Jewish Stories, Pirate-Style: Meeting the Creators of a Swashbuckling Comic for the Whole Family

April 27, 2022

To know Arnon Shorr is to know someone who could easily be a character within one of his stories: A distinctive moustache, a stylish hat, and long, deep pauses before delivering fascinating soliloquies. When my wife and I found out our dear friend Arnon was trying to create his dream project, a short film about a 16th century Jewish pirate evading the Spanish Inquisition, we were excited to support it. The Pirate Captain Toledano started out as a crowdfunded passion-project and became an award winning short film, written and directed by Arnon in 2017.

When I found out that he was writing a graphic novel based on the short, I assumed it would be a straightforward adaptation. To my excitement, it turned out to be so much more. Set during the Spanish Inquisition, José and the Pirate Captain Toledano is the story of a young refugee and the connection he forms with a mysterious pirate captain. This high sea adventure, rife with hand-to-hand combat and ship-to-ship action, highlights a dark time in history when people took unusual paths to survive.

Arnon, Josh and Boaz enjoying themselves two hours into the zoom interview.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Arnon and his delightful illustrator Joshua Edelglass, and despite a background of comic book fandom, I still learned so much about the process. It’s my pleasure to share highlights from our fun and illuminating two hour conversation, where the three of us discussed this new release.

How did you two meet?

Joshua Edelglass

Joshua Edelglass – We have a little bit of a history. I’m Assistant Director of Ramah New England. We run a week-long program, a mini-camp where we bring in artists, musicians, sports coaches etc.  I forget who initially connected us, but about ten years ago I brought Arnon to camp as a filmmaking expert. He was a guest programmer for a week, where he ran programs for kids who signed up because they were interested in filmmaking – what we call an “expert-a-thon”. We’ve been in touch as friends ever since, and now we suddenly live near each other in the Boston area!

Arnon Shorr

Arnon Shorr – Actually Boaz, it’s similar to what I did for your nieces Eve & Ada. A few years ago when they came to town for a few days, if you recall I introduced them to different aspects of filmmaking.

I remember, and that was lovely! They’re both in Israel for seminary now. And Eve got in early to Princeton, maybe it’s thanks to your mini-camp!

AS – (Laughing) Print that rumor and the book will sell even better!

Yes, read the book and you get into the college of your choice, or your money back! What attracted you to this project, Josh? Was it the story itself, or working with Arnon?

JE – I sparked to the story immediately. I watched his short film and loved it. As Arnon was telling me about his visions to expand those several scenes into a much larger story, I just got really excited for it right away. Not only could I see it was a great narrative, but I easily saw it as a graphic novel. It’s highly visual, and I got excited to draw it. There’s also a second level that compelled me to work on this. I’ve been a freelance illustrator for about 20 years, and I’ve always been interested in comics and graphic novels. Over the last few years I’ve gained a thirst to go toward the graphic novel area. I was published in the Jewish Comix/Comics Anthology twice over the past five years. It was a mixture of famous collections of artwork from people such as Art Spiegelman, who wrote Maus, plus some original artwork from people like me.

Arnon, was Josh your only plan? Were you screwed if he said no?

AS – The way this developed doesn’t connect with the way that question is framed. What happened was that after each film festival screening, there was a Q&A, and the first question would always be, “Wow that was great, where’s the rest of the story?” And I would say, “Pirate movies are expensive, but if you pull out your checkbook”…and people would laugh. I started to wonder: all these people want to know what the rest of the story is – I should probably figure it out for myself! So I wrote out a few pages, a treatment, something where if lightning strikes a second time, this is the story I would want to tell. I knew it was very unlikely, so I started to think of other ways, other mediums to get the story out there. The idea of comics swam through my mind, and I thought, “This could be really interesting, what if this was a graphic novel”. But I had no idea how they are made, what the process is, how to do it – no idea. So I asked around for advice.

Around the time the second anthology that Josh was published in came out, I saw his post on Facebook about it. And I realized, “Oh my gosh, here’s this guy I’ve known for a decade, I had no idea that he illustrates comics”. I knew him as the camp guy.  So I reached out to Josh and said, “I’d like to pick your brains, I’m curious how comics work.” So we came very organically to the conclusion that we should try to see if we could get Toledano as a graphic novel off the ground. So the decision to make this book really emerged collaboratively out of a conversation that was more broadly about graphic novels in general, how they happen, what stories might work, and what the process looks like. So I was never actually considering other artists, because I didn’t even know where to begin; and Josh was really excited about it, so I decided let’s let Josh guide me through this…and it worked, and we have a book now!

I love that answer. What do you think you would have done if he didn’t offer to collaborate?

AS – I think I really needed a collaborator to get this done, even if I didn’t realize that right away. So in that sense I got really lucky, because it turns out Josh is an excellent collaborator. We’ve had a strong and enriching partnership over the last few years. I don’t know that I would have known that that’s what I needed, so who knows where this could have gone if not for this strange Facebook kismet that happened.

JE – I think we both got very lucky with our partnership.

When was this conversation that kicked off your collaboration?

AS – About three years ago.

When did you complete and send this off to print?

AS – We finished the vast majority of our work June 2021, and then last fall there was a little bit of back and forth about the overall design of the book and lettering, those sorts of things.

How big is the first run of printing?

AS – A lot bigger than I thought we would be. I don’t have hard numbers, but when we talked to publishers initially, we were told a typical first run might be about three thousand copies, and then they’d see how it goes. We already know it far exceeded that, but we don’t know the numbers. The publishers tend to be very protective of their hard data I’ve learned over time. Amazon and Barnes & Nobles and a bunch of others have thousands of copies sitting in their warehouses waiting for May 1st to start shipping copies as they are sold. It’s very exciting!

Wouldn’t it be cool to find someone who works in a warehouse, and have them take a picture of your inventory down the huge hallway next to the Ark from Raiders?

AS – If we can get that photo, I will happily Photoshop the Ark of the Covenant behind the books.

JE – I don’t want the photos of them in the Raiders warehouse; I want the photos of them on the trucks being delivered to places like the morning edition, hot off the presses!

Josh, you obviously watched the short film. Did you have to pore over it while illustrating to get the imagery right? Did the script from Arnon come first?

JE – One of the things we did first was put together a proposal to try to interest an agent and publishers. For that proposal, Arnon wrote things for them, and I illustrated five sample pages that I painted. To be ready for the pitch, we felt the easiest thing to do was to adapt two key sequences from the short film. I probably watched the video short four or five times to get in my head the visuals of the world. Some of the panels were invented from me, even though I was adapting the short film, but several of the panels we really wanted to specifically capture an exact moment from the film; so I would rewatch those scenes a bunch of times. And Arnon also had a bunch of tremendously helpful production stills from the movie. There were fifty photos just showing different props. I may have included just two or three of those props in my treatment, but just getting that sense was really helpful. Then when we were doing the actual book, I was working from the full script that Arnon wrote.

So by the time you started the book itself, Arnon had written the entire script.

JE – Once we connected with the publisher Kar-Ben, the first step was Arnon writing the script and getting their signoff. We wanted to be sure we were on the same page rather than waiting for edits on the story down the page. Then I was ready to start using the script to draw. At every stage I was drawing, every five or ten pages we would hop on the phone or Zoom, and we would ask each other questions and give each other feedback.

AS – It worked the other way too. I sent the script to Josh for his feedback before we sent it to the publisher. I wanted to make sure he liked the pages. Ultimately, I think the most important buy-in comes from the person you’re collaborating with. And then the next important step is from the publisher. If the person you’re collaborating with doesn’t like the story or dialogue, that needs to get worked out. I felt like Josh really gave me excellent notes, and made the story better.

JE – I think at every stage getting Arnon’s vision was so helpful. Both to clarify his original intention and his vision for the worldbuilding. He’s a great storyteller, so having him look at a panel or page, not knowing what’s in my head, and being able to tell me if my actions and movements from one panel to another captured things properly and clearly…it was incredibly useful. What’s in my head doesn’t necessarily translate to the reader. That back and forth really improved the project at every stage. And it was fun.

I asked a video game artist friend to glance at the artwork and give me his impression, and he was highly impressed by the detail and consistency of the faces, but mentioned that some of the color tones were similar between the characters and their backgrounds. Was this a deliberate choice?

JE – I love talking about this sort of thing. Everything I did was intentional. One of my favorite words is “intentionality;” I use it when training at camp. My number one goal is to ensure clarity. Number two is convey the intended mood. Number three is what action or emotion is called upon to move the plot along. I try my best to service all of these three things and goals that matter to me most. Arnon and I talked a lot about the colors. To have his eye as a filmmaker was very helpful for me. When you look at arc of the almost hundred pages of the graphic novel, the color can really distinguish the story. You see how the color tone on Captain Toldedano’s ship is different than the color tone from where José grows up in Santo Domingo, which is different from the color tone in the village. Some pages were intentionally more monochromatic, and some had different colors mixed in. Hopefully it enhances the story and doesn’t detract from it. Arnon, is there anything you’d like to add to that?

AS – Each panel doesn’t just exist in its own vacuum, it’s part of a narrative progression. Really it’s about what else is happening around this scene, and where it is in the overall story. How do these colors and shadings relate to move the story we are reading forward. One of the reasons I like this color progression is that it feels like we’re moving through something; it gives that sense of scope and movement and geography which I think is really important in a book like this. You want to feel like you’re on an adventure. The colors are one tool in a really big complicated toolbox that you can use to give that sense.

I’m assuming that when Josh is reading Arnon’s script, it doesn’t give directions for each specific panel laid out?

JE – Arnon did write his script in comic book format. It was a really nice combination of screenplay and comic book. His script divided each page into panels. And Arnon was wonderful when he told as we begun that this could be the starting point for my creativity. There are some pages in which what I drew was almost exactly the panel breakdown that he had written. And there were some pages in which I went a different direction. We talked about these things at every step of the process. I might ask him what he thought of us trying this or that, and we would see if it worked that way together. There was a scene right after José stows away in the pirate ship where we needed to convey the passage of time. Arnon gave suggestions of how to show that in his script. I wasn’t sure that it was going to work, and gave a suggestion, and Arnon wasn’t sure that that was going to work. We went back and forth until we got to the version in the final book that I hope did the trick. The end result is on page 30, something that was a synthesis of putting our two heads together.

Is there any talk of follow-ups/sequels/more stories in this universe?

AS – We dipped our toe into that conversation with our book agent, and she said to wait and see how the book is received first.

JE – Arnon does have a good pitch that I’d love to be able to start drawing with the same characters.

As you were writing, did you intend for this to be the end of the story?

AS – Yes. A good story has an end, but that doesn’t mean that it needs to be the end of the stories that take place in the world, with those characters. Yes the story ended, but there are plenty more narratives with these characters and within this world that can still be told. I always envisioned it that way. One story told about a set of characters in a world that’s very rich. My goal was never to tell parts of a story, it was to tell a complete story and have it feel satisfying, with it reaching a conclusion. But many characters are still alive, there’s more they can do, and yes it would be really fun to have a chance to bring them to life again.

JE – The best type of story leaves you feeling really satisfied at the end, but also wanting more, and I think we really achieved both of those goals.

You didn’t number this issue, but maybe that would have seemed presumptuous!

JE – If George Lucas can go back and add numbers to his original movies, so can we.

AS – This can become Episode IV!

When I watched the short film, I felt like Captain Toledano was the central character even if he arrives late in the story. In the graphic novel it’s clearly shown through the eyes of the teenager José. Why this choice?

AS – José is the same character as in the film, but appears a bit younger. In the film I imagined him as a teenager, but I admit he ended up a looking a bit older due to the casting. I always felt the story at its core was about people finding themselves. The captain’s journey is interesting in its own right, but in my mind it was really about a kid who’s trying to figure out who he is. The captain’s story is secondary. It stems from something personal to me. When I got married, my grandfather gave me a silver kiddush cup that had belonged to his grandfather. The cup connects me to my ancestors and my heritage in a very physical way. It originated most likely in the late 19th century with my grandfather’s grandfather, who was an Av Beit Din in a small town in what is currently Eastern Ukraine. (I have no relatives there that I’m aware of anymore). My family for the most part came to what was Palestine at the time, about 100 years ago.

I think a lot about that kiddush cup because my grandfather was fairly anti-religious. It had been used for generations, and suddenly wasn’t used anymore, except on Pesach for the seder.  It came to me, and I use it every Friday night, but I don’t know if I use the same kiddush melody that my great-great grandfather used. I don’t know if any of the traditions that I have parallel his, because there’s a break in that chain. So I’ve always been a bit of an explorer in the world of Jewish tradition, and I wanted to tell a story about this kid, José, who’s also exploring an identity that he’s been disconnected from.

JE – Earlier in the conversation you asked me what attracted me to the story earlier. It’s fun with the pirates and adventure obviously, but his passion and seeing these different layers of depth and meaning shone through so clearly. It really drew me in.

The protagonist José finds out he’s Jewish in the story, and his potential love interest Rosa is non-Jewish, like everyone in his surroundings. Were you trying to make a statement one way or another about the concept of intermarriage? 

AS – I wanted to dip a toe into that texture. First of all because I think it’s very real. This is a world where he doesn’t even know he’s Jewish, there’s a beautiful woman just a few years older than him; it makes sense. It brings up an interesting topic of identity, finding your tribe, and knowing where you are in a world where everyone’s different. How you embrace that difference, but still embrace tribalism (for lack of a better word) at the same time. I don’t address that question in this book, but I think it’s important to hint at some of the challenges and tensions that this creates. It’s one of the many stories that can be explored further in other books, should there be others. I didn’t want to just whitewash it, and pretend it doesn’t exist.

I went into this making a false assumption, that it would just be a direct adaptation of the short film, but was delighted to read a fresh and fun story that I not only enjoyed, but imagine kids loving. What is your actual target audience?

AS – I wrote this really for anybody out there who feels a little bit different. For anyone who’s not sure how to fit in, or whether they should fit in, or where to find their tribe. Ultimately it’s a story about that, learning to celebrate and elevate difference, rather than to run away from it. I was one of those many kids who, for whatever reason, you have a slightly different background, you come from a slightly different place, you have a slightly different way of looking at things, and you don’t know what to do with all of this. There’s a bit of fantasy in this book of that pirate ship out there, where everyone is different, and that’s the point. It’s for people out there who value difference, and who don’t try to make everyone the same, and don’t try to force everyone into a box, or get everyone to conform. They are who I’m hoping find the book most of all.

JE – I’ve loved comics since I was a kid. Many people still think of comics as just being for kids. The beauty of comics and animation is that it can be such a powerful storytelling medium for a breadth of ages. We really want a story that kids are going to love. We worked hard to make it accessible for kids, but also people of all ages to enjoy and appreciate it at their different levels.

Did the publisher want this to be for certain ages?

AS – The publisher didn’t recommend ages. They’re treating the book as a middle-grade – ages 8-12 – book. But really I think the book has a role to play in many different conversations. I’m hoping it will be well received beyond the demographic that’s being focused on.

How do budgets work when it comes to writing a book like this [versus a short film]?

AS – It’s a different concept. We put together the pitch, and used that to get a book agent. She submitted our pitch and got us our publisher Kar-Ben in January 2020. It was a standard book deal, getting us some money as an advance for our time we’d be putting into it, as I’d write and Josh would illustrate. Shortly after that, the pandemic hit, and I was scrambling to get things ready during the first months of lockdown. I basically hid in our walk-in-closest from the kids as I worked. The script was submitted to them and they had very few notes. Then Josh got started with the illustration process which was a few stages. First the pencil process, a quick way to get the layout of the imagery on the page for feedback, avoiding the detailed work. Again we got very few notes. Then inking, painting and lettering was done, a long process that took about a year. Then we delivered that to the publisher, they did their tweaks, and they designed the book. This meant figuring out the cover and how the title would appear. At this point our job is to help promote the book, while the publisher gets the book into bookstores and libraries.

Arnon Shorr hiding and writing in his walk-in-closet

When you premiered your movie you had some Q&As; are you planning something similar for the book launch?

AS – Yes. We’re starting to schedule some events. There’s a book launch event on May 1st in the Boston area, including a screening of the film, and we can do a book signing while there. I’ll be signing books at the American Library Association (ALA) conference in Washington DC this June. Our publisher’s parent company, Lerner Publications, invited me to sign books at their table at the conference. They put out hundreds of books each year, so to be one of the authors to represent them feels like a huge honor and really cool.

What are each of you working on next, other than promoting the book?

JE – We’re talking about our next projects beyond a Toledano sequel. There are three different story ideas we’re really excited about. We’re talking to our agent, and seeing what she thinks is the best one to move forward.

So you want to be a team like Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon (Preacher), famously connected collaborators?

JE – I think one of our biggest problems is trying to decide which one to choose next, but yes, they would each be collaborations together.

AS – Josh is an extremely detail-oriented person; you cannot get anything past him. So for example Josh did an initial round of lettering, but the publisher had to do their own typesetting, and Josh could identify if the font was even one point size off of what he thought it should be; so they couldn’t get anything past him. It’s one of the many reasons I’m glad to work with him, because he misses nothing.

J – And to their credit, they printed it flawlessly, on high quality paper, and I’ve gone through it a bunch and still found no mistakes.

Are all of these other story ideas Jewish in nature?

AS – There’s a range from some Jewish content, some that’s not explicitly Jewish, some for a younger audience, some for a YA audience. We’ll see what direction our agent thinks we should go, but we both like the idea of talking to a broader audience, and telling stories.

Do you expect mostly Jewish readers to be interested in this?

AS – I imagine this book being accessible to a very broad audience. I think the Jewish audience is a natural place to start. It isn’t Inside Baseball with things only Jews will pick up on – that was never my intention. I wanted to write a book that would tell a Jewish story, in a way that’s more broadly accessible. When I’ve explored Jewish narratives, it’s always something of interest to me to tell the stories that bring the Jewishness out. Not just Jewish stories for Jews, but stories that are broadly accessible.

You never know what might be accessible to a broader audience. It still amazes me that Seinfeld was something that people outside of New York or Jewish communities were able to appreciate.

AS – You think in terms of themes and emotions, rather than thinking in terms of text and a lesson. You think of what’s happy, what’s sad, what’s exciting; and if you have something that at its core is driven by an emotional journey, then, as we do in this book, you can pepper in Pirkei Avot or Talmud or Torah or Ladino or Jewish history. Whatever it is can work, as long as the core has that broader resonance.

JE – I think you see that in great stories in many different media. If the story feels true and the characters feel real and compelling, even something with a really specific subculture, such as the movie Coda, can be tremendously moving to a larger audience. Those details you learn can emotionally enhance the story. As Arnon said we didn’t want to create Inside Baseball, but whatever insider details we threw in had to be done correctly and accurately.

Anything you’d go back and do differently?

AS – That happens to me a lot with my movies, but hasn’t happened to me this time. I’ve read it multiple times, and it’s really satisfying to me, and I’m a proud book papa.

JE – Same with me, the publishers were wonderful, and we were able to make the book we wanted to make and I feel very lucky and grateful for that and proud of the finished book.

AS – I’ve flipped through the graphic novel dozens of times while I work, and it hasn’t ripped and it is holding up extremely well physically. So I’m really impressed by the quality of the final print.

Arnon, are you working on anything as a filmmaker again, or transitioning to graphic novel collaborations with Josh?

AS – Over the last three years since starting on this, I’ve also written several screenplays, some of which are in advanced conversations with producers to be made. Over the last month and a half I’ve also been working on writing a TV series, a pilot that expands on this story. My goal is to have something ready to go so that if the book is successful, I already have things written. I intend to start pitching it as soon as the book hits bookstores. I am still a filmmaker first. I think the cool thing is that I’m now also a graphic novel author. I really enjoyed the experience of writing it and collaborating with Josh. And I’m excited to write more books. But it’s an “also,” not an “instead.”

How are your families with your artistic careers? Are they supportive?

AS – My parents are really excited. They’ve been bragging about the book to everybody they meet, so that’s really fun. They’ve seen me work on it, and know I’ve been anxious about it for years; so I think they’re as excited about it as I am to see the light of day.

JE – Very similar answer for me. During the intense ten months I was working on this, there were countless late nights and weekends. I was working on it nonstop from September 2020 to June 2021. Like Arnon, it makes me happy to see how giddy and excited my parents are about this. They call me to tell me who they showed off the work to that day.

Have either of your family members been directly involved in your creative process?

AS – My wife Talia and I have three kids – Adir, Ilana, and Margalit. So that day I read the book and gave it to Adir, who is nine years old, and he sat on the sofa and read the book. It shot past his bedtime but I let him finish obviously. He closed the book and said “THAT WAS AWESOME”. That was our first review, and it was really an incredible feeling. We started the process when we got the book deal, and Adir was six at the time. I knew that by the end of the project he would be in the age bracket that the book was targeted for. And it’s the first time I’ve created something where the finished project matches the age and level of one of my kids; and that was a really cool journey.

JE – For the year of working on this graphic novel, I had tables set up all over this room full of artwork, for ten months. I have fraternal twin daughters, Tahlia and Reya, who look and act very differently. Every day my daughters would come into the room, they are both into art, and they would ask questions about what’s happening in a panel, or the brush that I was using; it was a year of really fun conversations. Tahlia was curled up reading the book the first night, and I took a photo of her reading it that I cherish. Reya also read it, but I didn’t manage to snap a photo of that. They were excited that they were able to connect the images they’d seen over the past ten months or so, to the finished project. Knowing I’d be working on this for days on end, they thought that it was so cool which made me so happy.

Joshua Edelglass surrounded by his artwork

AS – It’s interesting. Your process is a lot more physical. For me it was sitting and typing on a computer screen, so whether I was writing a scene or crafting an email, or just wasting time on Facebook, everything looks the same from my family’s perspective.

JE – Yes, for them to see the arc from the pencil to the ink to the paints…because it took over a year, it was really cool for them to see that process. They both asked me to sign the book! I was so happy to!

So are they happy with your artistic career choices?

AS – My family has long ago realized they don’t have a choice in the matter. This is what I do!

JE – My daughters are asking why the next book isn’t done yet, they want more!

José and the Pirate Captain Toledano is widely available on May 1, 2022, and can be found for purchase on Amazon here. The movie short continues to be available on Amazon here.

Boaz Hepner works as a Registered Nurse in Saint John’s Health Center, and teaches COVID vaccine education throughout the hospital, and to the community at large. He grew up in LA in Pico/Robertson and lives here with his wife and daughter. He helped clean up the area by adding the dozens of trash cans that can still be seen from Roxbury to La Cienega. He can be found with his family enjoying his passions: his multitude of friends, movies, poker and traveling.

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