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Alex Schumacher talks the Effects of Pickled Herring

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Alex Schumacher

Recently released by Mango Press, Alex Schumacher‘s The Effects of Pickled Herring is a poignant coming-of-age graphic novel about sibling dynamics and the enduring bonds of family.

As he and his sister Alana prepare for their B’nai Mitzvah, twelve-year-old Micah Gadsky and his whole family feel the world shifting beneath their feet when they learn a heartbreaking truth about his grandmother. The stress of the season leads Micah’s introspective nature and Alana’s outgoing disposition to collide, creating division and discord at a time when the family needs each other most. Before Micah can become a man, he must brave the storms of grief, confront the complexities of growing up, and ultimately, learn to lean on love when life trips him up.

We recently got a chance to catch up with the very busy creator Alex Schumacher, the master mind behind the heartfelt The Effects of Pickled Herring.

Graphic Policy: What influence has growing up in the Bay had on your work?

Alex Schumacher:
First and foremost, thank you for having me. I was actually brought up just a piece down the road from the Bay Area in a town rich with literary history—Salinas, CA. As you can imagine it wasn’t difficult to find inspiration in a place where the maestro behind The Red Pony, Of Mice and Men, Cannery Row, East of Eden, and many other classics was born. It was in the soil. It was in the air. That was the feeling of living on the same patch of earth that produced one of the great American novelists. His face and words were quite literally everywhere. In murals on sides of buildings, in the names of businesses, and of course we have the library bearing his name. In a locale where the main attraction is the Steinbeck Center—aptly named for a couple of reasons—you can throw a rock and hit something creatively stimulating. From a personal standpoint, I also consider myself incredibly fortunate to have come of age in a culturally diverse area. Until I moved away, I don’t think I fully understood just how much that upbringing genuinely enriched and affected my life.

GP: What were your favorite comics growing up?

AS:
The earliest comics I remember being enamored with were the newspaper strips or “the funnies.”. I found them visually striking since there was such a broad range of styles and sensibilities on display. For me, when it comes to being attracted to another artist’s work, I’m always seeking individuality. Having so many singular voices collected in one place was riveting! Everything from the surreal to the simplistic could be found on the same crowded page. The Far Side, Calvin & Hobbes, Zits, The Boondocks, Stone Soup, Sherman’s Lagoon, Bizarro, et al., mesmerized me daily. The colossal Sunday editions in color could keep me occupied for hours. We were easily entertained before the internet I suppose. I’ve regularly heard that my artwork is reminiscent of the style one might see in comic strip, and I don’t think that’s a coincidence. When you find something that speaks to you on a very intuitive level at such an impressionable age it imprints itself on you.

GP: Is there a specific comics creators that influenced you?

AS:
When it comes to influential creators in my life, the one that always immediately comes to mind for a shout-out is the late, great Morrie Turner who created Wee Pals and was something of a mentor to me. He was a friend of a friend of the family and invited me to visit him regularly at his home studio in Oakland between 2005 and 2009 during a period when I too lived there. We chatted about the approach and thought process behind producing comics. Mr. Turner shared his expansive collection of original art gifted to him over a lifetime of showing nothing but kindness to others. I pored over those stunning, tangible pieces of comics history and felt connected to something bigger than me in an entirely new way. It was with those stacks of handiwork by larger-than-life cartoonists that I learned an infallible truth about art: flaws are to be embraced, not shunned. Turn a smudge into a texture. For those rare clams you couldn’t finagle into something else there was always white correction paint. But Mr. Turner didn’t simply pass on tricks of the trade. More importantly, he taught me what it meant to be a humble artist. A considerate artist. An artist with flaws that were to be embraced, not shunned. There have been incalculable specific creators who have influenced me along the way since then. None loom quite as large as the inimitable Mr. Turner.

GP: Were there any manga artists/creators, such as Futaro Yamada or CLAMP that you were a fan of?

AS:
You know, I’m regrettably a latecomer to anime and manga. It unfortunately wasn’t quite as ubiquitous when I was a kid. A few anime series were suggested to me a few years ago by a close friend who knows my tastes well. Love is War, Mix, and Your Lie in April were among them. I especially fell in love with Your Lie in April’sstorytelling, so I suppose Naoshi Arakawa may have made the biggest impact on me at this larval stage of my manga journey. Either way, studying those titles unlocked a whole other set of tools that made their marks all over the pages of my latest book. Without those series completely obliterating my perceived limits of comics design the entire aesthetic of The Effects of Pickled Herring would have been significantly different and—in my humble opinion—far less dynamic.

GP: Tell me about your love of comics?

AS:
That is a well that runs deep. I could tell you about the time I discovered my Aunt Sari’s garbage bag full of silver age comics she had collected in her childhood. I could elaborate on the span of years where comics and I were estranged. Or even tell you about our reconciliation in my young adulthood upon being gifted with the knowledge that Michael Allred’s Madman exists. Full disclosure, the nature of my relationship with comics was on again-off again up until my mid-thirties. I’m passionate about music. I’m passionate about movies. I was WAY too passionate about drinking for a chunk of time. All of which made it easy to neglect one of my earliest entertainment objects of affection. That’s when Alison Bechdel found me and completely reprogrammed the way I thought about comics, bringing us full circle. There’s always something new to extrapolate from comics, be it about yourself, other people, and the world around you. Comics can break your heart, or they can make you whole again. They can connect people from around the world. There’s a breathtaking medley of fresh voices, perspectives, life experiences, etc., dominating the field and that seemingly only continues to expand. It’s an astonishing age for our medium right now and I’m here for it.

GP: You grew up in a time, much like me, when Saturday morning cartoons, were a thing, what influence do they have on your work, if any?

AS:
They had a tremendous impact on me! We were around for the sensational animation renaissance in the late eighties and early nineties which revitalized the creator-owned ethos in a lot of ways. In fact, I was so captivated that there was a time where I contemplated taking a run at the animation industry. Call it capriciousness or unearned confidence, but in early 2014 with no experience to speak of I even jumped at the opportunity to pitch some potential series ideas to the big studios. Nickelodeon. Disney. Cartoon Network. Alas it was not to be. It’s such a vibrant and exhilarating form of storytelling. My earliest memories of learning to draw were trying to replicate Disney VHS (look it up, kids) covers and intensely studying the oversized Walter Foster Animation with Preston Blair instructional book. The vast majority of my knowledge regarding the composition of hands was gleaned from the latter publication.

GP: Are there any influences outside of comics which you draw upon in your art?

AS:
Tons! Animation, for starters since we were just discussing it. As part of the “MTV generation” I remember a block of programming called Liquid Television which featured several animated segments including adaptations of Art Spiegelman’s RAW magazine, the iconic Æon Flux, and shorts from one of my personal favorites, Bill Plympton. Music has always been an influential presence in my life, as it is for many creatives. While my tastes can be eclectic from Latin jazz to power pop, there’s a special place in my heart for punk. The kinetic energy captivated me and considering the genre’s Jewish connection with bands like The Ramones, Bad Religion, The Clash, Sleater-Kinney, et al., perhaps gravitating towards punk was operating on pure instinct. As previously mentioned, movies have played a pivotal role in my development as a spinner of yarns. Screenplays and graphic novel manuscripts are not all that dissimilar, so it’s no surprise. There’s much to be learned from film about dialogue, structuring, pacing, tone, visual cues, etc., and it not exactly the worst homework in the world. I’ve been bewitched by the written word since childhood. Both of my grandparents were avid readers and instilled in me a love of prose that exists to this day. My writing has by and large been both galvanized and flummoxed by the finesse of superb novelists. Watercolors and mixed media always blow me away as do feats of engineering—especially bridges! We need to give bridges more love. Anyway, a considerable amount of influence outside of comics.

GP: What influence do your parents have on your work? What was their reaction, when you told what you wanted to do for a living?

AS:
For reference, I was raised by my mother and her sister. They’re my definition of parents when I use that word. One of the beautiful things about languages and definitions is they evolve or go extinct right alongside humanity. Some people would rather certain definitions stay the same since change and differences can be challenging. But things have to shift to continue being relevant and representative of current times. While once thought of in restrictive binary terms, parent no longer solely means mom and dad. I’m proud that “parents” to me means Mom and Aunt Sari. If it wasn’t abundantly clear, my parents have an enormous influence on my work because my upbringing has an enormous influence when I’m developing characters. I think they both recognized from a young age that my central preoccupation was luxuriating in worlds of my own invention, and I would not be swayed. My entire family, Mom and Aunt Sari included, have been nothing but encouraging from the moment I announced my intentions to pursue this debilitating and brutal career path. They provided some much-needed pragmatism and parental wisdom, but not once did they attempt to deter me.

GP: How did you get started in comics?

AS:
The beauty of the format, a kind of whimsical dance between art and text, implanted itself early. I knew I wanted to be part of that dance, but over the years took several interdisciplinary detours. In my mid-ish to late twenties, I believed in my heart of hearts that I would be a syndicated newspaper cartoonist (as hinted at above). I was weaned on a regular diet of the funnies via The Smithsonian Collection of Newspaper Comics. What I didn’t quite realize at the time, since the transition seemingly happened at lightning speed, was the industry was not the viable option it once was. A good friend then invited me to join him in self-publishing a comic book series. Though comic strips are sort of the cousin of the comic book, the process included a steep and humbling learning curve. With that title we tabled at a few conventions at which point I also learned to network. Comic cons are at their core trade shows after all. This was how I effectively secured my initial graphic novel contract in 2013. There’s something so wonderfully intimate about the direct market in the sense that everyone from creators to editors to publishers are so accessible and, in most cases, more than happy to chat with aspiring artists. Of course, gatekeeping and unethical practices still exist, but comics is a unique microcosm in pop art, whose secrets aren’t as closely guarded as they tend to be in some other storytelling communities.

GP: When did you know working on comics would be your career?

AS:
I’m not sure I necessarily knew I would ever successfully flip passion to occupation. What was apparent, at least since the art bug bit me as a youngster, was I would be consumed by the chase. In a way you have to give yourself over to it in order to forge any sort of career. It’s quite a daunting prospect when you actually take a step back and consider all of the factors—each improbable in their own right—necessary to catch a break. It is absolutely about hard work. It’s also to a lesser, but not insignificant, degree about luck. When I say that I’m not implying some sort of divine or cosmic intervention. I’m invoking the old adage, “Luck is when preparation meets opportunity.” It’s not a guaranteed payoff even when you put in the time. Even when preparation meets opportunity. Knowing this I persisted. I didn’t want to have any “what ifs” at the end of my time here and knew that fairly early on.

GP: Do you have any favorite comics you are reading right now?

AS:
ODESSA by Jonathan Hill, which is technically a return to this beautiful book, but graphic novels are deserving of multiple read throughs. I’ve also recently started Lawrence Lindell’s BLACKWARD about building a place to belong and the power of community. On deck is the weighty tome DUCKS by Kate Beaton and I’m looking forward to diving in!

The Effects of Pickled Herring

GP: Can you tell us what lead you to decide to tell your grandparents’ story, and how different it is from The Effects Of Pickled Herring?

AS:
Let me address the second question first. My retelling of my grandparents’ story is essentially a funhouse mirror version with the most notable difference being the premature appearance of grandmother’s cognitive decline. In reality, this affliction didn’t actually materialize until I was a bit older. Now the “why.” For me, my best stories tend to come from my own life, be it experiences I’ve had, or anecdotes others have shared with me. The Effects of Pickled Herring was no different. When all is said and done, this is a story that offers representation for a contingent of young Jews that is not often seen in literature. The perspective from the somewhere-in-between-cultural-and-religious-tween-Jew-Jew deserves to be heard and seen. If stories of my family’s shenanigans can make them (and anyone who’s felt like an outsider) feel less alone all the better. There’s also a longstanding tradition of storytelling being a method of families preserving history and traditions to pass down from generation to generation. I suppose to some degree I’ve come to think of my work under similar terms. More than simply recording a specific time in my formative years for posterity though, it’s just as much a love letter to my grandparents and my community than it is about anything. Those topics aren’t to alienate anyone, mind you. On the contrary, I wrote this book as a way to bring people in and start positive dialogues. We can only start to connect when we lift those shrouds of generalizations and give everyone a peek at what’s actually happening.

GP: How similar is Micah (the protagonist in The Effects Of Pickled Herring) to you?

AS:
Micah is fairly similar to me, though not as similar as if I had written a memoir. I enjoy the freedom of detachment offered by veiled non-fiction (or roman à clef as the learned in literature would say). Liberties can be taken, and events or interactions can be exaggerated without offending or inflaming any parties who may have been involved. It’s tough to quantify since the fragmented factoids and supplemental fiction interweave constantly. While writing I hopscotch between real and imaginary so often the borders are completely blurred. In the good way though that further obscures similarities to actual persons (living or deceased), places, buildings, and pickled products.

GP: How similar is your siblings relationship is to Micah and Alana?

AS:
In the same vein as Micah’s characterization, I exaggerate and manipulate the non-fiction elements to the point they are utterly unrecognizable as the truth. Many, if not all the major events in the story are informed to varying degrees by real incidents… None of which I would call an accurate depiction. If anything, I try to capture the soul or the vibe of personalities, relationships, events, etc. My sister and I definitely pushed each other’s buttons when we were younger, as most siblings are wont to do, but I also endeavored to capture the close bond that’s always been present. That was probably the element that I most wanted to cut through the noise. Even when we were at each other’s throats so to speak, I’d like to believe there was love behind it. Somewhere deep, deep down in the recesses of our hearts. Somewhere. Maybe. Regardless, I’m happy to say we enjoy a far more peaceful and supportive relationship in adulthood.

GP: What kind of reception have you had with The Effects Of Pickled Herring?

AS:
It’s thankfully been overwhelmingly positive, and people seem to be excitedly connecting with the story. I have obvious concerns since we find ourselves in an era where book bans targeting marginalized groups are happening again, but thus far most of the feedback has luckily been the exact opposite. The inclusion of cultural elements was nonnegotiable for me, but I was almost obsessed with ensuring it wasn’t alienating. In this context, it may be best to include an outside opinion. The magnificent Brian Fies, celebrated creator of Mom’s Cancer, A Fire Story, and The Last Mechanical Monster, graciously allowed me to share his thoughts on the matter after reading the book. “For what it’s worth, you never lost me. I thought you were very smart in how you explained the symbolism and significance of the food, prayers, preparation, etc. Even if I never lived it, I understood what a big deal Micah’s bar mitzvah was to him. I appreciate that; it’s a narrow road to walk between condescending and leaving a reader hanging. I thought you balanced it just right.” I’ve been exceedingly grateful for the thus far warm reception.

GP: How does your family feel about it?

AS:
Though my grandparents are unfortunately no longer with us to react, I have zero doubt they would have been nothing less than riotously happy. The rest of my family are over the moon. It’s emotional as many details are pulled from one of the more tumultuous times in my family’s life, but they understand and agree that sharing this story is truly about honoring my grandparents and respecting the intelligence—both emotional and mental—of the readers. As my mother was a teacher for 33 years, she categorically approves on both fronts. The audiences of children’s literature want and deserve more complex, or even chaotic narratives to actually reflect some of what they’re experiencing. They’re not almost people. They are people. They live perplexing lives with perplexing issues. The least I can do as an author of books for younger readers is acknowledge that.

GP: What do you want readers to get from The Effects Of Pickled Herring?

AS:
The same thing I hope they get from all my books—that they’re loved, even in a world that can often times feel particularly unloving.

The post Alex Schumacher talks the Effects of Pickled Herring first appeared on Graphic Policy.
 
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