Gur Benshemesh, a native Londoner who now lives in Amsterdam, started his career in screenwriting. His short screenplay, Morgan Street Watch Company, received critical acclaim and won prizes at several film festivals, including the Colorado Film Awards, the New York Screenplay Contest, and the Oregon Film Festival. Now he’s venturing into the comic book world. His first graphic novel, Silence & Co., follows Alexander Marazano, a member of an Italian mobster family, as he makes his name as an internationally renowned hit man. Along the way, he comes to terms with the nature of his work and his own moral compass.
This interview has been edited and abridged for purposes of length. Details of Silence & Co. will be discussed during the interview and may spoil parts of the story for those who have not yet read the work.
Silence & Co. is your first graphic novel, yet you got some pretty big names to collaborate with you on the project. Ron Randall, who does the art, is a mainstay at both DC and Marvel, and your letterer John Workman and cover artist Steve Lieber have both won Eisner Awards. How did you get them to work with you?
Funnily enough, these things are sort of one step at a time. I got talking to a couple of guys who put me in touch with Ron; they thought he’d be a good creative match for the project. He read the script and reacted very strongly to it; he’s kind of into that action-y, hit man, secret agent type thing. He did some test pages for us and they just looked fantastic. Once the art started coming through, Ron, I believe knows John Workman through some other work they did together and he sent him a couple pages and John was really, really excited about the book. Again, it was just a dream—it worked surprisingly smoothly. From what I understand, Ron is a studio mate at Periscope Studios with Steve Lieber, so we got him to do the cover, which I think came out fantastically.
Silence & Co. is rendered entirely in black and white, which is unusual for any comic book these days. Was it your choice to have it done this way, or was that something you and Randall agreed upon along the way?
From the beginning of the project we really had black and white in mind. I think it really suited the tone of the project and I’m really a big fan of black and white art when it’s done really well to serve the story. I guess the most classic example is Maus, but Queen & Country I’m a huge fan of. A recent book came out, My Friend Dahmer by Derf Backderf which I thought was really beautiful, personal story that was served so well by black and white art. So we made sure when we were doing the art that it looked great and shaded, and there was never an intention to color it all in.
Stylistically, black and white evokes a certain kind of tone in film and art, but it also sometimes has a sense of incompleteness and it may seem “easier” to produce than something in color.
Yeah, I think that black and white can be seen by some creators as a fallback. It’s obviously a lot cheaper to print and produce; you’ve got a lot fewer people involved because usually, you have to have a separate colorist. So if people want to kick it out quickly, they can see black-and-white as a halfway to doing color whereas I think the way it should be approached is like black-and-white films. For example, The Artist, which just won the Academy Award, I don’t think would have worked at all as a color film. It worked really beautifully as it was. I think there’s subtlety and depth and hues that you can get across in black-and-white art a lot better than when you start getting into coloring and shading.
Black and white seems to work particularly well with a pulp or noir kind of story. A lot of the classic stories of those genres were done in black and white.
Certainly with Silence & Co., it’s an issue. There’s an element of the story itself—you pointed it out in your review that it definitely goes for that pulp, Philip Marlowe feeling. So I think that the great days for me of those films are Philip Marlow and the great black-and-white, noir-type films and Silence & Co. has a very natural feeling of that.
Sin City’s also, for me, the great black-and-white graphic novel and there’s something very simple and you can draw the eye very effectively in black-and-white, which is maybe more difficult to do in color. It really lets the story sing and be a bit darker, a bit more adult, and a bit more sparsely written. Color comics, especially on the superhero end, has its own visual language. It’s pretty gonzo and all about big, muscly guys in spandex costumes and stuff that works very well in a bright, neon color palette and big explosions and all the rest of it. So color works very well when you’re going for that other extreme.
The mafia and mobsters are huge archetypes in pulp and other kinds of fiction, and have been for decades. Why do you suppose they have such enduring appeal and what made you decide to write a story about them yourself?
I’m a big fan of nonfiction stories about the mafia. I read a great book called Supermob and there was another one called The Outfit (about the Chicago outfit). Separately, I’m a big fan of your traditional action-y, thriller kind of films, and the more you read the nonfiction version of it, when you see the fiction versions—what a difference it is, right? If you read nonfiction espionage tales and then you read James Bond, you see quite how much fiction is in James Bond and silly it is when he jumps from trains and things.
So I was interested for a while in trying to write a story that was exciting and action-packed and had that cool, thriller element, but still tried to subvert a lot of those conventions—elements like when Miguel gets killed in Morocco when they have that big, long conversation in the middle of a gunfight that people are apt to do in films. It’s a bit like Jack Reacher to try and show the thinking that goes into what looks completely effortless—you know, the guy running through with a gun and shooting everyone—and actually it takes years of preparation and training.
That’s something I noticed about Silence & Co., that it has this very realistic, almost meticulous attention to logistics that made it so convincing and fascinating to me, even though I’m not a part of that world and can’t verify any of it in any way. Law and the Multiverse even praised it for its accuracy, especially when you write the surveillance process, which is something I noticed as well. How did you get all those details down so precisely?
Some of it was interviews with people I knew in England. They’re journalists and have access to some intelligence contacts. A lot of it is just reading. There’s some excellent books now about guys who were really in that world. That’s really what I find the most interesting: watching a film or reading a book and through the character feeling—you know, I’m also not a gangster in any way and I’m not in that world, but somehow when you read that book you feel like, number one, it’s plausible, and number two, you get that small window into how it really works.
So those elements—Alex thinking about shot ranges and the logistics of how to make something that looks so effortless in the total—the way I think of it is when you have a stunt from Evil Knievel. Everybody likes to see Evil Knievel jump from one building to the other and what they don’t see is the nine months of prep work and hardcore physics that goes into building the ramp and making sure he lands where he’s supposed to go. I was very keen to try to get some of that into the book.
Beyond the technology and procedural elements, there was a lot of political, social, and cultural layers to the story. How did you get so attuned to all that?
There’s obviously a lot going on in general media about banking complicity in criminality and their turning a blind eye to things. There’s a recent case with Barkley’s Bank that was taking enormous amounts of money from exchange places in Mexico and they were all under ten thousand dollars because anything over you have to declare to America. So over eight years they transacted something like twenty billion dollars into accounts. These are massive multinational corporations that are completely legitimate and we think of as bastions of civilization in a lot of ways, and I think the point that we’re at in the war on drugs and the vast sums of money that cartels in Mexico and Columbia are turning over every year—that interaction of where those billions of dollars go really fascinates me.
It goes back to that same issue of the realism and logistics I find just as fascinating as the Hollywood headlines. Yeah, it’s great to have ten billion dollars in hundred-dollar bills sitting in your Columbian villa, but it doesn’t do you much good if you can’t buy things with it, so how do you take that and move that into a bank and cover it so that you go from this evil, social pariah cocaine baron to the pillar of society worth two billion dollars. I find that sort of thing fascinating.
What I found very interesting about that is that in the story, Silence & Co. is revealed to be an underworld bank which finances crime worldwide. They’re making a ton of money, but at one point it wasn’t enough and they started taking a larger part in the actual crimes. Why do you think they started taking these kinds of risks when they had a pretty good racket going for them before?
That element of human nature I find absolutely fascinating. Living in Amsterdam there’s a great independent documentary festival held every year called the IDFF. There’s a great documentary that went around this year called The Queen of Versailles, about this guy who owns Westgate Resorts, which is a giant time-share company, and he was worth absolute billions of dollars. He was building the largest residential housing in America and then the 2007 crash hit and he lost it all and it turns out all his many, many billions of dollars was all mortgaged. He was completely 100 percent legitimate and he had so much—why would you risk it for what is essentially a nominal amount? There’s only so much people can spend.
So for a certain type of person, the person who’s there to build the multibillion dollar hedge fund from scratch, too much is never enough. Towards the end, Saul says it’s not about the money, it’s about the power; it’s about the control; it’s about the influence, and that’s the kind of issue that draws people to their ultimate demise when they go after something beyond their reach.
Join us tomorrow for part two of our chat with Gur Benshemesh, where we talk about the nobility of an assassin and how family relationships can be deadly. Check out our review of Silence & Co., which will be available in late May, and the Silence & Co. website for more details.