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Halpern takes on graphic narrative

Buffalo native and author speaks about his latest project, WELCOME TO THE NEW WORLD


Buffalo native and author Jake Halpern (Bad Paper, Braving Home, Fame Junkies) recently spoke to Spree about his latest project, Welcome to the New World, a graphic narrative following a refugee Syrian family—perhaps one of the last—entering the United States. The strip will run through the summer online and in print in the New York Times.



Why did you choose the format of a serial graphic comic to tell this story?

It was kind of random. An editor I know at the New York Times, Bruce Headlem, contacted me in October and asked me if I had any interest in doing a serialized graphic narrative in which we followed the lives of a refugee family, ideally from Syria. The initial idea, and hopefully we’ll still get to that, was to show it from the kids’ perspective.


I’d always been interested in graphic narratives, in particular the book Maus [by Art Spiegelman], and just how unexpected it was that a “cartoon” could be so powerful. We actually thought about setting it in Buffalo, because there are so many refugees there. But, it was easier to have it based in the New York metropolitan area, because that’s where I live.


I said, “Let me talk to some of the local refugee agencies and see if I can find a suitable candidate.” I often think about my job as kind of a casting agent, where I’m looking for the right person to fill the role of the main character. I called the head of the resettlement agency in my area and asked him to help me find a family that I could profile. He said, “What would you think about the prospect of following a family from the moment they arrive? We’ve got two brothers with their families arriving on election day.” I thought it could be pretty cool to witness that from the onset. I was there when the families landed, and it was very emotional. That night, I went home and Trump won the election. And I thought, “This is the story of a family who landed in one country and woke up in another.” The fact that they arrived on election day, which had seemed like a little coincidence, all of a sudden seemed hugely consequential.


The first comic in the series is kind of a stressful read, because the reader knows the outcome of the election, but the family doesn’t yet.

Exactly. It’s the new world, as in America, and the new world, as in we’re all living in a new world in this reality where we have a Trump presidency.


How did you hook up with Michael Sloan, the artist?

Michael lives around the corner from me, is the short answer. As a freelancer, all my relationships are over the phone. It kind of stinks, because you never see anyone. I wanted someone who was physically close to me. I found his illustrations very warm; there’s almost a Tintin quality to his work. There’s a humanity about it. I thought that would work great, because there’s a temptation to turn this into a really moody, brooding, edgy, darker type of story. But, my goal was to humanize these people, and the warmth that was so evident and alive in Michael’s drawings would get it.


He depicts Jamil, the dad, particularly in the first comic where he is saying good-bye to the canary, like he could be your favorite uncle. And, that’s the way Jamil really is; he’s a very warm person.


I’ve been worried about Jamil’s mother.

There’s a reference in the strip that she has diabetes. Her health has actually improved. She’s in a tough spot, because she’s basically marooned in Jordan, but she’s not in danger. I think that what’s really hard is that the family is grappling with this very real possibility that they may never all be together again. It’s very complicated, because she encouraged them to go. She was also sad that they went, and feels like if they had waited, maybe they all could have gotten visas. So, there’s relief mingled with regret, and it weighs on Jamil and his brother.


How often are you in contact with the family?

Every week. I had lunch at their house yesterday. I’ve had both families over to my house so they could meet my wife and kids. I’ve become close with the families in a way that I rarely have with someone I’ve written about.


How long do you plan on following the family’s journey in the strip?

The plan with the Times is to do the first six months, so that would mean through the summer, maybe longer.


There’s a crazy story that I wanted to include in the comic, but we couldn’t. Jamil and his brother arrived on the same day. They both flew into New York. They arrived on separate planes, though, because one of them was routed through Egypt, the other flew from Jordan. They don’t see each other at the airport, because they arrive at separate times. They get into taxis. Later that night, two taxis pull up to a stoplight, Jamil looks out the window and the person in the taxi next to him is his brother. They get out of the taxis and they embrace on the streets of New York.


The one thing that’s frustrating about this strip is there’s such little space. There’s so much on the cutting room floor. If I were writing this story in any other form, there’s no way I’d omit that story.


The family obviously is not outing themselves, but have they talked to you about if their community or friends or other family have seen the strip?

Some people have figured it out. One of the things Jamil said to me early on was, “Am I safe talking to you? Will it cause me trouble?” Because, where he came from in Syria, he was at risk for talking to the press. Basically, with the Trump administration, he wondered if there’d be repercussions. I was in the process of saying, “No, you’re fine. This is America.” But, I paused for a good, long minute to just think it through. It’s crazy that I had to stop and think about it. In the back of my mind, I worried about him. I wasn’t quite as cavalier as I might have otherwise been.


Have they talked to you about the travel ban?

Yes. In fact, we’re doing a strip in how that’s played out for them. In general, they’re trying to figure out if they’re safe here. Once you’ve been admitted as a refugee to the United States, after one year, you’re eligible for a green card. One concern they have is that something else will come out that’s going to prevent them from getting green cards. For now, it appears that they’re OK. The other issue with the travel ban is it doesn’t bode well for the chances of seeing their family again.


They’re uneasy. But, I will say the community that they’re in—the people have rallied. When the travel ban came out, people at the school where the two teenagers go came out in support of them. It’s as if people felt the need to affirm that they were welcome. People were stepping up and going out of their way to say, “We know this is going on, but we want to tell you your children are welcome in our school, and we’re glad to have them here.” That made a huge impact on them.


What has the feedback been like on the strip?

The response has been overwhelmingly positive. A lot of people have said that there was something about the graphic form of it that they found really touching. The first strip came out the week of the travel ban. A lot of people have inquired about how they could help the family.


I feel invested in this family, possibly because the strip is so personal and warm. It’s a little nerve-wracking.

It is. I’ve lost sleep over it. I have a very strong desire to help them, and, even though I’ve tried to make them feel welcome and invited them to my house, I can’t, really.


You and I understand this country. We grew up here. We’re American. And even I feel a little bit lost in all of this. I can’t imagine how they feel.     


Wendy Guild Swearingen is senior editor of Spree.


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