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Celebrated graphic novelist Derf Backderf discusses his latest book, Kent State: Four Dead in Ohio, which documents the fatal May 4, 1970 shooting at Kent State University. Backderf sheds light on this event’s history and its aftermath; his decision to tell the story through the point of view of the four slain students (Allison Krause, Jeffrey Miller, Sandra Scheuer, and William Schroeder) and a Guardsman; his research and writing processes; the evolution of his career; his view of the current landscape for graphic novels; his favorite independent bookstores; and more.
Kent State: Four Dead in Ohio is the Ohio Center for the Book’s 2022 Great Reads from Great Places selection for adult readers and will represent Ohio’s literary heritage at the 2022 National Book Festival on September 3.
Derf Backderf’s previous books include My Friend Dahmer, Trashed, and Punk Rock and Trailer Parks. Learn more at derfcity.com and buy Kent State at your favorite independent bookstore. Mac’s Backs sells personalized, signed copies of Backderf’s books.
Mentioned in this episode:
- May 4 Collection at Kent State University
- The Orangeburg Massacre
- Jackson State College shooting
- Last Exit Books
- Mac’s Backs
- Maus by Art Spiegelman
Derf Backderf: I just wanted people to get the end of this book and just kind of stare at it. "Oh my god, what did I just read?" Laura Maylene Walter: Welcome to Page Count presented by the Ohio Center for the Book at Cleveland Public Library. This podcast celebrates authors, illustrators, librarians, booksellers, literary advocates, and readers in and from the state of Ohio. Laura Maylene Walter: I'm your host, Laura Maylene Walter, the Ohio Center for the Book Fellow and author of the novel BODY OF STARS. In today's episode, we're speaking with Derf Backderf, the author of the creative nonfiction graphic novel KENT STATE: FOUR DEAD IN OHIO. This book documents the May 4th, 1970 shooting at Kent State University. When the National Guard opened fire and killed four unarmed students and wounded nine others during a campus peace rally and protest. KENT STATE: FOUR DEAD IN OHIO will represent Ohio's literary heritage at our Great Reads from Great Places booth at the National Book Festival on September 3. This is the first year that each center for the book across the country has selected an adult title in addition to a children's book. In honor of this news, we're pleased to have Derf Backderf with us today to discuss his book, the history of the Kent State shooting, and his process as a cartoonist and graphic novelist. Derf, welcome to the podcast, and thank you so much for being here. Derf Backderf: Thanks for having me. Laura Maylene Walter: Well, I often open by asking my guests about their Ohio connection, but I think in your case, you're kind of famously from Northeast Ohio. So I thought I would actually use this question to combine a bit of your biography with an introduction to your book Kent State, because you have somewhat of a personal connection to the shooting. Can you take us back to 1970 to the week before the shooting? Where were you and what were you experiencing at that time? Derf Backderf: Well, I was a 10-year-old kid, which would've placed me finishing up fourth grade. I was born and raised in Richfield, Ohio, which of course is due west of Kent State, maybe 20 miles as the crow flies. And the week before, the Guard unit, the 145th Ohio, which would be dispatched to Kent State, some of those Guardsmen would open fire on Blanket Hill, was stationed in my hometown to crush a Teamster strike that was taking place at the truck depot by the Ohio turnpike exit. So their camp was directly across the street from my elementary school, which seems crazy now, but you know, that was 1970. And they lined the streets of Brecksville Road, which was one of the main roads through the town, near the depots on both sides of the street, holding their M1s with bayonets out. You know, it really, it really was a life-changing experience for me because it was a day that the outside world came rushing in to this peaceful little kid existence that I had had in this small town. Derf Backderf: And suddenly Richfield is under military occupation. It was very unsettling, you know, to drive down that street and see those soldiers lined up on either side of the street with their guns out. When the school buses went past that area, the bus driver made the kids lie on the floor of the bus. And nobody explained any of this to us that I remember; we were left to process it on our own. So that's my connection. It's really not much of a connection, but it sparked an interest in this story that I've carried with me for my entire life. Laura Maylene Walter: The book is told from the point of view of the four students who were fatally shot, as well as one of the Guardsmen. Can you talk a bit about that choice to tell the story through their eyes? Derf Backderf: Sure. You know, when you sit down to start a book, I mean, you have ponder at a while and decide, what's my book about? And what I was looking for was a way to tell this narrative that was really going to make it very personal and very human. And so I decided showing it through the eyes of those four people, five people, and putting the reader on the ground with them, literally at their elbow, as we walked through these four days of escalating conflict and protests right up until the moment that they're cut down, that that would make this narrative very powerful. You know, talking to the students of 1970 as much as I did, and I interviewed probably 50 60 of them, what I wanted to create was history that felt the way that those students still feel this history. I can't tell you how many of those interviews ended with the person I was talking to in tears. It has scarred them for life. That's what I was trying to get across. So by, you know, forming these people as fully as I could, we learn about them, their hopes, their dreams, their fears, how they interact with each other, how they move through their day, when they're cut down, it's a powerful moment. You know, these are not just random people. We've gotten to know these people. So that, that was my intent. Laura Maylene Walter: Yeah. And it is such a powerful read to watch the escalation. You portrayed that on the page very well. And you mentioned your interview process of interviewing, you said 50 to 60 students who were there at the time. And so this is a work of journalism, and you have very extensive research notes included in the back, which were so helpful. Can you talk about your research process and everything that went into it? Derf Backderf: I went to school on a journalism scholarship at Ohio State. So that's how I was trained. And I worked in newspapers for many years. So this stuff is really ingrained in me mainly because that's how I learned to research stories. And I'm really not smart enough to learn another way and it's served me well. So I just keep doing it. And I really use it for all my books, even if they're fiction. I mean, I use these same techniques interviewing, compiling research, and very meticulously organizing it. It's visual as well as factual research, because visual research is just as important. You know, it's a process and you just start building this story. The challenge with KENT STATE is, as opposed to some my earlier books, like for example MY FRIEND DAHMER, which is my best known work, is that there's so much material out there and it was digging through this material to kind of push away the stuff that's irrelevant or not as relevant to find the things that I need and just wrap my head around this story and around this narrative and that took a couple years. And after that it was just filling in the blanks. There's a lot of people to talk to. There are 21,000 students on that campus and that's just students, there's townsfolk, there's staff, there's Guardsmen. The Guardsmen, for the most part, have never talked, but a few of them have. And you know, I did managed to talk briefly to a couple of them. So there's a lot of witnesses to this tragedy. Laura Maylene Walter: Yeah. And I'm curious about the Guardsman's point of view that you include. I believe his point of view was based off mostly one person. Can you talk a bit about that? Derf Backderf: There's a wonderful archive at Kent State in Special Collections called the May 4 Archive. And for years, Kent State tried to bury this. Literally they built a gym over part of the shooting site. They just wanted to erase it. And right around the 20th anniversary, they had a change in leadership and a change in attitude. And they started to embrace it as an historical event and as a teaching tool. And so they really invested in this archive, which is really fantastic. And it was one of my main sources, and they have a lot of material in the archive, including a lot of testimonials from people. And that's where I first found this account of the Guardsman who gives his account anonymously. It wasn't hard to figure out who he was, but the great thing about it is there's a couple versions of it when someone transcribed what he was saying Derf Backderf: in I believe 1990. And then in 2000, he gave an oral history. So it's taped and they're both very long, very lengthy. They sync up perfectly, which is key because you know, lies tend to fall apart as you tell them over time. And it's a very blunt, detailed account, which takes place over the entire four days. He was present at every action that took place. He was in Richfield. He moved in with the Guard. He was part of all the incidents on Saturday and Sunday. And then on Monday he was part of the unit that went up blanket hill and he was one of the shooters. And that becomes a little problematic because he lies in his account about shooting. He says he didn't, but comparing that to the FBI report, they name him specifically as having fired one shot. So clearly he's not being truthful there, but as I said, not many Guardsmen have given their accounts anonymously or upfront, certainly none of the shooters. None of the shooters. So I really had no choice there, and it is a wonderful account. I think he believes he comes across better than he does. He's a bit of a hard ass, kind of a jerk, really <laugh> and he just kind of laughs off some of the things that happened the previous days, like, a girl getting bayonetted twice in the rear end, seriously enough that she was hospitalized. I guess bayonetting a 19-year-old in the back is something to just slough off. But yeah, I think most people would disagree about that. Laura Maylene Walter: You know, this is such a horrific event and completely just shocking what happened, but reading the lead-up to it and how the Guardsmen, the state they were living in, the leadership they were under, the questionable calls, the misinformation, the rumors, the fear, the exhaustion, all of that. It didn't make all the Guardsmen unsympathetic necessarily, which I think made for more complex read. Derf Backderf: It is complex because some of the Guardsmen are sympathetic and others are completely unsympathetic. I mean the members of G Troop who probably we don't know for sure, because none of them have ever spoken dozen or so members turned as one and fired into the crowd from the top of the hill. They are completely unsympathetic because they murdered people and it was very likely premeditated, which is why they haven't talked. But other people on that hill had no clue what those guys were planning to do. And as one of the other Guardsmen told me, you know, he said, "Those bastards dragged the rest of us under the bus with them." I mean, that's part of the problem with this story is that it is very complex and there is a lot of moving parts and it changes over the course of those four days on both sides and the players change. Derf Backderf: And you know, the motivation changes. For example, the protesters started out as this whole leftover group of SDS radicals who just wanted to make a statement against the war and wanted to bust some stuff up. But by Saturday, those guys had all split. When the Guard moved in, they got out of town and what was left were these students who were objecting to be under martial law when they had done nothing wrong. And so this protest morphed, but in the eyes of the Guard, they thought they were all the same people because their intelligence was so bad and their leadership was, as the presidential commission in 1970, Called it a disaster quote unquote. And it was all being driven by politics, particularly politics though the governor at the time who was trying to win an election. So it is, yeah, it's very complex. And you know, you have to find that clarity and keep things moving. That was the big challenge and not get sidetracked. Laura Maylene Walter: Speaking of that, I'm a fiction writer and a novelist and in fiction, one of the biggest things to focus on for newer writers is not to frontload a piece with backstory and explanations and things like that. And you have in this book, the task of conveying the political landscape at the time, what was going on with the Vietnam war, with the draft, with Ohio's governor. So much information to make the story not just come to life, but as a historical document to actually convey what was happening and why. Can you talk about how you were able to weave in some of that bigger context? What was your approach when you were working on the book, making history personal, but also bringing the fullness of history to life? Derf Backderf: Right. I didn't want to get bogged down with backstory. And that was a huge challenge because we're talking about 10 years of backstory. Kent State is the bloody climax of that entire 1960s Vietnam era. And there is just a massive amount of backstory from, you know, the antiwar movement and the radical left to the radical right, and the reaction of middle America on and on and on and on. So yeah, it was tricky. I don't know that I pulled it off or not. There are a couple pages that are a little wordy, but what I tried to do was work it into the narrative. So I have a dialogue going along and some action on the page. So the reader doesn't lose interest while in the narration or in boxes or maybe in a separate panel there's information that I feel was necessary to kind of understand the context, because context is important in a period piece. And that's how I approached it. I just wanted to keep the narrative going. So you want to turn the page while maybe I've forced you to, to learn a few facts before you turn that page. Laura Maylene Walter: Yeah. Well I would say for me, the reading experience was, was seamless, and it's also just such an affecting book. The actual deaths of the students are graphically and realistically illustrated. So can you talk about your choice to do that? And what was it like for you during the process of creating it? Derf Backderf: It was difficult. That was not a fun week. I put it off to the end because I knew it was, but I wanted to be emotional as I was doing it. Because I wanted to put that onto the page. It's 13 pages of basically carnage. And one of the powerful things about my art form is that with comics I can create the unseen. These images have never been seen before. Now, on May 4, it was broad daylight, school was open. So there were 21,000 students moving around the campus because the governor refused to close the school because that would be giving in to the protestors. It was a fully operational university. So it was very chaotic. There were all kinds of photographers on that hill. Mostly student photographers, either from the journalism program or from the photography to program or just amateurs with cameras. Derf Backderf: So there are thousands and thousands of photos from leading up to the moment that the Guard turns and opens fire. And we have that iconic photo of the Guard shooting down the hill. Then there's nothing for like five minutes because those photographers, a lot of whom were on that hill and in the line of fire, very wisely hit the dirt as the bullets were flying around them. In fact, one of the photographers was shot in the chest, John Cleary, and critically wounded. The next images we have are all those iconic images of the carnage. Of course, the very famous John Filo photo, which won the Pulitzer Prize. What I can bring to this story with comics is I can fill in that gap. And so I took personal accounts. I took news reports. I took morgue reports. I took hospital reports and I showed exactly what happened to these students, how they were not just killed, but also the wounded, how they were cut down, how they were shot, what damage it did to them. Derf Backderf: I knew I was gonna do it right from the beginning. My reasoning for that is I didn't want to sugarcoat this. I wanted to show exactly what was done to these kids. You know, only half of them were actually protesting, if you call yelling at soldiers protesting. Most of the kids who were in that parking lot, and there were 500 kids in that parking lot, who were walking to and from class with books in their hands. After the shootings, there was a huge groundswell of support for Nixon and for the authorities and for the Guardsmen. Nearly 70% of Americans polled thought that the students were to blame for getting shot and the Guardsmen were not to blame. That attitude has lived on and we see it over and over again. And modern times, you know, the Black Lives Matter protests for example, "Black lives splatter," all that nonsense where people were rooting for protestors to get shot or killed or hurt. Derf Backderf: And my thinking was okay, you think that? Here's what it looks like. Here's what it looks like when a bullet, a copper- jacketed bullet over an inch long, goes tearing through a parking lot full of 500 students fired from a gas powered combat rifle so powerful it can pump one of those bullets clean through a foot-thick tree trunk and still kill the person on the other side of it. Here's what it looks like. And now you tell me that you want more of these kids shot? You know, I know that it packs a wallop, and that's what I wanted. I wanted you to get to the end of this book...and really, the book kind of ends with the shootings. I mean, there's a little bit of epilogue, but not much. And it has a very powerful walk off. I think I just wanted people to get the end of this book and just kind of stare at it. Derf Backderf: "My God, what did I just read?" That's the effect I was looking for. Again, getting back to that history that was felt, and it's interesting. At one point, Sandy Scheuer's family contacted me. They knew I was working on the book and they had some questions. I was happy to answer them. Her sister was the one who contacted me. I don't think she was online. So she had a younger niece do it, or her daughter. And I said, you know, this will be a very hard book for you to read. I think you ought to think about whether you wan to read it or not, because Sandy's death is particularly bloody. And I told her, you know, I showed all this violence and I explained why I showed this violence. And she said, "Oh, you have to show it. People need to know what was done to Sandy." So she got it. And that made me feel okay, I made the right choice here, but that was my thinking about that final scene. Laura Maylene Walter: Yeah, absolutely. And I will say for me, the Kent State shooting happened before I was born. And I also did not grow up in Northeast Ohio, which I do think makes somewhat of a difference. It does seem just much more present history here. Derf Backderf: Oh, sure. It's part of our DNA. Laura Maylene Walter: Yeah. And I remember when I was growing up, whenever I first learned of the shooting, I learned about it as a tragedy and I thought of it as, you know, a source of great national shame that this could happen on a college campus to these students. And, you know, reading through, especially some of the end matter in the book, really brought to life for me how the public perception at the time of the shooting, as you said, was very different and almost on the side of the Guardsmen. So that was quite shocking, but also not shocking because of all the parallels, of course, to what is going on today. Derf Backderf: Yeah. We have really progressed very little since 1970, unfortunately. Laura Maylene Walter: Right? That was astounding. Kent State puts it into focus really how little things have changed. Well, you mentioned today's Black Lives Matter protests. And I think race isn't often discussed a lot when talking about the shooting. But even though Kent State at the time was a very white campus, there was a small contingent of Black students. Can you talk about that a bit and how some of the Black students reacted prior to the shooting? Derf Backderf: Sure. Yeah. The protest movement at Kent State really starts with the Black students at Kent, and the university, to its credit in the mid sixties, made a concerted effort to recruit Black students, particularly from not surprising the big cities around surrounding Kent. So Akron, Cleveland, Youngstown primarily, and there were maybe 400, 450 black students at the time at Kent, that's like 2% of student population. It was, as you said, it was 98% white or 97% white or something like that. It's in the book; I can't remember off the top of my head. But The Black students formed a group known as BUS (Black United Students) to demand a little more representation in the campus. They wanted more Black faculty, they wanted some Black studies curriculum. They wanted a Black student center and that kind of thing. And they became increasingly more vocal as the administration kind of stonewalled them. At the same time or a little later, SDS came along, SDS being Students for a Democratic Society, which was the big student antiwar protest group in America in the 1960s with over a hundred thousand paid members and probably 500,000 to a million supporters. Derf Backderf: So, you know, a very different size group, very different purposes. So they did line up at certain things. I mean, obviously the Vietnam War was also a racial issue because Black soldiers were so overrepresented, particularly in combat, they drafted more Black soldiers and they sent them into combat more than white soldiers. So that was an issue. So I mean, these things do line up at certain points, but BUS was mostly concerned with the lives and studies of Black students on Kent and they didn't really trust SDS. SDS was becoming increasingly more radical as a result of what was happening in SDS, where a group called the Weathermen, who were extreme radicals somehow managed to seize control of the national organization. And Kent had a lot of Weatherman supporters. So BUS was kind of keeping them at arm's length much to SDS's frustration. So there were some sympathies back and forth, but when the Guard marched on campus, the moment they showed up, BUS said, That's it, we're out. Derf Backderf: And the reason for that is that all those kids from Akron, Cleveland Youngstown had grown up with Guard occupation of their neighborhoods in '66 and '67 in Cleveland with Hough and Glenville and Akron in '68. So those kids had experience with Guardsmen and they knew what it meant when those soldiers came. They knew those weapons were loaded. They knew they would not hesitate to use them. They knew there were gonna be bayonetings and beatings and gas. They knew all of this stuff because they had experienced it. And the white kids had not. So Kent State marks really kind of the end of white naivete when it comes to protests because those white students, even ones in the parking lot as the bullets were bouncing around them, were yelling out, "Don't worry. They're only shooting blanks." A lot of them didn't think the guns were loaded. They never dreamed in a million years that they would open fire, but Black students knew they would if provoked. So that's, I think, a really interesting subplot to this whole thing. Laura Maylene Walter: And only 11 days after the Kent State shooting, there was another shooting at Jackson State College, a historically Black college where police killed two students. And that shooting did not receive as much national attention. Derf Backderf: Not as much as Kent State. First of all, there were no photos as powerful as the ones that came out of Kent State. The media was not present. There was really no one to report on it. It was Jackson, Mississippi. So, you know, the government smothered the entire, the entire thing, Mississippi being essentially closed white supremacist society. At that time, there was actually an earlier one in South Carolina in Orangeburg, South Carolina. It was far bloodier than either Ken state or Jackson state. It was upwards of 20 students who were shot at a Black college. So you know, where the government could cover things up, they did. And they tried at Kent State. They tried very, very hard to cover up what happened there and partially succeeded because we have never gotten the truth. Laura Maylene Walter: Well, let's change gears a bit to talk about your writing process and sort of the evolution of your career. So you worked for years before starting to write graphic novels on comics, your long-running strip, THE CITY, many people are familiar with that. And I know you have in past interviews jokingly said that since you turned to graphic novels later in life, almost as if you had wasted, the first 25 years of your career, which I know is just said tongue and cheek. Derf Backderf: Oh, not entirely. Laura Maylene Walter: <laugh> okay. Okay. Well, I'm curious to hear about that, especially as the newspaper landscape has so drastically changed over that time. So what was that like for you making that transition from newspaper work, to writing full-length books? Derf Backderf: There were a few burbs along the way because I had to learn a whole new skillset. It's very different writing for four panels, you know, standalone strip or just a single panel cartoon, and then writing 300-page book with narrative threads and sub plots and all of this stuff. So there was a bit of a learning curve, you know, more the drawing than the writing though. I would say, I mean, THE CITY, for those of you listeners who remember it, was extremely expressionistic. I mean, it was just this post-punk crazy experimental drawing style where things burst out of the side. And I was just breaking every rule I could think of and having a lot of fun doing that, but started to do books. I wanted to tell a different kind of story where I didn't think that kind of drawing style was appropriate. So I had to learn more of a narrative style. Derf Backderf: I had to really up quality of the drawings, make them a lot more detail, a lot more nuanced change textures, really work on my drawing techniques and my compositional techniques, all of that stuff. And that took a few years to figure out, but once I hit the ground running and that was really with my first book, which was PUNK ROCK & TRAILER PARKS, which I was putting together concurrently with MY FRIEND DAHMER, which took a lot longer for variety of reasons between those two. I really kind of figured it out pretty fast. I took to it very naturally I think, which is why I get back to that "I wasted my career" cause it would just seem like, oh crap, I should have been doing this all along. And the response obviously from the book-buying public and the critics has been so much greater for my books. That that's why I make that statement. I don't think it's untrue. But I have to say that the time I spent a newspapers I enjoyed thoroughly, and I got out just in time. Just as the newspapers were swan diving into the tar pit, I was already hitting the escape hatch. So it worked out well. Laura Maylene Walter: Well I think that could be inspiring for writers to hear. There are so many different ways of being a writer or an artist and you know, your career can change tracks years into the future. I've known other writers who have also written one type of thing and then they've stumbled onto what ends up being a stronger path for them. It's good to know that writing is just a long career full of development. So we're careful to make sure we call KENT STATE a work of creative nonfiction because it is nonfiction; "Graphic novel" refers to the format of the book. But I'm curious, just your take on the art of the graphic novel. It seems that graphic novels have really been exploding in the last maybe 10 or 15 years Derf Backderf: Putting it mildly. Yeah. Laura Maylene Walter: Yeah. What are your thoughts on graphic novels right now in terms of publishing them? And also, do you see any changes in the future for graphic novels? Derf Backderf: Well, it's the usual challenges, you know, it's the same kind of pitfalls that you face in any publishing venture. Nobody seems to want you pay you quite what you're worth. And sometimes you run into roadblocks here and there I've been at comics a long time. Cause I started in college as a political cartoonist actually, which was my first incarnation. And then along THE CITY 10 years later, or maybe not that long, seven or eight years later. To have a career in comics is to live with rejection. <laugh> You get told "no" a lot and I've just never really been able to listen to it. You know, I have these comics in my head that I want to do and I keep searching for a way to get them done. And it's just that vision plus obstinance plus inability to really make a living in anything else that leads you to, I think, some kind of ultimate success. Right now, we are in a golden era of graphic novels. And graphic novel's a clunky term, none of us like it, it was concocted back in the 1970s. Derf Backderf: For some reason, it just stuck. I'd prefer "comics." You know, everybody cites MAUS by Art Spiegelman as being the graphic novel that started it all. It Came out in 199...1? And that is in fact not true because for the next 10 years there were hardly any graphic novels, or maybe one or two published a year. It's like they published MAUS, I think Penguin put it out, and then said, nah, we're not gonna do anymore. Yeah. It's a big hit and everybody loves it and it's won a Pulitzer Prize, but nah, we're not gonna do that. Laura Maylene Walter: Anymore. Yeah, we're good. Now that, that was enough <laugh> Derf Backderf: Exactly. And none of the other publishers came along. When I started working on MY FRIEND DAHMER in the late 90s, there was no one out there who was gonna publish that. And I kind of knew that and I was just waiting for the publishing world to finally come around to graphic novels, which eventually they did it wasn't until the mid-2000s when there were a series of really huge selling graphic novels and suddenly people started going, maybe we should publish more of these. And now it's especially kids and YA graphic novels that are just selling off the charts and manga's huge and you know, all of this stuff. So right now they are just selling tens of millions of copies, hundreds of millions. And it's a great time to be a reader. As anyone will tell you in the book industry, it's always a difficult time to be a creator or a publisher, but it's a great time to be a reader because there are so many options. Laura Maylene Walter: Yeah. And I'm curious about your process a bit. And this question you'll be able to tell comes from someone who I only write, I don't do comics. I don't <laugh>, I'm not an artist, but when you start working on a book, of course you have your research process, but do the comics and the narrative come at the same time. Are you working on one before the other? How do you actually begin working on a book? Derf Backderf: Um, it varies from book to book, but it's always, I'm always thinking of visuals as as I'm writing. I think you're selling yourself short, because I think you are too. I mean it's a visual world, but you're thinking of that visual and then how to make that visual into words as you're typing. So your descriptive paragraphs or whatever, I don't have to do descriptive paragraphs because I just draw the setting. So that's the big difference, but I think everyone thinks that way because that's the way the world is. You know, you're describing color, you're describing what a place is like and what it smells like, what it looks like, how people move through it, all these things we work really kind of in the same world. And then I do what's called roughs or thumbnails, which are little pages, very rough, just blocking out the story. Derf Backderf: And that includes all the dialogue and some of the narration or I'll make notes to myself. It's just on pieces of typing paper. And from there then I go to a very detailed pencil, which is basically the page and pencil form. And that's when all of that visual research starts to get poured into the book is then I'm drawing cars and clothes and the houses and the buildings and all of this stuff. And after that I ink and then I, you know, at some point I scan it all into the computer and I do the finishes in the computer and on and on and on. So it's 300 thumbnails, 300 pencils, 300 inks, 300 scans...it takes a long time. And then the interesting thing about my type of comics is say, opposed to Marvel or DC or corporate comics, they have teams that work on those books like five or six people, seven or eight people. With my type of book, whatever you want to call it, "original graphic novels," everything there is put there by me by hand. Every word, every shade, every line, it's all me. So you get this very personal piece of work rather than corporate product. That's not to say corporate product can't still be good, but it's not the same. Laura Maylene Walter: I always talk about writing and revision as happening in layers where layer by layer, more detail, things become clearer and all of that. And so to think of it as actual illustrations, adding that detail, adding the shading, I really like to think of it that way. I'm also laughing at myself a bit because I, I did make the point of saying, I'm not, um, I don't make comics or illustrations or anything. My novel has illustrations in it that I have two diagrams of bodies in it. And then I even have smaller diagrams that I made myself. And so it's so funny that I just assume that that's not part of my writing, but it is. And you're right. Every writer, no matter what form they're working in is translating the visual in some way. So I think that's really interesting. What advice would you have for young writers or young artists and young of course just means someone who is newer to it. What advice would you have for them if they want to get into the graphic novel world? Derf Backderf: Well, I mean, don't expect it to be easy. Comics have always been a very hard profession. You accept that going into it. It'll make it easier for you. <laugh> Mentally, it's gonna be frustrating. You're gonna be underpaid. You're gonna be run into closed doors everywhere you go. But you know, it's a very gratifying thing to do. If you believe in yourself, if you believe in your work, you believe in your stories, write about what you care about, you know, write things that mean something to you. Not just something that you're trying to cash in on, though plenty of people do that too and seem to do pretty well. But I think it has to come from some creative heart to be worthwhile. And I think you can say that about almost anything, be it film or music or written books or any art form: the really worthwhile stuff comes from the heart. Laura Maylene Walter: Absolutely. And I think that's a good note to start to wrap up on, but I have one final question. You mentioned in KENT STATE some of the people who helped you along the way, librarians, library, staff, and I believe you mentioned Last Exit Books in Kent. So I thought maybe we could end by throwing a little love to an independent bookstore or two. So would you like to share anything about why you love Last Exit or any other indie bookstores? Derf Backderf: Oh, it's just a nice place to stop after...you know, it's very tough, especially when you're up in the archives, which is on the top floor of the main library, you know, you're digging through these boxes with whatever you're working on that day, be it intelligence reports or cord transcripts or whatever. And then to get to my car, I would always park over on Water Street in downtown Kent, like a little secluded spot that always had a parking spot. So I parked there and you have to walk back through the shooting site to get from the library. So you're walking by the spots of the four where they fell, and you see the bullet hole and the statue there. It's always pretty moving, moving through that space. Just a way to kind of like, okay, just stop at Last Exit. They have a nice little coffee shop there and I'd look at some of the books. It's a great old bookstore. And the other bookstore that really was huge is Mac's Backs in Cleveland Heights, which has always been my base for selling comics. Of course, as this book was released, lockdown hit, the pandemic hit and just wiped out this entire book tour. I had all these festivals I had lined up. I mean, you know, it is what it is. I'm not trying to sound selfish and petty, though of course I am. <laugh> Laura Maylene Walter: You know, my novel came out in 2021. I can be selfish and petty right there with you. Like we understand that in the grand scheme of things it's okay, but... Derf Backderf: Just at a certain point, but I mean, it was due to come out on May 4th, 2020 to coincide... Laura Maylene Walter: ...with the 50th. Derf Backderf: Yeah. And that was just completely destroyed. And at that point you're just like, well, how am I gonna sell this book? So what I did was I set up a mail order system through Mac's Backs and I would do signed copies with metal drawings and Mac's would send them out to people and we sold thousands of books this way. So they were a real life saver, and they're so supportive of local authors. Yeah. They're a treasure. Laura Maylene Walter: They are, I love Mac's Backs. Derf Backderf: And Loganberry too as well. So we are very lucky to still have a few bookstores in this town that matter. Laura Maylene Walter: I agree on that note, I think we'll end, but Derf, congratulations on KENT STATE being the Ohio Center for the Book selection at the Great Reads from Great Places at the National Book Festival. And thank you so much for joining us today. Derf Backderf: Absolutely. My pleasure. Laura Maylene Walter: Page Count is presented by the Ohio Center of the Book at Cleveland Public Library. Learn more online at ohiocenterforthebook.org. Follow us on Twitter @cplocfb, or find us on Facebook. If you'd like to get in touch, email firstname.lastname@example.org and put "podcast" in the subject line. Finally, follow me on Twitter and Instagram @LauraMaylene. Thanks for listening, and we'll be back in two weeks for another chapter of Page Count.
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