Out of Print: Revisiting Susan Daitch’s The Colorist

In 1990, the writer Susan Daitch published her second novel, The Colorist, which told the story of a young woman living in New York City's chaotic Lower East Side who works as a colorist for a fictional comic book company called Fantômes Comics. The book captured a pre-internet age in which the production of comic books was a much more intimate and painstaking endeavor, involving actual human hands and intricate mechanical calibration. In other words, before they were digitized.  

The main character, Julie, works as a colorist on a comic book series called "Electra", starring a heroine who can duplicate herself. The theme of duplication flows throughout the book, embodied in comic production, photography and personal identity. At the time of its publication, reviewer Kate Lynch wrote in the New York Times: "Now that we’re in the midst of a renaissance of interest in cartoons and comics, here’s a story set in the comic book industry, complete with workaday details. But The Colorist aims more to confound clichés than to copy them. The novel is a complex of refracted story lines that rewrite and revise the tales of a few 'discontinued' characters. The Colorist should be read for Ms. Daitch’s drop dead writing style and the pleasure of joining her literary shell game."

The book was published by Vintage Contemporaries, the stylish paperback imprint of Random House that launched in 1984 under editor Gary Fisketjon. In the '80s and '90s the line was incredibly hip, known for carrying work by what many perceived to be the most important writers of the time, and for its then-cutting edge graphic design. The series mixed classic titles by authors like Cormac McCarthy, Don DeLillo, Jerzy Kosiński, Gore Vidal, Raymond Kennedy and Richard Yates with contemporary originals by the likes of Raymond Carver—Vintage's 1984 paperback edition of Cathedral, with its iconic peacock on the cover, helped cement the author's legacy at the time he was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize—as well as Denis Johnson, Barry Hannah, Richard Ford, Mona Simpson, Richard Russo and Jay McInerney, whose Bright Lights, Big City sold 300,000 copies in two years. Being a member of that club was a very big deal. 

In the summer of 1993, Daitch was featured on the cover of the Review of Contemporary Fiction's "Younger Writers Issue", along with contemporaries William T. Vollmann and the late David Foster Wallace. The issue was massive: 300 pages of interviews with three writers considered to be among the most promising of their generation. To date, Vollmann has published at least 29 books of fiction and non-fiction, while Wallace, of course, is best known for his staggering masterpiece Infinite Jest, first published in 1996. That same year, Wallace called Daitch "one of the most intelligent and attentive writers at work in the U.S. today." She has published a book of short stories, a chapbook, and six acclaimed novels, including her most recent, Siege of Comedians (Dzanc Books, 2021), which the Wall Street Journal listed as one of the best books of 2021. 

Yet, somehow, The Colorist remains out of print. How is that so? I am hopeful that some publishing company—Fantagraphics would be a perfect match—will put this book back in circulation.

In the early 1990s, when I was a student at Sarah Lawrence College's MFA program for fiction writing, I had Daitch as one of my teachers. The Sarah Lawrence program was tiny at the time, with about 8 to 10 students in any given class, and I spent a good deal of time working one-on-one with Daitch. I had read The Colorist and liked it quite a lot. I remember thinking—and may have even said to Daitch—that I thought that The Colorist was a book that could easily be adapted to the graphic novel format. This was around the time that Paul Karasik's and David Mazzucchelli's graphic novel adaptation of Paul Auster's City of Glass was published by Avon Book's Neon Lit series. It seemed like a good idea at the time. It still does. 

Flash forward a couple of decades. I'm having a conversation with the cartoonist Frank Santoro, and he says, "Hey, you're somebody who reads books… have you ever heard of a writer named Susan Daitch?"

"Yeah, she was my teacher at Sarah Lawrence," I said.

"Well, in the '80s, she wrote a book kind of about comics, sort of, called…"

"The Colorist," I replied.  

Santoro explained that he was turned on to the book by Dash Shaw, and that both artists really loved it; that it should be better known in the comics world, but that it was out of print. Frank then decided to contact Daitch via email, asked her a lot of questions about The Colorist, and, earlier this year, produced a small-run, self-published zine about their conversations called Interview Zine: Susan Daitch on The Colorist. Santoro and Daitch was kind enough to agree to let me adapt portions of that interview here. Their conversation follows.

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Frank Santoro's homemade zine, in which he interviews novelist Susan Daitch about her book, The Colorist.

FRANK SANTORO: At the risk of being predictable and asking a boring first question - I have to cut to the chase: Did you work for a comic book company as a colorist? Or knew someone who did? Or maybe just read an interview with a colorist at the time?

SUSAN DAITCH: No, I never did, but I’ve had a lifelong interest in comics, as most of us who read comics probably do. I wrote a strip when I was in high school called "Rosy High School", but that’s about it. I'm really interested in how work informs characters, and this seemed to me like a fascinating job to have. The story unspooled from there. I also wanted to play with the structure of a story within a story.

You were of course riffing off the, ahem, zeitgeist of the Elektra character in Daredevil that was popular in the mid-'80s, no? The use of Electra works on many levels but I wondered how aware your publisher was to the reference (to the Marvel character) and if there was any concern Marvel might send a cease and desist letter. You spell it Electra, they spell it Elektra, I know. Dumb question. You can't copyright myths but they tried. I guess I am just curious what that perception was of Electra (yours) as a character and of comics in general by people you knew or your editors. Now it is so common. Thor! Loki! You were ahead of the curve! 

At some point I was aware of Elektra, but I was primarily interested in the myth, and my story is very different from the Marvel version. No, there was no legal issue. I'm guessing Marvel is not Disney in terms of litigiousness, but also the legal department at Vintage seriously vetted the book, so it wasn't a problem. I think the difference in spelling and the fact that the myth exists as its own cultural entity... it wasn't an issue. 

I started writing out notes for interview questions when I came across these lines on page 176 (of first edition Vintage Contemporaries paperback): 

"Hardcore realism is only narrowly believable in comics. I'd say almost never. It's undermined by the format, seen as an exaggeration."

Again, this may be answered above but my thought is, "wow, how timely for 1985-89." That was when comics did become hardcore realism and I wondered how you encountered that, like as a reader or as someone involved in the culture because that was—and still is—the big talk. How gritty the comics became and how they have stayed that way. And now with the movies, of course. That self-serious world you parody so well when the colorist is summoned by Fantômes to work on the new blockbuster. 

It seemed to me that when a reader entered the world of comics, with a few exceptions, you weren't in it for realism. That's a different language. I know the shift to hardcore realism in the superhero comics and movies has become controversial. Some people are critical of the trend, but I find it valuable for the way it sets up limits for characters. They have that part of their heel that didn't get dipped into the River Styx and is therefore vulnerable. The Sandman stops at a 7-11 where the clerk's jacket is wrinkled, and the Slurpee machine is dripping on the floor: a lousy universe with no simple solutions. (Nonfiction graphic novels are a whole other genre, related in literal format, i.e. a story told in frames, obviously, but with its own parallel history to the production of superhero comics. Sort of like cousins in a small family that may look alike but speak different languages. Maus was published in 1980. Joe Sacco comes along in the early '90s. Your work, too. These became a valuable reinvention of the form, and I wonder if the trend towards hardcore realism in comics was in some way influenced by the ascendency of nonfiction comics. The Green Lantern goes to Pittsburgh where people have conversations in buses, come back from Vietnam, work in hospitals.)

You were writing about things that didn't exist, so to speak. It makes me think of Laurel [a character in the book] saying something about credit cards never appearing in comics. What you are writing about then feels like that. You never saw a story like The Colorist in comics, but also no one was writing about comics really like this outside of comics. We wrote about ourselves but the stories of the women who colored the comics are very, very hard to piece together. That is a whole sidebar. But really when I found your book, I projected all my joyful feelings of finding a lost narrative about this space. Like what one brings to a painting. Why it resonates. It's a document even if you made it all up! It's so on point, and in key with my own research about coloring. It is a subject I am fascinated by. Someone smarter than me will write a book on the underclass of colorists in 20th century comic books.

One of the sources for The Colorist came from my sister who knew someone who worked on, I think it was Spider-Woman, [a comic] that was being discontinued at that time, and I thought what if termination of a character meant those who worked on a story were "made redundant" as they say in the UK - which seems an appropriate term for the book which is, in part, about copies, art in the age of mechanical reproduction before the internet. In real life, this wouldn't happen, they'd just work on something else, but I imagined a situation where inker and colorist would keep the story going on their own. I know that women mostly did the job of coloring in comics and in film colorization, and that it had been a lowly and sometimes dangerous occupation. I've often had the pop-up question in my head: it was someone's job to do that.

Going down this road also led to thinking about color, both in this book, and in a later book, a thriller, White Lead. I recently finished an essay that has a section about the meanings of green - so we're back to Julie Green.

Related - when I lived in San Francisco in the '90s, I often thought, as I walked past huge mansions, of a documentary that would go door to door and ask, "What do you do?" In other words, what do the swells who live in such places do in order to live in such places. Now you can [find] at least partial, if not full, answers to that question online.

Also related - I was able to do a tour of Marvel Comics which was a much smaller operation then than it is now. Somewhere I still have the security pass with Spider-Man on it, and it was pretty amazing to see artists working at their desks. The Fantômes offices were partly based on what I observed there. 

Not a question, really, you wrote:

"Coloring equals no thinking."

"I was looking for a kind of matte opacity that I knew wouldn't reproduce."

"So now I have no choice, I'm forced to remember, and there are no reminders."

Great last line!

"There were some basic problems with the serial." Made me laugh and laugh.

"I drew Electra's street." Just words on paper. This might be my favorite line. Pages 174-179 are my fave "action."

Thanks. What I was thinking about: the relationship, the dialogue, between actual walking around humans and how comics are produced and imagined, how reality, or an idea of reality, is reproduced and what kinds of meanings are consciously or unconsciously conveyed.

Sentences scribbled down on the back of an envelope. You actually use the word "detritus" on page 178 but that was the word I wrote on the back of the envelope to describe what you elegantly paint when you paint the words of the landscape of New York City circa 1987 with all the little comic book panel-like patterning of stuff. Stuff everywhere. All the time. For sale on blankets. Boxes of photographs. Movie posters on walls. Inside. Outside. Stuff, stuff, stuff. And then a person observed/described will have a back story attached to them in a paragraph or two and then you will just let them slip out of the frame like how a comic book does or how a photographer frames their shot. Brilliant stuff! (I lived in NYC in the early '90s and the pre-Giuliani cleanup world you summon forth is so vivid.)

The Colorist described a lost city in ways I, or anyone, couldn't have known at the time, how erased it was going to become, how extreme that "overness" would be. For a movie theater to be torn down for an urban shopping mall was the cause for remorse at the time, but now it seems almost quaint. Now, developers would say, okay, you can have some retail space on the ground level, but then we're building 60+ stories of luxury apartments with concierge service, and so on, above it with a pretense of including affordable housing which will never actually exist.

A spread from Santoro's Susan Daitch zine.

When people write me about my comics sometimes they will talk about how they don't know much about comic books but that they know what they like and wow my comic book could be the storyboard for an animated movie or even a live action movie - and they mean well, but often it comes across as a backhanded compliment. So I hope that being fannish here isn't gauche, but wow you write so beautifully and evoke this very articulated NYC that is like a detailed comic book script for an artist. And the text is a scaffolding stage (put Stage Diner joke here), like how comic books show the generically specific comic book New York City. Well, the way you describe Veselka and your characters discussing their character's serial there, again, is like a comic book script. It's all so rich. Not spare, but not over-wrought. Like "a row of sequins unraveling from along its hem." The clarity and cartoony image-ness of it. 

Thank you so much. There was a lot to observe. What happened to it all? As Nabokov said about a particle of dust he got out of his eye as a child, it all exists somewhere. I know what you mean about the jump from the book medium in all its forms to movies. I think that's okay - it's just how our brains work. I'm sometimes asked who I would cast as x, y, or z, and that can be a fun game, but the actors I often come up with are no longer animate walking around folks, so it's all theoretical. With comics, it's difficult for people, in this culture, at any rate, not to take that step, "say, pal, that would make a great movie." People see frames and want to animate them in some way.

There was a line about drawn photographs in a comic as photographs that don't read as photographs. That is so specific. And dreamy. I mean, it works, you did it, you blended it all together where it is a hall of mirrors almost. I couldn't tell the difference between real life and the comic book there for a minute near the end. The photographs are drawings in the end. And then the forger and the casting of real things that are fake by people who thought the fake thing, the cartoon they were making with their real lives, was going nowhere. Amirite? Gee whiz. I love this book. 

Yes, you are right. Thanks so much. At one point while I was writing, as you can tell, I branched out from comics to other kinds of art and how they exist as multiples, as objects, as art objects in gift shops. And I don't think there's anything wrong with museum gift shops or people taking home replicas of something they were drawn to, but then what about that industry? Again, it's someone's job to make those reproductions, and they may really care about what they're doing. The cartoon is the real thing of its own based on a real thing or a real imaginary thing.

Sorry, if we were talking in person, this is just me being a fan. Here are my Fan Notes:

Mid-'80s ideas about appropriation. Forgery. Cindy Sherman. Reframing. John Baldesarri. Making art out of documentary banalities. The Warhol Factory. Electra and currency - rhymes with no credit cards scene. Slogans. Silence=Death logo signs. Smiley face page one. Watchmen reference with the smiley face and painted silhouettes? Möbius reference page 15. Loonan's office is described like a Frank Miller panel with noir lighting. Fantômes' office is described like Starstruck, the comic book series by Elaine Lee and Mike Kaluta. Did you know of these works? Martin the letterer's origin story is great. Photography artbook renaissance in the '80s and genre tropes of the maverick photojournalist. Like Eammon is a superhero who the protagonist teams up with and they stay in the same team-up book too long. But this also mirrors creative teams. The inker and colorist. While Martin is in the so-called Purgatory Tube just like a character would be who could be brought back at any time. Even the most dramatic developments like the first appearance of Electra just happen like in a comic book. The forger appears. Eammon (E-Man) disappears. Like how the colors can clarify flat 3D space and hold it all together or make things abstract or opaque. Blank. Real headlines seem comic booky. The Quality Meats scene and riff on El Salvador plays so differently now than it must've then. The seriousness of the camera. The silliness of the comics. It's like that has reversed because the camera is no longer true, it's the paintbox now.

I was thinking about appropriation, but also how a work is changed in the process. Since The Colorist was written before the internet where it's easy to fall down rabbit holes, clicking all the way (and I certainly do), I was linking images and experiences as they came my way, though the choices of visual evidence wasn't random. Those choices were going through particular filters, as you observed. As Julie makes her way in a post-Electra universe, she's still thinking in terms of constructing visual evidence. In a way she never stops being a colorist, of looking at the world through that lens.

The Quality Meats story is true. Though I didn’t remember it when I was writing my last book, Siege of Comedians, but the forensic sculptor who identified people based on remains, specifically heads, would have taken on that case. I love the idea of an E-Man. I don't know Starstruck, but I'll look for it, sounds great. The Purgatory Tube is a useful idea. Everyone needs to be in limbo at some point.

Could you imagine a graphic novel adaptation of The Colorist? I ask because so much of the power you harness, or the power of what you are writing about is in the zone between word and image. 

Yes. I absolutely would, and I even know who I would ask to do the drawings. I queried Fantagraphics a couple of years ago, but they said 90% of the books they publish, the artist and writer are the same person. I wish I could do both, but I can't. It would be a mess.

Have you ever seen the Paul Karasik and David Mazzucchelli adaptation of Paul Auster's City of Glass? It was a sort of valiant attempt to do the impossible. Amazing, but not great. Said respectfully.

Yes, I have seen it but haven't looked closely at it. I've read the novel which I really liked - will take a closer look at the graphic novel version. 

The "made redundant" part in your answer above, related to the time period: what is intriguing to me is with computers coming in and the characters/books being canceled - colorists who did specific coloring processes DID lose their jobs. Your story fits that zone very realistically. It is on the mark for the time within the industry and in NYC. Did you ever think about the creative team continuing like a serial? I mean in real life. Like if it was an ongoing comic strip or book and not a book that has to end? (I love the ending by the way, I just mean in that way that stories and characters can be revived in comics).

I think Julie and Electra could come back at some point - that's an interesting idea. The book had to end, but it's a sort of open ending. The apartment's been ransacked, pools of paint obliterating the reproductions, but years later, now, because the internet has been invented, and with it new forms... nothing is really lost. They can all come back. In a way, that's what fan fiction is, I suppose. People keeping these threads going, interpreting, making their own. (Those last pages - does anyone even know what an answering machine is?)

The part where you write about a movie theater being torn down and how now it would be replaced with a retail/luxury/art space?  I think the "made redundant"-ness of art jobs becomes quaint too. Being a creative wanderer in the wild west East Village art world of 1980s New York comics and antiques. That world is gone on many levels. I think there is something there to ask but I don't know how to frame it. The death of the superhero that is New York. Now it's a clone. A digital copy of a once hand-colored print. All that stuff connecting real estate to the imaginary thing. Maybe I'm reading in between the lines too much. I just want to hear more about how you see that change. The Colorist could take place now—like if Netflix asked you to make it a series—the story can work but it's a different stage set. 

That's a really good observation. The idea of movie theaters or other small local businesses, neighborhood landmarks, older buildings being torn down, replaced by what are essentially immense soulless cash boxes in the sky is almost a cliché at this point, but still a fact of living in so many places, not just cities, the relentless cycle of destruction... capitalism knows no borders or boundaries.

That moment (the '80s) of [a] particular corner (the East Village) of city culture is so gone, it seems closer to the New York of Walt Whitman than to the present. A sense of loss, not just about the world of The Colorist, is something I keep coming back to, despite telling myself to move on from it, and may have a lot to do with my own difficulties with time passing, but at the same time trying to be aware of the sinkholes of nostalgia.

That’s a great parallel, the death of a city and the death of a/the superhero. The clones are a watered down version of the original - the CBGB mural in the East 14th Street Target. If Netflix tapped me on the shoulder and said, serialize this, I'd say, invent a city, like the ground level architecture of Blade Runner. Since we can’t really reproduce that time and that place, add an element of invented futurism to it, playing with time, a speculative half-dreamed up past.

The back cover of Santoro's Susan Daitch zine.

On that note the painter Alex Katz said that the perception of New York had changed. A painting of Washington Square Park in the 1950s looked provincial. Now a painting of Washington Square Park in 2019 looks cosmopolitan because people's perception of the place and New York has changed cuz of the movies and TV. 

Where you mention who you would ask to do the drawings for an adaptation of The Colorist: who?

Jason Lutes for the way he draws cities (Berlin) and shifting action, or more locally, Freddy Chao. I was enthralled by Here, and I think Richard McGuire knew the neighborhood at the time. An impossible choice would be Jirō Taniguchi who drew Tokyo with such precision, and captured the magic and randomness of walking around a city, but he’s no longer on the planet.

Could you do "breakdowns" even if they were stick figures? Would you adapt the script for the artist?

I don't know if I'd do breakdowns, if asked… okay, I would, but I also feel you have to give up a certain amount of control, and I'd go with what the artist felt could be visualized in a way that was important and would move the story along.

What book or project/event can I hype up for you?

My new book: Siege of Comedians, thanks. There’s a movie within the book, "Siege of the Planet of the Apes", that would make a great graphic novel. Or the first section about a forensic sculptor would also be fun to see visualized in frames.

And lastly, do you think "What are you working on now?" is an unfair question? LOL

Not at all. I have a collection of essays that's about to be launched into the world. They're sort of like mosaics, constructed of fragments of observations, bits of personal history, and some imaginary situations. They link or attempt to link strange bedfellows: questions about animal consciousness, naming of monsters (Frankenstein, viruses), toppled statues, for example. I'm also working on a futuristic novel that came out of the impulse to do something very different from my past work. Before COVIID, I would often go to these talks called 'Scientific Controversies' at Pioneer Works, an art and technology hothouse in Red Hook, Brooklyn. I heard Siddhartha Mukherjee talk about CRISPR, genetic engineering, and found it incredibly compelling, but also treacherous ground, as he acknowledged. I wanted to do something with those possibilities but to avoid the usual path speculative fiction takes when projecting invented, created humans. My navigator of this world is called the Adjudicator. What I was interested in was a kind of mixture of solvable and unsolvable problems, so while in this speculative world, you can eliminate some maladies, but you still inhabit a universe where metal detectors jam and ceilometers are still the best technology for measuring the height of clouds.

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Until someone comes to their senses and puts The Colorist back in print, you might get lucky and find one for sale online. Frank has been busy with his great HYPE*PUP fanzine series that he has been putting out on a very regular basis. It's a double-sided broadsheet, filled with his thoughts on comics, current and old, great drawings by him, and a full-page original strip by Connor Willumsen. HYP*PUP is typed up on an old typewriter, cut up and taped down, and then run off on a color copier. Each issue is terrific and highly recommended.