A father, husband, friend, photographer and comic book creator, Seth Kushner (Leaping Tall Buildings, Schmuck) celebrated his successful Kickstarter campaign on his back, sick from the flu. Days later, he would find out that he had leukemia and that he would need a bone marrow transplant.
For two months, Kushner sat in a hospital bed away from his son due to the effects of the chemotherapy. Mercifully, Kushner is home now, but the road ahead is still long. Helping him down that road and through his journey so far is a remarkable support system that includes his family, his friends, and a network of comic book professionals and fans that have lifted his spirits with their concern and their actions.
“I lost my hair, I lost 20 pounds and I’m not at my strongest. But you know, it’s the support of people that has kind of encouraged me to do that.” says Kushner when I relate my own past (comparatively minor) medical struggles and commend him for documenting his process. “I know people want to see me and they want to know about me and I kind of get strength from all that, you know? So that’s pushed me to share.”, he adds.
One of those friends is Dan Greenfield, a journalist and one of the organizers of the New York Comic Fest who helped set-up a bone marrow drive with the help of DeleteBloodCancer.org at this weekend’s convention in honor of Kushner.
When I reached out to talk to Greenfield for a story on the bone marrow drive, he put me in contact with Seth Kushner and what followed was a discussion about his methods for coping with his hellish hospital stay and his inability to see his son, the status of his future projects, and the amazing comic book community that has rallied around him to empower him and helped the overall fight against cancer.
Den of Geek: The Schmuck Kickstarter had just wrapped up and you thought you had the flu at that point. About how long after that did you get the actual diagnosis?
Seth Kushner: I actually had the flu the last week of the Kickstarter. I caught the flu at MoCCA Fest. A bunch of my friends at MoCCA Fest caught the flu and they all got better a week later and I stayed sick. So the final week of the Kickstarter I was just completely knocked out and actually thought that…I was maybe halfway funded at that point and I was afraid that without my being on top of it [that] I was actually going to fail.
But this amazing thing happened where, I stepped away for a few days — I just had to sleep and I was feverish and I was just a big mess — and then I came back to Facebook a few days later and I see that everyone else that I knew had sort of pushed it for me even without my doing it and it got funded and it was this amazing feeling.
So that happened, and then literally four days later I went to the Emergency Room because I still had the flu and it wasn’t better and that’s when I found out that I had leukemia. So, it was four days after I was funded on Kickstarter.
Now, you just got home a couple of days ago. How long were you in the hospital?
I was in the hospital for nearly two months.
How do you keep busy? How do you distract yourself in that time?
Well, I learned early on that I really needed to be occupied to keep myself sane. I was in this one room and I was in isolation. Basically, once I had my first run of chemo it kind of knocks your whole system down to zero and you’re susceptible to catch anything. So I was basically locked in this one room. I was able to leave a little bit, but I had to wear a mask to be able to walk in the hallways just to kind of get some exercise. People came to visit me and they had to wear masks and so… but I was literally in this one room for 23 ½ hours a day and so, I decided early on that I had to be occupied.
It was a mixture of, I had my iPad and I was attached to the world, basically, by Facebook and it was there that I just felt unbelievable support from, like, everyone I knew. Everyone I had ever met — like 1,000 people were just following my story. That was amazing. At the same time, I was using my various apps to keep up with my TV shows. I was watching Game of Thrones on HBO Go. You know, just trying to keep things kind of normal.
I would speak to my son on Facetime every morning at 7:30, you know, before school, just so we could have that time together because I couldn’t see him for two months, which was really difficult — he’s almost five.
I guess about a week in, my wife suggested that I start drawing. I don’t usually draw. When I was a kid, I used to draw a lot and I really wanted to be a comic artist and kind of let that go when I became a photographer. So I ended up doing one superhero drawing a day for my son which my wife would bring home for him. I think I did 40 or something when it was all said and done. I got better as I went on. I’m still not going to work for Marvel or DC or anything like that, but I’ve definitely gotten better where I was able to use less reference where I can draw a little more freehand. So that was kinda good.
Just whatever I could do, you know? I just knew that I couldn’t be staring at the ceiling and thinking about things. I just had to be doing stuff. I read comics. I got my weekly comics from Comixology each week, I couldn’t go to the store, but that worked out pretty well. Just whatever I could do to keep myself occupied.
Right before I got sick, I had also worked on a whole bunch of comic projects with different artists and I guess four but three were kind of ready to go and be pitched and then I got sick and decided, I guess I’m going to hold these, but in the last, maybe month or so, I guess halfway through the hospital stay, I realized that I can’t disappear for six months so I’ve been literally sending out pitches to editors from my hospital bed (laughs) And staying on top of it and sending follow ups. I’m still kind of waiting to hear — they don’t respond quickly no matter where you are (laughs) But I definitely was back on projects, and so that’s been going on too.
I think I made a comment on Facebook, “It’s time to make this room my office”. Just to ask about the drawings for your son: how is he doing with this and why did you feel that that was the way to keep in touch with him, tell me a little bit about that bond.
Well thankfully, he did pretty well when I was gone. I learned an important lesson: kids are adaptable as long as you keep them busy. So he went to school everyday and on weekends, my wife would be with him on Saturdays. She was with me most days, but on Saturdays she would spend the day with him just to kind of do stuff and they’d be able to do fun things and keep him occupied. On Sundays, he’d be with friends. He just stayed very very busy, so that was good. But, you know we’d talk every morning and he would always ask me, “when are you coming home? I really miss you.” And I would say, “I don’t know when I’m coming home but one day I’ll just surprise you. You know, It may not be soon, but one of these days, I’ll just be there”, which finally happened this week — which was awesome.
With the superheroes, I’ve been sharing my love of comics and superheroes with him since he was born. And we watch Avengers cartoons and Spider-Man cartoons and that kind of thing together. So whenever I went shopping for him, I got him superhero tee-shirts at Old Navy. And so, he kind of got into it through me, similar to how I got into superheroes and comics through my own father, who shared his love with me. So I kind of passed that down. I felt like drawing him a superhero drawing everyday was kind of this bonding thing.
The crazy thing was I was there so long [that] I got to the point where I had drawn the icons already, like in the first couple of weeks, and then I was drawing more obscure characters. I was drawing Ant-Man and I was drawing Hawkman and characters that maybe he didn’t know about so well. So we’d talk about that and I’d teach him about new characters and so his knowledge of it is getting to be more encyclopedic, more like mine I guess, as we go forward. Which I’m happy about. (Laughs)
(Laughs) Um, you said while you were in the hospital, you’re seeing the world through Facebook. You’re seeing all of these people that are reacting and striving to help you out. Can you talk a little bit about the way that the comic community and your local community… can you just talk a little about that?
Sure, well, for one thing: my leukemia dictates that I need a bone marrow transplant in order to have what they’re hoping is going to be a full remission. I learned that pretty early on. I didn’t have a simple leukemia that could just be solved with chemo. So, when I learned that, we started talking to the really nice folks at DeleteBloodCancer.org who came and met with us and we decided to just plan a bunch of marrow drives. And I knew going in that it wouldn’t necessarily help me — it might — but it would help someone. And I figured, while I’m going through this, let’s do what we can.
So immediately, JHU Comics — Rene Rosa, who works there — jumped on doing the marrow drive, which was awesome and the whole, kind of, crew got behind it and a bunch of my friends like Dean Haspiel, Christa Cassano, Gregory Benton, Josh Neufeld, Fred Van Lente, and Joe Infurnari did a signing to kind of attract people and I think they got something like 70 swabs that night, which is great. It gets added to the national registry and maybe one of those people is a match for me or for someone else. So that’s fantastic. There is a drive happening at New York Comic Fest this weekend, which is a show that I was scheduled to be a guest at and I’m not able to make it, but it was awesome that the organizers — Dan Greenfield and Cliff Galbraith — said, “You know what, you can’t come, we’re gonna do this drive for you”, which I thought was fantastic.
You know, the comics community has really come together for me. I’ve heard from so many people who follow my story and email me and send me things. Like, right away, Mark Waid got in touch and sent me a book about surviving right at the beginning.
I work in a studio with Dean Haspiel, Gregory Benton and a bunch of other people and they would come and visit me. Just, you know, keeping up with me in various ways. It’s been really amazing. I know that the comics industry, sometimes it gets a bum rap as far as being like a bunch of being…a good analogy I’ve heard in the past is like the cafeteria with its sort of warring factions and stuff, but I’m telling you, that’s not what it is. Everyone has literally been coming together for me. It feels incredible. I’ve been a part of this community for a few years now and I have a lot of friends and I just didn’t realize how much love there was for me. This has really moved me in all kinds of ways and I felt it from, literally, day one of this. It’s amazing to have that kind of support. Without that support, I don’t know where I’d be in terms of moving forward in this process. Schmuck is so intimate and I wonder, and I know it’s probably the furthest thing from your mind, but have you given any thought to recycling this hell into something positive, channeling this experience into your work? At first, I was thinking that I would never do anything with it. In the very beginning, things were so tough, and I was like, “I’m never gonna… I just want to move past this.” But recently, at the behest of some friends and some encouragement, I have been thinking about ways to make something out of this. I’ve been writing a little bit, we’ll see where it goes. Don’t be surprised if, in about a year, you see something come out of this whole thing. You know, a little bio type thing or something. It’s not part of the Schmuck story, Schmuck is finished. That was a particular period of my life from a decade ago.
But this might be a story. I’m not at the end of it yet, you know, but I’ve started [writing] some stuff. Basically, I’ve completed what I consider to be the first leg of this journey which was the two months in the hospital where I just had to get to a certain point where I could finally be released to come home for awhile. I’m going to have to be going into the hospital again at some point in the near future for the transplant and that’s going to be another… could be another month, could be another month and half, two months. Another long hospital stay. So that’s the second leg of the journey. I’ve only gone through half at this point. So I don’t know. I hope that there is a happy ending at the end of this — I’m expecting one. I’m definitely working towards one, so, I don’t have a complete story to write yet, but I’ve definitely been writing some stuff. So, we’ll see.
Last question and this is a business question: the New York Comics book, is that still heading out in the fall, or is that going to be delayed?
Well, a couple of things on that. So, I only just started working on that book right before this. That’s a book for a French publisher which may also have a US publisher, but I think that they’re working on that but it’s definitely coming out in France. It was commissioned by a French [publisher], by Muttpop who did the French edition of Leaping Tall Buildings, which did well enough in France to warrant this companion book. So I started working on it. I think I had done, maybe a dozen photoshoots out of, I don’t know, 40 or something like that and then this happened.
You know, once I got the leukemia, I didn’t know when I could ever return to the project. There was never a timeframe, when am I going to be strong enough to go and do these photoshoots around New York City? So I talked to the publisher and I came up with a solution. The book is delayed. I’m not sure how much, I don’t think it will be this fall, maybe next year. Basically, I’m having a friend shoot the rest of the book for me, which I’m art directing. So the book will be some of my photos and then someone else’s photos which I’ve art directed and I’ll probably do the digital retouching on and I’ll make the photos look like the photos I did in the beginning, but I’m no longer the principal photographer on the book, I’m more like the art director. There was just no way that I could possibly commit to a timeframe of when I could work on the book. It’s a shame, I really wanted to do the book and, you know… It was the only way to save it.
I hadn’t heard about it until a couple of days ago and it’s a really great idea. Yeah, I think it will be good. It’s funny, if it wasn’t for the unbelievably long New York City winter we had, I might have gotten more work done, but I kept waiting for the weather to kinda cooperate for me to go shoot and finally it got a little nice and I started doing it and then I got sick. So I barely got to do any of it. I guess I blame the weather and my disease (laughs). But I think it will work out well in the end, I like what my friend is doing, we’re working together — it’ll definitely work out. Christopher Irving is writing his essays — it’s gonna merge nicely.
Special thanks to Dan Greenfield for making this interview possible. You can find out more about the New York Comic Fest Bone Marrow Drive on Dan’s site, 13th Dimension. The New York Comic Fest is this Saturday and Sunday. Details can be found here.