By ANDREW HOLZMAN
“Do you want to see the devil?” is the question that opens “Chinatown,” a graphic novel by two Hyde Park-area brothers that launched at an event this past Saturday. Wesley and Bradley Sun, founders of Sun Brothers Studios, produced the book with the help of more than 600 online backers. Combining art and dialogue that hangs between the whimsical and the disturbingly surreal, the brothers invite readers into a world that bewilders, shocks and, they hope, explores broad themes surrounding the search for meaning in a sometimes tragic world.
The story of the authors themselves is perhaps as interesting as the story they’ve created. Wesley, a graduate of the University of Chicago Divinity School, is a hospital chaplain on the South Side. Bradley lived in Florida, where the two grew up, until he left his job to work on the “Chinatown” project.
The brothers both recall an early interest in graphic novels and comic books.
“I’ve been interested in this ever since I was a kid,” Wesley said.
If an interest in graphic novels and comics was unremarkable in childhood, Wesley and Bradley’s past three years demonstrate a remarkable devotion to the art form.
“I spent the last few years writing scripts, inventing stories, making things up,” Wesley said. While Wesley worked on writing in Chicago, Bradley, fresh from art school, was developing his skills as a comic book artist.
“I started drawing comics on my own, then wanted to take it to the next level,” he said. The next level for the brothers meant a furious program of writing and editing one another’s work.
Wesley said the brothers both asked each other, “How serious would you like to be about this?” Both wanted to make their work professional.
“From then on we were writing scripts non-stop … [we would] e-mail scripts and furious notes back and forth,” Wesley said, recalling intense phone calls made between Florida and Chicago to discuss the work.
Bradley spent a week working on scripts in Chicago and said the decision to quit his job and move closer to his brother came quickly afterward.
“It was a big risk, but one I felt was a long time coming,” Bradley said. Wesley agreed, saying that when the brothers are together “the magic happens – we get the creativity flowing.”
Both had ambitious goals for what the novel could convey, and hoped to push the limits of their medium to achieve them.
Wesley said that his work in the hospital helped inspire one of the book’s themes. “What I do for a living is to help people through crises that are for the most part senseless,” he said. “Chinatown,” he explained, straddled the divide between innocent fun and something more sinister and asks its readers to evaluate life on the same terms.
“You can either decide that life is whimsical or sink into nihilism,” Wesley said. “… nihlism and meaninglessness [are] the chief threats to living life.”
To invite insight on that level, Wesley and Bradley gave the book a disorienting, dream-like effect.
“Dreams beg for interpretation,” Wesley said. “We’re asking the reader to interpret life.”
Expressing these ideas meant challenging conventional ideas about what comic books can do.
“It’s really important to me to push the medium of comics,” Wesley said. While some artists, he explained, create cinematic work that is meant to be read page by page and in order, “Chinatown” interacts with the reader in a unique way.
“In a movie, the editing is done for you. When you read a comic book you get to be, kind of, the editor,” he said. “We need you to tell the story.”
He hoped readers would be challenged to flip back to previous pages, re-reading and trying to understand subtle oddities in the artwork.
“Chinatown” is available at First Aid Comics and 57th Street Books, 1301 E. 57th St., as well as at some booksellers outside of Hyde Park. For the holidays, the book will cost $19.99. Normally, it will sell for $25.