Over the years comics have been made into plays and plays have been made into comics. There was a 1966 Broadway Musical called "It's a Bird, It's a Plane, it's Superman," for one. A play was also made from the published stories of Harvey Pekar, as seen in the movie "American Splendor." And there are numerous examples of plays that have been adapted into comics form. But it's not often that a play is actually staged in the pages of a comic book. Damon Hurd has done just that with his latest original graphic novel, "The White Elephant," coming this May from Alternative Comics. CBR News caught up with Hurd to learn more about the book and the use of this unique storytelling device.
"At it's core, it's about loss," Hurd told CBR News when asked about "The White Elephant." "The story revolves around a young man named Gene, who has recently been suffering from bouts of insomnia. Through his waking dream of a surreal therapy session, we witness Gene coming face to face with both his past and his demons, taking shape in the form of the white elephant. Gene envisions this session as a stage play, in which he is playing the lead. In this play Gene enters several events from his past both re-living them and re-enacting them as his current adult self. Guided by a stock doctor, Gene discusses his sister's abuse and the resulting loss of his family, most especially his cousin Johnny. Gene's deepest pain however stems from his and Johnny's failed attempt at reunion and reconciliation."
"The White Elephant" is more than just a title, you'll find an actual white elephant making its way through the pages of the book, playing an important role for Gene.
"The elephant in the book is the physical manifestation of Gene's anger and lament. It is the corporeal form of his personal demons. Manifestation in dreams is quite common and I knew I wanted to use an animal for Gene's.
"The white elephant itself comes from two old sayings. One is from the adage of the elephant in the room that everyone sees but no one acknowledges, which serves as the perfect metaphor for why Gene and Johnny's renewed relationship breaks down. The other is the reference of a white elephant as a large empty house that used to be full. Like when all the kids move out and mom and dad are left in a big house for just the two of them and they can sense the emptiness. The same can be said of Gene's present life and the acute lack of his family providing that emptiness."
In Hurd's previous releases "A Sort of Homecoming" and "My Uncle Jeff," the author pulls on personal experiences to form his stories (in the case of "My Uncle Jeff," Hurd recounts a story about a real life family member). Hurd keeps to that formula with "The White Elephant," saying the book's a thinly veiled autobiography.
"This is perhaps the most personal story I have to tell, since it comes from my own feelings of loss and lament. The loss of my family and my cousin have plagued me and my dreams for many years. I had been going through a period of insomnia over it myself and that prompted me to do something about it. I thought maybe writing the story would be cathartic.
"I write about relationships, because that's what fascinates me and that's what moves me as a reader and an observer in life. In the case of 'The White Elephant,' as was the same with 'My Uncle Jeff,' I'm telling a story from my own life and there is no more personal story than an autobiographical one."
Hurd explained that the choice of the stage play as a story telling vehicle was an obvious one for him.
"I wanted to do something different for this book and the darkness of the story seemed best illuminated by the tight focus of a spotlight. I like the devices in plays and I wanted to use those devices here. I think when people read it they won't be able to picture it any other way.
"I am a huge fan of the theatre, and enjoy both seeing and reading plays. My favorite author is Eugene O'Neill and his play 'Long Days Journey Into Night' influenced how I saw this story a lot. I don't have a background in theatre myself, but I have recently begun a new job at a Performing Arts Center that I am enjoying very much."
But don't tell Hurd that using the "play inside a comic" idea is just some sort of gimmick to sell comics, it's simply the best way he saw for telling his story.
"I don't do gimmicks, it's not my thing," said Hurd. "I'm very much of the mind that the book needs to stand for itself and if I need to trick people into reading it then it wasn't worth it in the first place. I've done this long enough now to know that some people will make incorrect assertions about my work no matter what I do or say. I hope that most people will read the book for themselves and make their own judgments. "
Hurd revealed that confining the story to a stage didn't limit his ability to tell the story at all. In fact, it had entirely the opposite effect.
"Whenever I decide to write a book the way I first envision it in my head is how I go about it and I instantly pictured this story told on a stage. As I wrote it, I kept generating new ideas for scenes and transitions with the devices of a stage in mind, particularly the lighting and the use of sparse props and the physical size of a stage.
"If I were to write it now, I could have gotten even fancier since with my new job I learn more and more about stage productions every day."
Art for "The White Elephant" is by artist Christopher Steininger. "Christopher Steininger is quite possibly the greatest artist I have ever worked with," said Hurd. The two got together after Steininger answered Hurd's add for an artist on "My Uncle Jeff." Hurd knew Steininger's style didn't fit "My Uncle Jeff," but wanted to work with the artist. Hurd asked Steininger if he'd be interested in working on something else and told him that while he didn't have a book for him yet, he'd write one for him. The result is "The White Elephant." Hurd added the two of them will be starting another book together soon.
For all his work to date, Hurd files it under an overarching title of "beta." "The White Elephant" is included in this group.
"beta is the name I've given to my graphic novels. They constitute books I'm releasing with Alternative Comics that have been written by myself, but featuring several different artists. I chose beta, because I know that these are what someday I hope will be referred to as my early works. I feel that I'm growing up in public somewhat since I've been published starting with my first book rather than releasing a lot of minis on my own first like many cartoonists do. I feel I'm improving with each book I write and I hope to continue to."
Hurd said he believes there will be an end to beta, but he's not sure exactly when that will be and doesn't feel he's reached it yet. With "The White Elephant," his third graphic novel, he's learned a lot about the process of making comics.
"I think I've learned to edit myself a bit more, but still not enough," admitted Hurd. "The thing I need to learn the most is patience. I need to write a book, throw it in a drawer and not look at it for a month or so. Then I need to pull it out and re-write it. I end up editing way too soon and I always pay the price for it when I get the finished book and see areas of improvement.
"I feel I'm finally getting to the stories I really want to tell. I'm happier with the projects I'm currently working on, but I still am pleased with my existing efforts and earlier work and themes. One book in particular, 'A Strange Day,' (which is yet to be released) has been really fun to work on with artist Tatiana Gill. We're doing two more books with those characters and I enjoy returning to them."
To date all of Hurd's work has come from publisher Alternative Comics. AC's publisher Jeff Mason has shown a great deal of support for Hurd's work and he's happy to repay him for that faith.
"When I self-published the first run of 'My Uncle Jeff' I knew I didn't want to be a publisher and I dreamed that maybe someday I'd get a publisher for my work. I had a very short list. Alternative Comics, Top Shelf, and AiT/PlanetLar were among the top three. I got lucky and got my first choice.
"I would like to perhaps work with other publishers, but for now unless I do a book that doesn't really fit with Alternative or they can't do it for whatever reason, I'll be offering it to Jeff Mason first. He's more than earned it from me.
"The only other area would be mainstream comics which I have some interest in doing, but unfortunately I don't know any editors for the big companies so I don't see it happening anytime soon. Hey, if you're an editor reading this, email me. (smiles)"
In closing, Hurd hopes that readers of "The White Elephant" will be impacted by his story in a personal way.
"I hope [the readers] take away a desire to perhaps reconnect with someone they may have lost from their own life. Mostly I hope that it makes them think of their own relationships and treasure them. Losing my family, especially in the way I have, has been the most painful experience of my life and not a day goes by that I don't think of them."