After taking on the classic novel Animal Farm in a un-licensed sequel called Snowball’s Chance that was both parody and social commentary, New York-based author John Reeds turns to look at the darker side of life – and uses art to help tell the stories. In the recently released hardcover book Tales of Woe, Reed documents several true stories of horror and abject misery straight, with no chaser. Unlike Hollywood stories where there’s a happy ending, Reed’s Tales of Woe shows that life can be a bitter pill.
Although not a comic in any form, Tales of Woe use of full-page illustrations for each of the stories in this collection evoke the same love of art and words that sequential art employs. Reed carries a deep appreciation for comics, and several of the artists in the book have comic credentials of their own.
Newsarama: This is a truly memorable and heart-wrenching book, John. How'd the idea for this come to you and develop over time?
John Reed: I had this editor, Jacob Hoye, who'd published my first book at Delacorte, and my third book at MTV Books, and we were having lunch. And, you know, I'm sitting there acting like I'm not starving to death, and trying to pitch fifty ideas without sounding like I'm pitching fifty ideas. Tales of Woe came out of an idea I had, many many years previous, for a short film.This was the story: a pathetic immigrant guy works a terrible dish-washing job; he's incredibly lonely and isolated; he hires a hooker to hang out with him, and takes her to a crappy place for dinner; he goes back to a hotel with her; he gets busted; the cops impound his bike; he has to walk to work the next day in the rain; he gets sick, washing dishes in the steam; U.S. immigration deports him; back in his country, he can't get medical attention and he doesn't want to burden his family; he gets sicker; he dies.
I had a notion that I'd come up with a million of those, maybe even develop some kind of illustrated TV venue: shorts like Adult Swim. Then, I saw that there were far worse stories out there. Stories way more horrendous than anything I could think up. And that much more powerful, because they were true. When something horrible happens to someone, there isn't always a reason, and it doesn't always work out for the best. That's what Tales of Woe is about. On the one hand, it's about learning to accept that other people really do suffer pointlessly; and on the other hand, it's about relinquishing the expectation, in one's own life, of justice.
Nrama: These are all true stories – how'd you come across them and develop them into these narratives?
Reed: News sources. Then phone calls and emails. The stories had to be extra-bad. Worse than you could have ever guessed. As I wrote them, I had to get rid of any sin, suffering, redemption model that had been reported into the stories. Even straight news sources will try to find someone to blame – the sin – or find the reason it's all for the best or there's a light at the end of the tunnel – the redemption. These were not stories of sin, suffering, redemption; they were stories of suffering, suffering, suffering.
Nrama: What was it like contacting these people and tell them what Tales of Woe was about and what you planned to do to real life events for them?
Reed: A bunch of them didn't get back to me – not easy to track people down. I can see now why television and mainstream journalism will more likely have two opinionated people than one reasonable one: the opinionated people want to voice their sides.
Nrama: In most – virtually all – reported tales of suffering, there's some light at the end of the tunnel – if not redemption, then some promise of it. But your stories go a different route – why?Reed: Because it's bullshit to think there's always redemption. And thinking you're going to find redemption for all the disappointments in your life – it's a path to misery.
Nrama: Did you happen upon any stores that weren’t woeful enough… or perhaps too much so?
Reed: Many that weren't bad enough. I planned to start with a story about my uncle Norman, who lived a short shitty life and then drowned in a pointless scuba diving accident. But it wasn't nearly terrible enough.
And, though we swore we wouldn't self-censor, there was one story we couldn't bear to publish. Mom gang-raped, then forced to blow her son. And that was only the beginning.
Nrama: You mentioned how you initially considered using a story from your own family, about your Uncle Norman. Did you end up using any stories of friends or family?
Reed: I really wanted to do that, from a sense of fairness. But none of the stories I could think of were bad enough. My mother's two siblings both died at 28, ten years apart (Norman and Marha): not bad enough. My grandfather was in an arranged car accident, suffered ten years of rehabilitation during which time his fortune was siphoned off: not bad enough. I have a cousin, gorgeous, paralyzed in a water-ski accident: not bad enough. A distant cousin on death row: not bad enough. Terrible, tragic stories, but not exceptional.
Nrama: This really pulls at the heartstrings; did you go through anything in the process of researching and writing these stories?
Reed: It was not easy at all. I thought I'd get over it, but it got harder, and harder, and harder. I sank into a depression, but one in which I could appreciate all the good things in my life. Since then, it's been rather difficult to take my own whining seriously.Nrama: Can you talk about the various artists involved with Tales of Woe? How did you find them, and how did you decide who did which story?
Reed: Well, the first question was whether to use just one artist or a bunch of artists. That was a difficult decision; I was afraid multiple artists would look chaotic, and until fairly late in the design process, it did. The upside of the multiple artists: the narrative intention was featured (as opposed to a single artistic style), and we could assign in the fashion of the old pulp journals. The grotesque stories could go to a master of the Grotesque, in this case Stephane Blanquet; the stories demanding a journalistic could go to the appropriate doyen, such as Elisabeth Alba.
All of the artists are extraordinary, and were chosen to do something I knew they could do extraordinarily well. I'd seen their work through art networking sites, comic conventions, the Internet, comics conventions; I didn't assign anyone anything that I thought they could do, I assigned them stories that I knew they could nail, because I'd seen them nail something similar.
Nrama: You had to find another printer for the book after the original one in China banned it due to a decency law. Were you involved with any of that? What did you think of it?
Reed: It sucked. It delayed the book by months. May to August. In book terms, that's a pretty major delay. Nobody seems to be making much of it, but I'm terrified. The United States of America now ascribes to Chinese decency laws. And that's not just terrifying because nobody cares, it's terrifying because nobody has noticed. The books we print here are so party-line that nothing falls outside of China's morality statutes.
Nrama: Although this isn’t comics – more an illustrated book – you’re working on a webcomic called Sh*tty Mickey with an artist from Tales of Woe named Michele Witchipoo. Can you tell us about your immersion into comics?Reed: I grew up in the artworld and have written about art for a long time. The technology is now there for me – web, design – to goof around with art/text projects. People are also much more accepting of art/text integration, largely as a result of the Internet. The division of art and text is totally mechanical. It's the printing press. Prior to the printing press, there was art and text on every page; art and text belong together, it's natural. Even into the early twentieth century, books were published with substantial illustrative components.
The Comics Code messed up comics, but it destroyed the pulp journals that were publishing art/text narratives for adults. Some of those EC experiments, "picto-fiction," those were far-sighted. As the technology continues to develops, books (or whatever it is we call the next generation of books), will look very much like those EC premonitions. With Manga and Comix re-establishing an adult market, free of censorship, it's only to be expected that book publishers will follow. MTV Press, which deals in highly-designed books, is one of the few places that would take on a project like Tales of Woe. And without Jacob and Walter Einenkel's support (Walter designed the book), it never would have happened.