A Life of Two Stories: An Interview with Joshua Kemble

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Number 5: Alan Noble interviews graphic novelist Joshua Kemble about his conversion, his art, and how and why he depicts sin. 

Image: Seth Hahne

I’ve known Josh Kemble a long time. I once almost played bass with his band but the cops came and closed it down after someone hit the bar owner with a chair while the band before us played. I took a painting class with him at a community college; he took it because he was really good at painting. I took it because my girlfriend at the time was good at painting. I knew Josh when he was a Christian. And when I became convicted that I was living a fake Christian life, he guided me to his church, where his father was an elder and where later I would marry my wife.

I knew Josh when his father died of cancer and a little later when he told us he was no longer a Christian. He became a freelance illustrator, won a Xeric Award and published his first comic, “Numb,” and got a contract to publish a graphic novel called Jacob’s Apartment. I followed the progress of the novel online and it revealed a bit of how he processed his father’s death and why he left the faith. I bought and wore a number of his t-shirts from Threadless and even saw prints of these shirts on the set of IT Crowd, a favorite BBC show of mine. Then, years later, he inexplicably (to me) returned to faith.

When he started creating his latest graphic novel, Two Stories, I was interested to see what the subject would be, since his style was autobiographical. As I read the comic, I was intrigued to see him dealing with extremely dark subjects: suicide, substance abuse, self-harm. 

The comic was beautifully drawn and written, even as it was troubling. I had an idea where the comic was headed, but I wondered how Josh would get there without sacrificing honesty, beauty, or goodness. The following is an interview he gave to me on this new project and the aesthetic and theological rationale behind it. What he offers is a challenging and valuable way of thinking about sin and depravity and the fall in popular culture and art.

His new comic is titled Two Stories and can be read online at QuarterlyStories.com.

Alan: You were working on a graphic novel before this one. Did you finish it? How does that story differ from Two Stories?

Josh: Yes, I was working on a 132 page full-color graphic novel called Jacob’s Apartment, which I finished a few years ago.

Jacob’s Apartment

Jacob’s Apartment is a coming-of-age story about the struggles of young adulthood, losing a father to cancer, first love and the pursuit and perception of dreams. It was my first crack at writing and illustrating a graphic novel, and took an extremely long time to finish. The story was heavily influenced by my own experiences losing my father to cancer, as well as my experience early in college losing my belief in God and grappling with the issue of purpose without a God. I masked the autobiography by having the character’s experiences fictionalized, giving him a different name, and changing his appearance.

So, content wise, there’s a huge difference between Two Stories and Jacob’s Apartment. For one thing, I chose to create Two Stories in black and white, hand inking every part of the comic, including the lettering. While attending graduate school, I realized that I like working in black and white and hand lettering. I love the look of it. The story differs quite dramatically as well. I decided to get rid of my attempt to fictionalize my experiences. I’ve always been drawn to extremely confessional autobiography.

Artists like Robert Crumb, Harvey Pekar, and Art Spiegelman were some of the biggest influences, but somewhere along the way I’d become convinced that working on confessional autobiography was too narcissistic, so I tried to mask my experiences when I’d work on a personal story by changing events and names of characters. Instead of causing the work to be less narcissistic, I think what wound up happening was I would glorify myself as a character, or over-glorify events to where the truth of experience, the flaws of myself as a human being, were getting covered up. Almost like I was trying to cover up all of my flaws and failures.

 

Jacob’s Apartment

But what I realized is that I love the flaws and failures in autobiography. That was the stuff that I’d found so appealing about Crumb, Pekar, and Spiegelman. I love the candid embarrassing truth. I think it’s the best stuff to read in autobiography, the dark grittier side of the writer, where you’ll read it, and think, “I’ve been through that, but I can’t believe anyone would talk about that publicly.”

With Two Stories, I wanted to get back to what drew me to autobiographical stories by writing about myself and events with the intent to touch on uncomfortable truths, without hiding the reality of the events. The aim this time is to lay myself bare with my experiences. If I exaggerate anything, it’s to highlight my flaws, rather than my strengths.

The biggest difference is my intent with the story. Two years ago something big happened to my philosophy. After living as a convinced atheist for nearly ten years I became a Christian, which I wasn’t really expecting, and I can only truly give credit to the Holy Spirit because rationality and debate weren’t heading in that direction for me. It changed my life pretty substantially. With Two Stories, I wanted to write an honest account of how that happened. Because I believe there is power in truth.

I also don’t want to write it like a Bible tract. My hope is to talk openly about issues like severe depression and relational struggles, which I still occasionally (less frequently) struggle with as a Christian, in an honest way. Part of what I believe causes people struggling with depression, or other mental disorders to withdraw from community is the way that community shuts down discussions about depression or mental disorders. I think if people were more willing to talk about their struggles and emotional weaknesses, people would feel less alone. And if we can start to become aware of problems that aren’t isolated to one individual, but to the whole of humanity, then we can start to see that this is a fallen and broken world, that there is something broken, and there’s a desire and need for someone greater than ourselves to fix it. Once we get there, then we can truly appreciate what the significance of what Jesus has done for humanity.

If we avoid talking about the things that make Christ’s sacrifice such a substantial event, and pretend that the world we live in is candy-coated and perfect, we risk negating the purpose of Christ dying on the cross in the first place. So, with Two Stories, I intend to get very honest and true about the depravity in my life both before and after being saved. If I feel uncomfortable about writing about something, chances are, that’s what I’ll try to delve into and use in the chapters of Two Stories.

Alan: My first semester teaching The Great Gatsby at our old community college I had a student who was an aspiring pastor. Aside from witnessing to me at the conclusion of one of his papers, what I’ll always remember him for was a conversation we had after he finished Fitzgerald’s novel. He said that there was no value in reading about people getting drunk and having affairs and sinning. Christians don’t need to read about sin to know it’s bad, he told me; therefore, he didn’t appreciate reading The Great Gatsby.

So far in Two Stories you’ve depicted excessive drinking, profanity, self-abuse, and near suicide. For Christians like my former student who object to depicting sinful behavior, why do you believe these scenes are important in your story? Why would you say it is good to read about such things?

Josh: The idea that your student stated “there was no value in reading about people getting drunk and having affairs and sinning,” yet was a pastor is rather telling to me. I’d be curious to know whether he believed reading the Bible’s many accounts of people getting drunk and having affairs and sinning negate its value.

As for my inclusion of the things I’ve depicted so far in my story, it’s definitely not to win popularity points with publishers. It’s actually a rough market for anyone who wants to talk about Christianity, and in the Christian publishing world profanity can be a death wish for an aspiring author. And in the comic book market, that becomes even more problematic.

So, why then would I do it?

We live in a fallen and corrupted world. If we write of our world, to be believable, it would have to be filled with corruption and sin. This is the world the Bible portrays and is definitely the world I see around me. We also have a tendency to want to ignore sin and to want to believe ourselves to be good people. However, when viewed next to God’s standards, we all fall short. If we write stories in which Christians, particularly prior to being saved, are sinless, or edit their words to fit idealistic principles they themselves would not feel obligated or able to live up to, then we are depicting a different universe, possibly a universe without the fall of man. In other words, we would be portraying a false reality. I would like to be as honest and true to my experience before and after being saved as I can, because that was and is the broken world that we are all born into. It’s also the world that Christ came to save us from. If there was no sin in the book, why would the character in the book need redemption from something he has not, or will not acknowledge he does?

Two Stories

When Christ approached the woman at the well, he spoke of her story, her sins, and what was at the root of her pursuits. He then offered a solution to what she was really seeking. He offered a metaphorical water that would cause her to never thirst again. If we don’t talk about what thirst looks like and what we try to fill it with, then we will never truly seek after or appreciate water that quenches all thirst.

I think most people are trying to fill a thirst in their life, like that woman at the well, with something. That might be sex, money, power, friends, drugs, idol worship, ect… However, once we quench that thirst with what we’re craving, we are left empty again, and unsatisfied, desiring more and more. Aristotle noticed this same thing with the whole “Nature Abhors a Vacuum” idea. Stories like The Great Gatsby are good at depicting what chasing to fill that thirst with things on this earth looks like, and where that winds up leading.

I would aim to do the same, then offer a solution, which would be Jesus Christ. When I was an atheist, the Christians who had the biggest impact on my change of heart were not afraid to talk about sin, things which were true, or grapple with tough theological issues. They would admit when they didn’t know something for certain, would be open about their own sin, and hypocrisy, and would talk honestly about their walk with God, good and bad. They were slow to make assumptions about what I believed. Instead they asked a lot of questions in order to find out. The Christians who had little influence on me at the time were quick to anger, closed off to discussion and questioning, almost frightened to talk about truths or sin, and would assume they knew everything about my philosophy based on the word “Atheist.” Many would act as though they no longer sinned at all, or that their actions had somehow made them better than the unsaved. I believe that what is true can’t be threatened by truth. Truth only enhances truth.

Two Stories

With Two Stories, I want to present an honest view of how my life was before Christ, and how it is after Christ saved me, my brokenness and all. I believe it’s important for me to not censor it because I believe truth speaks to the hearts of those who might have experienced similar situations. If Christians only read censored, half-truths, or look at paintings of only pretty things, they might start to think that the world is actually a censored half-truth, or that it is only full of pretty things. This can lead to many dangerous things. Being uninformed about another group can make it more difficult to empathize or find points of agreement with them, which can lead us to villainize the group as an “Other.” It can diminish our ministry and cause us to ignore the call to go out into the world and make disciples. We could also start to view salvation from a half true and only pretty perspective, blurring our understanding of what we needed saving from.

The strength of the testimonies of Paul and Christ in those examples I mentioned before was that they showed a knowledge of what it looks like to be drinking, yet constantly empty; to have many gods, but no true God. I hope to reach people who’ve suffered from mental issues, used profanity, abused themselves, or felt suicidal. I want those people to know that they are not alone in those things. I want them to know that there’s a problem that’s much broader than those isolated things, and most of them have to do with our want to fill an emptiness with material things that cannot be filled without God. I also want Christians to know that they are not alone in messing up, or stumbling. I want to tell what it’s like for me when I mess up and stumble. Because I think when we pinpoint a shared sorrow, we are much more willing to see why there’s a need for the shared solution of giving our lives to Christ.

Alan: Let’s say your reader is a faithful Christian who knows that drunkenness, self-harm, and profanity are sinful and destructive. Why should they read your comic? Is there some value in your story beyond showing the dangers of sin?

Josh: As the writer and main character of Two Stories I believe that drunkenness, self-harm, and profanity are sinful and destructive. So that aforementioned reader and I would be in agreement. There is intent behind why I’ve chosen to depict these things without censoring them. The time that I am writing about, before I was a Christian, I was suicidal, relying on things like drinking, self harm, and profanity to get me by.

While my story, and eventual testimony contained within it, might not be to every reader’s taste, I believe there is definitely value for a faithful Christian to read Quarterly Stories. First of all, I hope it will be beautiful and entertaining. I believe that truth is fundamental to beauty, and that we can praise God by creating artwork that seeks truth and beauty. I know both are loaded words to use, but I definitely believe in them as absolutes, and think half the purpose of art is to attempt to get at both of those things. However, as a warning, this story is not for children, and I wouldn’t wish to force it on a reader who it might cause to stumble. I am trying through the depiction of these things to attempt to ignite imagination, provoke thought, empathy, and hopefully hit on something sublime. However, I might not get there, that’s up for the reader to decide. If someone, from reading this, feels like they should start drinking entire bottles of whiskey and jumping off of bridges, they misunderstood the intent of those elements in the story.

As for the value other than entertainment and beauty that it might have, by depicting true depravity, I hope it will provide a framework for the reader to see what salvation meant/means for me. The plot will be a redemption story, with some twists along the way, and might not possibly end up all tidy and fluffy in the end, as I don’t believe life with salvation becomes tidy and fluffy. I do believe it provides a hope and peace that’s unfathomable.

If you read the story, you’ll notice that it is by no means glorifying the sins it depicts. I should also mention, as a young Christian, I still occasionally use profanity (although I try to avoid it), and struggle with sin. I’m not completely white washed and perfect. I wouldn’t want to be disingenuous when talking about who I am, because I believe that would be dishonest, misleading, and might give someone a false idea of Christianity as well. I mean, none of us could live under legalism and come out sinless. That was the whole point of Christ’s sacrifice. I’m saying this to mention that the redemption element of this story, when that comes into play, might not be as white washed and pretty as some might hope. It will most likely not happen when or how you would be expecting it to. There will be twists of expectations in the story. However, I think it’s a good story to tell, full of lots of interesting arcs, quirks, depictions of love, loss, struggle, sorrow, faith, and redemption. Hopefully I’ll write it well. That’s the challenge, and ultimately, it’s really up to those who read it to decide.

Two Stories

Finally, there’s also a second chapter, which is a much nicer story about childhood playground politics, and re-making Back to the Future, so, it’s not all suicide, drugs, and language. I just started off strong to set up the stakes of the story. However, there will be many more sins within the story to come. So, if you want to read a story about sailors, who magically don’t talk like sailors, this might not be for you. That would belong in the fiction section, and I’m aiming at non-fiction.

Read Josh Kemble’s Two Stories now at QuarterlyStories.com. Josh intends to “release limited saddle stitched booklets of the comic” as short stories until the entire novel is finished. All comic images are from JoshuaKemble.com and QuarterlyStories.com. 

Feature illustration courtesy of Seth T. Hahne. Check out Seth’s graphic novel and comic review site, Good Ok Bad.

About Alan Noble

(Co-Founder/Editor/Columnist) is a part-time lecturer at Baylor University. He received his PhD in Contemporary American Literature from Baylor, writing on manifestations of transcendence in 20th Century American Lit. He and his family attend Redeemer Waco, a PCA church. Alan's passion is studying how believers can be a faithful presence in culture to the glory of God and the edification of others. In addition to editing, Alan writes his column, Citizenship Confusion for CaPC.

---Follow Alan on Twitter @TheAlanNoble and on Facebook.

---For questions, comments, or interest in speaking engagements please email me at noble.noneuclidean [at] gmail [dot] com.


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