benton-SMOKE cov front

Rolling along with the Fall line-up for comics, here’s another September release. Brooklyn’s Hang Dai Studios has teamed with Alternative Comics to release their fall schedule, which includes three titles Smoke by Gregory BentonBeef with Tomato by Dean Haspiel, and Schmuck by Seth Kushner and an all-star line-up of cartoonists. It’s a powerhouse line-up of talent, each book with its own distinctive voice born of living life in New York City. In Benton’s case, urban life has inspired a marvelous wordless fantasy epic about two kids, apparently the children of migrant workers, who are swept away to a magical land beset by perils who  are befriended and protected by a magnificent dog straight from the Day of the Dead. It’s a wordless narrative that’s part Amulet, part Adventure Time, but all original, with a bittersweet ending. We emailed Benton with a few question about his work and Smoke:

Why is this comic of importance to you personally? 

Smoke is an independent Hang Dai Editions project. It is my first major contribution to the publishing collective I integrate/form part of with Dean Haspiel, Seth Kushner, and Josh Neufeld. I want to be able to put out stories I want to tell, and to learn about what goes into bringing a project to completion—from drawing the first line on a page to the book being available in your local comic shop. As an artist, I was accustomed to dropping off my finished story at a publisher and forgetting about it until it hit the stands. Now, finishing the story is almost the beginning of the process. You have to deal with book design, quotes from printers, distribution concerns, obligatory promotion issues. It’s a massive undertaking and I’m still trying to learn how it works. This was the impetus for the forming of Hang Dai Editions: Dean Haspiel, Seth Kushner, Josh Neufeld and I want to understand and take those risks so we can put out the stories and projects we believe in. We’re putting our best efforts into HDE and hopefully the first round of releases (Haspiel’s Beef With Tomato, Kushner’s Schmuck, and my storySmoke) will enable us to carry on and go further with our independent venture.

What inspired the work in it?

I am endlessly inspired by the possibilities of wordless narrative. There is a long and fertile history with contemporary author/artists like Peter Kuper (The System) and Jim Woodring (Frank) along with the classic Franz Masereel (Passionate Journey) and Milt Gross (He Done Her Wrong). Without dialogue or exposition to guide a reader, the wordless comic opens itself up to varying interpretations and I can appreciate that. The reader is an integral and active component to the narrative.

Smoke is part of the same universe as my previous wordless book B+F (AdHouse Books & Editions çà et là). While I was brainstorming the second B+F story, the Xolo skeleton dog from the first book kept making an appearance. My sketchbooks and doodles had become overrun with drawings of the Xolo and two young brothers. Around the same time, I had been discussing with friends and reading articles about farmworkers and the story sort of came together. 

Both you and Dean are returning to long form (even though they are short stories) after a long absence. Was it difficult to get into the frame of mind to do these?

My last book B+F was long form, and I’d taken on several shorter projects while working on Smoke, such as Nemo: Dream Another Dream (Locust Moon Press), Stake (HDE), “The Hen & The Mountain Turtle” for the upcoming Fables Comics (First Second), the comix intro to Seth Kushner’s Schmuck (HDE) and a scattering of pinups and short stories for various projects. Bouncing back and forth is part of the game that keeps me nimble. Sometimes going from one technique to another (for example, watercolor to digital to gouache) takes some adjusting to, but it is something I enjoy tremendously.

What do you hope that readers learn from these?

I simply hope the reader of Smoke is open to the experience of the wordless narrative, even though it’s not a conventional form of storytelling. On a personal level, I’ve always enjoyed spending time immersed in the nuances of an individual panel. I guess I just really like looking at pictures and communicating though images. I hope someone who picks up Smoke can be similarly appreciative of the form and enjoy the story.

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