Smash Pages Q&A: Ira Marcks on ‘Shark Summer’

The cartoonist and teacher discusses his latest graphic novel, which combines his love of ‘Goonies,’ ‘Jaws’ and more.

In the new graphic novel Shark Summer, three friends on Martha’s Vineyard, inspired by a film about a shark being filmed on the island, spend their summer trying to make a film and solve a local mystery. It’s a familiar story, but the middle grade adventure is a fun and dangerous kinetic adventure of three kids coming together for an unforgettable summer that will shape each of them in different ways.

Ira Marcks has been working as a cartoonist, illustrator and teacher for years. He’s made projects that range from The Exploit and Aquarium Drift to the project Creative Everyday to to the webcomic Witch Knot, to Harvey Pelican & Co., a catalogue of esoteric things that ran in Weird Tales. Shark Summer is a departure for him, but it’s also the work of a talented and dynamic storyteller and hopefully this powerful book will find him a new audience. We spoke recently about the book, our shared love of Jaws and color.

I really enjoyed Shark Summer, which is set during the filming of Jaws though it’s not named. I’m curious where book started, because you’ve been making comics for years.

This puts together some things I’ve been wanting to do mixed with some experiences I’ve had with educational comics, which are a very different type of audience. I had an agent and was pitching a lot of fantasy and sci-fi stuff for years and it wasn’t going anywhere. The stories I wanted to tell weren’t quite aligning with my style. I found an editor who had just moved to Little Brown and she started looking at my stuff and said, I want an idea set in the real world. I like your voice but none of these ideas are what I want to put out. I said, I love behind the scenes stories of filmmaking and is there a more classic movie than Jaws? I said, what about kids having a Goonies-type adventure behind the scenes of Jaws? She said, yeah, and it went from there.

That is a very good one pitch. And I’m sure it took years of telling stories and making comics to be able to make up a line like that on the spot.

Yeah. I think I had failed so many times. I just wanted to know, what does an editor need to hear from me? Usually it’s a lot less than you think. In terms of pitching a project, they don’t want you to over-develop it. They want to have a voice in where it’s going. This editor liked the concept and that we could craft it. I think it strengthened the story and the levels it operated at.

Did you have a sense of the characters and these elements coming into play, or were you trying to find a way into the story?

I really wanted it to be about the creative process. I had two things that complimented each other really well. There’s this idea of friendship and summertime and these fleeting moments you’ll never have again. Which are classic middle grade adventure tropes. The Jaws idea is a good compliment to that because it’s also about this iconic unique summer from an economic or cultural standpoint, where it really changed what the island was. It was would never be like that again. That occurred to me early on and helped me design the book. My friendships growing up were always rooted in creative endeavors. I liked video games and role playing, but I would rather be making something. That was how I bonded with friends. The characters grew out of the types of personalities you have in a creative friendship. Gayle becomes the point of view character. Her strengths are in a totally different field – she’s a fast pitch player – but she has confidence. She knows how to go for something. That’s how her teams always used to win. Elijah is the essence of the cinematographer, but he does’t have that drive. And Maddie has the voice. I disassembled aspects of my personality and the characters emerged from that. I wanted them to be unique and alive, but they’re also representative of pieces of myself in a creative experience. You have to have all three of them to make a movie. Maybe my brain is more technical than emotional but I think of them as puzzle pieces.

So you were thinking of the aspects that would need to work and how those aspects work and play against each other and complement each other.

Their personalities came out and that endeared them to me. That’s what makes a story worth reading. But in an early stage I was thinking, I need a kid with a camera. He needs to be a situation and have character traits where he would have a camera. I gave him a dad who’s a journalist and Elijah has a lot of resources available to him. He does’t have this strain that Maddie has. I wanted the book to be about how hard it is to do something. I wanted it to be inspiring, but I also wanted it to be about the truth. About not having enough money to do something. I think sometimes stories about kids don’t take socio-economics into account unless that’s the main idea. Or it’s just window dressing. I wanted those stakes to be at play. Gayle needs money and it’s holding her mother back and that’s part of her drive and her shame.

You mentioned before that you like the Jaws elements and I’m curious about your relationship to Jaws. What do you think is the appeal of the story?

The movie Jaws is great, but the backstory is also interesting, that they went to island to shoot it on location and had a movie mapped out, but the shark kept breaking and they ultimately made a different movie than they had planned. And in the end a better movie.

I think that’s the moral of the story. That’s what endears us to that. There’s this book The Jaws Log by Carl Gottlieb, which if you’re a Jaws fan is a must read. These kids are trying to tell a scary story, but they don’t really have the things you need to tell a scary movie. They’re trying to beg and borrow and work with what they have. It’s a miracle the movie got made once you learn the backstory. 

Nowadays kids can make a movie with their phones easily and cheaply, but when we were kids, it took special equipment and cost serious money and it was a different kind of endeavor.

The stakes were higher on all fronts. The time and resources you had available. If you’re going to set a story in 1974, you need a kid who has access to that. I had to work to make Elijah seem believable and also give the kids all the stuff they need. Like Gail sells some of her equipment to buy film. That’s slightly unbelievable because it would costs so much more back then, but I wanted to convey the stakes. It was a fine line of trying to be true to the times. Like Stranger Things isn’t really the eighties, but the aesthetic is the eighties.

You were very subtle about the setting and the time period, and you avoided the really obvious ways to convey that.

My editor made it clear early on – and this is more of a marketing POV – that it can’t really be 1974. There are aspects of the culture and economics of the island I wanted to bring in, but she said it has to be a kind of fantasy. It can look retro, but the storytelling has to be modern. Which eliminated some of the truths of the time. Not that I necessarily wanted to deal with racism but she said, you have to pick your subjects. You can’t just make a story about 1974 on that island. In middle grade fiction, you can tell a story about a time and a place, but it’s about friendship.

I get that. And I would guess that some of that is about the age group and not overwhelming them with information.

A book like this needs to be accessible to a pretty wide range of people and I wanted all kids to be able to pick it up and get something out of it. I think it was a good idea. I actually addressed the geography of the island very realistically, and that became more foregrounded than the culture of the island.

Was this process of working with an editor a big difference from how you had worked on earlier comics?

It was a process I wanted to be a part of. I’m motivated. I’ll tell stories all day long. I do care if people read them, but I’ll keep making them regardless. But I really wanted an editor who could reign me in and help me level up to a different type of audience and a different type of storytelling. It means a lot to have Little Brown on the spine of the book. I knew an editor could get my storytelling to that place. I didn’t know how to write a group of kids like this. I didn’t really know how to tell a kinetic adventure story on this level. My stories were more internal. I love Ray Bradbury and there’s a poetry and an abstraction in his work that I wanted in my stories. There’s some of that in Shark Summer, but this is more of an external story with clear goals and a satisfying resolution. That’s not really the type of story that really hit me as a kid. An ambiguous ending was such a big deal to me. An editor made me see what my strengths are and it was a perfect fit for this kind of story. She really appreciated things like Maddie’s dad using sign language. I just drop it in the book without really explaining it. She really championed that and made sure the hand gestures were right. I like that she wanted the book to inspire readers to be curious about different things.

One of the things you wanted to get into more about Elijah and his dad and there’s a big African-American community on the Vineyard that has been there for generations?

Yes. They also have a big film festival. I wanted Elijah to stand in for that aspect of the island. When the kids go to that abandoned housing development, that’s a real place. There were all these communities that were planned or started and there are all these layers to the island. I didn’t feel comfortable getting too much into race with Elijah, but I wanted to be able to walk into a classroom with the book and for kids to see some aspect of themselves in all the characters. I was trying to be inclusive and to make a conversation piece for kids. The book can get super serious. I wanted it to be entertaining but also, we can get real about the things happening around it and the stories we tell. I’m curious what kids will want to talk about after they read it.

Talk about drawing the book. Did you script out and thumbnail the book to start, or how did you work?

I wrote a synopsis and then wrote out the plot and then scripted the dialogue and only then I started breaking down the scenes. My editor was working with me at each stage and this is before I drew anything. I had the character designs and had an aesthetic sense for the book laid out, but I didn’t draw anything until I knew I had the story. Which I think is why the book is so dense. I cut a lot, but I was aspiring to do something where I knew what was going on every page and every panel and making sure that they were serving a purpose. I like abstract and looser story structures. I love people like Tillie Walden or Miyazaki. But this didn’t seem like a story like that. It required a lot of concise planning early on to tell a tight adventure story.

It’s a very dialogue heavy book and the pacing and rhythm of it was so deliberate.

I wanted it to read naturally. I love superhero comics, but I remember a panel where Wolverine is leaping through the air and saying like fifteen sentences and I wanted to get far away from that style of storytelling. I didn’t want a big panel with a big block of text. I wanted a lot of beats with shorter phrasing. And that results in a lot of speech bubbles I was thinking about how newspaper comic strips are conversational and have natural banter. That was how I wanted the characters to speak.

There were a couple spreads in the book, but not many. You used the word “kinetic” earlier which I think is a good way to describe the book.

Technically this is my debut book even though I’ve done other things. I felt like this was my chance to say all these things and the next book, which is mostly done, doesn’t feel as anxious. I don’t know. I think that’s true of a lot of people’s first books versus second books.

So much of your work before this was internal, as you said, and this isn’t. I don’t mean this as an insult, but this book is very much about the dialogue.

I did this project called Creative Everyday where I interviewed about 150 different people in creative industries in the region and then told their story in six page comic strips. That was an educational project that had to be clear about representing these people and their stories and that made it be very dialogue driven. I didn’t want to use narration or thought bubbles, so everyone is pretty upfront about how they’re feeling. But there are subtleties to take away. Hopefully kids are becoming more literate in that way. But you’re right. We wanted the story to be clear and upfront.

I liked the way you used visual language in the book, but I wanted to ask specifically about the color and working out a palette for the book.

First I did the character design and I gave each of the kids a color scheme and focused on making them identifiable. In terms of the setting, I was looking at what Jaws looked like. I couldn’t go too far down that road. I played with the idea of having film grain when Elijah is looking through the camera and what Super 8 footage looks like and I wanted a flavor of that ,but also lean into the cartooniness. The Jaws look is very much there. The 1970s of bright yellow and orange and red. I wanted the book to feel warm. But on an emotional level, once I started to break down the scenes, I wanted you to be able to flip through the book and see the story is going a lot of different place based on how the colors feel. 

For example, when Maddie is introducing this story of the terror she’s doing it under the dock and the light is coming through the beams which makes it look creepy. It took like two extra days of work but I wanted that feeling. I wanted to deal with light and texture like a filmmaker does. I don’t know if everyone will pick up on that, but I needed all those things in there. Those were the big inspirations. I wanted a lot of variety. I wanted to do crazy cloud colors and storms. For other projects it can be nice to have eight colors, but here I wanted to go everywhere.

You didn’t use grain, but the movie images have a different color scheme and are clearly differentiated.

I like when movies do that. It was a trope I wanted to throw in there. Some kids have seen Jaws and love it. Other kids are terrified of it. Most are in between.

The interior scenes have one color scheme, more or less, but it really opens up in the exterior scenes and especially when they’re by the ocean.

I have an ex-student who I’ve known for years who helped a lot with that. For those exterior shots she had mocked up a bunch of things. I give her a lot of credit for the immersiveness of those beach shots. It was important to both of us to convey what it means to stand on the beach in the summertime. That was crucial. Not just blue. Hopefully it is a bit of tourist propaganda. [laughs] I’d love to see if in the bookstore window when you get off the ferry.

You mentioned finishing another one. Can you say anything about it?

No one’s told me not to. [laughs] It’s not a sequel exactly but it’s in the same world of behind the scenes of a famous movie and other things happening around it. What’s as iconic as Jaws? The Shining. Which is a lot harder because it has an angry violent father in it, which is the most terrifying thing to fit into a middle grade book. It’s about Elijah going to the Underlook Hotel and making a documentary about a writer there. In this world Jack Torrence did not go mad, he became a washed up Steven King-like writer. There are layers to it. It’s more of a mystery, but not a whodunnit. It’s called Spirit Week and it’s set in this small Colorado town and is about uncovering the secret history of this place. It’s also maddening because the layout of the hotel is paradoxical by nature so it’s driving me mad to compose these panels and figure out how characters move in this space. It’s a lot of fun, though. I can’t quite believe I’m making a kids book about The Shining. [laughs] This one is notably darker. I’m excited they’re letting me do it. It’s set in late winter in the Rockies, so essentially the exact opposite of Shark Summer. They’ve already asked, what is the third one? I’m not sure I can keep the movie gimmick going, but they like this type of storytelling I do. I don’t know what the genre is really, except a collection of things and ideas I like. [laughs]

There’s something in me that wants to make books and have another level to them that you’re not expecting. I like that Shark Summer isn’t just telling the Jaws story, it has this other story inside of that and is a mystery about the secret history a place. I don’t know if you remember Holes, but that was a rally interesting book they turned into a movie that dealt with a mystery and secret history. If I have to pick a path, this is a cool genre to be in.

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