Jonathan “Swifty” Lang was born in Liege, Belgium. (For my American readers, Belgium is a country in Europe.) Lang was raised in South Florida; specifically in the areas of Hollywood and Kendall. He graduated from the University School of Nova Southeastern University, a private K-12 school. He then went to Brandeis University for his B.A. and received an MA in Film Studies from the University of Amsterdam. Like most intelligent people, he is a fan of the Miami Heat.
Currently living in Brooklyn, New York, Lang, along with Chris Mangun and Michael Lapinski, have produced the fantastic horror story, Feeding Ground. Feeding Ground uses werewolf folklore to examine the anxieties over Mexican/US immigration. You can learn more about this book from review here.
Nicholas Yanes: You have an educational background in film and you created a fantastic graphic novel. When did you know you wanted to make a living in the entertainment industry?
Jonathan “Swifty” Lang: As far back as I could remember, I wanted to be a writer. I didn’t really consciously think of working in the entertainment industry until high-school, when people started talking about jobs in a real way, and applying for colleges that would lead them to said professions. I had some family who had success in the industry, so it seemed like something that was possible.
There was nothing in high school to indicate it would happen other than my often misguided belief in myself. I was in school at a time when it was still okay to be an underachiever and not everyone was striving to go public by the time they were 30.
Yanes: You went to a great high school, a well-respected college and a film studies graduate school. How did these educational experiences prepare you for a career in entertainment?
Swifty: High school was a time where I had a chance to discover my passion. I watched a lot of films in high school; I read a lot, usually things that were not on the syllabus. I was not an extraordinary student. Brandeis was an exceptional experience. I not only recognized that what I was passionate about could actually be pursued as a discipline (Film), but I learned the vocabulary to discuss my passion.
Brandeis had an interdisciplinary approach at the time called “The Cluster.” Students were required to take classes in other majors through exploring thematic questions. By seeing how various disciplines intersect, one could begin to understand how seemingly unrelated events influenced one another – no issue exists in isolation. It was not a practical education, in the sense that it was pre-professional and would lead directly into the work force. It allowed a person to explore fundamental questions. Brandeis taught me how to ask questions, and gave me the tools to find the answers.
The University of Amsterdam equally offered me a fundamental truth that I have used in all of my work. Nothing is invented wholly from nothing. There is an evolution. What is new is a combination of pre-existing materials put together in new ways. I learned how to identify the parts through Film History and, ultimately, this led me to genre studies. If anything, the fundamental ability to ask questions, identify solutions, and put them together in novel ways has been the best preparation I could have had.
Yanes: In addition to your international background, you were raised in South Florida, an area deeply linked to issues of immigration. How much of this background did you bring to Feeding Ground? Additionally, given that there are concerns over immigration all over the United States, what was it about the US/Mexican border that made you want to set the story there?
Swifty: I would say that the immigration influences in South Florida are somewhat significant. Elian Gonzalez is still fresh in my memory. For me, a deeper influence is the immigrant’s story itself. My grandparents were Russian and Polish Jews who immigrated here two generations ago. Understanding and seeing the sacrifices that they made in order for my father to pursue his education was a far more influential experience.
At the time Feeding Ground was conceived, I was teaching ESL to students in Coney Island. While their stories varied greatly, the sense of alienation and sacrifice was universal. I remember bringing an article on Lou Dobbs, and the horrified reaction of the class about how Mexican immigrants were being depicted. While I vehemently disagreed with the depiction, I thought it was important to recognize similarities in how our country has always depicted the “other.” From fears of security, to economic insecurity because of the influx workers, the attitude of our country toward a new immigrant population has always been one marred by fear and suspicion. This was not the “melting pot” that they had read about.
I felt very deeply that the latest group to be put through the xenophobic wringer needed a hero represented through popular culture. I knew it was not my culture, perhaps not my place. I also firmly believe that if one is writing about universal struggles, survival, hunger, the need to protect one’s family, than there are no boundaries. If anything, the desire to get the details right became greater. I was also deeply influenced by my friend, Thomas Peyton, who had shot a documentary about the immigrant experience in Mexico. He is an incredible storyteller and his description of his experience captured my imagination. His story and the landscape in particular struck me as absolutely terrifying. This was true horror. So, there was an element of excitement in having struck upon a landscape for horror that was topical, personal, and I had not seen explored.
Yanes: I read the English version of Feeding Ground, but there is also a Spanish version as well. What were some of the reasons that inspired you to produce two language versions? Are you worried that anything got lost in translation?
Swifty: From the get go, Archaia pushed for the comic to be bi-lingual. The original six-issue arc was published as a Spanish/English flipbook. While reviewers couldn’t always agree on their perception of our story, one thing that was universally approved was the presentation. EVERYONE dug the flipbook.
From both a marketing and cultural perspective, it made a tremendous amount of sense. Our story could reach a wider audience. The story would have an authenticity to it that it simply would not have had any other way. While it is certainly a concern that something might be lost in translation, one of the things I attempted while writing early on was to write the English as if it had already been translated from Spanish. There are certain phrases that are awkward (i.e. “you’re blinder than a cave fish” “go drown in your gutter”) that to me seem as if they had been translated. I was reading For Whom the Bells Toll and so much of Pilar’s dialogue to me felt as if it had already gone through the filter of Robert Jordan. It seemed so believable because the language wasn’t quite perfect. I knocked it off after awhile, but I am sure things will be lost in translation. And that is really exciting for me.
Yanes: Another aspect of Feeding Ground‘s production that stood out to me was Thomas Peyton’s powerful essay on immigration, “Monster: Real and Imagined.” Why did you decide include this in the graphic novel? Did you encounter any resistance to its inclusion?
Swifty: Thomas’ essay is absolutely essential to the trade. The project would not have happened without him and his perspective was the very least we could offer. I firmly believe that we created a new mythology, but our story is merely an entranceway into the horror. I like to refer to genre as a prism through which to view the world. Things get bent, refracted in new directions. We created a lens to draw the eye. Hopefully, the reader of the book will continue to pursue that thread and learn about what is happening. We simply could not invent the kind of horror that occurs for real on the Devil’s Highway.
Yanes: The part of Feeding Ground that I found the most interesting was how you deployed Werewolf folklore. What was it about the werewolf that captured your imagination for this story?
Swifty: For me, the fundamental core of the werewolf is the transformation. The moving from one state of being to another. The transition is incredibly violent, and one must sacrifice their humanity to become something monstrous. What still remains of the creature’s humanity? To me, this is the immigrant experience made manifest. It is violent. It is painful. The end result is not always pretty.
Yanes: There are certain elements of Feeding Ground’s werewolves that I’ve never seen before. For instance, the uniqueness and importance of female werewolves is something I think is quite original. How did these original touches come about?
Swifty: The question we needed to explore continually is what is new about our werewolves? The role of the werewolf is always tied to the Alpha, with the female of the pack being his trophy. But we were exploring a culture that even though machismo is prevalent, the role of the women is incredibly important. The mother figure is holy. And as we delved into our blend of Catholicism and mysticism, we did not want to sacrifice that importance. It felt right. It was an organic extension of the mythology. Michael always had a strong tie to Flaca and it comes across in the work.
Yanes: Given that most werewolf stories are just murder mystery tales, guest starring a werewolf, I thought Feeding Ground did an excellent job of adapting this monster to a new type of story. What are some other types of stories you would like to see a werewolf featured in? Also, are there any other monsters you want place in a genre they’re not normally placed in?
Swifty: I think the werewolf is a very adaptable creature. He deals with dichotomy of man and beast. It would be cool to see a werewolf during a war, not in a Dog Soldiers kind of way, but perhaps in a completely different landscape; perhaps running around in Vietnam. A setting where a man has to question his own nature, and can be capable of hiding. I have an idea for a ghost story that has not been done before. But, I don’t want to give it away yet.
Yanes: The artwork in this book is fantastic. In particular, I felt the facial expressions were perfect, the coloring was amazing, and your werewolves looked insanely cool. Where did you get your visual inspirations from?
Swifty: That is Michael’s genius! We did share a set of references from the beginning that we were hoping to touch on. We wanted kind of an E.C. Comics meets Dia Del Los Muertos. We knew that the tones should be faded, weathered, as if someone had found an old book.
Coincidentally, many years ago I had bought Michael a book of Mexican art for his birthday. I never thought we would be referring to that as an inspiration. He truly is a master colorist, and is just beginning an incredible career.
As far as our werewolves, we wanted something that retained the humanity of the beast. Michael and I had found stills of American Werewolf in London during the transformation sequence. I can barely draw effectively, so most often Chris Mangun and I would communicate visual ideas to Michael through images and photos. We liked the transformation prior to him fully becoming a wolf. There was still something tortured and human about the figure. I remember taking a plane to SDCC together and Michael still working out the designs. He showed the designs to an unsuspecting woman sitting next to us. Her slightly bemused face was a searing memory.
Yanes: With Feeding Ground completed, what are your future goals for this project? Also, what are some other projects you are working on that fans should look out for?
Swifty: I have a short piece coming out in the Occupy Comics project that I worked on with an incredibly talented artist, Frank Reynoso. I am really honored to be a part of this project. The talent involved is insane.
I am focused on two larger projects right now. I am working again with Michael on Meyer. It’s a noir story set in Miami, Florida, during the 1980’s. It involves the collision between old-school Mafia and the Cocaine Cartels. After the dark exploration of Feeding Ground, we both wanted to work on something a bit lighter (although it probably doesn’t sound like it).
I am also working with this fantastic new artist Turner Lange (Wally Fresh) on a project called Yegg. It’s a Revenger’s Tale set during Occupy Wall Street and introduces Reign Supreme, an anti-hero for our time. I want to keep exploring different genres and Yegg is probably the closest I am going to come to a Superhero book. I have been talking to people about both projects, but there is nothing finalized as of yet. All I can do is keep creating and feel blessed for having the opportunity to work with the people I do.