I’m not the kind of critic that likes to wax poetic about the production of a piece of art. I believe that, although an artist’s life always influences their creations, a work should be judged on its own merits. However, occasionally, as is the case with Seth Kushner’s comic anthology Secret Sauce, exceptions must be made.
As he elucidates at the start of the work, Kushner spent much of 2014 in and out of the hospital being treated for Leukemia. He was told that he only had weeks to live. Then weeks went by. A few more. Yet again, a few more. Time passed, and Kushner still lived. By the end of the year, Kushner had done what doctors had said would be impossible— he defeated his leukemia. And then he made Secret Sauce.
Secret Sauce is structured as a set of five short stories, two of which are illustrated and three of which are produced as photocomics. All feature Kushner’s writing, but each story has its own set of artistic collaborators who lend a different flavor to Kushner’s words. Going in, I was worried that Secret Sauce would be a set of ruminations on mortality— the frailty of life and the relentless passage of time. Happily, I was proven wrong. Secret Sauce is not an exploration of death, but is instead a celebration of life.
In Secret Sauce‘s first short story, “The Brooklynite in ‘A Man of His Word,'” Kushner immediately establishes an upbeat and energetic tone that persists through the stories that follow it. Shamus Beyale provides great art for this short. The backgrounds are rendered with care, and his characters are expressive and drawn with clearly defined lines. Colorist Frank Reynoso uses a palette of upbeat pastels with some bright primary colors for accents, which further book’s energetic feel.
Kusher’s script never takes itself too seriously, and there are some great laughs as comic-artist-by-day-superhero-by-night Jeffries aka The Brooklynite takes on a disgruntled hipster-meets-MMA-fighter named Billy Burg. It’s a testament to the team’s collective effort that they manage to successfully create a comic that feels full and fun in only four pages. It’s fast and leaves the reader breathless and waiting for more.
Sci-Fi short “”Youtopia” does something similar, with a heavy dose of well-directed action composed by artist Charles Stewart and a beautiful color scheme and world design inspired by Tron. These two works have nothing in common in terms of plot, and instead find connection through the energy that Kushner imbues into his script and that his collaborators put into their art.
However, where Secret Sauce really shines is in its photocomics, particularly “Heyday.” In it, Kushner tells the story of a young girl whose grandfather used to be a superhero known as The Insomniac. Kushner and co-director Dean Haspiel do some great work in this short, bringing a fun and heartwarming story to life with an artistic technique that is not commonly explored in comics, and is occasionally even maligned. I myself often think about what would make a photocomic resonate with readers, and there’s a lot that can be learned from “Heyday.” Its greatest success comes from the use of color in each photographic panel. Characters are highlighted by wearing outfits with bright shades of blue, and the scenery of the living room that the story takes place in is pushed into the background through a unified use of oranges and browns. It’s a simple, but incredibly effective technique, and really helps the story feel less like a vaguely connected series of images and more like a well-composed comic. That’s not to say that “Heyday” is completely successful— the digitally produced sound effects and speech bubbles clash with the photographs, and Kushner and Haspiel’s use of stroke in one panel feels too synthetic when placed up against a photograph of a person rather than an illustration of one. Ultimately, however, the risks the two creators take in this photocomic are worth the slight missteps, as they demonstrate that comics still have plenty of room to grow and that Kushner has unique ideas on how to direct that growth (the ending to the story is also pretty ingenious and got a well earned laugh out of me).
It feels disingenuous to rate or score Secret Sauce on a scale. Kushner doesn’t try to shove a message down anyone’s throat. He’s not in it to prove something. He’s in it because he loves comics, and it shows. Secret Sauce is a revelry that is playfully self-indulgent with its references to Brooklyn culture and superhero tropes. It’s a deeply personal work that is simultaneously universal in its themes. It’s a book that plays with form and theme in ways that are not commonly explored. In short, Secret Sauce is not a treatise— it’s a party.
Secret Sauce debuts at NYC’s MoCCA Fest 2015, which takes place this weekend, April 11th-12th.