Smash Pages Q&A: Jason Novak

The creator of ‘Joe Frank: Ascent’ discusses adapting the radio dramas of the legendary radio producer.

Jason Novak is a cartoonist and writer perhaps best known for his collaboration with the poet Ron Padgett, How To Be Perfect: An Illustrated Guide and his books Et Tu, Brute?: The Deaths of the Roman Emperors and Baseball Epic: Famous and Forgotten Lives of the Dead Ball Era. He’s contributed to The Rumpus, The Paris Review, The Morning News, and many other publications. His new book, an adaptation of some of the radio stories of Joe Frank, is Joe Frank: Ascent.

Joe Frank is a legendary radio producer who influenced generations of producers including Ira Glass (This American Life), Jad Abumrad (Radiolab) and Jonathan Goldstein (Wiretap, Heavyweight). Frank wrote plays and a book, and he was loved by many in Hollywood, but radio was always his first love.

In the pages of Joe Frank: Ascent, Novak manages to adapt Frank’s work in really striking ways. Using the rhythms and designs of the page in ways similar to how Frank used music and the way he spoke. It’s a strange experience to see some of the pieces I know almost by heart adapted into a new medium, but Novak captured Frank’s voice in a way that’s stunning to behold. Novak was kind enough to answer a few questions about the project.

Jason, as a first question I often ask people, how did you come to comics?

Very circuitously. My father was an artist, though I never met him. He was also a drug addict and frequently lived on the streets. I tracked him down as an adult and we had a couple phone conversations, but he died before I was ever able to visit him. He was in rural Nebraska by then. I had to sort of piece together a picture of him from the few anecdotes my mother shared with me growing up, and it was a hard impression to come to terms with. Though she never discouraged me from art, my general sense was that art was a path to ruin.

So I spent my teen and young adult years trying to be a writer. When I was 25, my girlfriend at the time was moving to Portland, Oregon, for grad school and told me I could only tag along if I enrolled in something myself. I’d dropped out of high school, so the only thing I really qualified for was art school. But lucky me, it was an old, traditional painting based institution, so I got in a couple semesters of classical foundation training before my relationship imploded and I dropped out. Then I followed another woman – God help me – to London where I chased the absurd fantasy that I was somehow going to transform into T.S. Eliot or Henry James. It was there, getting foggy-headed in pubs, that I first started drawing cartoons. I got my first rejection from Private Eye. Then I ran out of money and came back to the States. But the thirst for more rejections has never gone away!

You write in the book about coming across Frank’s work when you were younger, but I’m curious what made you think about adapting his work?

Joe had started posting brief vignettes on Facebook and they just struck me as perfect scenarios for cartoons of a dozen or less panels. As a long time fan of his work, I was already aware that he’d published a collection of stories in 1993 that suffered, some said, for not having his signature gravelly voice and music loops. So I thought, though I certainly can’t mimic his baritone with my drawings, I can at least try to deepen the experience of his words with pictures.

You started doing this when he was still alive. I remember you did a piece that was on The Paris Review website. Was that the first piece you made?

It was. I did a second one at the same time, which still hasn’t been published, but both of those were my rehearsal for working with him. I’d just published a book with the poet Ron Padgett, How to Be Perfect: An Illustrated Guide, and felt like collaborating was maybe something I might be good at. It kind of got stuck in my head that collaborating was a good thing after discovering the playwright George S. Kaufman, who famously wrote many plays, but always with other people. There’s something about being able to share in the triumph, or more often defeat, with another person who’s just as invested in what you’re doing. Call it codependency!

Were you thinking early on about adapting multiple stories, about making a book?

Joe was so pleased with the first experiment that he sent me a manuscript he’d been working on. It was transcriptions of his shows that he’d further edited and altered, hoping to get them published as a second collection of stories. Much bigger than his last book, in fact. He thought maybe I could illustrate them, with the odd picture appearing here and there. But of course he died, and I thought it best to step aside and let his family do what they needed to. When his widow, Michal, approached me about continuing the project, I basically acted as his agent, shopping it around everywhere I could think of. Ultimately, Fantagraphics was the publisher willing to give it a chance, which meant I needed to rethink the project as straight ahead comics. So I spent quite a bit of time poring through his material for stories that seemed right for something that was mostly pictures.

I have to ask about this long manuscript of his he was working on, I hope someone is going to publish it.

It’s hard to say. If the book that just came out does well, perhaps Fantagraphics will invite a second volume. But prior to approaching Fantagraphics, I’d tried to interest literary publishers in the manuscript, the idea being that I’d do a few illustrations here and there, but no one showed any interest. Publishing is such a gamble, with such dismal returns, that you kind of have to be obsessed to the point of ruin just to get an editor on the phone with you. 

So when it became a comics project, ow did you decide what to adapt? Because he made a lot of pieces which do not lend themselves to adaptation. What were the qualities or elements you were looking for?

One of my earliest memories of his show was the story, included in the book, of the archaeologist who discovers a party happening inside an ancient Egyptian tomb. I grew up on Indiana Jones, so that story immediately triggered pleasure centers, but I was also struck by the eerie sense of hopelessness that accompanied it. That hit home, in a way. On the one hand, I harbored the hope for adventure, but on the other hand I was constantly confronting defeat.

But the narrative style Joe employs for his misadventure stories seemed perfectly suited to my style, because there’s a lot of distance between the narrator and the characters. I find dialog bubbles distracting, and Joe didn’t employ a lot of dialog for these stories. So I was able to treat the book sort of like a silent movie, with inter-title narration.

Of the stories in the book, I’m curious which was the most challenging to make?

The hardest story to make was probably “Dreamers” because it tackles the subject of Israel, which seems to anger everyone. I thought Joe’s treatment was evenhanded, but pictures can be just as explosive if handled carelessly. But also, it’s one of the few stories with dialog, and I wasn’t quite sure how to fold that into my structure until I hit on drawing the speaking scenes without borders. It’s also the longest story in the book. My original thought had been to do a bunch of Joe’s much shorter vignettes, like a book of gags, essentially. But it was Michal who pushed me to do the longer stories, which she said Joe valued more. I wasn’t sure I had the stamina to do that. These are definitely the longest comics I’ve ever done, and doing “Dreamers” helped me figure out that I had it in me.

I wanted to ask about “Dreamers”, which is a longer piece. And I’ve heard it a lot because that was the piece where I first got introduced to Frank’s work. But you really managed to find ways to capture some of his voice in how you laid out and edited the text and I wonder if you could talk about that process and your thinking.

I guess by the time I started working on that piece, I’d listened to “Dreamers” quite a bit, too, because though I was already familiar with Joe’s work, Dreamers was his triumphant return after a decade of silence. And it had been a conspicuous silence after so many productive years. So I found myself grasping for clues about what might have happened in the interim. I could hear the age in his voice. A voice that had been so strong had become slightly brittle. It was moving, in a way. And I’m sure he himself was aware of the change. The theme of aging played a much bigger role in those later shows.

But prior to working with Joe, I’d done a series of pieces on immigration for Harper’s that focused on the landscape of refugees in transit. They were heavy on atmosphere and light on text. So with “Dreamers,” which starts in a poor Arab village that hems an Israeli settlement, it felt a little like revisiting the Harper’s work. The Harper’s stuff was all published exclusively on their website, so I didn’t have to worry about space. And this is something that has really been a demarcation line for cartoons and comics with the advent of Web 2.0. You can be way more adventurous with space if you’re not worried about printing costs. It had become a hang-up for me, in fact – this idea that print real estate is so precious that every inch of paper needed ink on it. So I sort of had to get over that, not only with Dreamers, but also with the whole book.

But it was for the best. I work intuitively, sort of like a method actor, following the script wherever it takes me. So for example when, in Dreamers, Joe says that the Hasidic student is beyond religion, and there’s a gravity of emphasis in his voice, I knew I had to surrender the entire page to that single sentence, with the lone figure of the Hasidic student beaming in the center of the page.

Conversely, Joe sometimes launches into list sentences, where it seems to me that the whole point is to showcase a kind of compulsive excess. In those cases, it seemed appropriate to crowd a single page with more words and pictures. I think it actually quickens the pace to have more matter on a single page. That lone Hasidic student in a certain sense is asking us to linger for a little longer.

You mentioned in the book that you draw comics with felt tip pens on post it notes and I wonder if you could talk a little about how you wrote and drew and assembles the comics

It was helpful knowing that cartoonist Gabrielle Bell works almost exclusively with six-panel pages precisely because she’s still editing the text as she goes along, and having the brick-like structure just makes revisions easier – move a panel here, take one out there, etc.

But I’d already just done a book with six panels on every page, and for my purposes it felt a little claustrophobic, so I knew I wanted to keep things fluid the way she does, but also keep the pages open enough to give Joe’s stories the space, atmosphere, and rhythm that they’d need to pull off the same dramatic effects as radio. So I had to make my peace with putting fewer panels on each page for the sake of retaining the atmosphere. It reminds me of the show Joe did where a mime silently performs for a minute. That’s a dreadfully long silence in radio, and it felt like a risk doing the same sort of thing with comics, which traditionally demand economy, with not an inch of paper unused, but it seemed like the right risk.

Maybe it’s because I’m editing an audio piece right now, but working that way does feel a little like editing and working on an audio story.

Definitely. I’m 41, so when I was a kid, secondhand reel-to-reel tape recorders weren’t that hard to come by. I ended up with one at some point and used to splice it up and play with the speed, play it backwards. I grew up in Concord, California, which is where the experimental sampling group Negativland started out, and there must be something in the water there, because I remember the first time I ever heard them it just felt like poetry.

What’s next for you? Do you want to adapt more of his stories? Are you interested in something completely different? What’s on your mind?

I was actually working on something else concurrently with the Joe Frank book, which will be coming out later this summer. The back story is that in 1975 the poets Anne Waldman and Bernadette Mayer were commissioned as freelance journalists to cover the NBA season for a now long-defunct men’s magazine called OUI. Their article was ultimately rejected, so they ended up publishing it in a very limited mimeographed edition in 1976, calling it “The Basketball Article.” I’m not really a sports fan, but I’m a huge fan of Anne and Bernadette. A couple years ago, I’d published a book about baseball, a history book of sorts, in spite of not really being a baseball fan, because I’d alighted on an angle – the pre-integration color line – that made it interesting to me. So when I learned about Anne and Bernadette’s basketball article, I thought maybe I could turn it into a comic book. It’s as much about women exploring a male-dominated arena as it is about basketball. It took a while to track them down, but they were into it. I think what clinched it was that I’d already done a book with a friend of theirs, the poet Ron Padgett. I don’t want to ramble too far afield here, but the so-called Second Generation New York School of poets is a longstanding preoccupation of mine.

There’s one other thing that’s still ongoing that I have high hopes for. New Yorker cartoonist Sara Lautman and I have been working on a collection of illustrated fables for the past couple years that we’re determined to see published even if we have to print it ourselves. A couple excerpts have already appeared here:

and here:

The stories are very much in the spirit of fabulists like Ambrose Bierce, Idries Shah, and Italo Calvino. And it’s a rare case of me doing the writing and someone else doing the art. But Sara’s work is amazing. In my opinion, she’s one of the best living cartoonists. Her lines are wild and distinctive and unique.

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