‘Next-Door Neighbor,’ nonfiction comics that peek past the curtains
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For the past three years, I’ve gone to Chapman University in Orange, Calif., to speak with students about feature writing, journalism and the art of the interview. One of the students this year took my advice about persistence and followed up on my offer to seniors about writing something for this blog. She did more than that, too -- she delivered a wonderful piece about an online comics series I’ve been admiring for months. Check out Beth Hartnett’s article below and keep an eye out for her name, something tells me she will be writing a lot in the months and years to come. -- G.B.
Dead rats and voodoo threats replace the potted plant or newcomer’s gift basket at a Brooklyn apartment complex. A little old lady, dressed like Strawberry Shortcake, finds solace with her dolls and cats, and red plastic furniture. Sinister scents and a nervous neighbor make one man wonder what might really be happening on the other side of his shared wall.
These are all snatches of private lives being lived nearby but always at a distance, witnessed through open curtains or over backyard fences. They are also the riveting real-life material documented in an online comic-book project called “Next-Door Neighbor.”
“These are like hallmark cards. They keep us connected,” said Dean Haspiel, editor of the project at SMITH magazine. “We are celebrating humanity, from the kid next door to the raging alcoholic upstairs with the night terrors.”
The 42-year-old Haspiel is an artist of growing acclaim after his comics collaborations with Harvey Pekar (‘The Quitter,’ ‘American Splendor'), Michael Chabon (‘The Escapist') and Jonathan Ames (‘The Alcoholic') and many of his most riveting panels have been capturing sad or seedy moments of real lives in ink images. That informs the sensibility of ‘Neighbor,’ which is led by Haspiel and SMITH co-founder Larry Smith, whose website previously hosted the landmark web-comics ‘A.D.:New Orleans After the Deluge’ and ‘Shooting War.’
‘Neighbor’ launched last year and, with the posting of Tara Seibel’s ‘The Vestibule’ on May 20, there have been 29 stories, each by a different creator or creative team. It’s comics meets Hitchcock, the grotesque glossed over with a little touch of fantasy and realism; they vary wildly in tone, texture and illustrative style, but they also feel as linked as the numbered doors that share an apartment building hallway.
“They are all different, yet all connected,” Smith said. “They are all personal idiosyncratic experiences. Whether you live in an apartment or a mansion, there is always that neighbor that creeps you out. Neighbors have been an object of fascination, speculation and occasional voyeurism for storytellers ranging from Jane Austen to Alfred Hitchcock.”
‘Neighbor’ came about after Haspiel noted the resurgence of the comics anthology as a template for storytelling. He began searching for a linking concept that would inspire more than restrict his contributors.
“I have had a bunch of ideas in my mind,’ he said, ‘and I wanted to come up with something that would get people talking.’
It was on the Internet that the notion of well-told neighbor stories seized his imagination. The conceit was an instant winner with Smith, whose online magazine launched in January 2006. SMITH Magazine is a site that allows its contributors, both amateur and professional, to post their stories, writing projects and other creative media.
“We are a personal storytelling site,’ said Smith, who added that he gave the go-ahead on ‘Neighbor’ within five minutes of hearing the idea. ‘As long as it is personal and passionate, there is no one way to write a story.’
The sweaty-palm angst of Ames and Bertozzi may feel like a mash-up of ‘Barton Fink’ and Kafka, but ‘I Heart NY?’ by Nicole Kenney lives on a far sunnier street, which is no surprise considering the winking whimsy of the Atlanta native’s past work, such as “Boys in my Life Thus Far,” published in Italy’s Fab Magazine.
But even in her upbeat artwork there’s a yearning to get past the impersonal: Kenney’s installment shows teeming life in little boxes, tenants of an apartment building living alone and apart despite the shared walls between them.
“I wanted to write about a period of my life that I knew other people could relate to,” said Kenney. “There are these lonely people that want to connect, but have trouble connecting.”
Another contributor was Joan Reilly, one of Haspiel’s colleagues at Deep Six Studios. Known for her contributions to the indie comic collective “Hi-Horse,” Reilly’s works often present themes dealing with relationships, city life and absurdity, which plays well into the ‘Neighbor’ approach; her installment, “Hank and Barbara,” tells the story of Reilly and her innocent friendship with Cass in a not-so-innocent neighborhood.
The story climaxes when Cass mysteriously leaves without saying goodbye.
“It was a simple idea that people can latch onto,’ said Reilly. “She was my secret friend.”
In addition to the professionals, SMITH Magazine launched a contest inviting fans to submit their neighborhood narratives. “Night of the Black Chrysanthemums,” the 28th installment premiered on the site on May 6, 2009, by contest winner Michele Carlo and illustrated by Rick Parker.
That 28th installment was the last under the supervision of Haspiel but the series continues beyond his tour of duty. There are also advancing talks about a print-edition collection of the series, which would fit the trajectory of ‘Shooting War’ and ‘A.D.’ as online ventures that eventually made it to the bookshelf in handsome bound volumes.
Smith said that would be a secondary success to the first achievement of ‘Next Door Neighbor’: ‘That we found a way to take something so ‘top-down’ and bring in our readers, that is SMITH’s mission manifesting itself perfectly -- professional mashing up with the amateur to deliver intimate, addictive, personal storytelling.”
-- Beth Hartnett
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All images courtesy of Smithmag.net, except for ‘The Alcoholic,’ from Vertigo/DC