Jason Rodriguez is back for day four of his conversations with the folks who are creating stories for his Postcards anthology. Today he chats with Phil Hester …
Today I’m posting a conversation with Phil Hester about his story, “A Joyous Eastertide.” Phil Hester is currently the artist on Marvel Comic’s Irredeemable Ant-Man but his creator-owned works like The Wretch and The Coffin are on my shortlist of all-time favorite comics. His shorts are always fantastic; I suggest you pick up Image Comics’ Oversight, a collection of his short works, to see for yourself. He put a lot into his story for Postcards – more than even I realized – and the end result shows it.
Phil used a card mailed March 23, 1923, from an Anna Voorhees of Tittusville, Pennsylvania, to a Mrs. William Bowmaster of Orrtanna, PA. The card reads:
Dear Cousin Anna
Wish you a Happy Easter. I will ans. your welcome letter later on. Some one from Adams Co. told the girls that you married a man who had a 12 yr. old and I thought they must have made a mistake when you never spoke of him in your letters. That is why I ask you about him.
With love, Cousin Anna Voorhees
Jason: Your story haunts me. When you handed in the original script, it was just dialog and narration, and that was enough to give me shivers. And it’s not that it’s a horrific story – I’d describe it as a very, very honest love story, really. But it’s our main character’s voice, his despair and his beliefs and rigidity – it comes through so powerfully with every line of dialog and it effects me the same way good poetry or a meaningful song would move me.
If you don’t mind spilling secrets, how do you channel a voice that real through your work?
Phil: I was inspired by two things. First, the source postcard and the situation it implied, and then some vague notions I have about how people choose to become who they are. In a lot of fiction today characters are not much more than Frankenstein’s monsters comprised of all their past tragedies and traumas, and I’m not sure people are really like that. People I know anyway. I think people make choices about how to deal with those things. Some are successful and some are not, but I wanted to portray a character who had that moment of choice crystallized.
I tried to create a character who went through a ton of tragedy but was genuinely transformed by small and consistent acts of love, acts so small and constant that maybe he didn’t even understand the effect they had on him until late in life. The postcard itself speaks of a twelve-year-old boy, and my memories of what that’s like are still pretty vibrant for me, so I latched on to that and built up. I certainly never suffered any of the tragedies the boy did, but we’re all sort of worn down by life, so I just tried to intensify the same sense of bewilderment I feel about the universe. I’m fascinated by the way people will build families for themselves in one way or another, so it seemed very natural for Anna and the boy to build a family, build an island out of love (both familial and religious) in an insane cosmos.
So my goal was to give the narrator a wise voice but infuse it with enough honesty to make it personal and confessional rather than austere and scriptural. So, the honesty is mine (the wisdom sure as hell isn’t). The fears the boy has and the epiphany the man has are all emotions I’ve felt at one point or another. I just avoided any sort of contemporary idioms or glibness I’d normally be tempted to abuse. How real that voice is I can’t judge.
Jason: An island of love… What I find interesting about the card you chose is the fact that the back, the part that inspired the familial portion, talks of potentially scandalous family building whereas the front, the part that inspired the religious portion, is very solemn scripture. They almost seem at odds with each other (I first viewed the scripture on the front of the card as a sort of taunting), yet you managed to bring them together so organically. Was this merger a challenge to you or did it simply fall out of where you wanted your characters to go?
Phil: I can’t really quantify it. The fact that Anna’s family is religious is evident in their choice of card, but the written message is almost snarky. None of the boy’s journey is implied in the card, except the fact that he has a new mom at age 12, so rather than take the obvious approach of having the new mom be a puritanical tyrant, I wanted to make her an orphan as well and set her on that same lonely path. The real reward of the story for me came in writing her character – someone too young to be a mother to a 12-year-old, much less an orphaned 12-year-old, but still finding some reserve of strength and font of genuine love to share with him. And since her background is Christian, it seems natural that this would be, if not the source, at least the language her love would use. I’d be tempted to call her a remarkable person, but I think we all know someone in our lives who has that kind of unfailing kindness and the strength it takes to express that sort of love without any shame.
Maybe I’m peeling back too many layers here, but my parents divorced when I was 12, and although it was completely amicable, that’s almost a death in the family for an adolescent. Through it all I never had any doubt about my mom’s devotion. I knew then, and I know even more fully now that I am a parent (I suppose like my protagonist), that she would suffer any indignity to support me. I only hope my children understand that about me someday. I guess that’s the purpose of my story, to explore how care can flow from generation to generation and to celebrate that concept.
Jason: This has been enlightening – I think I missed a large part of your process when you were doing this story (I was, unfortunately, too busy finding nice ways to say, “I need those pages”). I’m rereading it now, and the passion and realism is coming out of the pages even more than before, which is remarkable. This is something that’s always interested me, and I think it is extremely relevant here, do you find that being able to write and illustrate your own story allows you to put this much thought and care and emotion into the piece? As if you don’t really need to explain your motivations and feeling to anyone – you just put it down?
Phil: That’s exactly right. When I write I’m seeing images and hearing dialogue simultaneously. Sometimes one of those will come to the fore and carry the story, then subside and let the other. When I’m writing and illustrating that shift can come and go at an indescribable pace. Sometimes I’ll lay out a whole page with no dialogue in mind, just a general notion of what’s to be conveyed, and other times I’ll write reams of dialogue with no images down (although images are always playing in my head). I never have to worry about writing stage direction or trying to describe the actor’s expressions. I already know. I think in this story the storytelling style shifts back and forth from a cinematic style (the bedroom scene and the final scene) and a slideshow style – basically caption and illustration – which is normally a storytelling style I avoid, but with space constraints I had to let exposition do a lot of the storytelling. That shifting would be a hard concept to get across to a collaborator.