Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Author Interview: Crystal Skillman & Fred Van Lente

This is Fred.
Today dynamic duo Crystal Skillman and Fred Van Lente join us for an Author Interview series! Crystal and Fred wrote King Kirby, about iconic comic book writer Jack Kirby, which is having its world premiere at the Brick’s Comic Book Theater Festival. Crystal is a kick ass playwright (Geek) and Fred is an equally kick ass comic book writer (Action Philosophers). The combo of the two is just begging for awesome.

Crystal and Fred give us the scoop on King Kirby, run down their bookshelf Top 5, and turn me on to another new band! 

This is Crystal.
Tell me about King Kirby.

Fred: King Kirby is a play spanning the life of comics artist Jack Kirby, co-creator of the Marvel Universe, Captain America, Boy Commandos, New Gods, and many other beloved characters who are more well known than he is.  

Crystal: Yes - in the play Kirby tries to find meaning in his work, which is being auctioned away to those that barely understand how his pieces were created. In doing so the play asks if can he rediscover for himself what it means to be an artist and storyteller.

What inspired you to tell Jack Kirby’s story?

Fred: It really is an amazing tale in itself, with all the twists and turns, the humble beginnings in the Jewish ghetto of the Lower East Side, fighting in the battlefields of France, with lots of betrayal and scheming in the comic book industry itself. When I discovered it, I wanted to share it with an audience well outside comics, and theater seemed like a good vehicle to do that. 

Crystal: It was Fred's first play. Of course I was like - wait a minute! You write comics, novels and screenplays - I only do one thing! Write plays! (Though of course I'm branching out into screenplays now, that was the younger Crystal talking - insert smiley face!). But the minute I read this play I got excited by Kirby's struggle as an artist. It's a story that no matter where you're at is compelling - because at every level you achieve but at every level there's compromise - that is after all the nature of collaboration. As a theater artist first known for my commissioned work created by strong collaborations with theater companies it's a subject that I'm fascinated by and a personal one really. 

What made his work so visionary?

Fred: Kirby's style synthesized the two major strains of storytelling art in America -- the realistic illustrative style of the pulp magazines and the looser cartoon-iness of the newspaper comic strip. It was a style that turned out to be perfect for the superhero genre, and that's why he's generally regarded the greatest superhero artist of all time. 

Crystal: That's why I think a lot of the superhero stuff became art so quickly or influenced/was picked up on by the pop art moment.  His panels are very cinematic. A lot of folks reading this I'm sure saw Argo - in that truth life story it was Kirby's artwork that was used to sell the fake movie. He really drew you into worlds! Again, another piece of history Kirby had his hand in which is amazing ... 

What happened to Kirby? How did he fall into obscurity?

Fred: He didn't so much fall into obscurity in that in the popular imagination others eclipsed him in popular. People like simple stories: Person A created Thing B. It's not a malicious thing, it just happens as popular narratives arise. The same elements of storytelling that made Kirby's work so powerful also rendered him a relative unknown -- that irony is what the play is about. 

Crystal: There's a great line that Fred wrote where one of our comic book greats who is a character in the play(come to see who!) admits: "It is so much easier to BE something than to DO something." The line gives me chills. You hear a story one way, as it's presented to you, but dig deeper and there's so much more. With people it's the same. Behind every play, you could do that. And behind every more famous person's name you hear in entertainment - who are the ten that influenced that person? In theater, for all it's divisions into what we can do better it lies under one huge umbrella - how can we fund and support NEW IDEAS and stop doing what's already been done or is "safe". Kirby cared about what was next. About what's new. For me the play and Kirby's story taps into that larger struggle - what it means to be a visionary - artistically in its creative joy - but also the painful reality of how difficult it is getting your own ideas and stories out there. 

How is writing for a comic book and writing for theater similar? How is it different?

Fred: It's very similar in the sense that it's dialogue and description of action combined. It's different in that the comics medium is statics drawings, the theater medium is actors' voices and bodies, assisted by stagecraft. 

Crystal: Also theater is a lot like a polaroid in photography. You can see an instant result - right there in the room! I know Fred writes SUPER quick - way quicker than me! I learned how to write fast from Fred. But when he's done writing a comic, it takes the artist much more time to draw of course, as it should. When you write these kinds of dramatic moments in theater you can bring them in to the room and hear with actors- and just hear/see them come to life right there! I think Fred's really enjoyed that, and it's reminded me of why I like doing what I do. Also plays can be a bit more like wild animals. A screenplay and comic books can indeed break the rules of course, but you really do want a certain number of pages most likely per issue, and a screenplay has it's limits. Theater does hold our attention in interesting ways - we even consider an hour a possible full length play. We can mess more with structure and discoveries. John Hurley, our director, and cast found much of those in the production - new insights we didn't even realize. I think directors are also a HUGE part of what makes theater different. They really are interpreting the work - creating a marriage between the writers and the actors, and of course designers. 

As a married couple, what was it like writing together?

Fred: Fun! I had drafted a much clunkier version of the play in 2002 and it was Crystal who really dusted it off and made it sing. 

Crystal: Aw!! Seriously it's been the best. The most fun was really tweaking before going into rehearsal. We'd talk about notes to each other - argue a bit then go - ok I get you - type away furiously while one of us was still giving notes, turn around the laptop with the change already done: "You mean like this?" Then of course we jump up and down and congratulate ourselves. Then dive back in being critical. It's exciting to not feel alone in the process - when alone at times you can really doubt where you're going - I wouldn't be half the writer I am today if Fred hadn't given me feedback on my plays as I wrote! Now finally we get to fix things together! 

What inspires you both to write?

Fred: The world.  

Crystal: People! 

What 5 books are on your bookshelf right now?

Fred: RASL by Jeff Smith, THE LIES OF LOCKE LAMORA by Scott Lynch, PAWN SHOP by Joey Esposito and Sean Von Gorman. Just three at the moment... Of course I'm in a hotel room as I type this so perhaps my memory is failing me... 

Crystal: El Coqui Espectacular and the Bottle of Doom by Matt Barbot (also in the comic book fest) which I LOVE - go see it!; Stuff of Legend by Mike Raicht, Brian Smith and Charles Paul Wilson III (a cool new graphic novel I picked up at Awesome Con in DC); Roz Chast's Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant (sent to me by my parents! What are they trying to tell me!); Kicking and Dreaming: A Story of Heart (research for a play, Another Kind of Love, about rock stars featuring sisters which I'm on the verge of a new draft for); and of course ... Making Comics Like the Pros! My hubby's new book he wrote with Greg Pak. I'm not only a good writer but a good wife! Tee hee! And seriously....it's AMAZING. 

What do you recommend everyone see/read/hear?

Fred: Whatever they can.  

Crystal: Go check out The Goodnight Darlings, Kat Auster's group, at Webster Hall Saturday July 19th! Kat just did the rock star drama reading of Another Kind of Love and I'm now obsessed with her music! 

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