9:00am PT by Graeme McMillan
How Comic Book Creators Are Helping Victims of the 2017 Las Vegas Shooting
Announced just weeks after October’s tragic shooting in Las Vegas, Image Comics’ Where We Live: A Benefit for the Survivors in Las Vegas is a collection of stories told in the comics medium. The stories include those based on eyewitness accounts as well as fiction by a number of top creators, intended to both raise funds for recovery efforts and create and expand conversations around gun violence, mental health and the impact of tragedy on communities and individuals.
The project was initiated by Batwoman co-creator and Sandman: Overture artist J.H. Williams III and wife Wendy Wright-Williams, both Las Vegas residents. (The two worked with Will Dennis, former editor at DC Entertainment’s Vertigo imprint, and Michael Perlman to curate the collection.) Ahead of the anthology’s May 30 release, the two talked to Heat Vision about its origins and the purpose comics can serve in helping people process traumatic events.
What was it that made both of you think that Where We Live was the correct response to the shooting and its aftermath? How did the project get started?
Wendy Wright-Williams: Well, we live here. When anything big like this happens, I think it’s natural for someone to think what they could do or, I hope it would be natural. The enormity of what happened and how it was impacting all our friends — we know many people who work on the Strip and were in lockdown, and had to drive past that every day — it was such a strange and painful event that happened here and we wanted to do something. We felt like we had something unique to offer besides the obvious money, or donating blood. We also wanted it to say something, in that it could do more justice to the people that it affected if we had an honest conversation and did more than just the typical response.
J.H. Williams: A lot of times, things get talked about through media sources such as magazine articles or news outlets, and it gets analyzed from those points of view, but you don’t get to see story-driven content around the subject very much, about gun violence and the impact it has on people’s lives. Our medium is comics, so for us, it seemed like a natural thing to do, to come at it through our artistic medium and industry. Interestingly, even though it’s primarily comics-driven story content, there are some essays and poetry in there as well; we didn’t limit it to just comics. We just wanted to create a platform for creative individuals to speak to the problem and get their voices out there, while at the same time, hopefully raising money.
Wright-Williams: Also, for the news cycle, people kind of latch onto the specifics of a situation and then move on, and we wanted people to understand, there are human beings behind those statistics, and that this is their story. They’re not just a number in this tragic event.
Media stories tend to become about the shooter and the dead; there are so many more people affected in situations like this, and so many more stories that, traditionally, go untold.
Wright-Williams: I want people to look at some of these stories and think about, what if this had happened in your family? How would you cope with this situation, how would you feel, how would you cope with the anger you might feel, that no one is thinking about the impact of what’s happening to your family? Part of the book is that we’ve got witnesses in the book telling their story, and we’ve tried to include as many local creators as possible, writers and journalists, so we have a broader perspective on the community — even if they weren’t at the shooting, they were affected by it.
Williams: In the broader sense, by also having a lot of creative individuals from outside of the local community — we have people from all over the world working on this book — I think that shows how something that can happen locally is spread out across the planet, and shows how people are affected by what happened...
Wright-Williams: ...it reverberates, yeah.
Williams: By having these different viewpoints represented in the book, it speaks to the broader issue of how these horrible things impact people on a daily basis, maybe in ways they don’t even understand yet. If we don’t talk about this stuff, if we don’t get this out there — not just this book, but having different voices speak to this situation — I don’t see how we can come to a conclusion about how to solve the problem.
Wright-Williams: I refuse to believe that we’re helpless to effect some kind of change. I just can’t see this being our new normal. Even after “our” shooting, how many more have there been? It’s ridiculous. I feel like, yeah, it’s hard and everybody has their opinions, and there’s politics involved, of course. The conversation ends up becoming volatile, but it still needs to happen. We can’t just say that it’s difficult and throw up our hands. Perhaps because our way of approaching the topic is different, maybe it can be used differently.
Williams: Because it’s story and art, hopefully it humanizes the issue. Hopefully this book can contribute to helping things in that particular way.
All proceeds for the book are being donated to Route 91 Strong, a non-profit dedicated to raising awareness and funds for victims, survivors and families of gun violence. How did you select that organization? What was the process of deciding who to help and where?
Williams: Right away, there was a GoFundMe started by one of the casino organizations, and they seemed to be one of the main drivers of collecting money...
Wright-Williams: There were, like, two or three different funds at first and they all ended up combining into the GoFundMe. The GoFundMe ended up closing, unsure why it closed so soon, but we managed to get ahold of the Resort Association, one of the major contributors to that, and tried to make special arrangements. And had been given the impression that was going to be workable. But then discovered after a month of that being the plan discovered it wasn’t. For some reason they decided not to take anymore money from anyone. So we did some research, and have decided to work with Route 91 Strong. They’re committed to helping people in whatever way they can.
I’m curious about the creative lineup for the book. How did you get everyone on board, and was there any conversation about what they were going to do for the book — not in terms of format, but in terms of content? You’re both very clear about humanizing the event, advancing the conversation. Is this something you talked about with the creators?
Williams: A little bit. We came up with a mission statement that had an outline of some of the goals we wanted to cover in the book, some of the subjects we wanted to explore, but at the same time, we didn’t want to put a mandate on what they were able to do. We wanted them to speak about the problem the way that they themselves wanted to.
Wright-Williams: The only thing we expressed to them was, everything needs to be thoughtful. There’s a lot of anger, obviously, and that’s not an invalid emotion to have, but we need to channel that. You can say whatever you want, but whatever you’re going to say, we want you to be thoughtful. We don’t want you just attacking anyone. If you’re going to use facts and figures in your presentation, we want you to cite your sources.
Williams: We didn’t want any knee-jerk reaction in the material. Even though there was a lot of focused attention from everybody, we’ve got such a wide range of creators, we’ve got a wide range of content and perspectives, and a lot of very profound material. There were some people who were, like, "I don’t know what to say, I’ve got such a jumble of feelings about it," but they wanted to participate somehow. I’d come back and say, "Why not talk about that jumble of feelings? Make that your story," and we got some good stories from that angle. There’s also some allegorical content in the book that uses genre to express itself, and the underlying message is in the allegory. We allowed the creators who wanted to go that angle to do that, because that’s where they felt strongest, and I think it was a good decision, because otherwise you’d have this really heavy book with lots of very real personal perspectives and true-life accounts. This provides breathers, in a way, with the allegorical content. It’s a very wide range of material.
One of the things that’s coming across clearly is that this book is intended to open up a conversation about the subject of gun violence and allow voices to be heard that aren’t traditionally. It’s entering into a moment where there is already an ongoing conversation on the topic of gun control and gun violence. Was that in the back of your minds, putting it together? Were you concerned about people potentially attacking the book because of their own point of view or agenda?
Williams: Probably a little bit. It wasn’t the foremost thing on our mind, but we kind of knew…
Wright-Williams: We knew the environment.
Williams: It wouldn’t surprise us, let’s say, if there is some pushback. But we’re hoping that the response is more positive and people realize that we’re trying to say something of value.
Wright-Williams: We didn’t have any mandate about what creators could talk about, but if, in the end, the book reads like it’s valuing one viewpoint over another, we had no control over that and didn’t want to direct that. That’s just the tide, it’s what came in. I would hope that, even though it’s a subject that gets people’s hackles up, and that’s going to be kind of unavoidable, I’m hoping that we have been very thoughtful and if someone reads it, I hope they see that intention — even if they disagree, that’s fine, they don’t have to agree — but they see the intention was not to attack anyone or demand that we take anyone’s guns away. We just have to do better than we’re doing now. We need to have a discussion of what that looks like, and whether it’s hard, whether it gets everyone angry, it doesn’t matter.
Was the book cathartic to put together?
Wright-Williams: We’re still processing that. (Laughs.) It’s such a huge undertaking, we’re still working on that.
Williams: There’s been a couple of the eyewitnesses who’ve mentioned that they’ve had some form of catharsis while working on their contributions, which is nice to hear.
Wright-Williams: It’s been very gratifying.
Williams: As to other creators, I can’t really speak to that, but many of them have said it’s some of the hardest writing they’ve done, just because of how heavy the subject is, once you really get into it. It brings up a lot of emotions for a lot of people.
Wright-Williams: A lot of the stories are very personal.
Williams: For us, I can’t say if Wendy or I will get a sense of catharsis from it, but I can say it’s been an emotionally difficult project — and time-consuming, because of the emotions behind it. We want to make sure we’re doing the best that we can. We’ve been doing interviews with many of the eyewitnesses; Wendy and I would do that before handing them on to the creators to tell their individual stories, and that’s a lot to take on. It was emotionally difficult, but at the same time, our emotional difficulty pales in comparison to what these people experienced and have been experiencing since the shooting took place. So, for me to say it’s been difficult, part of me feels like it’s ‘boo hoo, woe is me’ bullshit, you know?
Wright-Williams: We knew it would be a lot of work. I don’t think we were under any illusions about that, it took a lot of time. We worked with editor Will Dennis, who was fantastic, and Michael Perlman, the project assistant; even with the four of us, it was overwhelming. There were so many emotions, and even from the creators. It’s been overwhelming. It’s been every day. It’s been incredible, I think it’s a fantastic book and I’m really proud of all the work. I can’t thank the creators enough, and thank the witnesses for trusting us to even tell their stories, but it’s been a lot.
Williams: One thing is, we hope that the book can serve a longer-term purpose. If, miracle of miracles, we’re able to figure out the gun violence issue, the book can serve as a reminder not to go backwards.
Where We Live: A Benefit for the Survivors in Las Vegas will be released in comic book stores and digitally May 30 for $19.99.