San Giacomo: Tales of the Starlight Drive-In

Tales of the Starlight Drive-In

Regular Newsarama contributor Mike San Giacomo is back in the comics.

Released earlier this month, Tales of the Starlight Drive-In is a 243 page trade paperback from image, comprised of 32 different stories that are all connected.

Centered on the titular drive-in, the stories all combine to form one, larger story in a rather unique way. We spoke with San Giacomo about the book.

Newsarama: So Mike tell us about Tales Of The Starlight Drive-In. What's it about?

Mike Sangiacomo: It came out June 4th from Image Comics, and what's important is that the release date was the 75th anniversary of the debut of the first drive-in theater in Camden, N.J. in 1933.

The book is 243 pages, 32 stories which can be read separately and enjoyed, but when read together form a single novel, a mosaic novel. I wish I could take credit for the descriptive term, mosaic novel, but someone else came up with it first. It fits Starlight perfectly.

NRAMA: So where and when do these stories take place?

MS: The stories take place in a mythical drive-in theater in upstate New York over a period of 53 years. It was originally 50 years, 1955-2005, but because of a delay, it is being released in 2008. I added an epilogue, which it turns out I needed to wrap up all the storylines in a neat package.

When I came up with the idea I decided that each story would have to do three things: the story should be able to stand on its own and make perfect sense; it must further the plot of the overall story, define and advance the characters and each story much some reflect - even tangentially or spiritually - the movie playing at the time.

It was a bitch, but it works.

The novel tracks the rise and fall and ... of the drive-in theater phenomenon in the United States (and Canada) while reflecting the times of the people who work and go there. The main character is Adam, who is a little boy in the beginning of the book who moved in across the street from the theater. We see him grow up, attending the theater with his parents and later with his girlfriend, Sabrina. He becomes assistant manager, then goes to Vietnam, returns and eventually returns to the Starlight and Sabrina.

The other main character is Neil, the mysterious projectionist, who is the heart and soul of the theater. He's always there, a major plotline, and he plays the most wonderful music for the patrons. Neil is my voice in the work and, of course, my favorite character.

NRAMA: How did the project come about?

MS: I love drive-ins. I love the cheesy neon, the colors, the romance and whisper of scandal. I love sitting out under the stars munching popcorn and watching a film on a huge screen. It's just so...American.

Four years ago I was trying to come up with an idea for a graphic novel. I was at the San Diego Con talking to a European publisher who said he wanted something uniquely American, something that had not been done before. I thought a minute and said I would get back to him. I forget whatever happened to the publisher, but the idea I came up with while driving around the San Diego countryside was a series of stories set in a drive-in theater. What could be more American than that? I don't know what happened to the publisher. I decided to see if I could actually write a bunch of interconnected stories that made sense. In a mere six months, I had the stories written.

NRAMA: So let’s get into the style – this isn’t an anthology per se, but as you called it, a mosaic novel made up of 32 “pieces.” Tell us about that.

MS: I love comics and graphic novels, have all my life. If I had any criticism of the graphic novel it was that sometimes it's one very long piece of work. I wanted to break mine up, so that it could be read over a period of time. But I also wanted the reader to be able to enjoy it piecemeal, read one story and like it, and yet be aware that he was reading a part of a whole.

Read the entire book and you'll see the characters grow, depart and return, and change. Only the Starlight remains the same, despite the city growing up around it. I doubt anyone will see the 2005 ending coming, but look back and you'll see all the clues throughout the book. The 2008 epilogue, the second ending, will bring a lump to your throat.

NRAMA: Who are some of the artists?

MS: Ah, those wonderful bastards who stuck with me through this whole thing. Starlight was originally meant to come out in late 2005 from Speakeasy Comics, my follow-up to Phantom Jack. After Speakeasy died I concentrated on finishing the book and looking for a new publisher. Turns out that Image, who originally published Phantom Jack, was the perfect fit.

I know a lot of artists and cornered many of them at various conventions with the pitch. I spent many hours deciding which artist would perfectly tell which story, whose style would fit the story, and time period.

Sean McArdle, lives around Canton, Ohio, started the ball rolling with the 1955 story introducing Adam perfectly. He also came up with the design of the Starlight Drive-In marquee. I liked Texan Mike Williams big and bold style and felt it would be perfect to show the world from the point of view of a child. He drew two stories of Adam as a boy.

Sam Agro of Toronto had a robust, innocent style that captured the high school romance story of "Everybody's Girl," which turns out far different from its carefree beginning.

I always wanted the early stories, as well as a few others throughout the book, to be black and white. Francesco Francavilla made that decision easy with two stories he did for the book. I wanted to color his stories, but one look at them made me realize that would have been criminal.

I invited everyone to pitch a cover and there were many good ones, but I kept coming back to Dave Beyer Jr.s' classy cover of the sign with a 1958 Oldsmobile rolling off the cover. McArdle's arty cover, which hints at the stories inside, became the back cover.

The stories run the gamut of the kinds of movies you would see at a drive-in. There are stories about crime, romance, comedy, politics, a superhero story (featuring my very own Phantom Jack), porn (told in PG-13) and even a Western.

There are so many artists to name I can't fit them all in, but everyone did incredible work. I must have run through dozens of artists over the course of the project before finally ending with the 23 I had.

I should mention, I wrote all the stories in the book except one. “Derf”, even his wife calls him that, is a bizarre artist who contributes the hilarious comic, "The City," to alternative newspapers around the country. There was no way I would ever be as funny as him, so he had free rein for his two-pager.

One story went though several artists before it landed in the lap of Ian Dorian, whose brother Guy also contributed a very special story to the book. Ian and colorist Seth Mathurin did a great job on the "Godfather" tinged mobster story, "Jimmy The Whale." This story was cursed with what Sicilians call "The Malocchia," the evil eye. So, despite their efforts, it came out wonky from the printer, in lower dpi than it should have. Please check out the story in proper form at and help us break the curse.

NRAMA: We know some of the Phantom Jack stories had their roots in true life, were any of the Starlight stories based on your experiences?

MS: Only the embarrassing ones. Alright, most of them. I did get scared to death at Invasion of the Body Snatchers with my parents. I was an assistant manager at the Valley Forge Drive-In in my misspent youth and knew some very strange projectionists. I owned a 1960 Plymouth Fury I called "The Blue Mongoose," which artist Joe Bucco captured so perfectly, and a bunch of buddies and I really did get wasted during a showing of Night of the Living Dead, leading to some (in retrospect) amusing incidents.

NRAMA: Why drive-ins? Aren't they pretty much dead? And aren’t you limiting your audience?

MS: You're talking to a guy who is listening to an 8-track player as he writes this. Nothing ever dies. Drive-ins are still here, there are more than 400 of them still operating in the USA and Canada. Google drive-ins and go to one of the sites and see how many are still out there. We actually have nine drive-ins within 70 miles of Cleveland and they are pretty cool. The Aut-O-Rama in North Ridgeville, Ohio, where they were kind enough to let me hang around for research, is a tailgate party on the weekends. And this is happening all over, a well-kept secret.

NRAMA: And is it true that you and some artists are going to do book signings at drive-ins?

MS: Yep, the first was June 6 at the Aut-O-Rama near Cleveland with DERF and Sean McArdle.

NRAMA: How did that go for you?

MS: I sold more books there in two hours than I did all weekend at Philly! I think I have found a new niche. I'm signing the 14th at the Lynn Drive-in in Strasburg, Ohio (which was part of the “Cadiz” story in the book); the Delsea Drive-in in Vineland, NJ on June 27 and June 28 at the big, bad Bengie's Drive-in in Baltimore, which includes dusk to dawn movies, three stooges features, cartoons and old-time drive-in commercials.

Other locations will be popping up at them over the summer. I have no idea what to expect, but it should be fun. Image is also doing another unusual thing, selling the book in select drive-ins and at a very cool site all about drive-ins. Go there and find out where the closest drive-in is to you.

NRAMA: What are some of your favorite stories out of the book?

MS: I love 'em all, but my favorite is 1985's "Lost In America," beautifully illustrated by Alessandro Bragalini from Italy. For a guy who never saw a drive-in, he did an amazing job bringing the story to life. The tale is partly based on an old Elvis Presley movie called Follow That Dream about a family that homesteads in a Florida park, with a touch of the Albert Brooks film, Lost In America tossed in. In our story, a family takes advantage of the Starlight's "buy a ticket and stay as long as you like" policy and tries to live on the lot, going head-to-head with the tough manager, June Jones. I laughed out loud when I read the story in the book, which is strange since I wrote it.

NRAMA: Is it true that the story about The Shawshank Redemption was actually illustrated by a guy serving life for murder on the grounds of the very prison where Shawshank was filmed? And that it's likely he is not even guilty?

MS: Yes, a guy named Al Cleveland. I wanted to have a story about one of my favorite movies The Shawshank Redemption. While I was deciding who to offer the story to, I received a package of art at my job at the Cleveland Plain Dealer where I am a reporter from a guy named Alfred Cleveland, serving a 20-to-life stretch in the Ohio prison that sits on the grounds of the old Mansfield Prison, where Shawshank was filmed.

He had a wonderful style and I realized that no one was more suited to telling a prison story than a man behind bars that overlook the very prison that inspired the film.

Cleveland accepted the challenge and, with some help from a fellow inmate named A. Berry and some color and design work by McArdle, we put together a little ironic story about prison life.

When I hired Al, I told him not to expect me to write newspaper stories about his professed innocence. I mean, as a journalist I hear that all the time. He agreed, but I started quietly looking into his case without telling him. The case was flimsy, hinged completely on the testimony of one witness, a drug addict who owed Alfred a lot of money. I talked to the witness in Detroit and he confessed that he lied about Alfred and the other three men who were convicted based on his testimony. He also confessed his perjury to the FBI.

But when the time came a few months ago for him to testify at Cleveland's hearing for a new trial, he got scared and took the Fifth Amendment. A judge denied Cleveland's motion for a new trial, hopefully the appeals court will see it differently.

For more information on the case, visit the website of the Chicago private detective who located the witness and has worked tirelessly on Cleveland's behalf. The website is:

NRAMA: Wrapping things up Mike, who would like Starlight

MS: Would it be egotistical to say "Everyone?" It's a solid storyline broken into many parts. I recommend people just read one and see how they like it, that should be enough. For those old there old enough to remember drive-ins in their prime, it will bring back memories of footie pajamas, hiding in the trunk and hot summer nights in the "passion pits." For the younger readers, it's an introduction to a very cool world that still exists. Drive-ins are all over and lots of fun, you just have to hunt 'em down.

If nothing else, I hope Tales of the Starlight Drive-In encourages people to seek out a drive-in and have a good time.


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