Seth Kushner was a New York-based photographer and comic book writer/artist who passed away on May 17 of this year after a long battle with cancer. I was not previously familiar with his work. But when I heard that a comic writer and artist much loved within his community had recently died from leukemia I looked him up. Illness, particularly death from illness, is for various reasons an area of great personal interest, and the fact it was connected to the world of comics in this case made it feel all the more pertinent.
I held back from learning too much about him before reading the work I’m about to review, Schmuck, a collection of web comics of the same name that Kushner wrote with art by a long roster of twenty-two different artists. I wanted to approach the book from a place of ignorance in which I’d be less likely to project anything onto it as a result of reading about the writer’s personal struggles. Even so, now that I have read the book, and now that I have read more about him personally, I grappled a bit with how to write this review. You see, the book is so goddamn hilarious that it calls for a review written in an exuberant tone. Then I hesitated to write it that way since, in light of his recent passing, I didn’t want to be insensitive to the loss that his loved ones must still be coping with. But then it occurred to me that reviewing this book with great enthusiasm could in itself be a kind of small tribute to the life and work of a very talented artist.
So here we go.
First of all, I cannot believe that the title Schmuck has not been used before in a major work. Wait, scratch that – a quick search on Amazon reveals that a novel titled Schmuck by someone named Ross Klavan was published in 2014 (apparently, it’s about radio DJs in 1960s-era New York).
Kushner’s Schmuck is a collection of twenty-two short stories in graphic form. All the stories are written by Kushner but each story is drawn by a different artist: Gregory Benton, Dean Haspiel, Kevin Colden, Josh Neufeld and many more. There’s also an introduction by author and New York Press columnist Jonathan Ames and an afterword by Kushner.
With its long list of artists, anthology format and Kushner’s autobiographical focus on the foibles and failures of his personal life, Schmuck will surely remind many readers of the work of Harvey Pekar. Kushner himself seems to be acutely aware of the inevitable comparison and indirectly acknowledges it in “A Hairy Situation,” with art by Pierce Hargan, in which he and his date go to see the film American Splendor.
There are other obvious comparisons, particularly in the nebbish, hopelessly neurotic way Kushner portrays his comic avatar, Adam Kessler. In “On the Couch,” drawn by Dean Haspiel with interesting photographic insertions by Kushner, when Kessler is lying on his therapist’s couch we can’t help but think of New York’s most famous neurotic, Woody Allen. Even a woman that Kessler briefly dates in this story is named Soon-Yi, just like Allen’s wife. Kushner gives a nod to this comparison as well when he writes, “A New York Jew sitting on a therapist’s couch, something as inevitable as birds migrating south for the winter. I was a cliché.”
But whereas Allen always portrayed his filmic alter egos as being sexually confident despite their bumbling clumsiness, Kessler/Kushner’s prowess with women is portrayed in a more realistic way with outcomes far more likely for a guy in his shoes. And herein lies an interesting dualistic quality of Schmuck: many of these stories, as I’ve mentioned earlier, are laugh-out-loud hilarious. I simply cannot remember the last time I laughed this hard while reading a comic, honestly. But as you make your way through the book, story after story has Kessler ending up in the most painfully awkward, humiliating and just all-out emasculating situations. Moreover, this isn’t just fiction loosely based on actual events. It’s more like memoir in the guise of fiction: everything in this book actually happened to Kushner (about a third of the way into the book I got curious and Googled “Schmuck Seth Kushner true story?”). Once I knew that these stories were all autobiographical, they became simultaneously even funnier and sadder at the same time. Schmuck increasingly becomes painful to read as you watch this poor schmuck get knocked about from rejection after rejection, but it’s so freakin’ funny (and for some of us, so relatable) that you just can’t stop reading either.
In his willingness to bare his flaws and obsessions for all to see, someone that Kushner ultimately reminds me of more than either Pekar or Allen is Joe Matt, creator of the indie comic Peepshow: The Cartoon Diary of Joe Matt (which at one point was one of my favorite comics), from their shared susceptibility to loose bowel movements to their openly confessed fetishism of thin women and Asian women, preferably both thin and Asian. Kushner and Matt are both brutally honest about their own shortcomings, but Kushner’s Adam Kessler ultimately emerges as a more likable character. When something good finally does happen to him you feel genuinely happy for him even as you feel sadness over the recent, premature passing of his real-life counterpart.
The stories in Schmuck were written before Seth Kushner was diagnosed with leukemia in April of 2014 so there is nothing in semi-fictional protagonist Adam Kessler’s world, neither at its center nor on its periphery, to suggest that his future struggles would involve anything other than the perennial dilemma of how to get laid. You might think that knowledge of the artist’s untimely passing might diminish the perceived importance of his cartoon alter ego’s personal dramas, but on the contrary it renders them all the more poignant. In the face of Kessler’s clumsy, inept attempts to connect with another human being we see how one of the biggest driving forces of human behavior is, as ever, the need to love and be loved deeply, and how it is our bewilderment over both that causes so much of our suffering.
Fortunately for Seth Kushner, he was deeply loved.
Donations to Seth Kushner’s family to help pay for medical bills from his treatment can be made at their GoFundMe campaign page.