The newcomer to comics sits in The Outhouse to tell us all about his OGN, 9/11 HEARTBREAKER!
Craig Staufenberg's debut graphic novel, 9/11 HEARTBREAKER is an example of the changing modes of distribution in the publishing industry, particularly in comic book publishing. Figuring that a comic book by an unknown creater with "9/11" right in the title would be a tough sell for publishers, Staufenberg took to the internet, where he sells digital or print copies of his book directly to readers. For Staufenberg, self-publishing has been a learning experience, but his journey could teach potential creators about exploring new ways to bring one's work to people, and how to go it alone. 9/11 HEARTBREAKER is a moving, meditative piece about shared memories and the way we interact with our urban spaces. Though the artwork is somewhat childlike at first glance, a deeper look reveals sensitive detail and truly emotional storytelling.
Tell us a bit about yourself. Who are you and how did you come to creating your own comic?
Hey there. My name is Craig Staufenberg. I’m a freelance writer and independent comic book creator. I just put out my first book, 9/11 HEARTBREAKER. It’s been getting good reviews and press since I released it 2 months ago, so you should check it out if you haven’t yet.
As far as how I got into making my own comic, it was actually a bit of a circular route. My brother was really into comics, so they were always around when I was growing up. I enjoyed their art and the characters, but I wasn’t as interested in their plots. I remember that overall I was more into collecting those old Fleer character cards than I was into the books themselves. There are a number of books that I really enjoy these days, but I didn’t start to really read comics until after college. So comics have always been a part of my life, though not necessarily in the usual fandom way.
And I would actually draw comic book characters all the time when I was growing up, but I wasn’t particularly interested in making my own. I was more into console RPGs at the time, and when I would come up with stories and characters and worlds they were for games, not comics. Later on I got into movie-making, so for a long time my only real creative interests involved making games and movies.
9/11 HEARTBREAKER didn’t even start out as a comic originally. But as I worked on the project and got a deeper sense of what it was, it became more and more apparent that it was a comic book. And when I sat down and started thumbnailing the script all the book’s images and inspiration came so quickly that there wasn’t any doubt from then on out.
How did the idea for 9/11 HEARTBREAKER come to you? Talk to us about the process of creating the book.
It actually came to me as a stray thought. I was spending a summer in Buffalo and just randomly started writing down my memories of 9/11 one day, because that’s what I felt like doing. I thought about making a very short and small video project incorporating my memories and some visuals, but as I thought about it I began to feel very curious about other people’s memories about the day. I began to wonder what other people remembered, how they felt about it, how they placed the event in their lives, things like that.
It really was just a stray thought I kicked around in my head for a couple months before I decided to take any action with it. I like to take my time with ideas because I find that if an idea sticks with me for a long time than it’s probably worth pursuing. So I sat with the thought for a few months and found that I couldn’t shake it, so I decided to go ahead and work on it seriously.
At that point it was very undefined besides its premise. I just started to talk to people about their memories and ask them about their thoughts. This was actually easy, as pretty much everyone was good and game to talk at length about the subject without much prodding at all.
In addition to talking to people, I also threw up some ads on NYC’s Craiglist to try and find some potential interview subjects. At the time this was more of a test, as I just wanted to see if there was anyone with any interest whatsoever in being interviewed on the subject. I ended up getting plenty of responses and ultimately got a handful of people with interesting and diverse stories to tell who wanted to be interviewed. So I went to NYC for a couple of months and recorded interviews with a few people, and continued to informally talk with everyone else about it.
I left NYC and moved back to Buffalo where I sat down and just listened to the interviews on loop for a couple of months. At that point I didn’t want to include my own memories or ideas or opinions into the work, and planned on stitching together a script just from what I had recorded. Needless to say, there were many days when my roommates would come home to me sitting on the living room floor surrounded by slips of transcriptions taped together.
This strategy, of course, didn’t work and it was only when I decided to just take everything I had learned and heard and let it inform a deeply personal script that the story started to come together.
Because the writing process took a significant amount of time my environment naturally found its way into the work. While initially the project was just about 9/11, it slowly became just as much about Buffalo, NY as anything else.
It still took a few more months to finish the script, but after that was done it just became a matter of making the thing. There was a stretch of time where I was looking for an artist on the project, but that didn’t work out. Eventually I gave myself permission to just draw it myself, and in a couple months the whole thing was done.
How would you characterize the art in 9/11 HEARTBREAKER? It's deceptively simple, and seems to come from a pop-art, cartooning sensibility.
I was very intentional and careful with the art and style of the book, and it was definitely influenced more by pop-art and cartooning than a photorealistic sensibility. Chasing the photorealistic look is a thankless job, and I don’t think it’s particularly suited to the medium even when you get it right.
Photorealistic comic art, in my opinion, often comes off looking excessively complex and ultimately distracting. Part of this seems to just be the trend of current comic art, though some of it probably has to do with artists looking to show off and create the most dynamic pages possible- regardless of whether it’s appropriate or not. This might be an unfair assessment, but it’s the impression I get sometimes.
There are a lot of objectively talented artists whose work is, in my opinion, completely unsuited for the medium. For example, Alex Ross makes great paintings and posters and covers, but his style is very hard to make work serving the narrative of a book in a natural, flowing manner.
There are also lots of industry colorists out there who are great at, say, making robots look really slick and cool but who have a hard time with skin tones and end up with their human characters looking grotesque. This is a problem when you’re comic book is ostensibly about people.
A lot of times with this kind of spectacle based art you get a book where you look at the words, and then you look at the picture separately. That isn’t comic book art- it’s illustration, and there’s a big difference between the two. With comic book art you should take the page and panel in as a whole, with all the different elements working together to tell the story and provide your desired emotional impact.
Now, I want to make it clear that I in no way think I’m a great artist or in the same category as talents like Alex Ross. These are just some observations that informed the artistic decisions I made with my book.
Ultimately it was my goal to tell a story, and to have the art and script work together holistically to do so. That’s one of the great things about comics- you have so many different elements to work with. You have the gutters and whitespace of the page, you have the panel borders and layouts and sizes and shapes, you have the lettering, you have the linework, and you have the coloring. You have the visual impact of the page as a whole, the visual impact of each two facing interior pages, and the visual impact of turning the page to another pair. That’s a lot to play with, and I was conscious about making sure they all worked together to tell the story.
My book isn’t perfect, but I feel it mostly succeeds with what I was attempting visually.
You recently said in an interview that the book was influenced by the work of filmmaker Chris Marker. In what way did Marker's work inform 9/11 HEARTBREAKER?
Chris Marker is a filmmaker who shares a lot of the same preoccupations and interests as me. Maybe more than anything else we’re both deeply curious about memory and history. Seeing the way that he’s investigated those topics over the course of his career was really helpful when I was trying to figure out how to approach them in my book. His movies are also really accessible despite their deep subject matter, and that’s something I aim for too.
More than anything else he’s done my book was influenced by his movie Sans Soleil, which is kind of a hard movie to pin down as far as genre goes. It’s kind of a documentary, it’s kind of a travelogue, it’s kind of a filmed memoir… it’s kind of a lot of things and is generally labeled an “essay film”.
It’s about an unseen woman talking in voice over about the letters she gets from a travelling filmmaker named Sandor Krasna as he explains the footage he’s taken while traveling around the world. He’s especially focused on Africa and Japan, which he calls the “twin poles of survival. The movie showed me a way to approach a thoughtful narrative in a way that was deeply personal and linked more by a string of associations than by a traditional narrative structure. My book does have a traditional narrative structure, but at heart it works similarly to Sans Soleil, which I think allows it to cover a very wide range of topics in a relatively short number of pages.
You mention on your blog that "everyone I met who heard about the project immediately proceeded to tell me their memory, without me prompting them." What do you take from that phenomenon? Why do you suppose people were so eager to share their story with you?
It was definitely interesting and unexpected. I actually thought it was going to be difficult to get people talking about 9/11, but as soon as I told them what I was doing it was like taking a pin to a water balloon- everything just came pouring out. I think part of this was due to the fact I was looking to learn about them and not looking to exploit their memories, but there were probably deeper issues at work too.
For example- it’s kind of a taboo topic, so people seemed happy to have a space where they could talk about it. Often it felt cathartic for people to let it all out, as it always seemed like this was something that they had thought a lot about but which they never felt they discuss. It’s something that everyone has deeply personal feelings and reactions about, so once they started talking they wouldn’t stop until they didn’t have anything more to say.
Overall, I think the biggest reason most people wanted to talk about their memories was the fact that no one had ever asked them before. I decided to focus on younger people around my age (25 right now) because I felt like we were in a very unique position on September 11th, but no one seemed to care about our perspective on it all. That seemed a little ridiculous to me, and I found out I wasn’t the only one who felt that way.
The city of Buffalo, where you currently reside, provides a palpable sense of place for the story. In what ways are your creative endeavors influenced by your environment?
I think everyone’s creative work is deeply influenced by their environment. I think you can strongly argue that no one is capable of any creative expression that isn’t some recombination of their experiences in life- whether those experiences are directly lived or mediated.
For me, I’m more interested in being influenced by my directly lived experiences (things I see and hear and feel around me) so I keep my eyes and ears open and try and get my hands on everything.
I think it was Einstein who said you have to be worried about reading too much because you need time and space to come up with your own thoughts and opinions about things. Buffalo became such a powerful influence on the book because I didn’t really read, or watch movies, or absorb any other media when I was writing and drawing the book- I just walked around and took the bus and talked to people.
Ultimately, 9/11 HEARTBREAKER is about your lead character's relationship to her memories and to the history of her city. In creating the graphic novel, what have you learned about how memory and history shape us as people?
I learned that tragedies operate very differently for people who are directly affected by them and for people who are more loosely affected by them (the rest of us).
For people who are directly affected by tragedies they seem to focus on the details, the small and intensely personal elements of their experience. Maybe it’s because that’s all you can handle when you face the enormity of that kind of experience. Maybe it’s because those small details and connections are what really matter to people when everything else falls apart. Maybe it’s some other reason.
For the rest of us, these big tragedies seem to crack open our historical consciousness. Every generation has some big tragedy or event that defines the world for them and reveals new dimensions and perspectives. 9/11 served that function for a lot of people, especially for people my age who were in high school or younger on that day. I’m sure it won’t be the last big tragedy we will see and feel in our lives, but it’s the one that opened everything up. It made the world real, you could say.
What led to the decision to self-publish the book, and to distribute it digitally? What have you learned about comic book publishing and distribution?
The decision to self-publish was largely a practical one. While I think the book is valuable and totally accessible to anyone who picks it up, I didn’t think that any publisher was going to take a risk with it.
Even if they liked the book, I’ve read enough about business and marketing to feel that a one-off short graphic novel by a completely unknown and unproven writer/artist focusing on a very delicate subject wasn’t going to be an easy sell to a publisher. At the end of the day, it was all about getting the book out to people in whatever manner made printing and distributing it possible. For this book, that meant self-publishing and print on demand.
There have been a lot of things I’ve learned about publishing and distribution, though it’s still early in the process and I still have a lot to learn.
For example, I doubt I would use print on demand again. The quality is surprisingly good and it’s a very flexible and accessible system to tap into, but the system only works so well. The quality isn’t the same as a conventional print run, and it takes a long time for each book to get to its buyer. I’ve even had a few people who ordered a book and never received their copy, months later. If someone is generous enough to pay money for a book I make than I want to give them the highest quality product and service possible, and that’s just not what print on demand offers.
The most important thing that I’ve learned, however, is that no matter how you publish and distribute your book, you need to keep hammering away at marketing it. With marketing you need to be persistent, and you need to be kind.
Pretty much everyone in the community I’ve spoken to has been enormously helpful and friendly, and you need to treat them with the same courtesy. You need to understand just how much of the comics media community is made up of hobbyists and volunteers, and you need to understand that they already have a lot on their plate trying to update and run their sites. You need to be patient and persistent when it comes to getting reviews and interviews and mentions and the like.
It doesn’t matter how good your book is (or how good you think it is) you always have to be humble and thankful that people will take the time to help you share it with the world.
What are your larger goals in terms of comics and graphic novels? Where would you like your career to go from here?
For my next book I’m going to look into traditional publishing. Self publishing 9/11 HEARTBREAKER was largely an act of convenience and assumed necessity, and now that I feel like I’ve proven myself (even marginally) I think I’ll have a better shot at finding a publisher to work with. I don’t think having a publisher is a magic-bullet-cure-all for large sales and a wide reach, but I do think that they have a lot to offer someone in my position. And likewise, I feel I have a lot to offer them, so that’s an avenue I want to pursue next.
At the end of the day, however, I really only have two goals- to make the best books possible and to get as many people to read them as possible. I do this because I love it and because I feel my stories provide a lot of value to people, so regardless of what happens next as far as publishing goes I’m just going to keep on writing and drawing.
What are you working on now?
I’ve started drawing my next book. It’s already written and thumbnailed out, so I just started penciling and inking it.
It’s a much longer book than the last one - 252 pages as opposed to 28 for HEARTBREAKER. It’s also a somewhat different book. It shares a number of the same themes, though told in a much different way. I feel really good about it, but that’s about as much as I want to say publically at the moment.
Are there any websites, blogs, etc. you would like to mention where people can learn more about you and your work?
Sure, you can check out my sporadically updated blog here, at www.memoryisfiction.com. I’m not really a blogger, but I occasionally try and put something interesting up there.
The site also keeps track of my reviews and interviews, and is where you can purchase a copy of 9/11 heartbreaker. You can either order a printed copy or a digital hi res PDF copy. I recommend the printed copy, as that’s how the book works best and is intended to be read, but obviously I prefer you get a digital copy instead of nothing.
Is there anything else you'd like to say? Here's your chance to lay it all out.
Comics are one of the best forms of media out there these days. They can talk about anything in a manner that’s really accessible, while still providing all the potential for depth that you could ever want. I don’t think anyone has put it better than Osamu Tezuka when he said: “Cartoons are actually signs of the times, universally understood by the young and old alike. Cartoons are not art as much as a universal language. It is wonderful that we have cartoons to communicate in a universal way.”
Written or Contributed by: Royal Nonesuch