This is probably going to be overly-honest discussion about extraordinary photographer and comics writer Seth Kushner’s “Save Our Schmuck Benefit” that took place at Union Hall in Brooklyn, New York on Tuesday night, but the New York comics community are an irreverent bunch and I’ll follow that lead. There’s a common saying right now, a joke, among friends of Seth’s who are watching his fight against leukemia and trying to support him via articles, events, and spreading the word to try to gain attention for his work and hopefully some financial support, too, for he and his family. That joke is, “I’ll make it about me”. What we mean by that is to criticize ourselves for our innate tendency to think and say, “My friend is suffering and that makes ME sad and this is a hard time for ME”.
It’s human nature to do this and hard to avoid that reaction. When we hear that someone close to us is in a life-threatening situation that needs serious support and action on our part, we tend to ask ourselves, “How is this going to effect me?” or recognize our own emotional response of “This makes me very depressed. God”. But saying this joke, satirically about ourselves, out loud, is meant to comment on that and make sure we keep an eye on that tendency. Because the bigger picture, we know, is that this is about helping Seth and making sure he gets what he needs to fight against the wearying forces of suffering, prolonged hopes postponed for a transplant, and fears of financial distress. And one of the best ways to address that sense of isolation that members of the comics community feel hearing about Seth’s suffering is to gather together. It’s virtually impossible to make this “about ME” in a large group of people who can, communally, make sure that we address our goals rather than wallowing, and get a chance to talk about Seth and how he has vastly impacted his friends in the arts.
And, of course, I’m about to break that cardinal rule and say something about myself as pertains to Seth, but I hope my purpose in doing so will be clear, or at least taken as well-meaning. The first journalistic article I ever wrote was about Seth Kushner. It would be hard for me to convey my deep misgivings about trying to write using the personal voice, or comment on an “in the moment” experience of visual media. For many people, that’s not difficult. For me, it was something of a complex. But my experience of his photographic portraits of comics creators projected onto a wall in massive scale at a time when I was timidly venturing into the world of comics was simply so overwhelming that it inspired me with a courage I didn’t think I had. His art, so finely conveyed in use of color, lighting, expressiveness, and devotion prompted that change in me. And in doing so, it did actually change the direction of my life. The reason I’m telling this story is because witnessing the Benefit for Seth, with performance pieces from across a range of media in honor of Seth’s work and achievements, was a visible demonstration that Seth has touched a massive number of lives in ways I’m sure he’s far too humble to fully acknowledge.
Firstly, he did so through his photography, taking some of the finest portraits of comics creators extant, in his book with Christopher Irving, Leaping Tall Buildings. Then he overcame his own self-doubt to become a writer of comics, and unsurprisingly, chose an avenue that was tremendously inclusive by working with 22 different indie artists to produce the graphic novel Schmuck, successfully funded on Kickstarter last Spring. His intermediary step was to elevate the medium of photocomix, a form we all hope he continues to work with, and produced his CulturePOP photocomix biographies of artistic people in New York and Brooklyn. Quite a few of the performers at the Benefit were subjects of Seth’s CulturePOP series, and by choosing them as his subjects, he had clearly inspired them to believe in themselves and their work.
Those who turned out on Tuesday to perform or attend, or supported Seth’s financial needs through donations collectively made a very obvious statement of not only their love for Seth and their concern for him, but also testified to the ways in which he had inspired them and impacted their lives. And that was an overwhelming thing to see and experience. We wish Seth could have been there to see it, but the event was being videoed, so hopefully he’ll get a glimpse of the effect he’s had on people.
The event was hosted by Jeff Newelt, and sponsored by HEEB Magazine, to which Seth has been a contributing cover photographer, and while the focus of the event was performance comics, many of which were drawn from Seth’s anthology Schmuck, performances were also more wide-ranging, with performers simply sharing their talents in his honor. Graphic novels by Paul Pope and Dean Haspiel were also donated by Z2 Comics, the sales of which would benefit Seth and his family.
R. Sikoryak, the “godfather of live comix readings” in New York (and quite literally that’s true through his live comix Carousel events), started the event off by reading Seth’s funny, endearing, and eminently geek-themed story from Schmuck about his Barmitzvah and comics obsessions as a kid, thinly veiled in the semi-autobiographical character of Adam Kessler. The stories in Schmuck have always been funny and deeply self-effacing, but hearing them performed aloud exposed the massive swell of humor in Seth’s recent writing, and his ability to bring out the everyman in his comics stories. Sikoryak followed with a performance of his own comic Action Camus, which also had the audience laughing uproariously. It was a trend we might not have foreseen, that Seth’s Benefit would be so steeped in laughter and a celebration of human experience.
Jeff Newelt performed passages from the Harvey Pekar Project, in which Seth was also a participant, in “Jungle Music”, drawn by Sean Pryor, and backed by musical performance by Paul Shapiro, a “downtown mainstay” of “avant garde funk”. They also performed the comic “The Book of Shapiro”, drawn by Joseph Remnant.
Molly Crabapple took to the stage to read a prose-poem of an account of her recent trip to Dubai, encountering the savage world of the wealthy and the alluring charms they dangle to mask the suffering of the impoverished workers they employ, featuring a press conference with Donald Trump about a his new luxury golf course there. In tone, Crabapple’s account was actually very much in keeping with Kushner’s own sensibilities in fighting for the underdog in society and celebrating the overlooked and underrepresented.
Muscial madonna Plucky Charms performed a sinuous piece on her ukelele for the audience laced with humor and innuendo, but again with that dash of irreverence that we find in Seth’s comics and worldview.
We then moved into the “parental discretion” portion of the evening as Dean Haspiel and Christa Cassano performed artist Cassano’s chapter of Schmuck featuring Kessler’s bewildering visit to a strip club where he finds a comics enthusiast lap dancer has taken a shine to him. Haspiel followed with a chapter from new graphic novel Fear, My Dear: A Billy Dogma Experience, called “Bring Me the Heart of Billy Dogma” about the emotionally devastating affects of love and healing powers of reconciliation writ large. Both of these performances were show-stoppers due to hilarity breaking out from the audience and audience participation.
Akim Funk Buddha, who had also been a subject for Seth’s CulturePOP series, brought an astonishing long dance/hip-hop/cross-cultural performance to life on stage by acting out his CulturePOP comic with a highly accomplished dancer. The comic depicts the encounter between Japanese culture and American hip-hop via the medium of the Japanese Tea Ceremony, with the idea that communication is “true cultural exchange”.
Josh Neufeld concluded the performance pieces with the chapter of Schmuck featuring his own artwork, backed by Haspiel and Cassano for voice-work. In this final chapter of Schmuck, Adam Kessler, having been on a lovelorn oddyssey, finally meets and falls in love with the girl of his dreams.
The surprise finale of the evening was a short video address by Seth for the audience, as recorded earlier that afternoon, in which he thanked them profusely for their support, and also in characteristic self-deprecating mode commented on what a “crazy feeling” it was to know the community had come out to help him. His big announcement, which certainly pulled the audience’s heartstrings, was that he is officially back in remission, has been provisionally scheduled for a transplant, finally, within the next two weeks, and may get to even go home for a few days beforehand. No one could possibly be happier about this news than his wife Terra and young son Jackson.
On that note, the music broke out for a fairly punk and soulful performance by comics artist Mike Cavallaro’s old band, reunited for the first time in years for the Benefit, Sticks and Stones.
The discussions and socializing afterward, were, of course, just as much a part of the event as the performances, seeing many members of the comics and arts community for the first time in awhile, perhaps, reconnecting with old friends and new, and recognizing without a doubt that there is a community, and a tight-knit one in New York that has the drive and desire to care for one of their own who has fallen on hard times. It was with relief, I think, that everyone was given the opportunity for it not to be about “ME” when talking about Seth Kushner’s contributions, and when it came to helping a member of the community, for it to be about “US”.
Please consider making a donation to help Seth Kushner and his family with Seth’s medical expenses. You can find out more about that here.
Seth’s events have been strongly supported by the program Delete Blood Cancer. You can also find out more about this organization, and how to register to be a donor by clicking the link.