Jonathan Ames is sitting in front of me with a power adaptor taped to his head.
It’s an appropriate fixture for the Boerum Hill novelist, embodying a new creative current which has produced his debut graphic novel, “The Alcoholic.”
Those familiar with Ames’s work, (“The Extra Man,” “What’s Not to Love?” “Wake Up, Sir!”) will note that the strange electrical accoutrement isn’t such a stretch for an author who has been a screenwriter, performer, amateur boxer and one-time porn-movie extra; he’s widely known for wacky autobiographical stories of sexual vagaries, drug use, the pain of human intimacy and, perhaps most important, incontinence.
Sitting in the rustic-chic café, Building on Bond, three blocks from his apartment, the 44-year-old Ames explained that the story behind “The Alcoholic” began in a café not unlike this one, with his initial encounter with the novel’s illustrator, Dean Haspiel (known for his work on Harvey Pekar’s “The Quitter”) taking place in a Carroll Gardens coffeehouse.
“It was the Fall Café on Smith Street,” Ames said. “I’d just played basketball and I was having a juice and he came up to me and said he had read my stuff.”
A surprising friendship ensued. “I think we’re just sympathetic spirits,” said Ames, mentioning that the idea of collaboration between him and the Carroll Gardens based Haspiel emerged as a regular topic of conversation. Ames went on to pitch “The Alcoholic” to DC Comics and started writing in summer, 2006.
The story sees Ames’s fictional alter ego Jonathan A. struggling with addiction, rejection, illness and the aftermath of Sept. 11. Ames said he was inspired to use the graphic novel format by Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning, “Maus: A Survivor’s Tale.” He first encountered the Holocaust memoir during the 1970s, and it instilled in him a sense that powerful issues need not only be expressed through words alone.
There could be cartoons, too.
And Haspiel, with his huge range as an artist, delivered the goods.
“I appreciate that he could be sensitive, comedic, outrageous…,” Ames said.
He had to be all those things, considering that the book features a randy geriatric dwarf, belligerent Caribbean rastas, cocaine parties, rectal flushing, encounters with President Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, and a suspected orgy in an all-girls college.
“But my favorite thing,” continued Ames, “was when the character does heroin and golden light shoots out of his eyes and head. I thought that was a real comic book moment — because that’s Dean’s forte.”
Despite some anxiety of being friends and working together, Ames said that Haspiel’s creativity was basically intuitive — “It was almost eerie” — likening him to a police artist in the way he transformed lively descriptions into graphics.
Haspiel laughed off such a comparison. “To me that’s the worst kind of art!” he said, yet mentioned a scene at a drug dealer’s home when Jonathan A. is involved in a coke binge and a near rape.
“The description [from Ames] was that the dealer put him in the garbage can to sleep off the drugs so he wouldn’t vomit on his bed,” said Haspiel. “And gosh, there’s so many different ways one can draw that. But some of the better horror is when you don’t show what’s happening.”
Apart from a poignant storyline (peppered with hilarity) and impeccable visuals, Ames’s new endeavor is interesting for its context. “The Alcoholic” is the latest graphic novel from established prose writers.
Fellow Boerum Hill author Jonathan Lethem released his debut effort, “Omega the Unknown,” in 2007; Dean Koontz produced “In Odd We Trust” this June; and Marvel Comics collaborated with celebrated novelist Stephen King for “The Stand” and “The Dark Tower” series of the last two years.
Ames has enjoyed the increasingly popular format and would work in it again, but he notes that some writers might not embrace a medium which keeps words to a minimum. “I’m sure more writers are going to do it,” he said. “Certainly if my book is successful, then publishers will be trying to get other people to do this.”
Amidst “The Alcoholic” promotional duties, Ames is also working on a screenplay given to him by another Brooklyn resident (East Williamsburger Michel Gondry (“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”), and, curiously, is reading a new book called “The Drunkard’s Walk” (it’s not a subliminal cross promotion, but a book about the mathematics of randomness).
Chaos is a running theme in Ames’s life and work, so it behooved me to ask if his publishers cut anything from the original manuscript.
Just one thing, he said.
“The only thing that was taken out — which upset Dean — was [a drawing that] had a bit of kielbasa very close to Monica Lewinsky,” Ames said. “DC felt that was going too far. More provocative than they wanted!”
“The Alcoholic” by Jonathan Ames and Dean Haspiel (Vertigo, $19.99) will be on sale on Sept. 30 at Barnes & Noble [267 Seventh Ave., at Sixth Street in Park Slope, (718) 832-9066] and BookCourt [163 Court St., between Dean and Pacific streets in Cobble Hill, (718) 875-3677]. For information, visit www.jonathanames.com.
©2008 Community News Group