Hashanah in particular is about “washing away your sins” in the river, and it seemed to absurd and ironic to me that it was the bone dry L.A. river.

Did you consult other graphic novel writers for inspiration?
Cecil Castelucci, who wrote debut Minx book The Plain Janes. She manages to tell Young Adult stories – again, another misunderstood genre – where her characters are just as rich and layered and complex as graphic novels for adults. I actually met with her and I told her I had about three weeks off before my job at the L.A. Times and asked if she thought I could do it in that time and she almost spit out her food, “Uhhh, no. You’d better set aside six months – and that’s just for a first draft.” And she was right: It took twice that time. [laughter]

Poseurs often breaks down the fourth wall between reader and character and comments on its own comic-ness. What was your inspiration for that?
Actually, Annie Hall. It’s also done a lot in noir and detective fiction. Also, Robert Altman’s The Player and how it’s a commentary on film as a whole. I’ve always been a fan of using a genre to comment on that genre. Like when I only have 16 panels left in which to finish a scene in, I’ll have a character turn to another and say, “Dude, will you slow down? We only have 16 panels left!”

I also noticed the characters’ constant flirtation with technology. They are definitely part of the Generation Wired.
Yeah, I wanted to show this technology-saturated world that younger people are now living with: texting,, skyping, switching cellphones, urban slang sites, digital cameras. If I had written the book today instead of three years ago there would have been a lot more references to things like Twitter and Tumblr and Flicker.

What’s interesting about this book is that it’s a bit dated!
Yeah, it’s an interesting side effect of the publishing scene we live in: the book was held for 2 ½-3 years after Minx folded and I didn’t have time to rewrite it because of all the journalism I was doing at the L.A Times.

Party at Ground Zero
photo courtesty of Cobrasnake

Speaking of which, how have you see technology change the L.A. nightlife scene over the past 10 years?
The last five years is when it really changed a lot. Promoters started putting their nightlife parties on Twitter. You started to see a lot of passwords to get into secret speakeasies. They’re promoted them on Twitter at the last minute or they send out mass texts to your phone or you can download a picture map at the last minute, which adds to the thrill of the experience. Party promoters use social media to niche-ify things and target specific audiences. Another thing is taking pictures at parties like Cobrasnake or even actual photo booths, which have become a staple lately, and posting them online afterwards where they go viral. From that whole scene you get a whole new layer of Internet celebrity: "The Party Celebrity."

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