The parasitic nature of addiction. Finding hope in the hopelessness. The savage streets of Los Angeles. Daniel Medina's graphic novel series Below Sycamore, which touches on these themes, started out as a sold-out play in San Francisco's Shelton Theater in the fall of 2019. Riding the wave of success, Medina's friends in L.A. began shopping the script around Hollywood with the aim of turning it into a television series. Then COVID-19 hit and everything ground to a halt.
Determined to share the story, Medina took chunks of his 500-page script, mixed in some science fiction, and created characters based on amalgams of himself and several of his friends. Out of the journey came Below Sycamore, a comic book that tells the story of two best friends, JD and Chucho, who get caught in the cycle of addiction and violence that have plagued the lives of almost everyone in their L.A. community. Also featured in the series are Danny Trejo as Mikey the homeless prophet and psychic, and Mr. Criminal as Grumpy.
Below Sycamore started as an idea that Medina—who faced addiction for almost a decade and has been sober for six years and counting—had in 2017 after he read a scripture in the Book of Job about Satan walking the earth.
Photo: Courtesy of Daniel Medina
"I was in my second year of sobriety and it struck me that we rarely talk about the nasty power that drove us into the rooms of recovery. Then I heard my friend Paul talk about giving credit to the Higher Power for our sobriety but ignoring the parasite of addiction that cleverly blocked us from our spirit and destroyed our relationships. As a result, we may live in a state of guilt, blaming ourselves for years of destructive behavior," Medina told his Instagram followers.
Medina and co-creator Brandon Dorsky, Esq. — a transplant from Ohio — debuted the novel's first issue in November 2021 and issue two in March of this year, with illustrations for both by Argentina-based artist Fernando Kern. Proceeds from the series will help fund the development of a detox center that offers free services to the homeless.
"I don't want to get shot in real life so we changed names and places, but most of what you will read and eventually watch on-screen is a flavor or variation of something that actually happened or that I personally witnessed," Medina told UncoverLA.
With the release of Below Sycamore issue two out and Medina's efforts to secure a screen adaptation back in action, we spoke with the author — an L.A. native and musician with a Portuguese mother and Mexican-Cuban father — and co-creator Dorsky. Read on to learn about their writing process, how they were able to get the comic into the libraries of prisons and recovery facilities, how much Medina's hometown of Gardena is part of the story, and more.
What role, if any, did writing play in your recovery journey?
Daniel Medina: Great question. The entire experience of writing the play has been a mind-opening, cathartic, healing journey through some thick darkness of my past in Los Angeles.
What was the most challenging part of writing the play?
DM: The most challenging part was writing some scenes and sequences collaboratively with 3858. I'm sure it's the same with everyone who does collaborative work with another passionate individual. We certainly had our creative differences, but in the end, my vision won out.
As you started to write the first issue, how were you able to keep your work from being disrupted by the overwhelming success of the sold-out play in S.F.?
DM: There was most definitely anxiety around making the comic lush and provocative like the play, but in a way, it was good for me to get uncomfortable and still perform. I believe that breaking through anxiety and fear builds an artist's endurance and confidence.
Brandon Dorsky: The success of the play is really what motivated the development of the graphic novel series. Without the overwhelming success of the play, the graphic novel may have never been borne. The audience's feedback was really fuel and inspiration for driving the development of the graphic novel.
What is or has been the most rewarding part about turning the play into comic books?
DM: Awww, wow, yes. Besides the fact that I am an undercover comic book enthusiast, I felt the comic book's science fiction universe opened up some doors of imagination for me and that has been very rewarding creatively and spiritually. I am exploring parts of and events from cultural history in the graphic novel's timeline that are not part of the play or the script being shopped for on-screen development.
Was the whole comic book story planned in advance before the actual writing started?
BD: The entire story was not planned before the comic book began to be illustrated, but the conflict timeline and the introduction and evolution of key characters across the series were all hashed out before the writing started.
DM: Yes, we had a good majority of the first season of the episodic television series already finished when I began fusing the series script with the science fiction. In some ways, all the hard parts were already done when I sat down to do what I love to do, and build a comic universe.
Tell us more about how you've promoted the comic books and gotten them in front of audiences you think would benefit from reading them?
DM: Last year, we set up at some Recovery Conferences across the country and also gave away numbered copies at ComplexCon in Long Beach. We have also donated over $100,000 worth of graphic novels to numerous state facilities for incarcerated addicts and many of the hospitals and institutions for addicts who are still in treatment. We have been very aggressive about getting the word out to the community.
What's the meaning behind the book's title?
DM: At first, the name just kind of fell in my lap so I cannot take credit for its meaning. I was contemplating using a street name from my childhood, which was not Sycamore, but my wife actually grew up on Sycamore street and it just sounded better. I later found out about all the mystery and folklore around the Sycamore tree itself. Ancient peoples believe the Sycamore tree served as a borderline between the heavens and earth. So Below Sycamore fits serendipitously with the themes anyway, on top of having a catchy ring to it.
Looking back, how would you describe the writing process? Was it effortless or did you have moments of doubt? How many drafts did you go through?
DM: I hate to say this and sound all masterful and shit…but the truth is the writing flowed very easily for me. There were major decisions that had to be made here and there but overall the process was so so smooth. We may have had two drafts of the dialogue and then have done some additional editing to some of the scene cues and descriptions.
How did you and comic book illustrator Fernando Kern meet and what was the process/inspiration of designing the illustrations for the books like?
DM: Fernando was the first artist to really blow me away with his skill set. I'm so happy his style is '90s comic book Marvel style as that works really well in our timeline.
How did actor Danny Trejo and other talent get involved in the series?
DM: Danny Trejo is a friend of the family so we had a warm introduction there and he was more than willing to help us given the subject matter. His past isn't a secret and he has a ton of respect in the recovery community so he was a perfect fit for one of the characters.
BD: Danny Trejo came in through Daniel's connections, but Mr. Criminal and Taz Arnold, our two other cover features thus far, came in through my personal relationships. I have done legal work for Mr. Criminal's brother and also represented Taz Arnold in fashion and entertainment. Mr. Criminal's whole entertainment persona seemed like a perfect fit for the character "Grumpy," whereas Taz Arnold was ideal for embodying the spiritual side of Below Sycamore. Taz is not only a legend in L.A. street culture, but a truly positive and uplifting spiritual voice in the community, and we could not be more thrilled to have him on the cover of Issue 2.
How much of the books incorporate real places in L.A.? Can you share one or two places you included and why they're special to you?
DM: Yes, the city I grew up in Gardena (aka Sycamore) is all over the book. We used the two houses I grew up in, the church where I was an altar boy (St. Anthony's) as well as a tire shop, and other cool spots as inspiration. It's so cool to be able to depict these spots in the series.
Below Sycamore is a trip down memory lane for Angelenos who experienced L.A. in 1996. Do you have a favorite place from the past that you wish survived the present-day?
Daniel Medina: We used to eat Quick and Split burgers in Inglewood near the Big Donut but they are closed. Harry's Saimin Noodles on Redondo Beach Blvd. used to be the jam for my familia but it is now closed as well. Gardena Bowl is still here and booming, and that is my current favorite spot for Hawaiian-type grinds.
Could you describe the place where you write or some items you have around while writing or music you listen to while writing?
DM: My practice is to become silent for a while and ask for some words…I like the solfeggio frequency stuff on YouYube for background but nothing with lyrics. I tend to meditate before I write music.
As a former international touring musician, what do you prefer now and why: writing music or books?
DM: Another tough question…you guys are good! Playing music and singing makes me feel great instantly, it's like a drug in that way. It can also be a very emotional release at times. I believe writing comes from another place; it's much more of a relaxed vibe and intentional in a different way. My music is more informed by the emotion I am trying to express and the writing, while infused with emotion, is more informed by the story I am trying to tell.
Lately, my daughter Milani has been helping write some timelines for the story with me and that lights me up in so many ways, including emotionally. Soon, she will be writing her own stuff and hopefully authoring some Below Sycamore spin-offs. It's a long-winded answer, but I have to love doing both to be able to share the full essence of Below Sycamore and I love them equally.
Is there a book that changed your life?
DM: All of Tom Robbins stuff. Skinny legs And All, Half Asleep In Frog Pajamas, and Villa Incognito. Pretty much, Tom Robbins inspired me and changed the course of my life as a writer.
What book, if any, is currently on your nightstand?
DM: The Alchemist by Paolo Coelho. Read that! It's so dope!
What is the last piece of art (music, movie, book, etc.) that you saw/heard that has impacted you?
DM: I saw the Tedeschi Trucks band play live last year. It was completely impressive and most definitely inspiring. I watched this documentary about free solo climbing too. Wow, wow, wow. Those guys live life in a juicy fashion, they seem to wear life very loosely and I aspire to be alive in that way.
Many copies of Below Sycamore have been donated to San Quentin Prison, youth detention facilities in California and Texas, and rehabilitation centers in Northern California. What has been the response from readers or have you heard from anyone about the book's impact?
DM: Too many stories to include here in this interview but I've been on the phone with addicts across the country and sat with families of the addict as well since the graphic novel's release. Sitting with overjoyed recovered addicts and their families makes me so damn happy! They all see the work as a blessing in their lives. The librarian at San Quentin says the men love the book and all the copies are rented out there and in Pelican Bay!!
As a Gardena native, do you have any go-to spots you'd recommend to someone who's never been?
Who were your role models growing up and who are they today?
DM: As a child, I was really into Robin Hood for altruistic reasons and James Brown for style. In college, I was impressed with Bob Dylan and Dylan Thomas the poet and nowadays, I have regular people in my fellowship who have overcome addiction and have these cool mellow lives filled with love and family. Those are my heroes now.
You're donating all proceeds generated from the Below Sycamore graphic novel series to form the Beyond Sycamore Detox Center in L.A., which will offer free services to the homeless, 12-step recovery programs, and other ways to help those in need. What do you hope to achieve with the center?
DM: Our intention is to use the profits generated from Below Sycamore to provide some assistance and help to those less fortunate who are suffering from addiction. I want to be able to offer a seven to 10-day detox that is completely free to the addict that needs it. There are lots of challenges there with zoning and insurance and intake and liability, but we are determined to make a positive impact on the community and this is one of the ways we want to accomplish this.
What's your ultimate goal for Below Sycamore?
DM: I want Below Sycamore to become a television series and I want the play to get out there again for audiences to experience and enjoy. I want the graphic novel to blossom into a franchise and a universe that whets the appetite of comic book aficionados. I want Below Sycamore to become a healing movement and to spread the message that you need power and you need community to battle the demonic forces of addiction and the community is available to support you on the journey through recovery. We have very little content in the addiction community that speaks to the addicted suffering and I believe Below Sycamore will resonate with many addicts as well as non-addicts.
BD: Ultimately, I'd love to see Below Sycamore make its way to screen — whether acted or as an animation, and ideally as both. The universe we have developed is really rich with storylines and twists, and also incorporates real-life events that even teach the readers a little history. If Below Sycamore could elevate itself to the level of edutainment, where it's not only entertaining audiences but also teaching people about history and the experience and suffering of an addict, that would be a win.
You're sitting down with your 20-year-old and 80-year-old selves. What are those conversations like?
DM: If the 20-year-old version doesn't beat the hell out of me I would tell him about awareness. The 80-year-old version, same thing — awareness, awareness, awareness.
You're taking a first-time visitor on a one-day tour of L.A. Where are some of your top stops?
DM: I would hit the Seal Beach Jetty for a morning surf, then Gardena Bowl for breakfast drive up to Temescal Canyon for a little hike and maybe catch a comedy show at the Comedy Store or a concert at Teragram Ballroom and end the night chopping it up at California Roll Factory for some sushi or at Canter's on Fairfax until midnight.
What are you working on now?
DM: My daughter and I and my business partner Brandon Dorsky are writing Season 2 of Below Sycamore and I just finished an album of gorgeous music with my friend and producer Kamal Humphrey de Iruretagoyena that should be out soon.
Can readers expect the third issue of Below Sycamore and if so, when?
DM: Issue three will hit the world in summer 2022.
Do you have any plans to resume efforts to turn Below Sycamore into a TV series or movie?
DM: Hell yes!! I believe Below Sycamore will manifest itself on the screen very, very soon.
BD: Now that we have a few issues of the comic published and a window into the Below Sycamore universe opened, we have resumed shopping the script around for development and already have some active conversations.