Jeremy Holt draws a career in comics


AUTHOR JEREMY HOLT poses among the shelves at Monroe Street Books in Middlebury. ELISABETH WALLEN PHOTOGRAPHY

HOLT'S EIGHTH PUBLICATION, “Before Houdini” (art by John Lucas), hits shelves this week.

A PEEK INSIDE "Before Houdini."

AN EARLIER BOOK by Holt, "Skip to the End," imagines a world in which the late Kurt Cobain survives his struggles with depression and addiction.

A PEEK INSIDE "Skip to the End."

MIDDLEBURY — Comics are for kids. They should be light-hearted, fun and simple.

Um, nope.

Sure, some comics are geared toward the young at heart, but the graphic novel genre is vast and covers topics that are anything but juvenile.

“Tell me what you like to read, and I can find it for you in a graphic novel,” said Jeremy Holt, whose eighth publication, “Before Houdini” (art by John Lucas), hits shelves this week. This is a companion novel to his earlier released “After Houdini” (art also done by John Lucas).

“‘Before Houdini’ pulls back the curtain on the life of this extraordinary man,” Holt explained. “It reads initially like a biography… That’s how I lure readers in. For the first few pages, everything is completely factual. Then it goes in a very different direction — it’s my misdirection, my own kind of magic.”

An exciting, vibrant, fun read — oh yeah. But below the surface, Holt worked hard to focus on the identity of each character. Just as he works hard on his own identity.

“I think about the things I want the reader to take away, and for this book it was identity,” said Holt, who works a day job in tech support for the Addison Central School District. “As a triplet I shared my identity with my identical brothers growing up. We got a lot of attention and I didn’t like it.”

Holt — who identifies as a non-binary, Asian-American — does a lot of thinking about the LGBTQ and POC (person of color) communities.

“I’m no longer writing white male protagonists,” Holt said. “As a person of color, it’s nice to be in a position to tell these stories with new plots and new themes from a different perspective. That’s something I never had.”

Holt’s personal experience drives many of the themes in his books. For example, in “After Houdini,” Houdini (through a fantastical trial and tribulation) finds his birth father — something that Holt as an adoptee from Korea has thought about, but never been inclined to do.

“My parents are my parents,” said the 37-year-old who has called Italy, Singapore, England, Norway, Texas and New York City home. Aside from his two identical brothers, Holt has an older brother and a younger sister.

“It was my oldest brother who encouraged me to write comics,” said Holt. “I had graduated from the Savanna College of Art and Design’s film program in 2005 and had spent a year in New York City not doing anything creative. I began to think that maybe art school was a mistake, so I went into computer tech and became a certified Apple Genius… My brother was in the city and showed me a bunch of his graphic novels — I was blown a way. They weren’t just all superheroes. It’s such a wide genre.”

One day in 2008, Holt was living in Manhattan’s West Village neighborhood and couldn’t afford to go out so he stayed in, sat down and began to write.

He completed a zombie comic (not knowing how saturated that market was already), got encouragement and notes from an editor from D.C. Comics and has been writing graphic novels since.

Holt moved to Vermont in the winter of 2012 with his wife and lived in Middlebury until they divorced. Holt now lives in Vergennes.

His relationship experience also became a graphic novel — it’s a romantic comedy, coming out later this year, that’s “about real slice-of-life moments,” Holt described. “The RomCom is perhaps my most personal and challenging book. I explore the idea that romance isn’t always fun — it can be messy and difficult. I know I’m not the only one going through this, and it feels important to share.”

“Skip to the End” (art by Alex Diotto) is yet another example of one of Holt’s graphic novels that tackles real, big, life stuff. This book (pictured, right) is an homage to the late grunge band Nirvana’s leader Kurt Cobain, and imagines a world (with the help of a magical, time traveling guitar) where Cobain survived his struggles with addiction and depression.

“The ’80s-’90s-era grunge is personal to me,” said Holt, who sports a definitively punk look. “I was in middle school in England when Nirvana was big — all the cool kids listened to this music, but I wasn’t one of them… it wasn’t until years later that I figured out Nirvana and other bands like them were making music for me — an outsider.”

OK, so now you see, comics can be complicated. Holt shows us the challenges of identity, family, romance and addiction all through the creative frames of a comic.

So how does he capture these stories and turn them into the novels readers enjoy?

Holt said he draws on his knowledge of filmmaking.

“It’s all there,” he said. “A comic book strip looks very similar to a screenplay with the page count, panel count, panel descriptions and word balloon counts.”

That’s the nuts and bolts. Holt also directs the framing of the action, the positioning of the characters, the lighting, the mood and the characters. What’s strange, is that unlike a film director, Holt does all of this alone — well mostly, sometimes he likes to write in a coffee shop (shout out to Royal Oak in Middlebury).

“I’m very alone,” he said. “Music is key to get me in the right headspace.”

What kind of music?

Holt cranks up the sounds of film-score composers Thomas Newman, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross.

“Their scores almost instantly bring me there… Then I basically just describe what I see,” Holt said. “If I’m doing my job as a creator, the characters tell their own stories… I also try to think from the artist’s standpoint. I know I did my job if the artist can read the panel descriptions and doesn’t have any questions.”

Last, Holt does the dialogue — the words in the bubbles.

“I get hung up on dialogue the most,” Hold said. “I’m very self conscious of how I interact with people — I over analyze everything, which as a person is exhausting but as a comic book creator helps me pepper in those details and gives the story more texture.”

But Holt’s style isn’t too wordy. He leaves a lot of the drama up to the artist’s hand.

“A lot can be told with out saying it,” he said. “I’m telling the story but I rely on the artists to tell the visual component… The dialogue should just be an accent.”

Want to learn more about how graphic novels are made? Author Jeremy Holt is gearing up for an exhibit Aug. 9-Sept. 22 at the Jackson Gallery in Middlebury, where he’ll unveil the process of creating his comics. Six images will be on display that show the process of comic book creation: script, pencils, ink, flatting, coloring and lettering. There will also be 20 original, one-of-a-kind pages, books and prints available for sale. An opening reception will be held on Friday, Aug. 9, from 5-7 p.m.

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