I recently had the chance to talk to FERRAN XALABARDER, an amazingly talented artist and writer, and part of a long list of Spanish comic creators that are putting out some amazing stuff in comics. Looking at Ferran’s art style, it should come as no surprise that he has appeared in over a dozen issues of Heavy metal Magazine. Rich in detail with an eye for perspective and mood, Ferran filled Heavy Metal with creatures straight out of a HP Lovecraft Nightmare.
His creator owned title, BORN IN HELL, is co-written with VALENTIN RAMON, who has been making waves in the comics’ world with his art on the hit comic D4VE. It is a dark and twisted, film noir tale, that pits hard-nosed private detective, Joe Colter, against the forces of the occult and the underworld. BORN IN HELL is stylistic and haunting, a fantastic blend of supernatural imagination with classic 1950’s detective stories. It is The Maltese Falcon if Guillermo del Toro directed it.
Ferran was kind enough to share with Comic Crusaders, his experiences as an artist and a writer in comics, his love of Will Eisner and Doctor Strange, as well as some of the classic Film Noir stories that helped shape BORN IN HELL.
LETS START AT THE BEGINNING, WHEN DID YOU DECIDE THAT YOU WANTED TO MAKE COMICS AND HOW DID YOU BREAK IN TO THE INDUSTRY?
Well, I don’t know the exact moment when I decided that I wanted to make comics. I’ve always had a strong (or should I say weird?) feeling for drawing. My school notes were always full of all sorts of doodles and little drawings on the borders. School was too boring, I guess. As a kid, I do know there was one comic that caused a deep impression on me: the first Will Eisner’s SPIRIT I ever saw published here in Spain. I discovered how rich and powerful comics could be in terms of visual story telling. After my military service, I decided to go professional… Maybe I discovered that life could be so boring when you do something that you don’t like doing.
The first story I ever published, as a professional, was a short story called R.I.P which was published in CREEPY magazine, the Spanish version edited by Josep Toutain. It was by the end of the eighties, the golden age of this kind of comic magazines.
CAN YOU WALK ME THROUGH YOUR PROCESS? HOW DO YOU BREAK AN ISSUE AND HOW DO YOU WRITE THE SCRIPT? SINCE YOU ARE ALSO THE ARTIST, DO YOU WRITE A FULL SCRIPT OR DO YOU WORK OFF AN OUTLINE AND THUMBNAIL FIRST?
When I work as writer and illustrator, I used to hand write the whole script, describing page by page, and roughly what goes on in every panel, with camera angles and specific visual solutions that come to my mind, sketching some powerful shots and making a first draft of dialogues as well. At this point, fluidity is the most important thing to me, to mold on paper the creative, visual story telling avalanche going on in my mind. I also distribute the panels on every page, which I think is a very important part of the process when it comes to the art of comics. After that, I start drawing, from sketches to full colour rendering, and type the dialogue clean, and all along the production line, I keep it open so that I can add any idea or correction, visual or written, that I think can help to improve the final
HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE YOUR EXPERIENCE AS A COMIC CREATOR? WHAT ARE SOME OF THE THINGS YOU HAVE LEARNED OR PERHAPS A MISTAKE YOU MADE THAT YOU WOULD SUGGEST ANOTHER CREATOR ENTERING INTO INDEPENDENT COMICS DO DIFFERENTLY?
I don’t know… Sometimes being a comic creator can be very frustrating. When others finish your pencils for example, or colouring and the result is hardly the same that you would have done, or it’s very different from what you visualized. But that is part of the comics industry, I guess. I enjoy it the most when I control the whole creative process, from the very beginning to the very end. But, you cannot always do that!
YOUR WRITING PARTNER ON BORN IN HELL IS VALENTIN RAMON, THE ARTIST ON THE INDIE HIT COMIC, D4VE, FROM IDW. HOW DID THAT COLLABORATION START AND HOW DO YOU SPLIT WRITING DUTIES?
I met Valentin when we both were studying at the JOSO Comics and Illustration school in Barcelona. Ever since, we always try to collaborate in different projects. The short story I mentioned earlier, R.I.P. that was published in CREEPY, was a script by Valentin. At some point, we decided to work together on a bigger project and not just on short stories. We didn’t know what the story would be and I mentioned a story that I had in mind about a private eye, veteran from a war that was involved in a case of a demoniac possession. He liked it and we started working on it. Every time we met, we worked together in what direction the story should go and what should be included in it, and based on that, Valentin was writing the script, structuring the story sequence by sequence and page per page, including the dialogues and adding plenty of stuff of his own. When I was drawing, I also came out with new stuff and different visual solutions. At the end, when the whole story was illustrated, we worked together on the final dialogue. A major problem in this process was that I left for Arizona, for over two years, to work at Fox Animation Studios. I think that this pause can be seen in the visuals, my style changed somehow during this period of time. It’s tough to retake something two years later without the slightest change. Overall, BORN IN HELL was a communal and liquid collaboration.
IS THERE ANY ADVICE YOU CAN OFFER TO A CREATOR LOOKING TO BREAK INTO COMICS IN TODAY’S MARKET?
I would advice them to stay away from the “Azores Island style”. During all these past years presenting my pages to editors from all around the world, I have always heard the same answers: European editors found my style too American for them, and American editors found it too European. After thinking hard about it I reached the conclusion that I must have an “Azores Islands style”, you know, the only solid ground that I know half the way in the middle of the Atlantic. Editors usually want the stuff they are used to and which gives them good economic results. With some exceptions, they don’t like risk. Which is, of course, understandable. But maybe this is why all comics are so uniform lately. Computer colour doesn’t help much, either. My point is that it’s harder to make it into the business when you have a personal style. I think it is easier to break into the market if you show editors what they want to see. In this case, if your art looks very similar to the art of a big name in the field is far better than being original, I’m afraid.
BORN IN HELL IS A DARK FILM NOIR TALE OF DARKNESS AND DEPRAVITY. WHERE DID THE CONCEPT FOR THIS STORY COME FROM?
A movie that Valentin and I had in mind from the very beginning was ANGEL HEART, Allan Parker’s masterpiece. We both liked it very much and we wanted to give the same feeling to our story… or we tried to, at least.
THE LEVEL OF DETAIL IN YOUR ARTWORK IS ABSOLUTELY AMAZING! HOW LONG DOES IT TAKE YOU TO FINISH A PAGE?
Depending on the amount of panels and the complexity of the backgrounds … It has been a long time since I worked on plain inked pages like the “Born in hell” ones, I’m working direct color right now, but I think it took me around three days to finish one page.
ONE OF THE THINGS THAT STUCK OUT WHILE READING BORN IN HELL, WAS YOUR CHOICE OF CAMERA ANGLES AND SHADOW USAGE GIVES THE BOOK A VERY FILM NOIR FEEL. IS THERE ANY ARTISTS THAT INFLUENCES YOUR STYLE AND HOW DID YOU ARRIVE AT THAT ART STYLE FOR THIS PROJECT?
When we started working on the story, Frank Miller’s SIN CITY was the hottest comic in town. You can see it in the first pages, and in the use of a plain red for the blood to give black and white a third meaningful dimension. However, I think that some of Paul Gulacy’s and Will Eisner’s also slipped into the style.
As for the camera angles, the influence also came from classic movies like “The Maltese Falcon”, “The big sleep” and the shadowy and fantastic “The Third Man” and other Orson Well’s pieces. We wanted to give a film noir feeling to the story from the very beginning. This was very important for us.
BORN IN HELL WAS ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN SPANISH AND TRANSLATED TO ENGLISH. TELL ME ABOUT THE CHALLENGES YOU FACED TRANSLATING YOUR WORK INTO ANOTHER LANGUAGE?
The main challenge to me was trying to make the support texts and dialogues go smooth in English, but at the same time, without losing, the rich personality of the Spanish version. Since there are three different characters explaining the story in three different writing styles and in three different time lines (present, past and imminent past), the most difficult was to reflect such a trichotomy in the English version. Making the difference between the two different past lines was the toughest part. It was a pretty complex endeavor.
IS THERE A CHARACTER IN BORN IN HELL THAT STICKS OUT AS YOUR FAVORITE TO WRITE?
Joe Colter is my favorite, with no doubt. I love Raymond Chandler’s books, I’ve been a Philip Marlowe’s fan since very young and I always wanted to make stories with a character like him who has to face or solve supernatural cases. You know him… the two-fisted guy who all his life has been “talking the talk & walking the walk” along the toughest side on life’s street, that has to deal with all kind of terrible shit, but who at the same time has a strong sense of integrity that pushes him to do what he thinks is right and needs to be done; a tough bastard inside a shinny knight’s armor. I have plenty of stories with him in mind. But wait a minute, there is another BORN IN HELL character that I also like very much, the Devil’s Daughter, who personifies the evil part of the story. She is a very suggestive and unpredictable character with an incredibly huge potential.
IF YOU CAN WRITE ONE CHARACTER (MARVEL/DC/IMAGE/ETC) WHOM WOULD IT BE AND WHY?
I think I would prefer to write a story with several characters in it, not just one. I always liked big sagas. But the thing is, what goes first, the story or the character? Like the famous egg-chicken philosophic question; both are equally important, but I’d prefer to put story first. After all, the story is the egg that hatches and develops, allowing the character to display his (or her) chicken feathers.
In fairness to your question, when I was drawing pin-ups and posters on Marvel characters for Planeta de Agostini, the publisher house publishing Marvel comics in Spain back then, I enjoyed drawing Wolverine a lot. Ever since, I’ve always been very attached to it. I’d like to write something with him, and also the Punisher. I like walking on the wild side when it comes to stories. To tell you the truth, lately I’ve found myself fantasizing on Doctor Strange. I don’t know why. Maybe because he is a mysterious guy that has to do with the supernatural world of mystic and magic, where the extremes of light and darkness can fuse and confuse themselves into absolute weirdness, which is very intriguing to me. As you can see, I have a special craving for the dark jolly folks.
YOU ARE STRANDED ON A DESERTED ISLAND. YOU CAN HAVE ONE MUSIC ALBUM, ONE MOVIE/TV SHOW/ AND ONE BOOK TO READ. WHAT WILL IT BE?
This is the most difficult and tricky question so far! Let’s see…
Music Album: Bassil Poleodoris’ soundtrack for “CONAN, THE BARBARIAN” (the John Milius’ one).
Movie: Spielberg’s SAVING PRIVATE RYAN (But it is hard to pick one only movie!)
Book: John Kennedy Toole’s A CONFEDERACY OF DUNCES” (what a pity this guy couldn’t another book)