Stephen Sonneveld won the Kennedy Center Outstanding Playwright Award, has freelanced for publications as diverse as the LGBT-themed Windy City Times and MAD Magazine, and written and produced various independent film and publishing projects. He has won writing awards from Warner Bros. (the Short Romantic Story Competition, judged by Rob Reiner), as well as collegiate and local competitions. His screenplays have placed in fests such as the New York Television Fest, and the Austin Heart of Screenwriting Festival.
In this interview with music editor Álvaro Morales, Sonneveld talked to us about being a screenwriter writing other genres, about coming from a bloodline of artists and craftsmen, and about using political issues as inspiration for his pieces.
Álvaro Morales: You have worked in screenwriting and other writing genres before, what made you choose the comic strip format for Greye of Scotland Yard and what was the transition like?
Stephen Sonneveld: Before I answer any questions, I would like to thank MiddleGray and the MiddleGray readers for taking an interest in my work.
Greye actually started as an idea for a screenplay, somewhere between wanting to create a detective along the lines of a Columbo or a Poirot - an iconic character you could plug into any situation, and wanting to do a heist movie.
I did my research and could not develop a feature-length story that I was satisfied with, but I had all these other good ideas for crime scenarios. So, it occurred to me to create a detective to solve all these unconnected crime plots. That evolved into the five cases he solves, with the big arc of this once great super detective realizing he no longer is.
I do not honestly recall the bridge that brought me to making it a comic strip. I greatly enjoyed the Chester Gould and later the Max Allan Collins Dick Tracy strips, so maybe the impetus was that if it wasn't going to be a screenplay, it would make sense as a detective strip.
AM: Did you have any prior experience working in the format?
SS: No, but I wanted the challenge of telling a story in 4 to 5 panels on a daily basis. I love the format and admire what so many great storytellers, from Winsor McCay and Segar to the modern creators, have done with it. I wouldn't call it a competitive streak, but, as an artist, you always look at things and wonder, "I would do it this way."
Initially, I wanted to see it published on a daily schedule in a newspaper, because I wanted to challenge the notion that a comic strip has to run on forever. This was intended from the get-go to be finite, 298 strips. I pitched it to the papers and syndicates as a special limited run event, but it fell on deaf ears. I wrote and drew it for an adult audience, figuring that they're reading a newspaper full of terrorism and murder, then go home at night to watch the same on their TV, so why not do a strip that addressed mature issues, as well - something that would bring new eyes to the comic page? I love the format, but I wanted to challenge it as much as it would challenge me.
I also liked the idea of drawing something that seems so abstract just by itself, that readers would scan the newspaper page and it would catch their eye; they'd look at it and say, "What the hell?" But then be intrigued enough to see what happened the next day, and before too long, have all of these individual abstractions coalesce into a complete image.
AM: You have a very distinct visual style. Did you have any formal illustration training prior to this?
SS: To be honest, illustration/the visual arts is inherited from my father's side. As far as pursuing it professionally, my great-great-grandfather was an immigrant craftsman hired by Mr. Pullman himself to design the gold work for the Pullman rail cars.
Drawing was literally in my DNA, and it was an activity my parents encouraged since I can remember. I would write and draw stories about my favorite heroes on newsprint art pads, rip out the pages and staple them together in book format. It wasn't until high school that I took formal classes and experimented in different media and did life studies.
But even at that point, I was actively pursuing creating comics. All art tells a story, but this unique, American way of merging words and story was a medium I knew I wanted to explore. For instance, our English class was given an assignment about the Vietnam War over Christmas break, and I took those two weeks to write and draw a 50-odd page comic book about a veteran trying to make peace with his past.
AM: Who are some of your visual inspirations?
SS: The first name on that long list is Steve Ditko, best known for co-creating Spiderman. My uncle, a fine artist in his own right, had a tabloid-size Spiderman book filled with Ditko art. Few artists convey a sense of movement and lead the reader's eye like Mr. D. His art just grabbed me, and that book - Spidey facing the Green Goblin for the first time - lit a spark.
I would later learn that Ditko went beyond design and ended up scripting his issues, contributing to the development of the Spiderman character. He had a falling out with the publisher and never drew his co-creation again. To have the courage to walk away at the height of your run and not look back, I admired him even more for being a person of conviction.
I would pour over Leonardo da Vinci books. His drawings of fabric, when you follow from the sketchy top into the fabric, it appears to be a three dimensional piece of fabric sitting atop a page. Genius is too small a word for a man such as that. I love that he tried things, too. Would I like to see his lost paintings? Of course. But the story of him experimenting with paints that later betrayed him is almost better, because it reminds you, especially as an artist, not to be complacent. He had to bribe crypt keepers to let him draw the anatomy of dead bodies. He had to scrape away a mountainside until he found sea shells miles above the sea. He had to keep moving forward.
In drawing Greye, I realized how much of an impact David Llyod's V For Vendetta had on me, both in the content he and co-creator Alan Moore brought to life, but also in Lloyd's sublime artwork. It is one of those books that elevated the form in every respect, and, for my money, is the best comic ever produced.
The story and the lush quality of Alex Raymond's Flash Gordon comic strip stirred my imagination, the Walt Disney Studio delivering works of art in Pinocchio and Fantasia and so many others, Jim Henson's designs and humor, Berkeley Breathed's style and satire... there is a lot of art in the world to admire.
AM: In your experience, what are some of the differences between telling a story visually and telling it only through writing?
SS: A friend once told me that no Tarzan on the silver screen ever lived up to the one he read about, that he, as a reader, in a sense helped create.
I think the best answer to your question is that the more words you use, the more you will editorialize, and the reader will either revel in the confines of your horizon, as my friend did with his Tarzan books, or you will push people away from that emotional connection, even if your craft is sound.
For instance, I really enjoyed the first half of the movie Wall-E, because it was a silent film. The robot went through his experiences and I, as a viewer, told the story in my head, according to me and my worldview and biases. But the moment people in the film started talking, and the filmmakers started editorializing, telling me what the movie was about, however well done, and however valid their theme, I lost interest, because they took my movie away from me.
AM: You have also worked in film and television. Would you say you draw from that experience in your comic strips and other writing work?
SS: Yes. I was fortunate enough to participate in theater and forensics in high school, and I had a marvelous teacher, Mr. Sackett, who encouraged me to create original scripts.
I found I have a good ear for natural dialogue that I think is owed to being an actor and struggling to deliver a line naturally, and not falling into a cadence. When you are forced to deliver lines someone else wrote, you, as a writer, begin to have an appreciation for the economy of words.
Arthur Miller wrote a wonderful scene in All My Sons where the lovers agree to marry one other without ever mentioning anything as blatant as a proposal. The audience knows it, the actors know it, and it never needs to be so explicitly said, because Miller crafted his words so brilliantly. He wasn't playing a game with the audience, or anything cheap like that, he was an artist making a scene his own.
I heard a story that the only writers Brando ever memorized were Tennessee Williams and William Shakespeare, because they respected the language. Whenever I put pen to paper, that crosses my mind, a mini-challenge, would Brando memorize this?
The commonality of plays, films and comics - for me, anyway - is to boil it down for what really needs to be there. Look at Chaplin - a great actor can tell you with his or her eyes all you need to know, so why bother bringing down that moment with overkill dialogue? The critic Pauline Kael once said that movies were nearly perfect, and then they added sound.
So, yes, these thoughts and experiences are definitely in the back of my mind when I am laying out a page: Can I show this, rather than tell this? Is my dialogue believable, is it respecting the language?
AM: What draws you to topics like terrorism, espionage and government secrecy?
SS: Those terrible George W. Bush years really laid bare just how fragile our systems are when amoral people such as Bush and Cheney and Rumsfeld are at the helm. Bush was Republican, Congress had a Republican majority, it was their chance to deliver on political promises and make the world a better place. Instead, all their policies have resulted in are dead American soldiers and a destabilized region that makes groups like ISIS possible.
Showtime recently aired a documentary about Muammar Gaddafi entitled "Mad Dog," where Gwenyth Todd, former White House NSC director for Libya, recounted with disbelief how an oil exec cried when he was told oil sanctions would not be lifted; then, during a State Department meeting to discuss lifting sanctions, how government officials proposed discrediting the families of the terrorist attack victims on Pam Am 103 so as to make Gaddafi look good by comparison. (link to video, timeline 10:47 - 12:55)
Though I feel with Greye and some earlier work, like the comic book W.M.D., that perhaps I've said all I need to about terrorism and government secrecy, I am drawn to the topic because the topic does not have to be that way. We look at these Grecian columns upholding our government buildings and are in awe, that maybe the people inside them have some special knowledge or key that the rest of us don't. No. They're people, same as you and I. We do not have to accept their incompetence or their outright abuse of power. We do not have to settle.
Is Greye an artistic achievement anywhere near Guernica? No, but it's something. It's still a canvas to express an idea.
Social systems affect everyone at once, such as the stock market crash that caused the Great Depression. Art affects us one at a time. The Gene Hackman Civil Rights-era film Mississippi Burning got good reviews, and award nominations. Some people liked it, some didn't. But it also made a South African apartheid police officer question if he and his police force were acting in a racist way. The film changed his mind, and he became part of something that, in time, changed his society.
There is no reason why we cannot change the world.
AM: What other topics would you be interested in exploring in the future?
SS: I have an idea for a feminist comic that I might publish on my Tumblr. Beyond the idea, I'm interested in creating a work specifically for the endless scroll of Internet readability. Rather than just paste a comic book page on to a site or blog, how else can you tell a comic story without it morphing into animation?
The way women are treated the world over sickens me. Stoned to death, burned for witch craft, every other headline domestically and internationally is about gang rape. Enough is enough. Religious and social institutions need to be held accountable for their part in perpetuating the ideas that lead to these terrible events.
In addition to that topic, a few years ago, I started writing what became a series of articles on Bleacher Report about the NFL's lack of common decency to change the racist name of "redskin." I'm proud to be a voice in that debate alongside so many others who are all wondering what year we are living in and why the NFL is allowed to be racist against American Indians. I may write more on that.
AM: What are you working on at the moment?
SS: Since being featured in the latest issue of MiddleGray and then published on Comixology (link), Greye received some great reviews and responses, so I am hoping to build on that and collaborate with editors and publishers on projects they might be developing; get out of my comfort zone.
AM: What can readers expect from you in the future?
SS: Something different! You don't need to reinvent the wheel every project, but there should be some growth, some new idea, hopefully a maturing talent evident in each new work.
I am as interested as you are to see what I do next. When opportunity meets inspiration, we'll find out!