Despite having read some big, mainstream crossover titles like Ghost World, Tank Girl and The Walking Dead, I only started getting really into graphic novels and indie comics about a year ago. I don't know how it started, really, but I'm glad it did. It's pretty serendipitous, since I got a book deal to turn my play, The Chalk Boy, into a graphic novel for the wonderful people at First Second.
I have an pained history with the play. It was sort of my first. I mean, I was a hot shit writer at my undergrad and wrote and produced plays there. I moved to New York right after college to intern for a really cool playwright, an opportunity I got because of the plays I wrote as a student. But those plays don't count. When the internship was up I stayed in New York and I directed and acted a little, but mostly I gave up writing. I spent the first few years out of college basically just partying and living and trying to become an adult. I didn't begin The Chalk Boy until I was 25, totally broke, and miserable. I was at a personal bottom.
It took me over a year to write a draft and that was when I was getting really into working with The Management. We decided to produce it at Chashama on 42nd Street. On opening night, a steam pipe exploded at Grand Central and all of the East 40's were closed for days and days and days. We had to cancel our opening night because everybody was worried about toxic chemicals in the air. We hung a sign on the front door. "Dear Press: The Chalk Boy is canceled due to the apocalypse." Another performance we had to turn our audience away because nobody from the space ever showed up to unlock it. It was one of the most humiliating experiences of my artistic life. Also, one of the cast member's close friends died under horrible circumstances. All in all, nobody came and saw it and we got no press.
That turned out to be good. I realized the play was about something other than what I thought it was originally about entirely. I gutted it, rewrote it and remounted it for a so-called "real production" with The Management in 2008. We had our residency with Horse Trade by then and access to the wonderful publicist, Emily Owens, and things would be different.
And they were. For a minute.
The Management would really come into our stride with Dorothy Fortenberry's Caitlin and the Swan and my later play, MilkMilkLemonade, but that production of The Chalk Boy was really, really good. It was the first time we got a lot of press and, unfortunately for me, not all of it was good. Most people really loved it, but let me tell you: it sucks to have The New York Times pan you on your very first play. They basically said I was that I was very funny, but too hateful toward small town America and that I took too much pleasure in abusing my characters. I've been hugely insecure about ever since. (Even more annoying? The New York Times has never come to see any of my later, more successful works. I'll never forgive you old skeleton queens!)
The Chalk Boy was also produced in Los Angeles in 2008 and that production had all sorts of bad luck. The company producing it hated it, they had audiences of five people, one of the actresses broke her leg or something... it goes on and on. Also, I received the most mean spirited review I've ever gotten from an L.A. theater blogger and an L.A. Weekly review that echoed The Times'.
I felt cursed.
Meanwhile, I knew the play had meant something to a lot of people. People told me so. Also, a wonderfully brave publisher took it on. It was the first time I'd ever been published and it was really magical. More critics loved it than hated it too, but the ones who hated it were much bigger and mainstream. I tried not to take it personally, but how can you not take it personally when the Times and L.A. Weekly say you have no heart? It hurt especially since the four 15-year-old girls in my play- Penny, Breanna, Trisha, Lauren- feel very, very alive to me. Now that I'm writing this graphic novel, I've been working on this story- working on these characters- for five years. (My new play, The Sluts of Sutton Drive, also takes place in the same fictionalized town of Clear Creek, so I've spent even more time in the world of this play when you take that into account.) My point is: I love these girls. I know them. I wish things turned out better for them, but they couldn't have.
When I confided to the Fiance that I was worried people would think MilkMilkLemonade was "too mean" he said the best thing ever: "Anybody who thinks MilkMilkLemonade is too mean was never an 11-year-old gay boy." The same is true of The Chalk Boy. I think people forget how painful it is to be 15.
The first draft is due in less than a week and this has been such a strange experience. I'm basically having to gut my play since not very much dialogue can fit into panels. It actually feels really good. I'm adding some new stuff, but it feels like my story at its most pure, most essential. Still, I have so much history with it, so much emotional baggage I thought I'd outgrown. It feels so good and bad and strange to be writing this.
What I've realized is this: you have to believe in your work, even if other people don't. I keep telling myself this. The New York Times didn't like my play and neither did the L.A. Weekly. You know why? Because they're fucking idiots. I believed in the play and I pushed for it and eventually other people came around. Now I get to share this story I care about so much with a billionty 15-year-old girls I never could've reached from my little theater in the East Village.
Right now my play, MilkMilkLemonade, is being produced all over the place and I've got a fancy book deal, but I still get rejected constantly. I still don't have an agent. I'm still struggling. I have to fight for everything I get. Hooray for fighting though. That's how I've always gotten my best work done.