You can follow Chris and Avi’s comic here: https://tapastic.com/series/Serge-the-Protector-
Chris and Avi are interviewed by 1001 Managing Editor, Emily Montagno.
Hey Chris and Avi! Thank you for speaking with me today. I see you all the time at the IPRC working on your comic. How long have you guys been members here?
My friend Nicole, Serge’s mom, told me about this place and the comic certificate program and Chris and I worked here starting in 2015.
How long have you two known each other, and how did you two meet?
Chris: We met 15 years ago
For some contextual background, where each of you from?
Chris: I’m from Portland.
Avi: Santa Cruz.
Cool, what brought you up this way?
A friend who moved here! I went to PSU for my Bachelor’s.
What role has comics played in your life? What is something you both grew up enjoying or did you gain interest in more recent year?
Chris: Growing up I adored Silver Age Comics: Doctor Strange, Fantastic Four, Spiderman, Hulk. But I also spent many P.E. classes under the bleachers reading Edgar Allan Poe classics.
Avi: I loved Tintin and Asterix when I was growing up, and read a lot of French comics. Powell’s has all those comics in French so I would read them with a dictionary. I used to read Elfquest which was a fantasy comic when i was a kid, by Wendi and Richard Pini. I read a lot of Groo by Sergio Aragones, a cartoonist from Mexico whose parents fled the civil war in Spain. He did a ton of stuff for Mad but Groo the Barbarian is still coming out and is a great vehicle for commenting on the absurdity of the universe.
I am also a fan of Edgar! He grew up in my neck of the woods. Would you say you are attracted to the darker themes he portrays, or more upbeat tales of adventure?
Chris: definitely the tales of unhappy souls. My next project will be Vincent Van Poe the story of a fictional depressed artist.
You are very punny.
Chris: No–more like puny.
HA! Is this a piece you intend on collaborating with, or more a singular project?
Chris: Time will tell. 🙂
Do either of you have a background or education in sequential art or are you self taught?
Chris: i studied studio art and literature at Reed College.
Avi: I did a B.A. in English at PSU in 1999 and I love drawing as well. I took life drawing and watercolor in Austin a few years ago.
I know for the comics you make, Avi, you are primarily focused on the
copy as Chris does the illustration. Do you ever switch roles?
Yes, usually with comics the script is written and then the artist draws the scenes and in our case it can be much more fluid. Chris will create these beautiful drawings with our characters and then I may try to create story or dialogue based on those images.
As far as me illustrating a comic, it would be a very very long time these days before I finished a page, whereas the characters spill out of Chris’s pen onto the page, watching him draw is amazing. I am trying hard to make drawing a part of my daily routine once more. It gives me a sense of peace.
So you guys go by Gnomadcomics, where did that come from?
Chris: Our mascot Gnomad is a world weary garden gnome + mad max hybrid. Eventually we plan to do a treatment of the story—Think Wizards by Ralph Baski.
Do you already have an idea of what this gnomad looks like?
Chris: Originally he had a gasmask on. But Avi hated it. Haha. So he presently looks like a biker dude.
Why such an aversion to gas mask, Avi? Too much?
I like the idea, played up in Amelie, of the garden gnome who travels the world as I am somewhat Portland bound in the moment. The biker thing is a nice touch…
Amelie is a wonderful film.
I also like city of lost children by the same filmmaker.. Didn’t think of it at the time but it has the same concept of endlessly creative children in an ominous, deadly world.
I am not familiar, but I will have to check that one out. This is a pattern, I am seeing, with this sort of ‘ominous, deadly world’, which brings me to Serge the Protector. Avi, you had mentioned you modeled this character after a friend. Tell me more about this relationship and how he inspired the comic.
Avi: I knew his dad when I was a kid in high school in Bozeman, MT. I moved to Portland and went to PSU and reconnected with him. Serge was born a year later and I went to his Bris. I was good friends with Nicole as well, she was a film editor from Brooklyn and I remember going to see a Monet exhibit with her, going to see jazz with Steve and Sicole and she would be falling asleep. We saw Leroy Vinegar who was a great bass player who spent his last years here. She always gave you the feeling like she had all the time in the world to talk to you.
Chris: Serge (Nicole’s son) is himself an avid fan of comics and can be found at comicons fanboying select creators. 🙂
Wow, so you guys go all the way back. So Steve and Nicole made Serge?
Yes, he has a brother also. But Serge is a self made boy…they love video games and comics and both draw really well.cBut they are immersed in this digital reality that I find alarming. I have a son who is very small and I want the same thing for him that Nicole wanted, she was very much a Luddite. But Serge would always scheme to have more time on his phone. This Serge is more following the musical path, but by playing jazz and Romani music he follows his own path.
How old is Serge now?
Avi: He’s just started high school. I know it’s tough. We go look at comics together, hit Floating World and Cosmic Monkey and Books with Pictures on 12th and Division. Books with Pictures is another comics shop I love. He has a real love of drawing and fulfills will draw commissions for his friends. He has a character that is based on his mom. There’s a lot of intricate detail in his work and it is set in a fantasy world, very much in the pathfinder world of gaming.
Does this play into the time period you chose for the comic, WWII era? Not as many technological advances…
Chris: yes. Cause it’s about harnessing the forces of nature.
Is that something you feel close to, or maybe try to be closer to through the subject matter/illustration/imagination?
Avi: I would say that it’s about imagination. Both Chris and I love Brian Froud, the dark crystal puppet designer. He and Alan Lee both draw the english countryside…Alan Lee did a lot of stuff for Lord of the Rings. All these creatures, trolls… so we love this idea of the Nazis trying to harness the powers of the occult in a last ditch effort to win the war. And it comes back to bite them in the tuchus.
Can you tell me what gave you the idea for the name/premise of Serge the Protector?
Chris: I was indulging in some wordplay one afternoon and the phrase “Serge the Protector” came out. Avi and I agreed it would be a great name for an offbeat superhero with a resistance to electricity.
Avi: Serge is a boy I tutored in Hebrew school. I’ve always wanted to do a comic and we decided to do one in his mom’s memory.
Did he play any part in the direction of the comic or even storyboarding?
Chris: No Serge busies himself playing online video games. Serge the Protector however is an entirely fictional character of our collective imagining who lives thru an alternate version of the Holocaust.
Avi: The comic is about Serge wandering off, sort of bargaining with his mom that he can go visit the gypsy camp if he plays Bach or whatever and then running into Mikael who’s playing violin. So the kids are much more receptive of Serge than are the adults. And the kids wander off into the forest and meet Thorgre, a troll like creature. I’m very fascinated by Scandinavian mythology and so the creature is right outta that.
Meanwhile the evil Nazi officer and his genetically mutated Nazicat, Herr Whiskers, are hunting the creature. They think if they can harness the sylvan faerie creatures and goblins and trolls they can beat back the Allied forces as the war winds down. And the Nazis crash the Roma encampment and drive them off and Serge is caught up in their life.
Also there is a mad scientist and these young women who disguise themselves as boys and drive around in a donkey cart playing music in all the little villages, the shtetl, the Jewish village as remembered by, say, Marc Chagall. And the girls end up encountering this very sad rabbi and clarinet player and he was a great scholar who lost his family in an unimaginable tragedy. He wanders the land weeping and clarinet and will never pick up a book again.
Has this comic evolved over time, or did you have an idea of how it would begin and end before you began?
Avi: My mom told me about the novel writing month November so I remember writing out a long plot in November last and then typing it up. But it changes. There is a little girl whose accordion Serge borrows when the Roma kids explain that they don’t have a piano on site. And she has more agency. And the story becomes more swashbuckling. She is based on a real person, a poet who suffered through the Soviet era in Poland who was literate and settled and trapped in the middle. Betrayed, perhaps, by all around her.
When you meet people, do you think of making them characters in your comics? Or does it take a certain kind of person to really inspire a role?
Avi: I went to Montana State University right after high school. A school steve was involved with. I wrote a lot of poetry at the time and played music with a guy named Drummer Dave and Michael Certalic, who is a violinist who was classically trained and has Roma heritage. Also my sister Michelle is a klezmer fiddler and world music violinist. So the character of Mikael is this very open friendly sort, which is true of them as well. He’s a Roma fiddler, maybe 15 or so.
Yes, you can see how music plays a heavy hand within the comic. You mentioned earlier (off screen) that you plan on incorporating music/sound bites into the comic. How so?
Avi: Well our comic is on this website called tapastic and you have the option of adding a soundcloud file to the page. I could see that with the other comic as well. Doing some crazy jazz. But for this one the music Michelle Alany does, the energy with which she plays Eastern European Jewish music, fits perfectly. There are pages up where she is playing, the song is called Bessarabian Hora and there will be more.
Are you going to use music she has already made, or does she create sound/scores specifically for the comic?
Avi: I would like to have some music done specifically for the comic but she’s pretty busy these days! And I could try to do some of the ear training stuff on piano that Serge starts with. I have a friend who is a piano player and composer, he may be up for creating some stuff. I would like to do something in the style of the jazz of the time. There was this weird dichotomy where the Nazis hated this culture but they loved jazz, hated gypsies but loved the swing the Sinti gypsy community created around Django.
Have you guys found you have been studying up on some of these contextual details of the time, or are you more focused on creating this alternate path in which you have more creative control?
Avi: When I was very young of course I read night by Elie Weisel and that stuff is devastating. My favorite Jewish writer of that topic is Primo Levy. He survived because they had use for him as a chemist. I love the book the reawakening where he has been liberated and he ends up on this crazy train ride back to italy but half the railroad tracks in Europe have been destroyed and they go all over Russia. There’s a good movie as well, The Truce. I can’t read about the Holocaust anymore, and it’s problematic because I made some mistakes with the character of Serge that I corrected. I imagine him in this very sweet Marc Chagall type Jewish village. So most of my sense of the old Jewish village is from the work of Isaac Bashevis singer, whose father was a rabbi and who as a child would eavesdrop at the door when the village people came to the rabbi with their grown-up problems.
I read Maus, you know, that was a lot about the relationship between father and son as well as being about how Art Spiegelman’s father survived the Holocaust.
As far as the roma community the challenge is that in that period it was a tremendously insular community, and not given to writing–the girl is based on a person who taught herself to write and suffered for it. So the narratives are written by those close to them. By far the most important book I have found is by Jan Yoors, who is a bit of a model for Serge. He later was a double agent in the war and saved many Roma. You really get the sense that it was the kids who adopted him. But you are always seeing these vibrant people through a filter. Jan Yoors was an amazing photographer of the Roma as well. He was very close to the community.
So Tony Gatlif is a very important Roma filmmaker who made a film called Latcho Drom which is about the musical heritage of the Roma. And it’s about the exodus from India. Chris and I went to a screening at the Clinton Street Theatre and he drew a great deal of inspiration from that movie, which featured many different communities around the world. Particularly affecting was the Eastern European group, they toured the world at the time as the band Taraf De Haidouks.
Another thought is that there was intersection of these communities, Eastern European Jews who were klezmorim, who played music, in Romania and elsewhere. And then of course Jews and Roma were in the concentration camps. I read a great article that talked about marriages between Jews and Roma who met in the camps, or this Jewish girl who met gypsy partisan kids in the forest. I know there is a CD of klezmer done by Eastern European gypsy musicians, Maramaros, the lost Jewish music of Transylvania. The klezmers, the jewish musicians, were itinerant and perhaps marginal within the very geographically fixed Jewish communities.
So Michelle and her friend Janie are these two girls who travel the country playing songs, they are klezmorim, and they disguise themselves as boys. Janie is not Jewish but she loves the music and also runs away from a settled future. She plays a mean bass. They get around in a donkey cart. One of them, Michelle generally, naps as the other drives.
Walk me through your process and how you go about passing off the comic between the two of you.
Chris: I do the drawing and Avi schedules the press conferences. 😉
Avi: Our writing style is very fluid. We get together and talk about ideas and where we want the story to go. Often Chris will sketch as we’re talking and drinking coffee. A couple of times he has finished a page as we sat brainstorming. I write the script in my notebook though. It helps me maintain a sense of the direction and emotion of the characters. The cast is getting bigger as we go along. We are doing the webcomic in watercolour, with much cleaner lettering. So part of the process is allowing the watercolors to communicate the mood of the story, and choosing music that helps set the scene as well.
For instance Serge is in love with his art teacher and there is a scene where he paints her portrait in art class. So we play It Had To Be You by Django Reinhardt in the background. Then she tells him that the portrait is nice but has a superficial glamorous quality. That he should attempt to be expressive, like his classmate Moishe Shagal. And of course Marc Chagall is very taken with Serge’s drawing and goes on to do beautiful portraits of his sweetheart Bella.
So this comic about about at unlikely friendship. Would you say that is a reflection of your relationship? Do you see any of yourselves in the characters you illustrate?
Avi: I pop up in the other comic actually, I’m writing at a table in the jazz club as New York sinks beneath the sea and Albert plays free jazz.
You’re referring to your other collaborative comic, Siren Song?
Yeah, that one is less kid- friendly but there is an energy there I like.
Chris: It’s a genre we invented called “Splash”ploitation. We populate an underwater environment with characters looking to–git up from under the Mer”Man”.
Do you still actively pursue music? Any bands/solo projects you are involved with?
If Chris will allow me to say, he once put together an album of heartbreak and despair. And I play piano on Michelle’s cd, very briefly.
Chris: I love playing with the music programs floating around, arranging songs.
So you guys fulfilled your kickstarter campaign for ‘Serge the Protector’! Would you say you have a steady following of people who keep up with it? Are you famous yet?
Avi: One thing that was really challenging was actually printing the comic. Of course more people who supported us read us online at tapastic than would read us in print. But I love print comics and I would love to do more conventions. About 400 people have viewed the comic online, far more than would have purchased the print comic. The comic is sitting on the shelves of my favorite comics shops! It’s cool to see it there along with the other local comics. A nice feature of tapastic is that they are partnered with soundcloud and you can hear music as you read the comic. One of the songs I linked to is exactly almost a century old.
Is it ever difficult relinquishing complete creative control over the work, or do you think you each bring something to the table that you wouldn’t normally achieve solo?
Chris: That’s a bit of a personal question.
Avi: I love to draw and do comics as well. I have a more naive, expressionistic style. Chris has a gift. In this comic he perfectly channels the best of the Jewish expressionist artists, the joy and vibrancy and bright primary colours, and yet does so with the technical skill to tell the story in a clear manner.
How much time would you say you spend together? And is it mostly working on this project?
Avi: It’s almost always the project! I have a toddler at home and don’t get out much. I want little Omer to have a sense of the things that I value. We’ve done some first Thursday art walks and once we did an art show together. Some of that was before Omer was born.
We saw Esperanza at the Wonder Ballroom. The floor was shaking a lot and she did a rock show. It was great! We saw Michelle Alany at the White Eagle in Portland. That was a great show–even though the songs were klezmer and Ladino the guitarist had a very Manouche, Djangoesque approach.
Do you have any other works that you have collaborated on (comics or not)?
Chris: Avi and I tossed off a pulpy short story called Siren Song in which we cleverly recontextualize elements of 70’s “exploitation” entertainment into a Disneyfied Little Mermaid setting. the weird juxtaposition is like a strange prison tattoo–especially the Vietnam War Era Scene…taking the form of a jungle fever dream. It’s a lot of fun and to see it as intended to provoke discussion rather than to actually constitute entertainment for kids–though this might reflect the fact that as a kid I went to see Gritty Urban Dramas like “Super Fly” and “Willy Dynamite” -Standard Blacksploitation Fare on constant rotation at the neighborhood movie theater (Now home to Alberta Rose live music venue). I’ve jokingly called Siren Song Free Willy meets Willy Dynamite for that very reason. Of course Avi might have a slightly different take on the project–as a consumer I tend to overthink pop culture and perhaps I tend to want to create something whose true meaning the reader can unlock. Without the statement or kernel of meaning necessarily coming across as preachy or heavy handed. Though I’d love at one point for Avi and I to do a satire of pulpy cartoon religious tracts like one finds at park benches.
Avi: Siren Song is about these two free jazz musicians who are the only beings who survive when New York is submerged beneath the sea. It was sort of an exercise to see how fast we could work. Chris does a lot of beautiful figure drawing in that one. I think if we continue it I would go in a more musical direction, at the moment it’s a bit violent and unsettling.
Yeah, you showed me a bit of that. I can see what you mean, as the illustrations are very beautiful but the content can be seen as triggering for sure. So I know I have spoken to you, Chris, about your photography. Is this something you actively pursue, or something that finds its way into your life?
Chris: Both. but I leave that for the viewer to decide.
Avi, do you have any other creative outlets you make time for on the side?
I spent a lot of time learning to play jazz piano. I took a few lessons as a kid and in high school I would hang out for hours improvising at the piano. When I lived in Austin the music scene was wonderful and I found a great teacher, Ben Irom, who helped me get to the level where I was improvising in a jazz combo. It’s hard now because I can’t play an instrument without my son Omer wanting to jump on and play as well! It’s important to us to pass along a love of music, he has musicians on both sides of the family.
Wow, that’s lovely and it makes sense why you would want to incorporate the element of music in your comics. Well thank you both so much for letting me pry into the inner workings of your creative partnership. I really appreciate your time and collaboration. Many thanks.