Pop!

Sun, April 26th, 2009 at 9:09pm PDT

Comic Books
Jorge Khoury, Columnist

THE WORLD OF MIGUELANXO PRADO

The cover to the powerful graphic novel “Streak of Chalk” by Miguelanxo Prado.

In this installment of “Pop!” I’m extremely honored to present an interview with the great Spanish comics creator Miguelanxo Prado, who is one of my favorite comics storytellers, a tremendously enormous influence to his legions of readers across the world, and someone whom I’ve wanted to interview for over a decade.

I first discovered Prado’s work while browsing for something that would appeal to my sensibilities at the show table of New York-based publisher NBM (Nantier, Beall, & Minoustchine) during a Dynamic Forces Premiere Convention in Manhattan, way back in October of 1996. Lured in by the beautiful cover art of M. Prado’s “Streak of Chalk” and “Tangents” books, I thumbed through these, intrigued by the graceful narrative of his lavish pages and their amazing colors; the dramatic nature of the stories in both books was exactly the type of reading material that really spoke to me, then and now. Upon reading both books, I discovered that they were spectacular and refined masterpieces layered with tales about real human beings and, for the most part, their chilly inabilities to truly share themselves and their feelings with others despite their outwardly confidence and seeming successes. Both books were originally released in Spain and subsequently interpreted for foreign editions to critical praise and awards.

Via NBM, Miguelanxo Prado’s “Peter and the Wolf” (an adaptation of Prokofiev’s classic work) and “Daily Delirium” (a collection of his humorous short stories) were also translated for English readers. American audiences might be more familiar with Prado’s art style as the lead character designer to the popular animated “Men in Black: The Series,” which ran on the WB Network for four seasons (and later became a staple on Nickelodeon in reruns for a number of years). His collaboration with best-selling author Laura Esquivel saw the artist providing a seamless comics narrative within the well-received novel “The Law of Love.” Within 2003’s grand “The Sandman: Endless Nights” anthology, he rendered my particular favorite tale within that book, “The Heart of a Star,” which was written by Neil Gaiman with the artist in mind. And in 2007, he wrote and directed the animated film “De profundis” — a testament which gorgeously brought his vision and characters to life on the big screen.

Since commencing his comics career in 1982, Miguelanxo Prado and his extensive body of work, as a fine writer and a superb artist, have sailed across this world and resonated with everyone and anyone they’ve encountered.

Story continues below

An intricate page from "Streak of Chalk."

Is there a special significance to your name: “Miguelanxo?”

No... It is the Galician form of Miguel Angel (Italian for Michelangelo). In Spain, besides Castilian (Spanish), three other different languages are spoken (Basque, Catalan and Galician). It isn’t about different dialects, but differences in languages. For example, Galician and Catalan aren’t like Castilian any more than Portuguese or Italian. All are languages derived from Latin, but have their own grammar and syntaxes.

Was it your father who gave you an ambition towards art and writing? Were there other influences that motivated you towards your career?

The fondnesses of my father for literature and his passion for art have been, effectively, deciding factors for me. Since [the time] I was small, I was accustomed to visiting exhibitions and having books in my hands. For example, I remember having an edition of “The Jungle Book,” by Kipling, with these illustrations that seemed fascinating to me. I must have been... 5... 6 years old... maybe younger. From there, clearly there were more influences. My maternal grandfather was a framer and very creative, and always encouraged me. And a young neighbor (Pilar), who spent most of her time at home due to a cardiac illness, inhabited my infancy with marionettes, drawings, and games that she created herself. As you can see, I had a very favorable environment.

I understand that you like music; do you feel its presence in your work? Is it difficult to combine music with illustration?

Yes, music is very important to me. I envy the absolute immediacy of its language, the capability of directly penetrating us, with hardly any intellectual process, producing intense emotions. A painting can only sometimes obtain that.

The cover to the anthology “Tangents” from NBM.

I think that the majority of comics authors take for granted the possibilities of incorporating music within our works. I’ve only been able to obtain it in audiovisual montages and in animation.

You’ve mentioned that it was during college that you actually became attracted to comics. How did that happen? Was there a particular book that changed your attitude?

There are three determining factors: I discovered Moebius (Jean Giraud), and among all his works I remember the impact that “The Long Tomorrow,” a 16-page story with a script by Dan O’Bannon, [had on me]; I discovered “Corto Maltese” by Hugo Pratt; and discovered Munoz and Sampaya (“Alack Sinner,” “Joe’s Bar,” etc....). After them came many more, tons more, but they convinced me that this language was the most potent and marvelous that was placed within my reach.

I’ve read that what you love about comics is how it combines art and literature. So in terms of art and literature, who are your influences?

In literature, Borges, Bioy Casares, Julio Cortazar, and Garcia Marquez. Also, and from a completely different literary perspective, Virginia Woolf. Right now, I’m very keen on authors like Ian McEwan or John Irwin.

In painting I “devour” almost everything, but I’ve been influenced by artists as diverse as Vermeer, Toulouse-Lautrec and Egon Schiele.

At the start of your career, was it challenging to land opportunities as a comics artist in Spain?

Actually, it wasn’t. The existence of monthly magazines permits an inexperienced author to see their short stories published in a few pages and to see if they catch on with the public. Evidently, those early printed pages don’t guarantee its continuity (only the tiniest percentage of those who try are able develop a career), but that first opportunity is relatively accessible if you have a minimal quality to your work.

From your point of view, what’s the difference between the comics environments in the United States and Spain?

“Daily Delirium” is a collection of humorous gags.

Despite [the fact that] the differences throughout the global market are becoming increasingly smaller, I believe the most evident [one] is that European comics are principally and fundamentally conceived as works by the author (albeit as works directed to the general public, like “Tintin” or “Asterix”), and in the United States you have a lot more importance placed on the character and its continuing production.

Some of your short stories and books contain a certain voyeuristic quality to them. Are you someone who likes to observe the actions and movements of others? Are there always parts of your works that are based on such experiences?

Inevitably. There’s an attractive aspect to art, that it is the interior universe of the creator. But, most of the time, for me that sole element seems insufficient. The other aspect that makes me feel attracted to the work of an artist is their personal form of seeing and interpreting the world, sentiments, society, human beings... the universe, to that extent. And that interpretation has to bear fruit, inescapably, to observations and reflection.

I’d say “yes,” that all my comics works are based, to a greater or lesser degree, on experiences.

Was there a particular inspiration for writing “Streaks of Chalk?”

I’ve always been interested — and by this fact it plays a part in many of my stories — in a system of limited communication, particularly the unsuccessful vein that is the human language. We can never be certain of having expressed exactly and perfectly what we think or what we feel. Our lives are full of misunderstandings. That difficulty in communication, obviously, conditions human relationships. In “Streak of Chalk” I wanted to construct a trauma that unravels around this imperfect communication and see up to what point the lives of these characters were conditioned by these limitations.

Is “Streak” a novella about lost opportunities and romances, or about the maturity of Raul (the protagonist of the book)?

Not for the kiddies - From “Daily Delirium,” this is one of the funniest comics pages that I've ever seen.

Yes, I think it is much more a novella of opportunities and frustrated love. I don’t believe that Raul was able to mature... So I suspect that he’ll continue behaving in the same dopey manner that he does in the story... In regards to sentiments, the ability of learning for a human being I’m afraid is overestimated... Each of us develops norms for sentimental behavior and reaction that are maintained with very little variations over the course of our lives.

You’ve commented that your intention for your narrative is to say something a bit more complex — how so?

I’m not sure I understand the question. In general, in my comics works, I’d like to think that the reader is an intelligent person who doesn’t need, nor expects, the telling of a simple story with evident personalities, good or bad. I like to assume that they’re not only reading comics, but also reading novels, watching cinema, maybe they go to the theatre. It is also possible that they listen to diverse types of music, go to exhibits... I pretend that the work that I’m presenting to this hypothetical reader has a level of complexity (in their structure, in the development of their personality, in their approach...) similar to any other work of those other mediums.

“Peter and the Wolf” is a fable for children; what convinced you to adapt this short story?

In the first place, I never had any comics that were directed at adults. Secondly, way beyond the musical matter — which was the motive for which Prokofiev wrote the tale — it seemed to me that the story allowed for an interesting actualization. The original tale suggested an ending too advanced for its era: the wolf ends up in the zoo, which in 1936 was an option that was too respectful for wildlife. But at the end of the Twentieth Century, with the type of zoo in question, it seemed to me more interesting to reflect a bit on the hypocritical contraction of which, in general, we’re all settled on: we’ve shown that we’re sensible and concerned about nature, yet, at the same time, our small comfort and particular interests seem like something inalienable. By the same way, in my version, a part of humanity (the hunters) destroy nature; and even Peter himself, who could possibly represent those that feel “guilty,” after the moment of sadness when understanding that, in his particular way, he was responsible for that death, ultimately he surrenders to his vanity of feeling admired.

Prado’s “Men in Black” designed characters cross with Bone in this European pin-up.

How were you recruited to design characters for the “Men in Black” cartoon in the United States? Which were the characters that you designed?

It appears that Richard Raynis (executive producer), Alex Stevens (art director) and Sander Schwartz (then-head of the animation department at Columbia-Tri-Star) knew my work, and it looked interesting to them for defining the look of the series. I designed all the characters (human and aliens, no “extras”) for all four seasons of the series. It was an amusing and agreeable experience, and it allowed me to [get to] know some interesting people. In my own work, when I prepare a comic or an illustrated book, designing the characters is one of the stages that I enjoy the most. I like to give each one — from a waiter to a businesswoman, even a fireman, a doctor or a capricious child — a personality and individuality. And it was interesting that, besides the fact that the job was done on the basis of a comedy, there was a constant game of “costumes” in that some of characters of human appearance hide their monstrous realities.

When you collaborated with author Laura Esquivel (of “Like Water for Chocolate” fame), were you able to read the book beforehand and just make your drawings? Did she have any expectations regarding what she wanted from your art?

Working with Laura Esquivel was a delight. Guillermo del Toro played “matchmaker” and paired us up. She invited me to Mexico so that I would become familiar with the scenery found in the novel. She recounted the story during our first dinner, after I was barely off the plane. Laura is a good writer, but also a fantastic storyteller in person — and very amusing. I was fascinated from the appetizer to the desserts… and even into our lengthy after-dinner conversation. We were immediately in agreement: one part of the story would be told via a comic; I would have the completed novel as my reference, of course, and she would give me, in barely a few lines, the description of the action told within each chapter of the story. Since there wasn’t dialogue, the sequential montage was strictly visual. I was at liberty to decide how I wanted to tell each one of these chapters. I believe we were both happy and satisfied with the results.

As someone who has worked outside of comics, is it easier to do illustrations as a “contractor?” Is it something that pays better than comics?

Promotional art for “Men in Black: The Series” – Prado helped bring a unique style to the show with his character designs.

I don’t know… Illustrating a job is probably more comfortable. But, from a creative point of view — for me — it is less intense. I don’t “draw” comics… I make comics. I write the stories, I plan them, I draw and paint them, and that process is — for me — totally indivisible. The work is more intense and more tiring, but the results are very satisfactory. The economic compensation… it is difficult to make a comparison. My books, my comics, are translated in many languages and they are frequently re-edited… In my case, in terms of the medium, also from an economical point of view, the comic is more interesting.

Is the use of dark and frigid colors in “Tangents” meant to indicate the emotionally empty sex of the characters in the book?

Not so much the empty and unamortized sex, as it is the sentimental mediocrity in which I’ve placed many of those characters. Men and women seeking professional success and personal realizations, but they are terribly clumsy at the hour of obtaining any sentimental realization.

The focus on sex without any commitment is one of the subjects you tackle within “Tangents” — a bit of commentary on today’s culture? The book is full of characters that don’t have the capability of being honest with anyone.

Yes, the majority of them are, in one form or another, losers. They aren’t, in most cases, “social” losers, but these goals that were driving their lives haven’t brought... well, totally the opposite: the emotion of having inner happiness. No one loves anyone more for having a big savings account, or for having their name in the newspapers… They can admire or desire you because of that… and it could even be that it is sufficient for a lot of people. But it isn’t love.

Over the years, how has your art changed? Are certain things more difficult now? Art-wise and writing-wise, are there stories and themes that interest you more nowadays?

A lovely story page from “The Heart of Star” in "Sandman: Endless Nights," with writer Neil Gaiman.

Yes, of course… Beyond anything else, there’s a maturation process that purges your creative universe. Life enriches, and the more you live, the more you know about your sentiments, about society, about yourself… And your own language, logically, should also refine. I’ve got a good memory: what well-intended critics graded in my first works as “fresh” was simply incompetence. Today, after more than thirty years of making comics, there are still things that I can’t resolve in the way I would like, but I’m also not satisfied by interesting ideas (sometimes simply “clever”) that are badly orchestrated. And I’m talking just about comics. The more you master the techniques of language, the more freely you can effectively tell any idea. Because art isn’t just a medium for expression; it should be indefeasibly a medium for communication.

Do the short tales and gags from “Daily Delirium” come more naturally to you than your dramatic works?

Not necessarily, but I suppose that we could say that they’re more immediate, less reflective, more direct.

In “Daily Delirium,” I noticed you’re not a big fan of bureaucracy. Is there always a tax collector or a public service official after your characters?

There’s something in that. On one hand, I’m a convinced defender of “the public.” I believe the current global situation is evidence of the “sanctification” of incontrollable private initiative. But, at the same time, the state tends to generate structure slowly and coldly. What’s public needs to be controlled and criticized.

The tales in “Daily Delirium” are comedies, but they are also very sincere towards some things and humanity, in general. So the objective of these stories is more than just humor?

A beautiful Prado cover for French Festival in Laval during 2006.

This (work) is clearly intended to be something more than humor. As I explained before, it has a sarcastic intent, for putting in question our individual and social vices and defects. In general, we like to recognize ourselves as the “villains” of the movie; this helps enable us to do that.

How did the opportunity to illustrate “The Heart of a Star” in “Sandman: Endless Nights” come about? Was there an element to the script that made you give in to drawing this strip?

In comics festivals, conventions and halls, the table discussions after dinners are the only few moments where one can talk with friends and colleagues. In these discussions it’s common to talk about plans and propositions… some very delirious. “One of these days we’ll do something together” is a phrase really frequently used. With Gaiman we discussed this once… in Angouleme or in Barcelona. Two or three years later, a script arrived via e-mail that Gaiman thought could be something that I would really like. Those who know my work would understand that the Sandman universe is really different for me… but that was only more of an incentive. But anyway, if we were to collaborate again, I’d like the story to be “dark,” like the ones illustrated by McKean.

Was it a goal of yours to make movies?

No! What happens is that any language or format that functions to tell stories with images is something of interest to me. After my work on “Men in Black” and another animated series, “Estandar,” I was interested in investigating the possibility of making an animated movie in my voice, like I do my own comics.

What is your animated film “De profundis” about? Was it a big task to bring your art and style to the big screen?

A “De profundis” promotional image, a film by Prado.

“De profundis” is a visual and musical poem. It is also a history of love that is strange and fantastic. And it is a creative voyage of a painter, a game of metaphors. It is an homage to the Sea, the real sea and its mythical qualities.

Effectively, I wanted to change the equation for what had been done in standard animation. To obtain something close to perfection, we sacrificed style and richness of drawing (because you need to have simple styles that favor the process of repetition) for the plastic richness of the image (flat colors — or almost — without texture, without any question, etc.…). I wanted to renounce the spectacularity of the movement to conserve the plastic richness of the image. Sincerely, I think it was worth it.

What are your plans for the future? Are there more comics and movies? Is it true that you plan to do fewer comics?

I will never stop making comics as long as I continue to tell stories. Of all the languages that I utilize… it is the one that satisfies me the most and seems the most potent. If I had to define myself by one of my occupations, I would simply say that I’m “an author of comics.” Surely, though, I don’t want to renounce writing, painting, art direction, making cinema…

At the moment I’m at working on what will be my next book, a large, dramatic story around 160 pages long. In terms of projects, when I finish this book (mid-2010), there will be a movie using the stop-motion technique. Of that I can say nothing else about at this time.

Self-portrait of the artist (and feline friend).

TAGS:  miguelanxo prado, sandman endless nights

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