Thursday, September 20, 2012

After School Special, by Dave Kiersh + author Interview!

The first time I read a Dave Kiersh comic, I was blown away like I'd never been by any comic I'd ever read before. Not because of the art, which is great, but because it perfectly matched, in some way I couldn't understand, the feeling and mood of my teenage years. Over the years, I've read many of his minicomics and short pieces since then, some collaborations with other cartoonists, but most of them done on his own. The titles alone I think indicates what I'm talking about: "Teenage Neverland" and "Last Cry for Help" being the most obvious. 

After School Special is Dave Kiersh's first full-length graphic novel, and it delves deep into the territory Kiersh has mapped out in all his stories before: adolescents trying their damnedest to make sense of the world around them. The book's main characters are a boy, Jed, who's just transferred to a new school for his senior year, and the girl, Lisa, whose reputation has left her isolated and bitter. Their meeting kicks off the book, and through each other they find a tether holding them back from whatever bleak trajectory they fear when they see all the people around them.
The back cover to
After School Special 

 The book takes its title from the television movies from thirty some odd years ago with the same categorical name, often based on the YA literature of the time. Those books were very different from what the genre has become these days, instead they were rigorously grounded in realism with an uneasy rejection of resolution. Kiersh 
does an amazing job recreating that feeling in all his comics, and it is powerfully evoked here. 

In his biography at the end of the book, Kiersh writes, "Like Jed, I was a kid with angst who always believed believed I had something unique to say. Searching, wandering, and heartbreak followed." After School Special is filled with the ache and beauty of that same searching and heartbreak.

After I read the book, I had an opportunity to chat over email with Dave, and he answered our 5 question interview, along with some comics-specific questions:

What do you do for a living and what do you like best about your job?
Over the years I’ve held several jobs.  The list includes working as a narrator for a planetarium, designing signs for a large car wash chain, and teaching literacy to eighth grade students.  For several years, I worked as a children’s librarian in Boston.  Now I do something similar in Arizona.

I’d like to say that I’m an “artist” for a living, but it’s never been quite so simple.  And it probably doesn’t count considering the fact that I’ve never made any money from any of the books I’ve produced.

The one thing that has been consistent through my life is that I’ve always been a collector.Ever since I was a teenager, I’ve always sought out the obscure and the unpopular.  This led to me becoming obsessed with comic books.  When I got bored of that hobby, I began reading tons of  old, out-of-print young adult books from the 1970s.  And finally, that interest turned into years of collecting rare made-for-tv movies dealing with teenage dilemmas and related ephemera.  I’ve begun to archive much of this material under the umbrella of “Teen Pulp” which relates to my work as a cartoonist.

Art from an early Dave Kiersh minicomic
The thing I like best about my job is finding a special book through interlibrary loan.  Sometimes reading and enjoying a neglected book gives new life to a forgotten voice.  I occasionally blog about such moments in order to share these discard treasures with people searching for similar things online.

Besides for simple information, why do you read?
Reading is way for me to make connections.   It can be almost spiritual in a sense.   When I find a book that I connect with, it’s a relief.   It’s like meeting an old friend or someone who understands the word as I see it.  Sometimes, in real life, these authors are dead.  But through reading their books, their words are more alive than ever.  Such was the case when I read many of Kin Platt’s unpublished manuscripts at the Howard Gotlieb Archives in Boston.  In my opinion, Kin Platt is one of the most neglected literary geniuses.  The young adult books he wrote in the 1970’s are my idea of heaven.

What did you read when you were a teen?
I grew up on Long Island and a hot topic when I was a teen was The Amy Fisher or “Teenage Lolita” story.  On the 5 O’clock news, I’d see this crime story while eating dinner with my family. And then, shortly after it happened, there were three popular made-fort-tv movies based on this tabloid news item!  To my teenage mind this all seemed quite sensational and twisted.   It fed my imagination about the underbelly of suburbia.  Hence, I enjoyed reading scary books, especially things that looked like they were forbidden or for an older audience.  I saw the movie A Young Poisoner’s Handbook when I was 16, and that movie had a very big impact on me.  It was loosely based on the true crime of Graham Young, a teenage killer, but remade as a comedy.  I ended up reading the book The St. Alban’s Poisoner and several other stories of teenage psychopaths.  Around this time, I also came across a really dark collection of short stories called Dear Dead Person by Benjamin Weissman.  That was definitely one of the most subversive things I had ever been exposed to and it was the type of reading that made my heart beat faster.  If my parents knew I had this, I’m sure they would’ve confiscated it, and for good reason.

I was also totally passionate about comic books as this was during the “alternative” comics boom of the 1990’s.  The titles that had the biggest impact on me were Peter Bagge’s Hate and also Like A Velvet Glove Cast In Iron by Daniel Clowes.  This was before the rise and popular acceptance of the “graphic novel”.   At the time, these magazines were still only found in the “adults only” section of my local sleazy comics shop.  Even more obscure, and through mail order only, I was fortunate to discover zines such as John Porcellino’s King-Cat and Jerome Gaynor’s Funkapotamus.  These personal zines (or mini-comics) were less heavy-handed than anything else I was reading at the time.  But they were so intimate and accessible that they inspired me to try something similar.

What book(s) do you wish you had read when you were a teen?
It wasn’t until I was in college that I began reading books specifically published for young adults.  I started buying cheap paperbacks in bulk at library sales.  I’d go on reading binges as a healthy way to deal with much of the social anxiety I was feeling at this point in my life.  In a way, I became addicted and books began to pile up in my apartment.  Eventually, I was able to kick the habit.

I wish I had read many of these books at an earlier age because I think the drama within their pages would’ve helped me to feel less isolated.  I love realistic young adult books and four that I connected to the most, on a deeply personal level were:

Confessions of a Teenage Baboon by Paul Zindel
Is Kissing A Girl Who Smokes Like Licking An Ashtray by Randy Powell
Flames Going Out by Kin Platt
The Carnival In My Mind by Barbara Wersba.

I've also read and enjoyed all the other books written by these prolific authors.

What are you working on now?
I have two projects slowly in the works.  They are both High School disaster stories.The first is a graphic novel written by a cartoonist and friend of mine whose work I admire.  I am doing the illustrations. The second is a prose novel that I started last year, gave up on, and would eventually like to get back to.

How do you make your comics and how did you start?
I don’t have an easy answer for this but what I can say is that it never gets easier and each new project is like starting from scratch.  I’ve been self-publishing my own comics since 1997.  I’d like to think that After School Special is my best project yet.  It’s an accumulation of many ideas from my notebooks over the years.  It was drawn over a period of 8 months, in 4 different states, in a somewhat tumultuous period.
After School Special can be found for sale at Dave's etsy website here, and can be previewed on his website here

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