On April 2, former international touring musician and Angeleno Daniel Medina debuted the second issue of Below Sycamore, a graphic novel that follows best friends JD and Chucho as they battle their own demons and navigate through the dark world of drugs, addiction and crime in Los Angeles.
However, the Sycamore Universe really begins with Medina. Having been in recovery since 2016, he felt moved to write about the parasitic nature of addiction and made it his mission to use his art as a vehicle to reach others. With a play under his belt, a graphic novel series underway and a TV script ready to go, Medina has already made a mark on his audience. But it’s only the beginning.
Following the launch party of Below Sycamore’s second issue, we spoke with Medina about the importance of community, how he got L.A. legends involved in the project and his grand plans to form the Beyond Sycamore Detox Center in Los Angeles.
Tell us more about celebrating the new issue of Below Sycamore! How was the launch party?
It was great. Each time we do an event for Below Sycamore or we do anything, it seems like just the momentum is building, so that's a really good sign. A lot of the people in the community showed up— the local community, sobriety community. They're super excited about it because they all love Danny Trejo and we're in L.A., and so they were so excited. Actually, right before that, I had invited a whole bunch of people when I was at a recovery meeting and almost all of them showed up.
What are you excited for readers to see in issue two?
You finally got to see the length and the breadth and the depth of the Sycamore Universe. You open it up and you're like, “Woah, what are they doing in 1090 Chiapas, Mexico?”, which is the middle of the Mayan empire.
You start to see, “Ooh, this is the sacred bloodline.” We're going back a thousand years to this piece and you get to introduce yourself to the protectors of the sacred blood, which is a group of powerful women who have dedicated their lives to protecting the sacred bloodline through time and space…And then you get the introduction of Tazz.
Below Sycamore first started as a play. Can you explain how it evolved into a comic book?
Well, we were moving with the times. Things had changed with the play because at first we were looking at the play and the TV pilot and we had some interest, actually, here in Los Angeles at the Fountain Theatre to bring the play, but then COVID changed everything.
We were looking for something that we can pivot that would be COVID proof: graphic novel. I don't need any actors, I don't need I don't need any sets to be up and worry about people testing for COVID to write the comic. So we immediately embarked on that. By that time, we had already had the entire first season written Below Sycamore, which is a 500 page script. We already have that, so we took some pieces from the script and I added a bunch of science fiction. The comic book began to evolve.
Issue No. 1
How did Danny Trejo, Mr. Criminal and Taz Arnold became part of this project?
Danny Trejo, as you know because he doesn't keep it a secret, has been clean and sober for over five decades. And I'm in that community and my family's in the community, my auntie is in the community, my cousin is in the community. My cousin is super best buds with Danny Trejo, so that's really how we got the warm lead there.
I was walking around my apartment in Santa Monica and I was talking to my auntie: “I wish that there was a way we can get to Danny Trejo.” She goes, “Well, we know Danny Trejo.” So I wrote this character for him before I even knew that we had the Danny Trejo plug, which is insane, really strange. I wrote his character when it was still a play about this homeless prophet that has a small fortune telling business on the streets of Sycamore. So he's basically homeless. He has this little box and then you can come up to this box and you can give them $5 and he’ll tell you your fortune. There's so much more than that, but I'm not gonna spoil it.
Mr. Criminal was a contact directly through my partner, Brandon Dorsky. Brandon Dorsky represents Mr. Criminal, and so that was an easy connection. He had a heart for it because he knows a lot of his friends have overdosed.
And then Taz Arnold was the same thing. I met him through Brandon Dorsky. And then I sat with Taz and the thing with me and Taz, we became friends…And then after that friendship was established, he’s just so willing to give back to the community. He really is that guy because he could have went the road of fame and stardom and left the community in the shadows, but he didn't do that. I love him, man. He's a good man.
Daniel Medina and Brandon Dorsky.
Has bringing Below Sycamore to life been a cathartic process in your own sobriety journey?
It has been very healing. It’s been healing since the beginning. If you go back to the play, it was healing because I get to be the bad guy on stage acting. I got to let some stuff out there and that was very healing. Then writing the script… this is the beauty of it, really. I've taken all this junk and turned it into fertilizer. And it's nourishing this whole community now. There are other people who are feeding off of this. Even spiritually, to see that there's something out there for us, for those of us who are alcoholics or addicts or are in the recovery community, we don't have content. We don't have a parade. We don't have celebrations. We've been around for eight decades. We've got nothing. That's a big thing, we need content. There’s 40 million of us. We’ve got a voice.
You’ve donated over 2,000 copies to treatment centers, youth detention facilities and San Quentin and Pelican Bay State Prisons. Can you tell us more about that?
Everybody loves it. In the prison, we're getting 100% readership. There's 500 copies and then there's 3,000 inmates. The librarian had told me that it's already flipped twice, so there's no copies.They're all rented out. That makes me very happy.
And then underneath all that, Brandon and I are sitting with some people today that may want to help us along with investments for the detox center. Because, ultimately, what I would like to happen is this whole thing takes off with the television series and that pushes the sale of the comic book and then that comic book will just fund these places. That's my dream.
Issue No. 2
Why is forming a detox center the ultimate goal?
My personal feeling is that when somebody is at that point of surrendering to this process, it’s a delicate time, they're very vulnerable. This is the time when they need to hear from people like me and other elders that are in the recovery community. They need to hear from us immediately. But that's not happening because a lot of people don't have money to get into this facility. And if they do get into the facility, what happens is they're just given a bed and have to just go ahead and sweat it out. There are some public services out there where you can go sweat it out in a bed. That's not what I want to offer. I just see the little kinks in some of the programming for 12 Step and the biggest one is physical. We don't address anything physically with these people, so we're just bringing them in and we're saying, “Hey, I know that you were achieving instant pleasure and instant brain reward, but now you're going to have to do this process.”
Number one, there's homeless people out there, for sure, who want to get well. But they've got no money. These rehab centers, they make me sick. They're charging $30, 40, 50,000 a month. It's just nuts. It could be one-tenth of that and they would still accomplish it. And so these people are left in the cold.
How do you envision Below Sycamore as a TV series— what will make it standout?
It's rare that you find hope inside of these shows. What I wanted to do was really show people, especially in the first season of Below Sycamore, is look, you can't do this on your own. You can't. Do you see how strong this is?
Now I realized that if we take a camera and get a bunch of actors and go into a recovery meeting, it's going to be fantastically boring. So we don't do that in the show. We kind of creep in like mid-sentence, and then you get this juicy, juicy thing that falls out of someone's mouth. And then boom, we're back on the street again. I'm using some stuff that I learned when I was a kid and watching some shows in the ‘80s that I really loved. It just had more substance, there was some real morale there.
If it gets picked up the way we want, we're going to have a mixed genre. Immediately that will make it different because we're gonna have a show that is both live action and animation. Right there, we're different than everybody. And it's the first, I believe, real show that takes a really good look at the demonic, parasitic nature of addiction. Nobody else is going to do it like we do it.
Have you envisioned how long you want the graphic novel series to be?
Me and comic book illustrator Fernando Kern, we did counsel on this. And we think we've got maybe 125 issues.We're only putting out six a year. I don’t know what the math on that is, but I think we got maybe 20 years or something of comic books. If people want to keep buying them, we’ve got them.
What do you want readers to take away from Below Sycamore?
If anybody is out there and they're reading this article and they're struggling, I want them to know this disease of addiction, it's way stronger than them. They're not going to be able to beat this on their own. They need help and help is out there. But this thing that has a hold of you, if you really are a real addict, it'll never let you go. It never will. You need something bigger. You need community.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Photography by: Courtesy Below Sycamore