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Comix Friday: An evening with Neil Kleid, part I

5:52 pm Friday, July 17, 2009
by rachel leibold

Neil Kleid is a Xeric award-winning cartoonist and writer whose new graphic novel, "The Big Kahn," is coming out this month from NBM. "The Big Kahn," written by Kleid and illustrated by Nicolas Cinquegrani, is the story of an Orthodox family whose world is turned upside down by the revelation that its late patriarch, Rabbi David Kahn, was actually a con artist named Donald Dobbs - and was never actually Jewish. This discovery has a profound impact on the Kahns - mother Rachel, pious son Avi, rebellious daughter Lea and preteen Eli, all of whom struggle to understand their new position in the community.

Born in Brooklyn, Neil grew up in suburban Detroit and moved back to the New York area 10 years ago. In addition to "The Big Kahn," he's also the author of "Brownsville," a comic book retelling of the story of notorious Jewish gangsters Murder Inc. (aka the Brownsville Boys), and has written (and sometimes illustrated) a number of other comix and graphic novels (a full list can be found at his website, Rant Comics).

I recently spoke with Neil from his home in Teaneck, N.J., where he lives with his wife and their 9-month-old baby.

Neil in his studio


What was your Jewish upbringing like?

We're frum. We used to be pretty labelless - we went to a shul that was really hardcore to the right, and we were never hardcore to the right growing up. When I was a kid, I went to an all-boys yeshiva, where all the kids were wearing white shirts and black pants, and didn't have televisions, and I was the kid who was bringing Transformers and Star Wars toys to school, kind of getting made fun of because of it. So we were a little more relaxed at the time. Pretty Modern Orthodox - nowadays people would say Young Israel.

As we grew up, my parents have gotten a lot more to the right while I’ve moved a lot more to the left. But I call myself Modern Orthodox - I keep kosher, keep Shabbos, keep the holidays, wear a kippah, all that stuff.

Your Jewish education - you said you went to a yeshiva.

Yeah, you know, I grew up pretty - well, I don’t want to say black hat, because I never really felt black hat, though I did wear a black hat. I always went to boy's schools, I went away to high school in Milwaukee, to a yeshiva there. I kind of did it all. Starting in college, I didn’t go to, like, YU - I went to a secular college, to Wayne State University in Detroit, and that sort of was the first time that I wasn't surrounded by "guys like me."

When do you get interested in doing comics? Did you grow up reading them?

big_kahn_cover_306I've always read comics. When we were kids, my dad used to come home on Friday afternoon, and on the way home he'd stop at this place called Little Professor, a little mom-and-pop bookstore. He'd drop in on his way to pick up food for Shabbos and buy a brown bag of about six or seven comics, come in, drop 'em on the floor in my brother's and my room and basically say, "Read those, keep yourselves busy."

That’s sort of interesting, because you grew up in an Orthodox community. What kinds of comics were these?

Oh, they were superhero comics. I mean, my dad used to collect comics too. He's always read comics - like every Jewish dad you know, he'll bemoan the fact that his mom threw out his copy of Fantastic Four No. 1.

Of course.

He's read comics since day one. He was never as into them as we were - when we were growing it, it was more like we would read them, and then on Shabbos he'd take them into the bathroom after Shabbos lunch or something like that. We would collect 'em, we'd bag 'em, we talked about them - for him it was just reading material.

Was there any kind of problem with the community, where you were told, these are bad?

(Laughs) Well, my brother and I sort of struggled with that, because like I said, we were the guys who came to school with the Superman T-shirts and lunchboxes and stuff. And when you go to a pretty yeshivish school, a lot of the time you’ll hear some pretty stupid things, like, "Hey, those aren't Star Wars figures you're playing with, those are idols." My older brother basically sat down one of my friends and said, "Hey, here's the Bible, look through it and tell me where it says I can't play with Ben Kenobi."

So, you know, we'd get a lot of crap from people, but the nice thing, for me at least, was that I could draw. So for me it was a little different because people would want to see me draw Spider-Man for them or something, or as best as I could when I was 11. But we were a little bit more ... unique. We’d get made fun of every now and then, but nine times out of 10, those same kids would come over and play G.I. Joe with us in the backyard.

What were your favorite comics growing up?

I remember at one point we had a box of like 500 comics, just kinda loose. And when we really looked through them and kind of catalogued them - which was just the best way to spend a Sunday - we were definitely more DC guys. I remember DC Comics Presents was a big one - Superman plus I think Dial H for Hero was my big thing at the time, I used to LOVE Dial H for Hero. I don’t remember a lot about it because I haven’t read it in years, but there was just something about the fact that with every comic you got four or five different heroes in one. And for a kid like me who always wanted to draw different costumes, that was very cool.

I loved the Metal Men, I loved the X-Men. My brother was always a Batman guy. When I got into eighth grade, high school, I started to develop into more of a Green Lantern fan. I've been a Green Lantern fan since then.

brownsville_cover_298You mentioned that you used to draw a lot of comics - I’ve noticed that in a lot of your comics, you don’t draw them yourself, you do the dialogue.

My style is actually fairly unique in that it's a little cartoony. So let's say when I did "Brownsville," which is a hardcore street-level Mafia story, my style doesn't really fit that. So I know my limitations and say, okay, I'm not going to be able to sit down and do 200 pages of fedoras and Tommy guns. Mine is a little more like indie-alt, like I'd be able to do a story about my family or "Ninety Candles," which was a story about a cartoonist, which lent to my style. I kind of pick and choose what I’m going to draw based on what the story is.

I’m also a very slow artist, so if I have a book that needs to get out quickly, I tend to not draw it.

A lot of people are into comics but never make that segue into making them. When did you start thinking, this is something I could really do?

I always wanted to draw comics for a living. Growing up, you know how people always ask kids what do you want to be when you grow up - for me it was always, I want to draw Batman.

I remember, I must have been around 12, we came to New York, and my parents took me to the Marvel offices when they were on Park Avenue. I had a fistful of pinups that I had done, and we just walked in and asked to see an editor. Somebody came out - I think it was Pat Garrahy - and he looked through my stuff and was like, "Hey, you know, your style’s great, we don’t really look at pinups and you're a little young, but ... " He gave me a ton of copies of the book "How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way," and he gave me a Hulk script to look through.

I started to trace peoples' comics, take old issues of Avengers and redraw them ... at the time, I really just wanted to be a superhero guy. I didn't even know what the indie-alt scene was at the time. This was just what I got at 7-11 or the local comic store. It wasn't until I got to New York that that really started to change.

Having been on the drawing and the writing side, which do you feel is more difficult?

They each have their morays. I would go and say anybody can write, it's easy to sit down and say "I'm going to write a comic book." There's no rhyme or reason to it, there's no format, as long as you get across to an artist what you want the structure to be. It's not necessarily good, it's not necessarily written well, but you can write.

To draw you need to be able to draw. You can't just say, "Oh, I'm going to sit down and draw" one day. When you pick up a comic, unfortunately - I say this as a writer - the first thing people judge you on is the art.

If you do know what you're doing, art can be a little more tedious than writing. I can write a 200-page graphic novel in three months. That same graphic novel will take an artist three years to draw. Plus, as an artist, working with a writer, you're really trying to get the writer’s vision out there. And I know for myself, I'm the worst writer to work with, because I know exactly what I want on the page.

Well, you are an artist.

Exactly - I think in camera angles, I think in art. I know what I want there, I just can't draw it myself sometimes.

However, on the writing side, I feel like sitting down with that blank page staring at you - unless you have it mapped out and outlined, it's daunting. They say beginnings are the hardest, and it's true. I've trashed so many stories after five pages, saying, you know what, this sounded a lot better in my head...

Next week in Comix Friday: Neil and I talk about his new book, "The Big Kahn." Don't miss it!

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Tags: comics, comix friday, neil kleid, the big kahn, brownsville, nbm

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