Comedians aren't known for their warmth or inviting nature, so when Colombian-American actor John Leguizamo opens up about his upbringing and invites the whole world in, things can get a little ghetto. The star of the HBO standup hit Ghetto Klown, Leguizamo decided to turn his skit into a more tangible form that is naturally autobiographical in nature. With his new graphic novel of the same name, Leguizamo explains that of all his shows, Ghetto Klown was the "most comprehensive and expansive," hence the best one to revisit and adapt.
When thinking about how to take something as visual as a standup show and turn it into a book, he quickly landed on the graphic novel. It was an easy choice for the comedian because, he says, "Graphic novels are my favorite form of storytelling — especially when they deal with personal things and take you outside the box of the normal comic book world."
Leguizamo grew up in a violent neighborhood in New York. “I was beat up not just by white people,” he says with a laugh, “but I was beat up by the brothers and I was also beat up by Latin people and at home. I had a really tough childhood, but humor was always my way of escaping and saving myself and keeping hope alive.”
Aside from reading graphic novels, the comedian spent his youth delving into all sorts of literature and film, and it was that escape from reality that helped him overcome hardships. “It’s always a little weird, I’m not going to lie,” the actor says of letting people into the intimate parts of his life. “It’s always strange, like you know everything about me but I know nothing about you. I was influenced by very personal works growing up, and I’m sure the authors and actors felt the same kind of naked transparency [that I do with this book].” He describes the feeling as slightly uncomfortable, but the films and books he read growing up helped him get through tough times. “I’m hoping that my work will do the same [for others],” he says.
Working on the words for the book was cake, but Leguizamo needed to pass on the visual art stuff to illustrators Christa Cassano and Shamus Beyale. He wrote extensive notes and gave the illustrators plenty of old childhood photos and video clips to study.
“It’s amazing, because when I look at it, I feel like I’m transported into memories, but so precise. It’s a weird feeling to see these places that never existed for me on videotape or anything like that but feeling that they come to life in the book.”
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The author credits the lack of representation in Hollywood — or “Hollywouldn’t,” as he refers to it in his book — for pushing him to create his own works. “Definitely the fact that Hollywood wasn’t an open door to Latin people or minorities back in those days definitely helped me become a strong writer and somebody who relied on himself — I was never waiting for Hollywood to come to me. I was going to create my own situation, my own Hollywood, if I had to.”
Thrilled to be a part of Miami Book Fair International and discuss Ghetto Klown with a whole new audience, Leguizamo says with an audible smile, "I'm very proud of this book, and I feel like the artists did such a fantastic job — every stroke so brilliant, thoughtful, and emotional. So I'm going to be there with my proudest work and sharing it with like-minded people."
Saturday, November 21, at 5:30 p.m. at the Swamp and Sunday, November 22, at 6:30 p.m. in the Chapman Conference Center. Visit miamibookfair.com.