Boaz Yakin's Voyage to "Jerusalem"

There is no other place like it. The beauty, the history, the strife... and in Boaz Yakin's new original graphic novel "Jerusalem," on sale in April from First Second Books, the writer has focused on each of these aspects of Israel's capital city with the detail of a jeweler's loupe. With Yakin's words, artist Nick Bertozzi captures Yakin's story about family, belief and the war absolute that breeds from both.

"Jerusalem" is not easy to digest, nor should it be. It requires -- it demands -- patience. It is a tapestry. It is a poem. And it's a project film director and writer Yakin has been working on for a very, very long time. Yakin spoke to CBR News about the story's roots, how Bertozzi became involved and why First Second was the proper home for it.

CBR News: Boaz, you clearly have a strong personal interest in the subject matter presented in "Jerusalem." How long have you had this story inside you, and what was the motivation to make it into a graphic novel?

Jerusalem OGN

Film director and writer Boaz Yakin delivers a nuanced historical OGN with "Jerusalem"

Boaz Yakin: I actually wrote "Jerusalem" as a screenplay, sometime around 1993 or '94. I grew up in New York City, to two Israeli parents, and the stories that my father told me about his childhood in British Mandate Palestine were my original inspiration for the project. He also wrote a screenplay on the subject himself, which dealt mainly with childhood themes, and I used sections of that work for some of the scenes between the two young best friends in this story. But for my part, knowing my father's brothers and his sister well, and having an inkling as to how resonant all of their experiences were during this time period (and beyond it), I decided to expand the story and make it a broader family story -- an intimate epic, if such a thing is possible.

There was some interest in the script at the time I wrote it, but frankly, the thing was extremely ambitious, over 200 pages long, and like most ambitious things I have written it ended up languishing on my shelf for years. But in this case, fortune turned my way. I met a wonderful guy named Jordan Mechner, who created the "Prince of Persia" video game, when I was brought in by Jerry Bruckheimer to do some rewriting on the movie version. Jordan and I became friends very quickly, and at some point, for one reason or another, I mentioned "Jerusalem" to him. He was at the time working on a GN of his own at First Second Books, about the Templar Knights, and he thought the editor there, Mark Siegel, might respond to the idea of turning the screenplay into a GN -- which, much to my delight, he did. It's an amazing feeling to have something that's been dormant and practically dead and buried suddenly given new life in another medium.

I love the history excerpt at the beginning. Sadly, I'm not, nor do I know a lot of people who are, familiar with Jerusalem's history. Is that why it was included? Was it an invitation to the world and the story you were about to tell? Do you think the story could have worked without it?

The history at the beginning was indeed included as a reference point for those who might not know what they were getting into at the start of the story. I am often not a fan of laying down too much groundwork at the beginning, preferring to jump right into the piece and let people kind of figure things out as they go -- but here there were so many characters, and the historical situation so specific, that we all really felt the book needed it. With a place carrying as much baggage as Jerusalem does, with a history that goes back as far as it does, it's always a challenge to decide what to include and omit when giving a sense of what happened there -- there's always going to be *someone* who feels that your take was slanted in one direction or the other. I tried to take that into account, recognizing that what I needed to do was to, as clearly as possible, set up the situation and people the readers would be exploring in the book, while staying as neutral as possible in a political context.

How did you pitch "Jerusalem" to First Second?

Jordan actually pitched it to Mark Siegel (thanks again, Jordan). I had a nice conversation with Mark, and sent him the script, which he really liked, and we took it from there, knowing that there were going to have to be changes and edits made in order to make it work as a book.

Family, death and struggle are huge themes woven throughout the book. Were these common themes in the stories you were told growing up?

They were, but almost off-handedly. My father was an actor, mime, and theater director. When he told my brother and I stories about the Jerusalem of his childhood he acted them out with such exuberance and humor that what we generally came away with was a sense of enormous fun and freedom. We always felt like losers that our life was so dull and undramatic, while his was so full of color and adventure. I think a feeling for the deeper and more nuanced aspects of that experience began to be felt by me a little bit later in life.

How did you and artist Nick Bertozzi come to work together on this project? What was the collaborative process like?

Nick was suggested by Mark Siegel as a strong contender to draw the book, and after exposure to some of his work I was sure he was the right guy for it. Having worked with him, and seeing the finished product, I am sure beyond a doubt there is no one who could match what he did in telling this story. I know people always say things like that when touting their project, but in this case it could not be more true. Nick is one of the best and most underrated (hopefully not for long) cartoonists in the country. His sense of character, performance, storytelling and layout is tops. Like the comic book equivalent of one of Disney's Nine Old Men. He's an open and patient collaborator, and I'm proud to have worked with him.

Having written the piece as a screenplay, my main task was editing it in such a manner that it broke down more naturally to the more static comic book format, rather than the flow of images that constitute a movie. But other than that, all the heavy lifting was done by Nick.

The scene when Motti is on stage in front of a live audience, performing Puck's monologue from "A Midsummer's Night Dream" had such development, such weight. Which scene in the book resonates most with you?

Thanks so much for saying so. It always fascinated me, growing up, how so many of the strong experiences of that era affected the various members of my family in such different ways -- and that my father, being too young at the time to "participate" the way his older brothers did, took in the entire experience more as a viewer, as an audience, and developed a love of theater and performance as a result. The moment you describe is the moment that defines for me everything I was trying to put into the book, as well. The fusion of real and imagined experience, the joy of transformation and the horror of the reality that is just around the corner, are all focused into that one final moment. So it's the key scene in the piece for me, as well. By the way, for the record -- though much of the story is based on real stories and events, the GN is a highly fictionalized re-imagining of them.

In a medium dominated, or rather, over-saturated with capes and spandex, it's refreshing to read something like "Jerusalem." Rich, historical -- it stays with you. Are these the types of stories you'd like to see more of, or do you think they work better when published sporadically?

Honestly, I am not all that sure of what kind of books are selling or not selling these days. I grew up on superhero comics, am a Jack Kirby fanatic, and will always cherish the genre -- but I don't read them much anymore, at least not the straight up superhero ones.  Most of the stuff that I have been checking out and liking -- "Scalped," "Criminal," "Dahmer," "Habibi," "Walking Dead," etc. -- aren't capes and spandex, and seem to be prominently featured on the stands, so I hope they're doing alright. Seems to me like there's a place for all of them -- at least I hope so.

Being a screenwriter and director, what techniques have you picked up from film that you employ in your comic scripts?

Well, to be truthful, other than a series of comics I wrote for my brother Erez to illustrate quite a long time ago, called "The Remarkable Worlds of Professor Phineas B. Fuddle," the scripts that I have had turned into GN's have started out as screenplays, which I have then had to make some minor adjustments to in order to better work in the illustrated format. There are subtle differences, but there are many more similarities, and when one is lucky enough to be working with strong artists the transition is not that difficult to make.

Is Jerusalem's tale over? Did you say what you wanted to? Is there anything you want to add?

Jerusalem's story started a long time before I entered this strange existence of ours, and will continue long after I am gone! And I am not sure what I wanted to say with it, either. I think I wanted to find moments that represented what it was like to be alive in that place, in that heated and turbulent moment in its history, so that I could touch it with my imagination, and perhaps convey some part of that to others, as well.

"Jerusalem" is on sale May 22 from First Second Books.

Tags: first second, jerusalem, boaz yakin, nick bertozzi

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