The authors of ‘Leaping Tall Buildings’ imagine comic-book creators as the real superheroes

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Comic book creator Dean Haspiel in Brooklyn. (Seth Kushner)
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Rick Flom

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Though their settings may range from impossible locales like the Bottle City of Kandor to a dreary office in a Cleveland veteran’s hospital, the case could be made that the true home of any American comic book is New York City.

When co-authors Christopher Irving and Seth Kushner set out to make Leaping Tall Buildings: The Origins of American Comics, they had in mind a narrower focus on New York’s many cartoonists. What the book eventually became was a vast history of the medium itself, from its hardscrabble pioneers of the 1930s and '40s, to today’s forays into the new realm of digital comics. (The two are giving a reading and slideshow on Aug. 16 at Greenlight Bookstore.)

“The history all stems out of New York,” Irving told me on the phone while visiting family in Farmville, Va. (he lives in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn). “It’s what Seattle is to coffee or what Hollywood is to movies. But we began to get opportunities to interview people who came in from out of town, people that we couldn’t pass up. And we saw that it was about more than just New York, which is how it wound up becoming Leaping Tall Buildings.”

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Each chapter of the book focuses on a particular creator, featuring Irving’s biographical essays and interviews, studded with Kushner’s photographic portraits and lots of the original comic art. These chapters build upon one another to create a history of a wildly eclectic range of writers, artists, editors, moguls, and general weirdos. Though some of their stories may venture outside the five boroughs, New York remains the beating heart of the book.

With Kushner’s incredible eye for portraiture, the slick design, and Irving’s thorough-but-direct writing style, Leaping Tall Buildings was deliberately constructed to reach the widest possible audience.

“We wrote this for the casual reader,” Irving said. “We hope there’s enough in there for the die-hard comics fan, but we wanted to make something that someone who maybe just saw The Dark Knight Rises or The Avengers could pick up and not be lost. We wanted it to have a welcoming narrative voice.”

For Irving’s part, there’s an element of duty to being a comics fan, one that has driven him in his many years as a writer and journalist covering the medium.

“My philosophy is that if you’re passionate about something, and have knowledge of it, whether it’s baseball or coin collecting or comic books, you have an obligation to share it, to make it welcome to people who don’t know about it. If you get them passionate about it, hopefully they’ll spread the love and more people will get into it. That’s how you keep something alive.”

Leaping Tall Buildings grew out of a previous project by Kushner, The Brooklynites, a photo and essay collection. Through one of his subjects for that book, author Jonathan Ames, Kushner was introduced to acclaimed indie-comics creator Dean Haspiel, known for his work with Ames and Harvey Pekar. Haspiel would become a key factor in the genesis of Irving and Kushner’s book.

“Dean and I became fast friends,” Kushner told me over the phone from his home in Bay Ridge, “because I love comics, and Dean, while he is a creator, is a rabid fan as well, so we had a lot to talk about. Dean asked if I ever thought about doing a book about comics, and introduced me to his friends and fellow creators and mentors, and I got into the world that way.”

In addition to providing these industry connections and being the first subject photographed for the book, Haspiel also brought Kushner together with writer Christopher Irving, who’d been working on a book about Haspiel at the time.

“Two or three shoots in I realized I should probably get someone to write this thing,” Kushner said. “Dean recommended Chris, saying, ‘He gets it, he’s a comics historian, and he writes in kind of a cool, pulpy style.’ … At the same time, Chris had seen my photos and emailed Dean saying, ‘If he needs a writer, let me know.’ We were both kind of inching toward each other before we knew each other personally.”

Haspiel’s support and guidance continued to be valuable over the several years it took to assemble the book.

“Dean introduced us and has been our biggest cheerleader since day one,” said Irving. “He was also a really wonderful sounding board. Because there were times, like in any collaboration, when you need that third person. Not necessarily a tie-breaker, but you need someone who is detached enough from what you’re working on to give a more objective viewpoint, and that was Dean. He was always ready with helpful advice or just perspective. He also helped us get some pretty big names that we were just kind of at a loss to reach.”

As work proceeded on what would eventually materialize as Leaping Tall Buildings, Irving and Kushner started the website Graphic NYC, which would become a proving ground for the concept of marrying Irving’s text to Kushner’s photography.

“Initially we saw the site as a way to build an audience,” Kushner said, “to get it out there and get people talking about it while we were pitching the book. But it was also a way to beta test the project and to see what kind of reaction we’d get. People seemed to really appreciate that we were doing a different kind of approach to profiling comic creators. It wasn’t the Biff!-Bam!-Pow! thing you’d see in magazines, this was more like how Vanity Fair or GQ might profile an actor or director. We took it seriously. For people who like the book, they can go and find the profiles on the site are a lot longer, a lot more in depth, and there are more photos.”

“One of the beauties of doing the site was that it let us see patterns,” Irving added. “When you’re writing a project, it’s not always easy to see these things until it’s done. So the benefit of Graphic NYC is that it let me determine an editorial approach. We really wanted to convey the generational aspect of comics.”

Over time, the book grew beyond its initial concept, though the expansion was partly due to practical necessity.

“Our original idea was to do a book on New York-centric cartoonists,” Irving said, “because New York is the birthplace of comics. That gradually morphed into something more ambitious. What happened was we found publishers wanted something a little more general. They thought New York was possibly too niche, which to this day I disagree with. I firmly believe in New York as an entity and a character when it comes to the comic book medium. And when I say comic book medium I don’t just mean superhero, I mean crime, romance, you name it.

The photos are filled with New York landmarks, as in a gloomy, noir-ish shot of Frank Miller on his rooftop in Hell’s Kitchen (where he set his remarkable run on "Daredevil") or Marvel head Joe Quesada seated in his palatial apartment with its enviable view of the Empire State Building.

“Most of the portraits were taken in N.Y.C.,” Kushner said, “and the book feels very New York, which is intentional. Part of my idea in how I would photograph the creators was that I really wanted the pictures to reflect and recall their work. And a lot of the actual comics—particularly Marvel comics—take place in New York, so I put those people in locations that recall the comics they’ve worked on. And for D.C. creators, Metropolis and Gotham City certainly feel like New York City. So in concept it just made sense to have a lot of it in there.”

Much of Kushner’s photography reveals a fascination with the type of architecture that is reminiscent of the urban landscapes found in superhero comics: the fire escapes, the rooftop water towers, and the concrete canyons through which the characters swing and fly.

“I’m visually drawn to all of that,” Kushner said. “And I think I am because of comics. Those canyons, that’s where you imagine seeing Spider-Man swinging. I live in Brooklyn and go into Manhattan a couple times a week, and there’s not a day when I get out of the subway and don’t look up and think ‘Wow.’ It never wears off on me. It’s always impressive, and there’s always that reference point to growing up and going to the Marvel comics version of New York that was in my head, and it’s hard to not think of that now. I’m an adult and know better, but it’s still what I see. The rooftops have a kind of Will Eisner or Frank Miller romanticism that just ignites my imagination, so it’s hard not to put all that in there.”

Leaping Tall Buildings begins, appropriately, with a chapter on "Superman" (and by extension, superhero) creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, followed by a section on one of comics’ most innovative pioneers, aforementioned “Spirit” creator Will Eisner, for whom the comic-book industry’s most prestigious award is named. While all eras are covered with depth and insight, Irving’s writing reveals a special passion for these earliest days of comics, when it was a wild and woolly artform.

“I love the roughness and spontaneity of the Golden Age,” Irving said. “From a historical perspective, it’s the ‘30s and ‘40s stuff that interests me most, in terms of what was going on, the social atmosphere. The weird stuff, the really obscure, badly-drawn, goofy comics are some of the most interesting, because they give you a good glimpse of the culture. The publishers weren’t serious about doing good work, they just wanted to sell it and make money.”

While the title suggests a focus on superheroes, a great number of the creators profiled are known for work far outside of the caped genre, which is typically considered to be the “mainstream” of the medium. These are the indie or underground creators like Jaime Hernandez, Peter Bagge, Michael Kupperman, and many others.

“I wrote it chronologically,” Irving said, “and you have to look at the linchpins of each movement. Having a good blend of creators shows not only that comics is more than one genre but also will hopefully let readers of different levels discover cartoonists and genres they wouldn’t ordinarily pick up. Someone who buys the book for [longtime "X-Men" writer] Chris Claremont or ["G.I. Joe" writer] Larry Hama may also discover Jaime Hernandez and "Love and Rockets." They may actually develop an interest in these cartoonists like Chris Ware or Scott McCloud.”

This eclectic mix also gave Kushner the opportunity to capture a wide variety of personalities in his portraits, such as a particularly striking shot of Maus creator Art Spiegelman—which very nearly didn’t happen. Spiegelman at first refused Kushner’s many pleading requests to photograph him, only finally relenting when Kushner explained that without Spiegelman, he wouldn’t do the book. Even then, getting the perfect shot of the legendary cartoonist proved daunting:

“The original pictures I was taking were just him on that rooftop above his Soho studio,” Kushner said. “They were nice, but there was nothing particularly Spiegelman about them. I knew I had to try something else, but I didn’t have an idea exactly. So I just said ‘Hey Art, I was wondering if we could try something else. I’m just not getting the ultimate Art Spiegelman photo, and that’s what I need.’ And he paused and looked around, and picked up a piece of his child’s chalk off the ground on the roof, and he just started drawing the Maus version of himself on the wall. And I was thinking, ‘This is it. Paydirt.’

Christopher Irving and Seth Kushner will appear Thursday, Aug. 16, at Greenlight Bookstore for a reading, slideshow, and Q&A moderated by ‘Publisher’s Weekly’ editor Calvin Reid. All photos by Seth Kushner: From top, the book's cover, Stan Lee, Frank Miller, Jill Thompson, Mike Allred, and Art Spiegelman. Images courtesy Powerhouse Books.