Telling an Honest Story: A Conversation with Sammy Harkham
By Kevin KoczwaraNovember 14, 2023
Blood of the Virgin by Sammy Harkham
Before The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, a culture of movies with minimal scripts and budgets filled movie theaters and drive-ins. They played continuously on the “grind” and offered viewers a cheaper ticket to something that might be too risqué or uncouth for mainstream cinema—Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) was his attempt at a grindhouse-inspired movie. These movies were cheap and effective. They provided a creative outlet and an adjacent business to Hollywood. They were made across the country with regional specifications, but the majority of the work took place in the underbelly of the Los Angeles movie system. Artists harbored dreams of making it big, of creating art, and they struggled to make money or a life while flushing one project out after another. It’s in this world of grindhouse horror and DIY ethos that cartoonist Sammy Harkham found inspiration for his graphic novel Blood of the Virgin (2023).
Harkham started the project in September 2007 and finished the story of 27-year-old Seymour, an Iraqi Jewish immigrant, in 2022. The story takes place in L.A. in 1971. While Seymour works as a film editor for exploitation movies and pursues his filmmaking dreams, his wife Ida stays home with their infant. For Seymour, the personal and professional obstacles seem endless. He has a family to support while he pursues his ambition, and when his potential break comes, his family life falls apart. It’s a vicious cycle: the novel centers on the struggles of creating art as well as the personal balancing act that many artists fail to accomplish while creating art.
Harkham was born and raised in Los Angeles. He studied at the California Institute of the Arts and the Mayanot Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem, and his collection of short comic stories, Everything Together, won the 2012 Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Best Graphic Novel. Harkham, 43, has spent plenty of time musing on how stories are told—from novels to movies to short stories—by reading and studying them. He possesses a clear vision for what he wants to see on the page and a knowing awareness that interfering in the process can muddle it. With Blood of the Virgin, Harkham’s storytelling and drawing prowess shines, constructing a tale that speaks in far more complex ways than it lets on at first.
KEVIN KOCZWARA: How long were you working on Blood of the Virgin?
SAMMY HARKHAM: The first page was drawn in April 2008 and the last page was drawn in April 2022. But I was also working on it before that. I found my notes from September 2007 and they have a breakdown: the title and some ideas and sketches.
The first chapter comes out at the end of 2010, the beginning of 2011. An issue comes out every two years thereabout, and each issue’s kind of long, on average 40 to 48 pages a chapter, about two years’ worth of work.
I read that you have kids, and there is a lot about children in this directly and indirectly.
That was very difficult. I feel like now that my kids are getting older, I can focus more on working.
I asked this because it feels like one of the burdens in the book. There is a certain moment in the book where—I also have kids and I stay at home with them, and it’s like there is a certain feeling of, Well, what am I doing? And that comes across in the book. It’s not like a dislike of a child, but it comes off as if there is something I am missing because of this person I have to take care of.
You’re creating burdens around someone’s drive to get somewhere. I think those can be expressed in various ways, and depending on how the author goes about it, they can feel self-aware—where the onus is on the main character, seeing these things as burdens, or the onus is on the writer because you can tell they don’t even think they’re portraying all these characters around the main character as annoying.
The thing you want to avoid is a certain victimization. If the main character is someone the audience is supposed to identify with and the rest of the characters around them and the universe around them is just mean to them and they’re like a sensitive, nice character, that is something I hate. I think it’s disgusting and I’m trying to avoid that. I felt like as the story goes along (it’s a book you need to stick with), people’s relationships and ideas of love, and the book’s ideas of parenting—you see different facets of them.
The book is also about making art.
It is, 100 percent.
Was it something you were aware of?
It’s one of those things that only when the book was getting done did I realize what the themes were, and I was a little bit mortified.
Why be mortified? Some of the most interesting stuff is about making something.
I think you just want to make something readable by anyone. One of the thematic ideas is the idea of art and its value, and you realize you’re just distilling how people feel about their own existence. Does it have value or should I just have fun? Does it matter or should I just relax? All the questions that people have about making art and all the rationalizations that they tell themselves when they fail or when they don’t, when things don’t go the way they go, can be applied to life. So in that way, once I sort of put that together, I was like, Oh, okay, this book can be read by people who don’t care about movies or make art or whatever.
There’s that existential dread of life: what is the meaning of anything?
The funny thing about life is it’s either the most meaningful thing in the world or it doesn’t matter. I like how it’s sort of this very binary black or white thing. Either your life is insanely important or it’s not. That’s very funny to me as an idea.
That’s interesting to think about in the context of how work is made. I don’t ever think, What am I saying here? I’m like, Well, let me just start writing something and see if anything works, and then I just delete it and then I do it again. And you just keep going until something works or there’s one nugget in there.
And the issue also becomes, once you know what your themes are, to not lean into them directly. Because once your conscious mind knows, Oh, this is a book about your mother, then when you have a scene of two people talking about work, you’re going to weirdly try to connect it to somehow to this idea of mothers or mothering and it becomes one. The goal is not to finish a book with all the bows completely tied; you want there to be an unknowable part so there’s as much tension and sense of possible expansion on the last page as there is at the beginning. That, to me, was the challenge with long-form work. How do you end a book so it still feels like there’s more that could be said, that there’s still a sense of ambiguity as you close the book, yet it’s satisfying? That is the challenge.
It took you so long to work on this, and I know even between now and two months ago, the way I’m writing is totally different. How do you manage to keep the style seamless and that creative center alive?
The plot was in place early and I spent a lot of time sort of mentally mapping out a plot. Without writing anything down, I’m just trying to plot, combine, and stack ideas in as streamlined a plot as possible—so that, even if it was told over dinner, it’s compelling and you can see the pathos in it and you can see the humor in it by reciting the plot points. And if I could do that, it would give me a backbone, and I would then attack a scene.
You write yourself into a corner and it’s a lot of despair, to be honest. It’s a lot of hair-pulling and torture because you could be on a roll for a couple of weeks doing one scene, and then you get to the end of it and you’re like, I have nothing. Visually, I have nothing. I don’t know what to do. I know what needs to happen to get the story to the ending, but I don’t know how to do it. But that kind of writing forces you to dig deep and it has to come out of character, which is interesting because the characters are really defining themselves as you work on it.
Hopefully, every plot development feels like it’s emerging out of an inevitable interaction. Or maybe not interaction, but like an osmosis of psychology and personalities. I think that’s the difference between when you read something, when you read something that seems to have more integrity.
What about your drawing style?
Visually, that’s also a problem. Your art style does change. I remember [American cartoonist] Chris Ware once said something really nice about how you can consider it a positive and a negative that as you read a long graphic novel it gets more visual clarity, it gets more into view. I try to draw a certain way, and I’m always trying to achieve a certain kind of voice—from the beginning to the end—so for me, when I got to the end and went back to page one for the collection, I didn’t want to redraw it. It’s going to look a little different in the first 50 pages.
That’s something I thought about, and that it comes into focus actually makes a lot of sense. Those last 30 pages I flew through because I started to get into the rhythm of the drawing. It’s similar to a movie. You can just start to see things come together before you even see it.
The challenge with the end of Blood of the Virgin is that’s when it really slows down. It’s like it actually works in reverse. It starts out fast and then, by the time we get to the end, it’s almost like a still life in my mind. The scene in the diner, I feel like we’ve had so much movement and so much stuff happening. I was like, let’s just stop it all. Because that’s the antithesis of what this character’s been trying to get going for the whole book. He’s trying to get so much done, and then by the end, I’m trying to slow everything down. And my sense is like, oh, maybe the reader’s not in the zone for that because they think of comics more like a kind of cinema, whereas you can do it in a book. So it was an attempt to play with that.
Sammy Harkham is an award-winning cartoonist and editor, born and raised in Los Angeles. His first collection of short comics stories, Everything Together, won the 2012 Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Best Graphic Novel.
Kevin Koczwara is a journalist in Worcester, Massachusetts. He has written for Esquire, The New York Times, GQ, and many other publications.
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