Hannukah is in full swing, and a new picture book/graphic novel for children is creating a story for the Jewish high holiday mixing in superheroes.
Oskar and the Eight Blessings from Roaring Book Press is set against the seventh day of Hanukkah on Christmas Eve, 1938…and the aftermath of the Krystalnacht, the “Night of Broken Glass” against the Jews of Germany. Oskar, a young boy, has been sent to the strange new land of New York City to escape the Nazis, instructed by this father to “look for the blessings” as he finds his way to his family in the United States. But along the way, he’ll be helped by some of the most famous figures from this period of history…and indirectly, a certain Man of Steel.
Mark Siegel, the creator of the comic Sailor Twain and Creative Director of First Second Books, illustrated the story by Richard Simon and Tanya Simon. With Hanukkah upon us, we talked to Siegel about the story, the line between picture books and comic books, and going between creating comic books and editing them.
Newsarama: Mark, first off – congratulations on the new book. How did you come to work with the Simons on this?
Mark Siegel: Thanks! It’s funny, because I was not looking for a collaboration, I had my own thing planned, and then I was shown this manuscript. And it just pulled me in by the heartstrings – it was like I was there in New York, 1938. And it’s got everything – Count Basie and comics and the Holocaust in the background…I knew that if I didn’t do this, I was always going to regret it.
Nrama: It’s funny, like you say – it’s sort of got everything that’s excellent about 1938 all in the same place.
Siegel: I know! The 1930s was just such an elegant decade –
Nrama: Minus the Depression.
Siegel: Well, yeah – but there’s elegance, there’s poverty, there’s war – from a storytelling standpoint, it’s like everywhere you turn there’s something dramatic, some kind of conflict.
It was definitely a time for America where the seeds were being planted – for comics, definitely, but also in arts and music and Walt Disney was…you know, there was a picture we wound up not using in the book, where Oskar is near a theater in Times Square, and it’s playing Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. We couldn’t really find a way to fit that into the story!
But yes, I feel like a lot of the seeds planted in that era are bearing fruit in our time to this day.
Nrama: But that speaks to me the fascinating dichotomy at the heart of this story, which is that you have a kid fleeing what is, if not the worst thing, among the worst things human beings have ever done to other human beings –
Nrama: -- and then you kind of compress everything that’s good and kind and beautiful that’s about to spring forth into the world, and you have him encounter all of that at once, almost like a counterbalance.
Siegel: It’s almost a bluff. It was all there in the writing, but they left so much room for the pictures, and I felt that moment in the end – I’ve felt there’s some books that try to do Hanukkah and Christmas and are just disastrous, everything winds up being syrupy…if you look at the last picture, Oskar has this happy ending, it’s a beautiful moment, but he’s still a little stranger in a big city. And there’s a broken pane of glass in the corner of that picture, and that’s a reminder of what sent him out of Germany in the first place.
For me, it’s an emotionally-complex book and an emotionally-complex ending – it’s a happy ending, but it’s 1938, and the worst of the Holocaust is yet to come. I’m glad you pointed that out, but that’s everything all at once – this wonderful stuff that’s about to take place at the same time the world’s on the verge of this incredible tragedy.
That ending detail was kind of my way of making a mark on the story – it can’t be an entirely happy ending. But it’s also a kind of respect for the reader, who might not see it, but it’s tucked away.
I had an event recently where I read the book to some children at a library, and I had no idea what they’d think – four years old, and no idea what the world was going through – and it was actually a magical experience. Their little faces, they were compelled by the story, and looking for the blessings along the way. They were asking about Eleanor Roosevelt, and I replied – “That would be like walking up the street and meeting Michelle Obama!” And they went “Ohhhhhhh, cool!” [laughs]
Nrama: I do want to point out one problem I had with the book –
Siegel: Go on.
Nrama: That’s that Oskar gives away his copy of Action Comics #1…
Nrama: You know, that would probably be of great use to him and his family later on!
Siegel: No kidding, no kidding. But who was to know back then? Those were little throwaway things. There were no collectors, there were no plastic sleeves. Oskar wasn’t going to be going to Sotheby’s…
So yeah, I’m with you. But it’s an interesting move to me, because it’s a moment of giving – there’s this generosity given to him, and he gives something back, and it’s not just anything, it’s something precious. But yeah, yeah, you’re right.
Nrama: I think too much about these things.,.
Now, I understand when you’re doing a picture book, there’s more of a disconnect between the illustrator and the writer…
Siegel: There is! It’s a pretty common practice, with the editor triangulating between the writer and artist. In comics, it’s kind of unthinkable – it’s such a dialogue between the writer and the artist, you need a lot of traffic and exchange between them both. And I feel you need that in picture books as well.
But luckily, that was the case with this book. There was a lot of back-and-forth, a lot of collaborating, and I feel that the words evolved just as much as the pictures along the way.
Nrama: You talk about the manuscript in some terms like a comic script – was there more of a scripted element to the story, such as for the wordless sequences, or was it mostly prose on the page?
Siegel: It was both, really. There were moments where you didn’t need to be told what was happening, and others that were written out. But what there was overall was really deep, thoughtful writing – an almost mystical connection to New York, and the strange things that sometimes do happen here.
I think everyone that moves to New York has had some stories of their own – people talk about the weird coincidences happen in New York. I’ve had a few! I’ve run into people from France I knew in middle school in the middle of the street.
I actually walked that whole route Oskar walks in the story, and it was just an amazing experience. You know how you’ll pop out of a subway and you’re in a different part of town, where the neighborhoods almost knit together and SoHo moves into a different place and you’re by St. Mark’s, and Broadway is like a river running through all of it? That’s what it was like for me.
Nrama: On a different note – First Second celebrates its tenth anniversary next year. In your own work at the company, you’re different from many editors in that first, you’re putting out a great number of original graphic novels, as opposed to monthly books or reprints. Secondly, you’re an artist yourself.
What do you bring back and forth in those different jobs – what does doing your own stories and art mean when you have to edit the work of other people, and how does editing others’ work affect how you tell your own stories?
Siegel: Yeah, they’re very different mindsets. The editing is useful creatively. When you’re mixing with brilliant people doing brilliant work, it’s just nourishing on every level.
That said, it is hard jumping back and forth – part of publishing is a business, and part of it is championing creators and their works! And then there’s the real soul-service life, where you’re trying to be the instrument of creation yourself. It can get a little schizophrenic at times!
But what unifies it for me is that First Second is like an art project in itself – we’re trying to make something, create a home for certain types of creators. That means a business, and it means people making comics. But the fact that I have my own projects lets me work on both sides of the table, so to speak.
When you’re an editor, you’re always in an editor’s mode. And you can forget what it’s like for people working in solitude on these projects, sometimes for many years. And you can forget what it’s like waiting for feedback, or waiting for a paycheck. So it helps to keep that perspective.
They can be two different worlds, like oil and water, art and commerce. But I think it’s more possible now to be a cartoonist in America in ever, to make a viable living at it. And I think in five more years, it’ll be even easier.
It’s funny – here, you have people doing picture books who wish they could make comics without starving. And in France, it’s the picture-book field where you starve, and comics is where you can actually make money!
Nrama: That is actually a good transition to another question I wanted to ask, which is – I think there’s a good line between picture books and comics. A number of classic picture books are very much like comics, often wordless comics, and artists such as Jon J. Muth and recently Kate Beaton are doing picture books – which really shape the creative DNA of a lot of children.
Siegel: Absolutely! Maurice Sendak did books like that, Mo Willems’ books are like that…in America right now, I think comics are infusing everything, in ways that are not always obvious because we’re in the middle of it.
But I think, in hindsight, we’ll see how comics are now in a leap into mainstream American culture. They’ve always been part of the culture, but now they’re becoming something that everyone knows.