FOUR YEARS AGO, Valerie D’Orazio was writing a story about a character who knows too much. Whom people want silenced. And who ultimately delivers all her files to the media, via email, so the whole world shall know these dark secrets.
Little could the Brooklyn-based author have known then that this Marvel story, titled Punisher MAX: Butterfly, was professional prologue to another big assignment:
Writing about the life and exploits of NSA leaker Edward Snowden.
“The funny thing is, both my Punisher one-shot and [my autobiographical writing] are also about people ‘leaking’ sensitive information,” D’Orazio, who has also worked for DC Comics and Valiant, tells The Post’s Comic Riffs.
Drawn to such subject matter, D’Orazio approached the Vancouver, Wash.-based publisher Bluewater Productions about launching a “Beyond” comic-book series. The first result of that successful pitch hits bookstores and virtual shelves today, as readers can delve into the illustrated document that is “Beyond: The Edward Snowden Story.”
“Whether you find Edward Snowden to be Robin Hood or Dillinger, he reminded us about the precarious nature of information in a digital world,” Darren Davis, the Bluewater publisher who bought D’Orazio’s idea, tells Comic Riffs. “There are always people who will take exception to a controversial figure. It is our job not to tip the scales one way or the other, but allow the readers to make their own informed decisions.
“Telling new stories in comic-book form is a cool and unique way to tell stories, because you can see visuals that you normally might not see,” continues Davis, whose Bluewater imprint specializes in biographical and historical comic books, ranging from presidents to pop singers.
As illustrated by Dan Lauer, this 22-page bio-comic begins by depicting Snowden as a young fan of “geek culture,” from video games to anime, and follows his adult path from being a new NSA contract employee to his life on the lam in a Russian airport. The book cites the Pulitzer Prize-winning reporting of both the Guardian and The Washington Post; then-Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald even emerges as a character in the comic — one who, D’Orazio says, is quickly “just as important” as Snowden as a narrative presence.
Comic Riffs caught up with D’Orazio to talk about her inspiration, her storytelling approach — and whether she has come to view Snowden as a patriot or a traitor:
MICHAEL CAVNA: So how did you get this assignment, and was there any comics-world intrigue … involved?
VALERIE D’ORAZIO: I had always been interested in the idea of creating comics content that could reach beyond the immediate comics market, and educate [and] inform the public about current events. But outside of Bluewater Productions and the occasional graphic novel, I just didn’t see a lot of that type of material in the comic shops. I was also a big fan of “fringe” theories [and] news, strange stories, the uncanny, et cetera. So I just put the two together and pitched Bluewater the “Beyond” series. And the publisher, Darren Davis, immediately understood what I was trying to do and the appeal of it, and we started on the book right after that first initial phone conversation. It was that easy.
I had been involved in a “whistle-blowing” type event in 2006 in the comics industry, where I had blogged frankly in a series of posts about the way [I], and other women, had been treated in said industry. The posts, called “Goodbye to Comics,” also touched upon other aspects of my past, with the overall theme of finally telling things to the world that “shouldn’t” be shared. This was a mostly unheard-of action in the comics community at that time, which was fairly insular and discouraged dissent. So that was a big deal, at least within that publishing niche. What’s bizarre is that, the whole time I wrote the Snowden comic, it never occurred to me that it could be related at all to my past experience. I never put two-and-two together until someone pointed it out to me months after I finished writing it.
That said, I’m not comparing what I did — which was relatively small potatoes — to Snowden’s actions. But I guess it made me feel a kinship to him.
CAVNA: What attracted you to this assignment? You have a varied resume – and a good writer is a good writer — but this is … different from both Punisher and your autobiographical writing, say. Why did you take this one on — what was the appeal?
D’ORAZIO: The funny thing is, both my Punisher one-shot and the autobio are also about people “leaking” sensitive information. The 2010 Punisher story, called Butterfly, was about a hitwoman for the Mob who decides to write all her experiences down in a tell-all book, and then gets relentlessly hunted down in order to silence her. The book ends with her getting killed — by the Punisher himself! — but right before she dies, she emails all her files to the press so everybody has the info. And my memoir is just an extension of that “Goodbye to Comics” series of posts.
So I think “Beyond: Edward Snowden” is, in turn, an extension of that running theme—of somebody risking everything to tell the truth. And I think, ultimately, it springs from a deep, primal, primary and early need, on the part of myself, to be heard and believed.
CAVNA: So just how does one get inside the head of Edward Snowden? Meaning: As a writer of this book — where you also had to be researcher and reporter, as well — how did you begin to get a handle on depicting Snowden as a character?
D’ORAZIO: I started the project doing basic research, watching the initial Snowden interview video, reading countless articles about what he was like, etc. But it was really all the subtle things…the quirky little details…that fleshed out his personality for me. Like the fact he was really into Japanese animation, his use of a Rubik’s Cube to let Glenn Greenwald recognize him, those fascinating series of Ars Technica postings where he even expressed the opinion that leakers should be “shot.” … This wasn’t just the poker-faced guy from those early press pictures.
This was a real person, with all the attendant contradictions, likes, loves, humor, disappointments. And it was important for me to show this side of him, because I think we need to see our “heroes,” public figures, etc., as these multidimensional individuals. To see things as just black-and-white heroes, villains … that’s not accurate. Not even our superhero comics do that anymore, so why would we apply it to our news coverage or political views?
CAVNA: How much time did you spend on research, and what sources did you rely on? Presuming you spoke to no one at The Post or Guardian, nor [specifically] Greenwald or [Laura] Poitras, what works proved most enlightening and illuminating and helpful in constructing your narrative?
D’ORAZIO: The most helpful material was not so much the “official” articles about Snowden, but the online primary sources like his Ars Technica postings, his profile info for the anime venture he was connected with, his girlfriend’s blog postings [and more]. The footprint we leave online via social media and other platforms often seems the most revealing, the most raw, the most unguarded. They seem, in total, to create a sort of [auto-]biography all on their own.
CAVNA: To hone a complicated true-life story down to a 22-page comic narrative relies, of course, upon careful editing choices. How did you approach this, and how did you and the artist work together to dramatize key turns and twists, while leaving some elements as elliptical and quickly alluded to?
D’ORAZIO: I had a strict outline for the story, parceling out “X” amount of pages for this aspect of Snowden’s life, that aspect, et cetera. But the story had a way of shaping itself as I actually wrote it out, almost taking a poetry-type rhythm. Like the scene where Snowden waits in the airport … and waits, and waits… . That wasn’t planned, but when I wrote it, it seemed to make a lot of sense and really express what he was going through. And the artist, Dan Lauer, then brought his own rhythm and interpretation to the script when he drew it, further shaping the narrative structure. There was just a “flow” to the storytelling that took on a life of its own.
CAVNA: Related to that: You depict Greenwald’s trip to Hong Kong — his account. You chose to leave out Bart Gellman’s contact with, and interviewing of, Snowden. Was that because that reporting [was less adaptable] as a dramatic tool for the storytelling?
D’ORAZIO: I think with the Gellman thing, it was a matter of making storytelling choices. Snowden was, originally, my “main character” … but quickly Glenn Greenwald was becoming just as important. In fact, when another interviewer asked me who the “superhero” of the book was, I answered that I thought it was more Greenwald than even Snowden.
But then you have Snowden and Greenwald, and 22 pages, and you start cutting things out—or at least, not giving certain things as big a focus—in order to make the narrative more palatable and easy-to-follow for the reader. If only I had 96 pages!
CAVNA: Do you think Snowden is a patriot or a traitor? What’s your opinion on his actions, and did you let them color your storytelling at all, or were you aiming to tell this straight?
D’ORAZIO: My initial goal with this book was to tell everything “straight”—no drama, no opinions, just the facts. A straight-up educational “pamphlet,” more or less. But it quickly became clear to me that this would be impossible. I really feel strongly about protecting our rights to online privacy. I just look at all the technological advances, the innovations in social media, wearable technology, and so on, and on one hand I’m amazed…and on another, really worried. I feel like we’ve allowed the technological infrastructure for a potential Big Brother/”1984″ scenario to be installed under our very noses. I feel like we don’t care as much about this as we should.
And so in that sense: Yes, I think what Snowden did — bringing these issues to our attention — was important.
But there are also unanswered questions…holes in this narrative…that I don’t think anybody has the full story of yet. And I address those in the comic as well. I don’t think Snowden was a Russian spy…but I do think that he has been in that country a long, long time, at a distinct disadvantage. Was he pumped for info by his hosts? Who knows? These are questions. The story and revelations are far from over, in my opinion.
CAVNA: What are some of the most surprising things you learned in doing your research?
D’ORAZIO: That Edward Snowden came largely from the same sort of “geek” culture me and my peers did: enjoying video games, Japanese animation, et cetera. I believe he said recently that video games partially inspired him to carry out the leaks. Just imagine! The sizable and profound impact “geek” culture has had not just our entertainment, but technology, world affairs, politics, current events…it’s fascinating to me. Because, growing up, it all just seemed like “dumb stuff” of no consequence that we would outgrow. But it is certainly turning out not to be the case.
The second issue of “Beyond” focuses on the character of the Joker and James Holmes, and again: Holmes is like the “evil” version of the “geek.” The geeks will inherit/destroy the earth?
CAVNA: Ultimately, what do you hope readers will glean from this book?
D’ORAZIO: I’d like them to get to know Edward Snowden as more of a multifaceted person — the man behind the icon. It would be great if they also took more of an interest in how their actions or non-actions allow stuff like the NSA data-sweeps and whatnot to happen. It’s easy to cast the government as the villain in this superhero narrative, but it is really up to the American people to change things. The real villain is public apathy.
And lastly: Go beyond what I say, or what the “news” says, or what any one source says, and do research and form your own unique opinions about things. Be a free thinker. And be a free speaker.