RM Guéra: Creator with a Heart

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As the artist of the runaway hit Scalped, RM Guéra talks openhearted about his life, influences and how creators should look at art and comics.

Having worked his whole life in the comics industry, R. M. Guéra originally came from ex-Yugoslavia, now Serbia, having moved to Spain in 1981. He has now written and drawn over eight albums for the French comics market and in 2006 his breakthrough in the US market arrived with the crime drama Scalped, written by Jason Aaron and published by Vertigo. Scalped is an intense work that has consumed all the time of the artist, who describes it as written with a true heart, containing infinite depth coming out of a true synergy with Jason Aaron.

BROKEN FRONTIER: Scalped seems to me to be a rather research heavy book.

RM GUÉRA: Yes, I research a lot. But it’s a part of the business that I don’t mind. I read a lot, I’m interested in the human condition. I like movies, photography and so on, so all of those things are part of Scalped. I also had gypsy friends; I never went to visit their reservations but it did bring me into contact with real poverty, what it is like to be poor. I can understand it because I spent a year and a half with them as a musician. Somehow I used that in Scalped. But research, yes; you sketch, you read, you remember.

Like when Jason Aaron was describing Carol to me, that was fantastic. Carol is sexy and tragic and all but I will always remember how Aaron said ‘Give me the kind of girl that everybody wants to have sex with but nobody wants to marry!’ So this is typical of our dialogue surrounding Scalped. We talk about Bob Dylan or movies or books and after these things he says something to me in the script and I know exactly what he means. So this is work and research and talking about it.

Carol Danvers stands in the centre in this Scalped sketch by R.M. Guéra

BF: So you would say that this partnership is essential to the success of Scalped?

GUÉRA: The whole thing is about the story, not my style or the writing itself. We both are making the story, we matter less, we are secondary to the story which is this big Greek tragedy. It’s like I always say, you can only be creative up to 3 or 4 hours a day. All the rest of the time you’re working is spent on making it look good, figuring out the angles, research. After 6 years of Scalped we are still trying to come up with new pages and new compositions. It’s hard to stay innovative but I must admit that I have never seen anything like Scalped before. The only thing that comes close is a show on television that is called The Wire. That is trying similar things. 

BF: Can Scalped be described as a western?

GUÉRA: I would say yes, but in a way it also depends on what you like. The most important thing is the story, not my style. I just look if it cooks, you know? Scalped is a band, playing one thing, turning it into magic. The hardest part is to make it together. You have to understand the script and then I decide everything else and if you are lucky the writer knows what you are good at. This is creating something together.

Carol takes her femme fatale role too far

BF: Your style is rather dark and noir, filled with shadows and lighting techniques but still very clear and readable.

GUÉRA: Yes and it is something that really clicked for me from issue 25 on. At first Scalped was really dark and at times very bright and I was trying to join these two attitudes of mine into one cohesive style that would serve the story. Issue 9 was about Catcher and it was drowned in darkness and distorted in black and it is the darkest story I ever did. Issue 25 was about a black hustler, a real killer whom I tried to draw very clean because he is a very cold person so all my efforts went into maintaining this sort of cleanliness. So after that issue, it clicked for me and I was able to join my two styles together. 

BF: The character Diesel seems to a bit out of touch with your style though with his big protruding cartoon chin.

GUÉRA: Yes, I just tried something with him and I still don’t know if it worked. I think it did, especially because of his ending. Everybody else in the cast is a rounded character but Diesel is a cartoon in itself. Diesel is just bad, he doesn’t know it himself, he just is. So I tried to put that in the design.

Diesel at his worst by Guéra

BF: How emotionally challenging is it to spend time with the story of all these morally challenged characters?

GUÉRA: It is hard but you can’t leave. You learn to love these characters. Even granny Poor Bear is based upon my grandmother, it goes that far. She is a woman who helps a lot of kids but not one of those is hers. She is a strong person and my grandmother was like that.

You get emotionally involved but it has to be controlled. My way of doing this is reading. I have a lot of books which is not a visual thing. It helps me to keep a distance. With comics and photography the visuals are already fixed, I don’t want that. I read Cormac McCarthy and it helps to refuel my emotional state.

Granny Poor Bear stands watch over one of her strays

BF: So looking at your own life helps you to put life into the characters of Scalped.

GUÉRA: Yes, bad things that happen to you, like with the gypsies and my grandmother. I really am trying to apply what actors are doing. It is the same thing. Our job is not to illustrate, it is to express. Each page and drawing is a sentiment. The style doesn’t matter, it’s about expression and what you feel about it.

BF: Having had experience both in comics and in Europe with publishing books, how do you feel about the serialisation of Scalped as part of the US comics market?

GUÉRA: I think that if the story is good, the format almost doesn’t matter. But the format has to be in sync with the story. If we present just the single comics, I don’t think everyone will like it. For the European market I want to adjust it a bit to make the publications more in line with what they are used to. To make it a bit more serious, something that will better represent the content of Scalped. The design needs to be better. I really think Europeans are much more experienced with this.

I personally prefer reading the paperbacks. I don’t know why we are so pressured to produce a monthly comic book but I trust that there is a logic to it.

Dashiel Bad Horse, one of the leading players in the Scalped crime drama

BF: You grew up in Serbia and developed your artistic skills there, did the move to Spain influence your style and take it into other directions?

GUÉRA: Yes, but not obviously. It made me believe that you can make drawings as you are. Like looking at Franquin’s art you can tell that it is really him. You can see so much of him on those pages.

BF: Do you have other European influences in your art?

GUÉRA: I would say Franquin is the biggest influence on me. Not that it is apparent in my drawings but people like Franquin... they opened the doors for us. They showed us how it can be done differently, they opened the doors and we stepped in. The same thing is true for Jean Giraud (or Moebius).

There’s also - this is American artists now - there’s Noel Sickles because I don’t think Milt Caniff is good and Frank Robbins, I adore him. He is one of the best ever together with Alex Toth. And the Mad squad is also an important part being Jack Davis and Wallace Wood. They are the American part of my personality. But Giraud, he also changed my life with Blueberry and The Ghost of the Goldmine.

Follow R. M. Guéra at his website and his Facebook. Scalped is published by Vertigo.

This interview was conducted at the Lille Comics Festival 2011 in Lille, France in conjunction with comicsblog.fr.

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