Photographer and writer extraordinaire Seth Kushner steps into the 13th Dimension to chronicle a day with his colleagues at his Brooklyn studio:
I’ve been a freelancer since graduating School of Visual Arts back in 1995. That’s a lot of years of sitting home alone at my computer. A couple of years back, my friend, cartoonist Dean Haspiel invited me to join a new studio he was starting up. At first I was unsure about spending money on a workspace, and about commuting to work after so many years of “commuting” from my bedroom to my living room. My wife (who works at an office in Manhattan) convinced me I needed to get out of our apartment and out into the world among other human beings, because she said she would sometimes come home from work and I would seem “weird” after working in solitude all day.
After only a week at the original Hang Dai Studios in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, I knew instinctually that working at a shared space with other artists was the absolute right thing for me. Having a place to go to specifically to work, without the potential distraction of my big-screen TV, was psychologically healthy for me. Having other artists around (at the time: cartoonists, writers, a fine artist, and a filmmaker) to bounce around ideas created a feeling of camaraderie missing from my work-life at home.
After one year, we were priced out of our space and I was back at home and miserable. I occasionally brought my laptop to Dean’s apartment and that helped, but I wanted a studio situation back in my life.
Finally, last March, nine months after vacating our former digs, we (Dean, Gregory Benton and myself from the old studio + some newcomers) found a new space in Gowanus, Brooklyn, an industrial area nestled between picturesque Park Slope and lovely Carroll Gardens, just one block from the Gowanus Canal (sarcastically referred to as the “Venice of Brooklyn”). Our building, located underneath the elevated subway, houses more than 50 art studios, including three other cartoonist studios: Drawbridge, Hypothetical Island and The Salt Mine, so it truly feels like a creative hub and the location keeps it feeling just a little bit bohemian. Our room is light and airy with big windows and high ceilings and it’s where I go to work on most weekdays.
On a typical day, I arrive at Hang Dai Studios at around 9:30AM. I’m almost always there first, since I’m the only one with a child, so “sleeping in” doesn’t exist in my world. On this day, the first thing I notice is a series of small paintings hanging over the desk of Jess Ruliffson, one of my favorite studio-mates, though I only see her at cons and events and never actually at the studio as we have opposing schedules. She has a day job, so she comes nights and weekends, and I have a son to pick up at school at 4 p.m., so our paths rarely cross, but I’m always happy to see what she’s created the night previous.
The paintings hanging from a strewn clothesline strewn across the wall are for a pop-up solo show at LaunchPad in Crown Heights in January 2014. Jess is painting fifty cartoonists and hosting a comics reading and party with the exhibit. This series is a “break” from her long-term project, which is a series of comics she’s making based on interviews with veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars for a larger graphic novel-length book.
Since the studio is dead quiet in the morning, I take that time to write. I’m presently working on several comic book projects, all in different stages of development. One of the ones I’m most excited about is a superhero script I wrote, which I’m co-creating with cartoonist Kevin Colden, who works down the hall at The Salt Mine. This day starts out great for me, because I open my email and waiting for me is Kevin’s character designs and layout for a four-page short I wrote that we will use for our proposal. I love what Kevin did with the story and the only notes I have for him involve the design of the villain of the piece. I quickly give Kevin a call and we discuss and come up with ideas for how to make him more formidable looking. We both say how excited we are about the project and Kevin says he’s about to start penciling. I suspect I’m more excited to see this idea come to life than he is, because I get to see how HE will draw it.
Usually the first actual person I see is Shiraj Ganguly, who sits at Jess’ desk during the daytime hours. Shiraj is an artist, with 3D being his current medium. I sit right next to this guy and I actually have no idea what he does. It’s technically beyond me. I see him spend weeks building layers upon layers on three-dimensional characters he’s creating for his portfolio. Currently, he’s working on a very iconic-looking version of Marvel’s the Thing, which he says could ideally be used to 3D print as a toy or used as a character model in a video game. Usually he creates his own characters (dragons, barbarians, cyborgs, etc) and the Thing is him taking a break to work on a pre-existing design to show that he has the ability to work on model, in case potential employers want to know that.
Gregory Benton is in next. For a while, Greg was getting in before anyone, when he was finishing his book, “B+F,” (published by Adhouse Books in the USA and Editions ça et la in France) his full-length version of his MoCCA Award of Excellence-winning, self-published fable from last spring. It was a pleasure to watch Gregory create his very unique and beautiful project and now he’s working on character designs for the sequel. Looking at Gregory’s designs, I get the feeling he’s really allowing his imagination run hog wild.
Around lunchtime, Jon Allen rolls in. Jon is a cartoonist who is currently working on the third book of his lyrical “Vacationland” series of graphic novels, the first two of which he self-published, but he is currently in talks with a publisher to collect the series after the completion of Book 3. Jon took a breather from his series last spring to draw an installment of my Schmuck webcomic series, so I got to know how Jon works and though young, he’s a pro with a clear aesthetic and real storytelling chops.
Long after lunch, Dean comes in, often wanting to be filled in on whatever he might’ve missed earlier in the day. The big topic of discussion this day is the previous nights “Breaking Bad” finale. We all agree it was perfect.
Dean works what I refer to as “vampire hours,” especially now that he’s working on The Fox, the Archie Comics/Red Circle series he’s plotting and drawing (with Mark Waid dialoging). (Ed.: Issue #1 comes out today!) I’ve been watching Dean draw The Fox for months and the energy is a joy to behold. Every time he shows me a completed page, I think it’s pure comix storytelling. It’s looks deceptively effortless and easy and imaginative, but watching the process, I know it’s hard work and it’s educational for me to see this process from start to finish.
Usually the last arrival of the day, pre my departure is Christa Cassano, who this day literally glides in from the hall. Yes, she’s riding a bike. Christa is new to comics, but she has an innate gift. I happen to know this because she too drew a Schmuck comic for me. Yes, there are surely perks to being a comic book writer in a studio full of cartoonists. It’s always interesting for me to see how different artists work because their processes are always so unique to them. Christa suffers for her art by meticulously investigating narrative options in her comics, and like a lot of artists, is never 100% satisfied with the results. While Dean often feels the same about his work, he attributes it to what John Romita Jr. once said about comics creating as “deadline art.” Hopefully the process of creation will become more satisfying for Christa in time, but for now, it’s akin to root canal. She’s currently working on Aporia, a reworking of a comic that was part of the Studio YOLO experiment begun last October. This will be for a self-published effort.
Just as my day is drawing to a close, Chris Miskiewicz enters, dripping with sweat, having biked over from Greenpoint. Chris only comes in occasionally, since he’s an actor and seems to be on set most days. When he’s around, Chris nomadically finds a seat somewhere and types. He’s always working on a script for something. On this day, he’s copy editing the first issue of a supernatural detective comic he wrote for Danish artist Palle Schmidt. The pages look great and Chris is comparing the work to what he wrote in the script and is finalizing the comic. It’s a proposal that Chris and Palle are in the process of selling.
I begin to pack up my stuff when I get one final email, from cartoonist Nathan Schreiber. He’s sent me the final version of the Schmuck comic he drew for me. I’d seen an earlier version, but this lettered and finished version looks great. Very different from the others in the series. Nathan drew it spare, giving it an almost storybook quality. I’m excited to see it and it’s a nice bookend to my day, with Kevin Colden’s art in the morning.
As usual, I’m about to be late to pick up my son from preschool. The studio is busy with creation and many of my mates will work into the night. I enjoy the vibe at the end of the day and I always regret I can’t feed off it for longer. As I walk down the stairs to 2nd Avenue, I’m already thinking of the things I need to do the next morning.
Seth Kushner is an award-winning photographer and a writer, whose published books include “Leaping Tall Buildings: The Origins of American Comics” (2012, co-authored with Christopher Irving), “The Brooklynites” (2007, co-authored with Anthony LaSala) and the recently released, self-published fumetti anthology Force Field Fotocomix Vol. 01. and his semi-autobio comic Schmuck Comix #1.
Seth’s comics work can be seen at TripCity.net.