COMIC BOOK YETI: David and Patrick, thank you both for stopping by the Yeti Cave today!
DAVID MAASS: Thanks for reading our book and giving us the opportunity to share some of the backstory with your Yeti…lings?
PATRICK LAY: Yeti-thusiasts? Anyways, thrilled to be here, long time follower, first time caver!
CBY: Glad to have you both! (I'll have to check with Matt on the appropriate term of endearment for the Yeti Cave denizens.) The circumstances surrounding the creation of Death Strikes: The Emperor of Atlantis are possibly the most tragic of any comic I’ve covered thus far since starting with Comic Book Yeti. I wasn’t aware of Viktor Ullmann and Petr Kien’s opera and libretto, Der Kaiser von Atlantis oder Die Tod-Verweigerung, until receiving the opportunity to interview the two of you. How did both of you first come to learn about this story and its origins?
DM: It would be great if there was some sort of Indiana Jones/Da Vinci Code backstory–but our globe-trotting adventure didn’t actually happen until after we signed our book deal. The actual backstory is that I came across the opera in the most mundane of places: the CD section of a Best Buy in Paradise Valley, Arizona. In the nineties, Decca had begun releasing a collection of music banned by the Nazis, and, as a teenage mall-punk, I became obsessed with all this experimental classical music that served as an artistic rebellion against authoritarianism.
PL: Haha, I learned about it through Dave! We both spent time at the Alaska Robotics Comics Camp in Juneau, Alaska in 2018. We had kind of met throughout the camp but we really started talking near the end where Dave unraveled this incredible story that he was adapting into a graphic novel. If this was an Indiana Jones story, I'd be the guy with the plane that ended up tagging along.
CBY: In that case, don't let Dave throw your pet snake overboard like Jock Lindsey's! For those (like me) previously unfamiliar with the background behind this comic, it was written by Ullmann and Kien in the Theresienstadt concentration camp during Nazi occupation of Bohemian territory. Prior to their transfer to Auschwitz, where both men died, Dr. Emil Utitz was entrusted with their manuscripts, and this eventually ended up in the care of Dr. Hans Günther Adler, who survived the war despite losing his entire family. Through his stewardship of the material went on to enable multiple productions of the opera and libretto from the mid-1970’s onward. What sort of rights and attribution needed to be ironed out to bring this to the page in the adapted form you’ve created?
DM: The original score and libretto entered the public domain a few years ago, but nonetheless I did do a lot of outreach and research to make sure that folks and institutions who are close to the opera or caretakers over the materials were supportive of the project. Everyone was very enthusiastic and accommodating, recognizing that this was an opportunity to expose a large audience to creative works that are in danger of being forgotten. What was especially challenging was tracking down and obtaining permission for all the historical images and manuscript scans you’ll find in the back of the book. But, I think readers will agree all the paperwork was definitely worth the effort.
CBY: I noted the credits to Ezra Rose for character design and Richard Bruning for lettering and book design. Can you relate how the team came together?
DM: When I first started working on this process in earnest, I asked Darick Robertson (Transmetropolitan, The Boys) if he’d review my pitch. He came back with very direct advice not to go any further without an artist on board. So, I went to queercartoonists.com and that’s where I found Ezra Rose, whose anti-fascist, Jewish mysticism-inspired art was the exact aesthetic I had in mind. Then, I went looking for sequential artists, and I hired a few illustrators to draw sample pages using Ezra’s designs. Patrick’s try-out just blew us away. Richard Bruning and Karen Berger are this legendary creative couple in comics, and Richard does all the book designs for Karen’s imprint. But then Richard was interested in lettering a full-length graphic novel for the first time, and we were more than happy to offer him the opportunity. One of the great things about working with this team is that we were all trying something very new, and when talented people are trying something new, they are more likely to put everything they’ve got into a project.
CBY: For a first time team, it came together incredibly cohesively. What sort of working arrangements helped you all communicate clearly around a moving piece of such a sensitive nature? What thoughts were shared around doing the source material justice, and what sort of freedom did you allow yourselves and each other to make this story your own in its adapted form without being too precious about retaining elements?
DM: We’d barely started when the pandemic hit, and so we had to rely on the same digital channels that everyone was starting to develop: email, Zoom, DMs, Google Drive, Dropbox, you name it. But in some ways, that allowed for us to focus a lot more than if we’d had the distractions of our regular, pre-COVID lives. My guidance to Ezra and Patrick was that we should incorporate as many historical references as possible, especially panels inspired by Kien’s own illustrations. Ezra is a great researcher and I was really impressed how they integrated history I didn’t know about into their designs, such as basing some of Life’s appearance on the non-binary French artist and resistance fighter Claude Cahun. I was lucky enough to be able to bring Patrick to the Czech Republic, where he was able to gather all kinds of photography of artifacts and architecture, which you’ll find baked into panels throughout the book.
PL: Every member of the team, creative and editorial, came to the source material with enormous respect. That was a minimum barrier to entry–I can’t imagine Dave letting someone that saw the project as a cash-grab anywhere near it, haha. So there didn’t really need to be a memorandum of understanding or anything about how important preservation was. As the script moved through drafting, editing, and into the hands of sensitivity-readers we did have conversations about keeping our ears open. We listened and made changes throughout the process as we discovered some of our initial ideas were not the best way forward. I changed elements of the art, Dave re-thought some locations, changes to scenes were explored but, again and again, we came back to the source material and the pool of expert voices that we had collected. I think even at this stage, keeping our ears open and listening as people explore the book will be a part of our experience.
DM: I would just add that Ullmann and Kien turned irreverence into a tool of resistance, and so, paradoxically, one of the best ways to revere their legacy was not to be overly reverent towards the source material.
CBY: That's impressive! Not every comic project gets to employ field work for research. I know Kien’s illustrations were cited as a visual inspiration - what else factored into the arresting illustration style decided upon for this story? There is a rich range value, with canny attention to grey tones throughout. What techniques did you employ to achieve this, Patrick?
PL: I don't want to nerd out too much about the art process…but since you asked! I’ve been developing this process for the past several years–penciling digitally, with very thin, very spare lines. Then I print those pencils on watercolor board (again, as lightly as possible to avoid any bleed through) and attack the pages with ink wash. I used a Series 7 brush for almost the whole book, with a little tech pen here and there, approaching the tones like a monochrome watercolor painting more than a traditional comic ink wash. Kien had very lovely, organic linework in the portraits he made in Terezin, and I tried to keep that spirit here and there, as the story allowed.
CBY: That sort of insight is great - I'm always keen to unpack how comics end up looking the way they do. Now, the first English translation of the material was undertaken by Aaron Kramer in 1977 for the American premiere - did you use this iteration as a basis for the text adaptation, or did you return to earlier versions of the manuscript and score to derive inspiration? What other written work may have provided inspiration for the approach taken with this adaptation?
DM: I went back to the originals, and I do use the plural, because there were actually multiple versions to analyze: a handwritten libretto by Kien, a handwritten score by Ullmann, and a typed version of the libretto that may have been sanitized after going through the camp’s censors. And of course, we couldn’t know which other versions might’ve existed but were lost. We were also faced with two different endings to choose from (we split the difference), and an apparent conflict between Ullmann and Kien over whether Life should be presented as the Pierrot or Harlekin archetypes (most other versions go with Ullmann’s Harlekin, but we thought it more appropriate to go with Kien’s choice of Pierrot).
With the help of some scholars, a professional translator, and software, I took those versions and created a literal translation, which I then rewrote to work in a more modern, prose voice. I tried to keep all the concepts and sentiments, but I did expand on it significantly to create a richer storyline and fleshed-out characters with full narrative arcs. There was a lot of ambiguity and poetry in the script that was difficult to make sense of, and so I had to trust my gut in interpreting the intent. We also borrowed other poetry Kien had written to fill out some of the holes in the dialogue. We even found a short story that Kien had written as a child, imagining the letters of the alphabet at war with one another, and we used that as a flashback scene establishing Emperor Overall’s origin story.
CBY: The depth you've involved in the decision-making process for how this comic was presented is incredibly impressive (and I knew there were good reasons I wanted to cover this title!) So, to turn to how it is being presented to the public, Berger Books is a Dark Horse imprint, launched by Karen Berger, to support creator-owned comic books and graphic novels. It’s been around about six years now, so at what stage did you two initiate conversations with the publishing team around this project, and how did it all come to fruition?
DM: I’d met Karen while writing a piece on Nnedi Okorafor’s LaGuardia for The Daily Beast a little more than four years ago. When it came time to work on a pitch list with my agent, Madison Smartt Bell of Ayesha Pande Literary, I asked him to add Berger Books as a bit of a long shot. To our surprise, she contacted us with not just an interest, but a clear desire to publish our book. We were all basically in the best kind of shock. After that, we weren’t going to consider any other editor, because we knew that she was uniquely qualified to help us achieve our vision of a book that would both appeal to fans of both Art Spiegelman and Neil Gaiman. As a team of early career comics creators, we knew we’d really benefit from having such an experienced editor to guide us.
CBY: It's certainly paid off with a book that doesn't look the product of inexperience in the slightest. You’ve gotten some absolutely laudatory testimonials from luminaries in the comics industry such as Neil Gaiman and Derf Backderf, as well as respected academics, musicians, and subject matter experts of all stripes. How did the process of reaching out for commentary on this piece shape up? What sort of promotional efforts went into getting all these testimonials before going to print?
DM: Karen, Patrick and I came up with a list of people that we either had an existing connection with, however tenuous, or we were comfortable reaching out to cold. Obviously, Karen has a long history with Neil from her Vertigo days, and so she was able to put our book in front of him (although that was the last one to come in, and so it came as a glorious surprise that required a last minute restructuring of the cover). A lot of the others were people who had helped us at some point along the way, like Darick who I mentioned before, or NYU professor Michael Beckerman, who was kind enough to share some research and connections. But I do owe a debt of gratitude to musicologist Bob Elias, who connected me with conductors like JoAnn Falletta and Teddy Abrams. I’ll admit, It probably also doesn’t hurt that in addition to being very compelling, the book doesn’t take a huge time commitment to read.
PL: It is an indescribable feeling to have people you respect and admire take the time to read your work and craft a succinct, precise statement about their impressions and I was so honored by each one. I mean, it is genuinely difficult to do, haha, and it feels like a huge ask. I had been waiting to have something I was really proud of, so I could reach out to several of my former professors and colleagues from the California College of the Arts MFA in Comics program and to get the response we got was really tremendous. But that was all we really did: ask.
CBY: I hope our readers take away that lesson for their own endeavors: you can't get the answer you want unless you ask the question. Back to the content of the comic, Death could’ve taken many forms in the interest of conveying visual metaphor - you’ve opted to go with a skeletal soldier. While you poke fun at the impassivity of a skull as a vehicle for expressing emotion, you were able to effectively pace and plot out visual punctuation to get across the expressions of an immutable character. What advice do you both have around imbuing characters with life on the page to communicate tone and mood, (even if the character represents death)?
DM: We were very lucky to happen across a small cartoon that Peter Kien drew of Death that we could base our design on. And for awhile there, I was really obsessed with every detail and jumped on any thread I could find for guidance. At one point, I cold-emailed David Lapham (Stray Bullets), simply because he’d drawn a skull-faced soldier for the cover of the hip-hop album, “Complicate Your Mind with Violence” by L’Orange and Jeremiah Jae, and I wanted to know why he gave his soldier human hands instead of skeleton hands. I knew I wanted Death’s face to be an immutable skull that we could use for comedic effect, but by adding a smoke trail, Ezra gave us another characteristic we could use to indicate Death’s state of mind.
PL: Death was a particular challenge, one that Dave and I had to negotiate through the early phases of the project. My instinct was to stretch and squash the skull, especially the eye sockets, to make accessing a wide range of emotions easier. But as you said, we poke at the impassivity of the skull in the script, so that clearly wasn’t going to work. Instead, I learned to lean on the body language, the shape of the smoke at Death’s feet, and the framing of the shots to carry more emotion. That is where I would suggest starting – your characters’ shoulders can say a lot about how they are feeling! The whole design can be active as well: it is easy (gosh, so easy) to get caught up on how the clothes should drape, without thinking about how they could inform the emotional content of the shot. There is a frame where Death eagerly watches silhouettes beating each other to death and I was really surprised while laying that page out by how effective the pose was at translating that emotion. I didn’t have any fleshy parts of the face to manipulate, but the posture, the composition, and the lighting still married to bring across the sense of leering interest we needed for the sequence. Activating your characters’ whole body enhances the composition and lighting choices you make.
CBY: The posture and attention of the character definitely helped convey the mood, and the thought put into these elements certainly came through in the imagery. Regarding the writing, there are some turns of phrase that pop up with a clearly contemporary tone. What sort of adjustments and edits did you make to the overarching story to create more connection with today’s readers? How much liberty did you feel comfortable taking in deviating from the source material, and is there anything you’d advise our readers around the adaptation process?
DM: With an opera, audiences are willing to accept poetry and plot holes, as long as it’s carried by the music. In order to make this a graphic novel, we had to toss the idea of being a verbatim adaptation and focus on establishing a strong narrative. So, I gave myself the freedom to build on what was there, while also requiring a reason for every choice: new elements had to be drawn from history or be commentary on current events, new dialogue and plot elements had to follow the trajectory and wordplay already laid out for us in the libretto. Some of the biggest changes I made were adding an interlude that adds to the side story of two characters introduced in passing in the opera, changing the power dynamic of the human protagonists, and giving the spirits of Life and Death more presence throughout the story. Karen further helped by encouraging us to add narration to help guide the reader through the comic. I had to remind myself: when a composer and librettist write an opera, the written draft is often where their involvement ends. Opera directors and conductors are going to use the score as a blueprint and make it their own, and so I had to give myself permission to do the same.
CBY: Stepping back from the material, I’d like to offer you both the opportunity to highlight some unrelated comics that have been catching your attention lately. Is there any other media (film, music, literature, etc.) that you think our readers should pick up once they read Death Strikes: The Emperor of Atlantis?
DM: I’ve been making a real effort to support creators whose work is facing censorship, especially since so many of them are people we encountered on our own creative journeys. Patrick went to school with Maia Kobabe’s whose Gender Queer is the most banned book in the nation. My college creative writing instructor, Jewell Parker Rhodes, has seen her book Ghost Boys banned from schools. Several other attendees of Alaska Robotics Comics Camp–Ryan North (Slaughterhouse-Five), Raina Telgemeier (Drama), Erika Moen (Let's Talk About It: The Teen's Guide to Sex, Relationships, and Being a Human)–have seen their books pulled from library shelves. I received a lot of advice from Yves Kugelman of the Anne Frank Fund, which produced Anne Frank’s Diary: The Graphic Adaptation–another censored graphic novel. One of the best ways people can protect art from authoritarian suppression is to make sure they obtain, preserve, and share these stories.
PL: I definitely echo Dave’s sentiments: don’t let people take this work from you. I recommend Mel Gillman’s Stage Dreams if you’d like something a little lighter after you read Death Strikes. Thien Pham’s new book, Family Style would be another incredible next read, or take a step back and read Naughty Bits by Roberta Gregory. I haven’t read it yet, but I am excited to get to Trina Robbins’ (a legend) book with Anne Timmons and Mo Oh about Holocaust survivor and comic artist, Lily Renée. I think my suggestion would be to go broad, explore the spaces where systems are being leveraged to erase voices.
CBY: David and Patrick, thank you both for making time to share your deeply considerate insight into the process of creating this testament to the work of Viktor Ullmann and Petr Kien. We look forward to having you back for subsequent conversations with your future work, and I hope everyone takes the opportunity to pick up Death Strikes: The Emperor of Atlantis!
Check out the comic and creators' work below: