Welcome back to the Real Thing and part four of our chat with Gur Benshemesh. Today we talk about the tension of making frenemies of our enemies. 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.
So, in the book, Agent—actually, that’s a question I should ask: what’s the full name of the FBI agent who’s trying to capture Alex? I tried to go back and look for it, but I think I keep missing it.
[Laughs]. It’s Tom Fowler, but I think we only mention it at the very beginning of the book and never again.
Okay, so Alex has this tense relationship with Agent Fowler, but it’s also a very familiar one because they’ve known each other for years. Ultimately, Fowler ends up helping Alexander. Why?
Going back to nonfiction, in organized crime and espionage, the two sides are so close by necessity. You can’t be this paragon of policing and never talk to anyone who’s slightly shady, because you won’t ever make out what’s going on. To a certain extent, there’s a give-and-take relationship, and I think historically, police have respected criminals who are really good criminals—people who don’t hurt innocents necessarily, or are very hard to catch. There’s that cat-and-mouse relationship that both sides know. I think that level of respect and familiarity is something that you see again and again. The Whitey Bulger cases are sort of the most famous example that are coming up now.
But at the end of the book, Alex is wounded and surrounded by agents, and Fowler has a prime opportunity to finally take him in. Why doesn’t he?
If you look at examples like John Gotti’s underboss [Salvatore “Sammy the Bull” Gravano]. He was a stone-cold killer who was an underboss for the biggest family in New York for years and years, and then he turned in state evidence. And because he was able to deliver John Gotti and much bigger people and effectively close down the Gambino family, the federal government relocated him and gave him a new identity, happily set him up with a new life—in which he sold a huge amount of ecstasy and then got re-arrested, but that’s a separate case.
Those are the stories you hear about because Gravano had to go into court into court and it was covered by a lot of papers. A lot of times, especially in espionage, deals are done that you don’t necessarily hear about, so given that Alex has just delivered to Tom by far the biggest bust of his career—he’s just shut down this enormous underworld bank that’s funding these nefarious activities around the world—and when it comes to those scales, Alex is really a minor fish. In that spirit of one cat to another, Tom lets him go.
Going back to your collaboration with letterer John Workman and artist Ron Randall for a moment, both of them are graduates of the Kubert School of art. Are you a fan of Joe Kubert?
I’m a big fan of both of their work. I’m not a fan of Golden Age comics; I got into comics quite a bit later. I was more of a nineties kid, from ’90 to ’95—the X-Men’s and Wolverine’s and that kind of thing.
So what were the comics you read at that time?
At that time, it was quite a lot—it was quite eclectic, actually. There was definitely a hardcore obsession with X-Men and particularly Wolverine. There was a huge obsession with Groo the Wanderer; Sergio is just incredible. My dad was a huge Mad magazine fan for years and years and I sort of found [Sergio] from that. It was mainly Marvel—got into Secret Wars—and then I discovered, in fairly quick succession, Watchmen and then Maus, and my taste in comics changed quite rapidly after that.
So what kind of comics do you pick up now? What’s on your pull list?
Nowadays, when I get to comic shops, I try to pick up trade paperbacks. I really prefer the trade paperback as its own format. So I try to pick up trades; I’ve gone through all of the Queen and Country’s, but I am still making up my collection of 100 Bullets. I pick up Criminal when I find the new ones. Anything that’s interesting enough to catch my eye, so things like My Friend Dahmer, which I really enjoyed. Bone I thought was great.
In the comics space, I think there are such interesting things being done by nutty creators, if you see what I mean. Bone is such a great example; it’s just somebody who’s really passionate who believes in the project and the artwork, and it’s such a beautiful story that couldn’t be told in any other medium, in a way.
Going back to your work, why did you choose to release Silence & Co. as a full graphic novel. The book is divided into chapters; why not release each as a single issue?
Narratively, if you look at the book, it divides relatively easily because of this issue that you need standard structure, which is three acts. It’s a really tough ask for people, particularly in a story like Silence & Co., where we’re dealing with double-crosses and characters turning and that kind of thing. To release part one and then, in six months’ time, part six, and to ask people to remember who the hell Saul is—it’s too much on that specific story.
If you’re Brian Michael Bendis, people will come in and buy your book and probably read a full arc. Then it matters less. When you’re trying to let people know about the book that you’ve done and you’re a new guy, it’s much harder to come out with 22 pages every month and be, like, “Hey, get excited about my 22 pages, and this is part four of a six-part series, and maybe you didn’t get the first three parts.” After we looked at it a lot, this project looked a lot more right to release it as a separate project.
You produced the book with Crystal Productions, which isn’t a company I’ve heard of. Is that your own publishing company?
It’s a company I’ve been working with for a while now. It’s an IP creation company, meaning that we develop scripts, things like Silence & Co., but we’ve also been developing a second graphic novel, which is called St. More, which is actually a full-colored book. Hopefully, that’ll be coming out later this year, but we’re still working on it. So we’ve been working for a while on various projects and this is the first thing that’s reached bookshelves. But the next thing we’re doing with Crystal is I’ll be directing a short in the next couple of months and the idea is to eventually film Silence & Co. and some other projects.
When you look at the way people write scripts for comics, they’re often very similar to screenplays. You’ve written screenplays, and now you’ve written a comic book script. What are the differences between the two in terms of the working process, particularly when working with artists?
They are two fairly different types of screenplays. There’s what’s called the narrative screenplay, which is what you write and it’s just the story. There’s also the shooting script, which goes through and actually puts every bit of description. So, for example, in the narrative script, you might say, “Man walks into a room and picks up a glass,” whereas in the shooting script, you say, “Long shot—man walks in—close-up—picks up glass.”
With Ron, we had a really great relationship from the beginning. We used to communicate really well, primarily through email because it’s easier. And I would take the basic screenplay and I would break it down into a comic script. So I would say, “Panel One,” whether it’s half a page width for a full page width, whether it’s particularly wide or not, describe what was in it, who was in it, what dialogue was going to go in it, all those kinds of things. Ron would then take those scripts and do basic thumbnails for those. Obviously, it’s a collaborative process, so as he’s going through, if there’s bits he thinks would work better in another way, then he would do that and we’d talk about it.
We’d go back and forth on the thumbnails a couple of times; we had a great designer for the book called Brian Pierce. He’s certainly produced a lot of graphic novels and he’s got a great eye and I think he knows Ron from another project. So we’d get the thumbnails between us, then we’d send them to Brian just to have another eye, and then we’d go from thumbnails to initial pencils, then to final pencils, and finally, final ink, and then it’d go off to [letterer] John [Workman].
One of the big benefits of the standalone book was that it gave us the time to do the book right. We weren’t chasing deadlines every month and we didn’t have to put out a new issue, whether it was finished or not. A couple of times in the book, quite a while after we finished the pages, we would read the progression and we’d go, “This works really well, but a splash page would really work well here,” and we’d go back and change those pages up.
As a final question: Alex and Sylvia spend a lot of time waiting for their next move and eating bad Chinese food while they wait. Did that come from personal experience for you, or…?
As a former student in Los Angeles, I’ve definitely eaten my share of very bad Chinese food waiting for things to happen—and as a writer; it’s kind of the writer’s lot in life. That comes back to the idea of surveillance work and stakeouts always sounding so exciting, and in films, the guy’s sitting in his car and maybe he’s even got a cup of coffee that he’s finished, but the lead bad guy that he’s been waiting for jumps out of the window and they’re off on a chase. And in reality, it’s really not that; it’s really weeks and months of eating terrible food.
So if you were actually waiting on your next move against Silence & Co., what is the bad food you’d most want to indulge in?
Hands down, real, genuine ramen. I’m a total ramen maniac, so if there’s a genuine ramen place around, that’s the first place I’d go.
Many thanks to Gur Benshemesh for being our guest here on the Real Thing. Check out our review of Silence & Co., which will be available later this month. Check the Silence & Co. website for more details, as well as parts one, two, and three of our chat with Benshemesh.