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Ira Marcks on Shark Summer | Interview

Shark Summer coverGayle Briar’s world is turned upside down when she injures her wrist during a softball game, endangering her career as a pitcher and engendering some enmity with her teammate Lex. She and her mother have also just moved to Martha’s Vineyard, where her mother hopes to open an ice cream stand, if she can finesse the finances.

Martha’s Vineyard, meanwhile, is also being turned upside down, as a big Hollywood production is being filmed on location there that summer. Despite some incredibly suspicious similarities, it’s not the shark movie you’re probably thinking of, but rather one called Shark! (with an exclamation point).

Accompanying the production is a contest for aspiring filmmakers, complete with a sizable monetary award. If Gayle could win that, she could help her mom, and she is lucky enough to have just befriended an aspiring filmmaker and newcomer to the island, Elijah. Together with mysterious local girl Maddie Grey, they attempt to make a documentary about the Atwood Terror, a local legend involving human sacrifice and a phantom shark that is way scarier than anything the filmmakers of Shark! with their mechanical shark prop are attempting.

That’s the set-up of cartoonist Ira Marck’s Shark Summer, a coming-of-age story of a group of unlikely friends and their unforgettable summer together. I recently spoke to Marcks about what went into the making of the book, how he feels about sharks and, of course, that other rather prominent shark movie filmed on location on Martha’s Vineyard one long ago summer.

First, to address the great white shark in the room, Shark Summer isn’t just set on Martha’s Vineyard during a big, Hollywood production of a shark movie, but it’s pretty obviously set during the filming of Jaws, or at least a fictionalized version of Jaws. How did you arrive at that particular film for the backdrop of your graphic novel, which I should note isn’t at all about the making of Jaws…or Shark!, for that matter.

Marcks: I’ve always wanted to make a comic about kids on a summer adventure. But I could never find a way into the story that didn’t seem like it’d been done dozens of times before. Then one day I was reading a book about the making of Jaws and I thought to myself, “Wow, what a wild summer adventure that must have been for the cast and crew… and the people who lived there!”

It got me thinking; is there a more iconic summer adventure than the one Jaws represents? Suddenly, I had my inciting incident; a sleepy New England island is overrun with a legendary Hollywood production. Now, all I had to decide was what happened to the islanders who had no idea this was coming.

Have you found that younger readers have picked up on the Jaws-related content, or is it all over their heads? I’ve got to say that while a lot of it was familiar to me, like the model being named Bruce for example, I completely missed a lot of the Easter eggs you include on your blog.

Yeah, I’ve been surprised at how many kids know Jaws. But the way they’ve encountered the film really depends. Some just know the title. Or the theme song. Some know the memes. Some know an iconic scene or the wiki, and the rare few have actually seen the whole film! The idea of Jaws as a pop culture artifact that passes through our lives involuntarily was the inspiration behind the inclusion of the Easter eggs.

We’ll never know if the kids in Shark Summer will ever see the final Hollywood film, but in their own unique way, they’ve experienced it as much as anyone in the theater will. I think that’s also what Jaws represents for many people. It’s a vibe as much as it is a movie.

Other real films are mentioned and fictionalized in the story, like American Graffiti and Angry Red Planet, while I noticed King Kong got away with just being King Kong. How did you decide which films to fictionalize, and why go that route with the other movies mentioned?

Once my publisher told me we wouldn’t be getting the rights to use the title Jaws in the book, I decided the world of Shark Summer would become a slightly altered reality to our own. I used the scene where the character Elijah is rattling off the titles of vintage movies as an opportunity to hint at that. Plus, it’s just so fun to come up with fictional film titles and concept art.

With the King Kong scene, I wanted to try and use the real title because there is real emotional resonance to having Gayle and her mother sit down to watch the movie together and I thought a fake title would take away from that. I hoped I could get away with shouting out the real King Kong. And I did!

Can you tell us a little bit about the research you did for the book? It seems like you spent an awful lot of time on Martha’s Vineyard, either drawing from life or photographing the setting. How real are all the backgrounds of Shark Summer? Is it completely faithful, or something of a composite between what you saw and what you imagine?

I spent a lot of my childhood on the coasts and islands of New England and I wanted the book to be a loving tribute to Martha’s Vineyard and my memories of it. Due to the pandemic, I wasn’t able to travel while I worked on this book, but through archives of old newspapers, photos and maps, I was able to find a new way to explore the island. I hope my art captures that spirit of exploration.

That said, the cinematography of Jaws was just as important as my historical research and real life experiences. I have very strong nostalgic feelings for both the real island and the one from the movie so all the geography and look of the island is attempting to be faithful to both. My hope is that even someone who spent every summer on Martha’s Vineyard can find something in this story that inspires them to see the island in a new way.

I understand that beyond getting to know the place, you also spent a lot of time researching the history of Martha’s Vineyard. How much of the story that Gayle, Elijah, and Maddie uncover is real, or at least were any elements of it inspired by your research?

Working on this book was a great excuse to dig into the island’s history and, with the help of my editor who also has a love for the island, I was surprised at how much inspiration for the plot I found in the island’s real world history.

For example, there is a scene where the kids discover the location of a particular gravestone by way of a map of an undeveloped housing project called Lagoon Heights. Lagoon Heights is not only a cool creepy name for a place, but it was also a real thing! Or, at least, was supposed to become a real thing. It was never built. In fact, little encounters like this inspired the whole idea of secret histories and unfulfilled destinies which became an important theme in the story.

Of course, there is plenty of fictional history in the book as well. The tale of the Atwood Terror is more of a tribute to my love of 19th century gothic horror stories. Many of those writers were New Englanders so the tone seemed like a great fit. I would love it if Shark Summer inspires readers to go exploring older scary stories.

The book features very strong character design, with each of the four main kid characters being particularly distinct from one another. Can you tell us a little bit about the character design process? Was it very long and involved, or did the kids start to take shape pretty easily for you?

I’m very inspired by the intense conceptual process at major animation studios like Disney and Pixar. So, yeah, I did spend a lot of time distinguishing these four kids from each other because those studio artists taught me that strong contrast is crucial to good storytelling.

Besides that technical inspiration, I thought a lot about telling a story from a kid’s point of view. When you’re young you really notice all the tiny details of the people in your life. I needed the kids to stand out in the way my childhood friends stood out from one another. The first character I came up with was Elijah, the boy with the film camera. Unlike the other kids, he doesn’t live on the island so I put myself in his shoes as I expanded the cast. He helped me discover the distinguishing features of the other characters.

There’s a scene kind of early on where the special effects guy draws a grid on the chalkboard and essentially makes a schedule for the kids, explaining how to plan the making of a movie. How similar to that is the making of a graphic novel, and did you have much in the way of whatever the comics version of bad weather is during the process of making the book?

Growing up, I was obsessed with the creative process. I still am, actually. I think it’s important to understand how art comes to be if you want to understand what it represents to those who spent their time or even sacrificed something to create it.

To me, filmmaking is such a magical collaborative effort and I love getting to know the characters behind the scenes as much as I do the characters on the screen. Comics are not quite as collaborative as working on a film but there are still very important creative voices involved. From story editors who help guide the narrative, to graphic designers who make the book look pretty, and even copy editors who help refine the text. A good graphic novel is a summation of lots of creative input. I love that about comics; they can be deeply personal but also need good collaborators.

And like filmmaking, the creative process of making a graphic novel is filled with trials and tribulations. And “bad weather” does happen along the way. But it’s not as dramatic as in filmmaking where there’s a big storm on the set. The “bad weather” on my chalkboard grid is when my computer needs to spend an afternoon doing software updates. What a setback!

The special effects guy also tells the kids that sometimes coming up with the story happens while you’re looking for a story, rather than at the outset of the film. Was that relatable for you, or did you know exactly what story you wanted to tell with Shark Summer from the beginning?

I had no idea where Shark Summer was going to take me when I started working on it. And that’s great. For me, the joy of storytelling is the search for the story! These days I’m particularly interested in stories set in a real time and place. I’m always on the lookout for inspiration from unique moments in history that have something important to say about the world we live in now. If I start a story with a destination in mind I have to keep reminding myself it’s important to veer off the path every once and awhile. You never know what you might be missing down some seemingly forgotten road.

You’ve created a production blog of sorts walking readers through the process of making the graphic novel. Why was that important for you to do?

I’m fond of saying that books are like icebergs—the part you see is only ten percent of the whole thing. So I made sharksummer.com for anyone who enjoyed the book enough to want to see what was below the surface. The site is basically an archive of my experience working on the book with fun and insightful details for anyone who enjoyed the story I told. I made it for kids who were like me and wanted to know all the facts. It’s dedicated the future visual storytellers of the world!

Finally, what’s your opinion on sharks? Cool? Scary? Both? When you at Martha’s Vineyard, did you confidently swim, unafraid of the remote possibility of being attacked by a shark?

I love swimming in the ocean. And I am terrified of swimming in the ocean. I’m ok with those feelings being inseparable. Sharks are such an icon of terror, partly thanks to Jaws. It works for the movie to make sharks terrifying and powerful, but in truth sharks are just a tiny part of the ocean’s vast story. I don’t think that’s fair because it’s only one side of their story. I think a lot of human fear comes from mistaking one side of the story as the whole story.

I want Shark Summer to remind people that it’s ok to be scared of things, like sharks, but you should never be scared to learn more about them.

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J. Caleb Mozzocco About J. Caleb Mozzocco

J. Caleb Mozzocco is a way-too-busy freelance writer who has written about comics for online and print venues for a rather long time now. He currently contributes to Comic Book Resources' Robot 6 blog and ComicsAlliance, and maintains his own daily-ish blog at EveryDayIsLikeWednesday.blogspot.com. He lives in northeast Ohio, where he works as a circulation clerk at a public library by day.

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