Jewish legend sets stage for superheroes in ‘The Thirty Six’

Oct. 05, 2012 | 3:01 p.m.

According to ancient Jewish mysticism, there are 36 people, called lamed-vavniks, who are divinely chosen to save the world. This Kabbalistic legend served as the inspiration for “The Thirty Six,” a comic by writer Kristopher White. The book’s hero Noam is a member of the 36, armed with Moses’ staff and charged with protecting the other 35 — some of whom don’t even know they’re lamed-vavniks. White funded the first volume of the story through Kickstarter, and the comic was recently a finalist in the Burbank International Film Festival‘s comic book and graphic novel category. Hero Complex caught up with White to talk about “The Thirty Six.”

HC: Can you talk a little about the book’s inception? You mentioned a Sunday school class?

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A page from “The Thirty Six.” (Kristopher White)

KW: Absolutely! For several years after college, I taught Sunday school at Temple Israel of Hollywood. It was something that I’d been doing since college as not just a way to give back to the community, but a great way to continue my own education. I distinctly remember sitting in services and they were talking about this legend about 36 special people, destined to save the world, and it just hit me like a bolt of lightening. Literally, my head was buzzing with excitement and possibility. What if each of these people had a super power? Immediately, I went home and began to research the idea. Surely someone had already done this, I thought. It was just too obvious. After doing a little digging, I was pleasantly surprised to find that while the legend has been referenced in pop culture, no one had quite done it like this before. So I just went full-steam ahead with it at that point. The legend itself has been touched on multiple times in popular culture. Kiefer Sutherland’s Fox show “Touch” referenced the legend, as has Neil Gaiman’s “Sandman” series.

For me, the fun of this book wasn’t just that I could incorporate a lot of very interesting legends (like the golem or the Leviathan), but that I could also draw on a lot of spiritual themes that I had actually taught at one point or another in class. What does it mean to “save the world”? How do our characters operate in a world where there’s no clear-cut instruction from above to guide their actions? Our villain in the book, for example, believes that saving the world means wiping out humanity. His logic is rooted in the story of Noah. He believes that to save the world, sometimes you have to start over.

HC: It’s an interesting and original place to carve out your story, at this weird intersection of religion and fantasy. Why do you think it’s so compelling?

KW: For the audience, these legends are familiar and a part of our culture overall. Telling stories that draw on those mythos immediately activates something deep inside us, because we all feel a connection to these tales in some fashion. “Indiana Jones,” Supernatural,” and “The Da Vinci Code” all do the same thing — not counting the last Indiana Jones movie, of course. That one was just a boondoggle. All of those examples build worlds that draw on a shared mythology. The key is that each of these stories really takes that lore and does something unique with them. They either add to the tale or rework it in some manner that makes it fresh. I have a feeling that if we were in ancient Greece, I’d be singing my story with a harp by the fire while everyone got drunk on mead (which also describes most of my college experience, strangely enough).

That’s the appeal of doing stories like this. They really have the ability to draw people together, no matter who they are. When you go to a movie or a comic book convention, it doesn’t matter what party you vote for or what religion you are. We’re all there to revel in our love of good storytelling.

HC: How much research did you have to do? Were these myths already familiar to you?

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A page from “The Thirty Six.” (Kristopher White)

KW: What makes this tale so unique though isn’t just that we gave each of these people a power, but that we’re really drawing on a lot of similar mythology to round out the story. Some of the stories I already knew, but a few I discovered as I began my research. Our lead character, for example, has the staff of Moses. There’s a whole history of legends and stories around that object that I’d never heard of. According to legend, the staff was passed down through the generations, starting with Adam ripping it from the Tree of Life. That was an idea I immediately grabbed onto and incorporated into the fabric of this world.

Another legend I was really itching to draw on was the story of the golem of Prague. It’s one that I’d been familiar with for a long time and I was keen to do my take on it. The creature is fascinating and continually turns up in literature and pop culture, from Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” to “The X-Files.” Even though I knew the core story, it was fun to look at, once again, the variety of legends that grew up around the creature. For me, the fun part was twisting that legend around to give it my own take. For example, one disparate idea I drew on to inspire my golem was [Isaac] Asimov’s ‘Three Rules of Robotics.’ Hopefully, people feel that my golem is true to the legend, while still being fresh.

HC: You mention “cultural shout-outs,” and there were quite a few references to Jewish culture. Do you think that has been underrepresented in comics?

KW: It’s a complex question, because how you define that representation is key. A lot of authors out there are informed by their Jewish heritage, but don’t necessarily make it oblique in their work. So the values of a character or story might come from that part of their identity, but they don’t hang a lantern on it — or a Star of David in this case. So in that sense, all my work is informed by Jewish culture. At the same time, I was very much looking to do a modern story that utilized that part of my heritage and culture. Michael Chabon’s work was definitely a role model in that vein. His work on “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay” and “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union” were two pieces of literature I kept in the back of my head as I put “The Thirty Six” together. The real secret sauce that those books achieved was their ability to draw on our heritage, while not getting bogged down by it. In other words, you don’t have to be Jewish to enjoy the stories. I want everyone to be able to enjoy “The Thirty Six” for what it is — a really cool action-adventure story informed by old-school mythology. Though if you do have an understanding of the culture and legends we’re drawing on, it just adds another level of appreciation for what we’re trying to do.

HC: Who are your influences? I read that you ran a “Lost” podcast.

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“Fables: Legends in Exile.” (Vertigo Comics)

KW: I did have the honor of producing and hosting the “Official Lost Podcast” for which I still get recognized! My wife didn’t believe me that people recognized me until it happened to us in a restaurant in San Francisco of all places. So I would immediately list Damon Lindelof, Carlton Cuse and the writers of “Lost” as major influences on my writing style. One of the key things I learned from reading their work was that character is king. You can have the coolest mythology in the world, but if people don’t care about the people living in that world, nothing else matters.

In terms of comics, another major influence for me when crafting this book was Bill Willingham’s “Fables.” I loved how he laid out his story and introduced readers to a world that was once so familiar and yet so new. In particular, I loosely modeled my first two chapters after his inaugural issues for the series. I love how he opened his series with a mini-whodunnit mystery (in his case, who shot Rose Red?). That was something I loosely modeled for our first chapter. I feel it’s a great way to bring readers into the world organically. They’re discovering its rules as our heroes lay out the evidence and ask all the questions we want to know too. The mystery, in our case, was who released a golem into the world after six centuries, and why was it trying to kill this nice young woman?

HC: How did you build your creative team? Were you seeking a specific kind of style to accompany your story?

KW: The artists that worked on this project, George Zapata, Micki Zurcher and our letterer Bernie Lee, all came to me through different paths. Each one of them elevated the story, in my opinion. That was definitely the joy of working on this project, seeing what each person brought to the table both in style and in ideas for the content itself.

I found George Zapata through his work on DeviantArt. The thing that really attracted me to him was the fact that his work didn’t look like something you’d see in Marvel or DC books. His work has a definite indie feel to it, sort of a Mike Mignola meets Bill Watterson (in my opinion). The second thing that really stood out was his ability to sequentially tell a story on paper. George graduated from the Kubert School, which really places an emphasis on storytelling, and that definitely showed in his work. The piece that really sold me on him was something he did almost as a throw away. In three short panels without dialogue, it showed a turtle struggle to reach the shore. The first panel showed a turtle swimming in the ocean, struggling. The second showed a slightly wider shot. The turtle was just inches from reaching the first slope of sand leading to shore. The third panel, an even wider shot, shot the arms of an octopus closing in on the turtle as he swam. That simple reveal told me volumes about his abilities as a storyteller and an artist.

Micki Zurcher was my next-door neighbor at the time, literally. As I was starting the project, it somehow came up that she was a retired background artist and colorist. When I looked up her resume, I saw that she’d worked with the great Ralph Bakshi on some of his biggest projects — “Lord of the Rings,” “Wizards” and “Cool World” — in addition to doing many Disney projects. So in short, I begged her to join our team. And it was well worth it. For some of our pages, she turned in three or four versions without even being asked, just to really make sure she got it right. Her work really helped elevate the story to a new level for me.

Finally, Bernie Lee came to me through a recommendation. He’s a pro letterer and really helped us out in finishing the pages for delivery. These guys don’t get much praise, because when they do it right you don’t notice. But when it’s wrong? The whole book can be ruined. One area he really helped me out with was sound effects. There’s only so many “BAMS!” you can write into a fight scene. Bernie was an expert at not just suggesting other effect-like sounds, but working them organically into the surrounding artwork. The other key area he really helped in was delivering the files to the printer. Since this was my first book, I was learning as we went along. He really made sure we looked like pros by the time we delivered the final book to the printer.

HC: How collaborative were you when you worked together?

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“The Thirty Six” (Kristopher White)

KW: In terms of collaboration, the entire team really brought their A-game. George, in particular, was constantly pitching me ideas to make the story better. One example is in the final chapter. Our heroes arrive at the docks to chase after the bad guys only to find that every ship in the harbor has been sunk. That wasn’t something in the original script. George just drew it into the panel for the page and showed it to me. It was obvious. Of course they’d destroy all the ships in the dock. Would you want to make it easy to get followed?

Truly, I feel that a comic — much like a movie — is written three times. For me, the first draft was the script. The second was when our artists Micki and George got a hold of it. And the final pass was when Bernie laid in the lettering. That’s where we really got to see if the dialogue lined up with the end artwork. On several occasions I found myself tweaking bubbles, just so that we could show more artwork.

HC: What are some of the challenges you’ve faced and benefits you’ve enjoyed with self-publishing?

KW: Self-publishing has been a great challenge and a great joy. First of all, none of this would be possible today without the backing of 122 people on Kickstarter. Sites like that have definitely made it a lot easier for indie creators like myself to get their projects off the ground. As soon as we hit shelves, we already had a core audience of people that believed in the work that I was doing, and that meant the world to me.

One of the biggest benefits of this process has been greater understanding and appreciation for what a publisher does. It’s also allowed me to walk away from this experience with a lot more business knowledge than when I started. I think that kind of experience is invaluable because no matter what creative project you’re doing, there’s always a budget and a deadline. Knowing how to keep both is invaluable to success.

That said, one of the biggest challenges for me is still distribution. Going through a publisher gives you an immediate platform to get your book into brick-and-mortar stores, which is still the key way people discover new titles.  Walking around and pitching individual stores, I’m constantly surprised by the strength of the community around each store. The shop owners are friends with almost all their customers. They really do have loyal followings. People talk a lot about the entire industry going digital, but I think the value of those communities can’t be underestimated.

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Kristopher White (ABC)

HC: Do you have a day job?

KW: I think all of us indie publishers have day-jobs. Currently, I still work for the Walt Disney Co. doing podcasts and producing other fun projects, like live-streaming events and transmedia content. Personally, I just wanted to do a comic book because I grew up reading them and I really wanted to have something tangible that I could share with the world.

One of my proudest moments was when this 13-year-old boy came up to my table on day two of WonderCon. He had bought the first chapter the day before and he was full of excitement. “I loved it,” he said. “When can I buy the rest?” It was a nice reminder of why I started doing this in the first place. Oh, and if that boy is reading this, the answer is… now.

HC: What’s next for Noam? What’s next for you?

KW: The great thing about the world of the “The Thirty Six” is that it has a great many more stories to tell, I feel. After all, we only met a handful of them in this first volume. On the immediate horizon, there are a few stand-alone stories I’d like to tell that take place before the events in volume one. These would be to tide readers over until we can get a Kickstarter to dive into the next major arc for the series. In terms of that story, the next legend I want to explore involves Jacob’s Ladder and the Garden of Eden. Thematically, the story that I’m really interested in exploring is the relationship between the two brothers, Noam and Levi. We see a wedge forming between them in this volume, and it’s one that’s only going to get bigger. Some of my favorite tales in the Bible are ones of feuding siblings, including Cain and Abel (that’s a clue!). There’s a lot of jealousy and feelings of resentment between those two characters, and I could see it going wrong in a pretty spectacular fashion. For myself, I’m continuing to write and dream up other projects for both comics and other mediums. Right now, I’m on the hunt for new artists to collaborate with as well. Hopefully, “The Thiry Six” will help lead to new opportunities to tell other tales.

HC: Anything else you’d like to add?

KW: I mentioned it earlier, but Kickstarter really was key in getting this book made. I would urge readers to go out and support indie comics. One of the great things about self-publishing is that I’ve met a lot of really great creators out there doing exactly what I’m doing. Each one has its own style and story, and all of them are great. So whether you’re buying indie titles at conventions, supporting new titles on Kickstarter or just asking your local shop what’s new and indie, it all supports a growing movement. In the end, we all just want to be told great stories, and there are some great ones out there yet to be discovered.

— Noelene Clark


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