Art is important after tragedy. It helps people heal and process and put things into perspective. It can make us laugh or cry and if nothing else, at least feel things again. When prolific comic book artist J. H. Williams III (DC Comics’ Promethea and Batwoman) and his wife Wendy started working on Where We Live: A Benefit for the Survivors in Las Vegas after the Route 91 massacre, they might not have had all this in mind. They just knew they wanted to contribute, both artistically and financially, as all proceeds of the book go to charity.
The resulting comic book, scheduled for release May 30, has been their full-time job for the past seven months. Where We Live has more than 100 contributors—writers and artists—telling stories. Some stories are true. Some are fiction. All deal with the emotions felt by those who call or have called Las Vegas home. I’m proud to be one of the many contributors to Where We Live. ABP covered my work, feeding victims, first responders, volunteers and caregivers in the aftermath of the shooting, which I wrote about for the upcoming anthology. Besides curating, Wendy contributed a poem and J. H. illustrated 12 pages altogether, as well as the cover.
With the book coming out later this month, I caught up with J. H. and Wendy to discuss living in Las Vegas, gun control and art as a response to tragedy.
How quickly after the shooting did you plan this book?
Wendy Williams: Maybe not even a week. That Friday J. H. tweeted it in the middle of the night. We hadn’t seen anyone doing one. Usually our industry jumps on it.
J. H. Williams: It was such a weird thing. It’d only been four and a half days since it happened, but that week felt long. In the middle of the night, I was on Twitter, I started yammering. I’m like, “I don’t even know how you put something like this together.” I was chatting to the ether. Then I went to bed, and by the time I got up there were people who reached out and said they’d help us do it.
Did you have a vision of what you wanted the book to be?
J. H.: When you’re in the middle of the idea and it’s all coming to you rapidly and it’s a charity book, you just want to take anything you can get at that point. When we first started talking to Image Comics while putting the book together, we asked, “What’s the page count? What’s the cut-off for you guys as a publisher?” Eric Stephenson, to his credit, said, “Let’s see what comes in first. Let’s see where it goes.” That’s why the book is over 300 pages, because he allowed everyone’s involvement.
How did you help contributors who couldn’t figure out what to write?
J. H.: The first story that’s going to be in the book is from someone who used to live here. Comic book creator Warren Wucinich lived here for a long time. He had so many different feelings, even thinking about it he was at a complete loss. It was a simple thing. Make that your story. Make the story you and what you’re experiencing. That sort of interaction worked with a lot of people.
Talk about the variety of contributors to the book.
Wendy: I thought it was important to do as many local contributors as possible. Everyone says there’s no culture or community here. That was completely obliterated that first week after the shooting.
What should people know about the variety of content?
Wendy: It’s an anthology, so it’s like a mixtape. Putting that together, seeing the stories, looking at the content, would it go well next to this story? At that moment, you’re internalizing it. How is a reader going to read this book?
J. H.: It’s sort of in different sections, but they’re not delineated. One of the things we did with the witness stories, we came up with design pages that would separate the real-life stories from what might be fiction or what might not be connected to Las Vegas itself. Each of those witness stories starts and ends with a design page. It has its own weight and space in the book. You’ll have a group of stories that have some thematic connection, and then you’ll get to a witness story and it makes you pause because of the design page, then you read it, pause again, and then you get to another section that has connected stories, then another witness story. It goes that way all the way through the book.
For me, the first time I was proud again of America was when the Parkland kids came out and tried to fight for gun control.
Wendy: The best thing that could happen is that they make our book irrelevant.
J. H.: They got so much media positivity out of what they were saying, it was like, “Wow, maybe some weird thing is going to happen, and legislation gets taken care of before our book comes out.” At first, we thought that would feel really weird, but then we thought our book would serve as a reminder not go backwards. We should have been smarter than that. We should have known that all the speaking out by politicians was just lip service. It was just bigger lip service than usual. They’re not willing to solve the problem at this point.
Why are comics a good medium to take on issues like this?
J. H.: Comics, a lot of people don’t realize this, have always commented on what’s happening in the society around us in some form or another. In allegory or theme or something like that. Particularly in terms of superhero comics, Marvel, going all the way back to the creation of the X-Men, was talking about the social injustices of racism.
When you’re doing a few pages of comics—we’ll take your story—your story is only a handful of pages, but there’s a lot to be said in just a handful of pages. The reason why comics are so good at that is because you have the visual component along with the textual component.
Just after we started working on this book, we saw this interview serendipitously about this guy who studies story and how that affects society. There’s always talk about how things can change and statistics about problems, but when you talk through just statistics, nothing seems to happen. When you tell the story, most societal changes happen because of the humanization aspect.
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