Shane-Michael (“SM”) Vidaurri entered the comics realm in 2013 as the writer/artist of his debut graphic novel, IRON: OR, THE WAR AFTER. The tale, filled with anthropomorphic animal characters, dream-like introspective storytelling, and Cold War parallels, quickly became a standard bearer for its publisher, Archaia Entertainment. Vidaurri’s muted colors and visual flourish have built an international following, leading to recent work on titles like Image’s FIVE GHOSTS and JIM HENSON’s STORYTELLER: WITCHES, also from Archaia.
Two years later, SM Vidaurri is set to release his follow-up graphic novel. ISCARIOT is the story of a wizard from another realm, and the meaningful friendship he strikes up with a sick child in our real world. Our wide-ranging interview, conducted in September, explores the inspirations behind his writing and art style, the characters of ISCARIOT, and tackling real-world problems in the graphic novel format. ISCARIOT will be available October 7th.
Fanboy Comics Guest Contributor Josh Trujillo: First of all, who, or what, is ISCARIOT?
SM Vidaurri: Iscariot is the name of a 400-year-old wizard who has grown disillusioned with the magical order that raised him. In my mind he's reminiscent of Ivan from the Brothers Karamazov.
JT: Is ISCARIOT an idea you had been sitting on for a while? What made you want to tell this story?
SM: Yea, it had been swirling around in the ether for a bit. I started messing around with it when I was working on my last graphic novel, IRON. Sometimes the best way to alleviate the isolated marathon work of a graphic novel is to just work on something completely different. It's still working on a graphic novel, but I'm not sure why, it helps. I wanted to tell a story that was different tonally from IRON. I wanted to include human characters, and I wanted it to have a lighter feel. It's also a much more personal story than IRON, which was much more pure fantasy whereas ISCARIOT is a more personal comic, to me at least.
JT: This graphic novel draws from many sources, including English literary fantasy, old-world mysticism, and Christian mythology. What were your some of your major influences in writing ISCARIOT?
SM: Well, as I mentioned before, The Brothers Karamazov was definitely in my mind. There are a couple of quotes here and there that pop up. The other novel that really helped was THE HEART IS A LONELY HUNTER, the way McCullers captures the really frightening and strange life being a young teenager really resonated with me. HUNTER is such a wonderful character study as well, and I definitely wanted to incorporate that aspect of it, and delve deeper into these charact ers than I ever had the chance to in IRON. One of my favorite parts to write was a 6 or 7 page sequence in which we just follow around Carson's mom and see what she does. I think Miyazaki films were also present in my mind and I rewatched a bunch of them while working on ISCARIOT. Other books like HARRY POTTER and Gaiman's CORALINE were also good to look at for a sense of wonder and environment.
JT: Both of your graphic novels, ISCARIOT and IRON: OR, THE WAR AFTER touch on the fallout from great conflicts of the past, rather than focusing on the actual great conflicts. What can you say about writing from this kind of hindsight?
SM: I feel like being a teen in the aftermath of 9/11 really put into perspective that historical events are not some static thing that exist in history books. I feel like there was an air of 'everything changed' that I felt from the media and the adults around me. I think growing up in the shadow of something like that is hard to really state. I lost a neighbor in 9/11 so it was this horrible thing that brushed right up against my door but never entered. I think i t was a very weird time to be a teenager.
JT: Do you think of consequence as being a central theme of your creator-owned work? If not, what is?
SM: I think consequence is a theme I still haven't finished exploring. In IRON I took out the context of this war so that we could judge the characters actions on their own merit, and decide for ourselves whether or not we agree, and how much we really value context. IRON did very well for me, but I was always kind of surprised how angry some people got that I never explained what happened in the war. In ISCARIOT I wanted to touch on the consequences of helping people. What helping someone really means, and the harm we can do when we believe we know what's best. That's a bit heavy handed of an explanation, but I like to have solid overarching themes that I use as a guideline to write. I don't know if it matters if they actually translate to the reader, but I think it helps build a narrative and what kind of characters you need to introduce to make a compelling story.
JT: The juxtaposition between fantasy elements and real-world problems is central to ISCARIOT. What was your thought process behind tackling difficult subjects such as illness, both in the form of Carson's ailments and in her Mother's alcoholism?
SM: The first was something that I witnessed second-hand, the other was something I experienced first-hand. Talking to kids with terminal illnesses is hard because you come in with a lot of complex concerns that the kids don't have. I think you just have to forget about all of those thoughts and just interact with the kid, because that's what I found they respond to. Of course, I am no professional and my experience is hardly extensive. But it informed a lot of the way I wrote Carson. Although, Carson is dealing with cancer, her condition is not terminal. As far as her mother, I think it's something a lot of people might relate to. I think alcoholism in a parent is a hard thing to understand as a kid. Being read the serenity prayer before bed, it's not something you can really understand until you're older.
JT: It is a bold decision to make your central protagonist a child who begins the story confined to a hospital. Can you talk about the inspiration behind Carson's character and what you wanted to say with her?
SM: Carson is named in honor of Carson McCullers, and got a lot of inspiration from her characters Mick from THE HEART IS A LONELY HUNTER and Frankie from THE MEMBER OF THE WEDDING. I guess I was trying to think of a character that would appear in Carson's next book, should she somehow be able to release one. I'm not sure exactly where Carson came from, my experiences reading to kids in the hospital, my own life, books that inspired me, it all kind of swirled toget her to make this kid doing the best she can and trying desperately to make a connection with someone who will listen to her.
JT: You give a very realistic portrayal of Carson's Mother, who struggles in coping with her daughter’s illness. Why was it important for you to make her such a prominent role in the story?
SM: I was raised by a single mother, so I know it's a tough job. I made it tough! I also desperately wanted a father figure who accepted me as a kid, to be there. I think Iscariot kind of fills that role for Carson. So expanding on that it was natural to have Virginia's role explored.
JT: Your painterly, illustrative style is one of the most distinctive out there; however, your work almost seems more at home in an art gallery or a magazine than a comic book store. How and why did you decide to tell stories in the graphic novel format?
SM: I had a very negative experience very recently after graduating where I didn't write the story. It made me reconsider if I even wanted to do comics because it was so unpleasant. I decided that I would write my own story, and if I didn't like that, then I would find something else. That story I wrote was IRON, which I enjoyed making more than any other piece of artwork until that point. I just love coming up with ideas and stories and characters and then drawing them. No other medium offers me this. I went to school for illustration and not comics, so that might inform my style a bit, but I feel like I'm always trying to bridge my own gap from Winslow Homer and Andrew Wyeth to Akira Toriyama and Mike Mignola.
JT: People looking at your work might think you paint exclusively with watercolors, but that's not the case. What are the steps in creating these pages, what tools do you use, and how long would you say it takes for you to complete a page from start to finish?
SM: My process on ISCARIOT is about 40/60 watercolor digital (in IRON it was probably 60/40). I usually work in batches so it's hard to quantify exactly how long each page takes, but I usually try to stick to an average 5 pages a week. Each project I've worked on has changed my process, but for ISCARIOT, I start out with a sketch, then transfer to watercolor paper and paint the linework and darks in watercolor. Then I put that on a lightbox and paint over shadows a nd mid-tones over it. Then scan that all in, put it together in photoshop, then color it digitally.
JT: Who would you say were some of your biggest artistic influences in making ISCARIOT?
SM: Books I was really in love with when I made ISCARIOT were ROSE by Charles Vess, BABY’S IN BLACK by Arne Bellstorf, MAISON IKKOKU by Rumiko Takahashi. Also game design like DRAGON AGE: INQUISITION and FIRE EMBLEM: AWAKENING inspired me to think of cool ways to depict magic and magical landscapes.
JT: Earlier this year you wrote and drew issues of the series FIVE GHOSTS and JIM HENSON'S STORYTELLER: WITCHES. How does your approach differ between doing a personal work and playing in someone else's sandbox?
SM: It takes a little of the pressure off because all that world building is already done. With the Henson story, it was more about reorganizing existing myths than working from the ground up. FIVE GHOSTS is on it's second trade, so it's pretty established in universe. Frank Barbiere's world takes a lot from pulpy adventure books but also things like SANDMAN, so it was easy for me to kind of sneak in and come up with something that worked.
JT: Looking forward, do you see yourself doing more projects like FIVE GHOSTS as opposed to creator-owned graphic novels?
SM: Of course I'd love to do more one shots, but that's not up to me! I guess it depends on the story and whether or not I felt I was right for it. I'm currently working on my next graphic novel pitch though, so I definitely have plans to continue doing that.
JT: Is there a dream project or property you would like to tackle?
SM: It would be a dream to work on HELLBOY, or a BONE property. For DC and Marvel, I'd love to take a crack at one of their lesser known characters, like Dr. Mid-Nite or Dazzler or Firestar.
JT: And finally, do you think you will return to the worlds you created in ISCARIOT and IRON in the future?
SM: I have tentative plans for both, but it all depends on the future, and who knows what is going to happen! I'd love to though, I love all the characters and have a lot more stories I could tell with them.
ISCARIOT is published through Archaia Entertainment and will be released on October 7th. You can learn more about SM Vidaurri’s comic and illustration work via his Tumblr or by following him on Twitter, @SMVidaurri. IRON: OR, THE WAR AFTER is available October 14th at your local comic book shop or through Archaia’s website.
Josh Trujillo is a writer and comic book creator based in Los Angeles, CA. He is both known for the anthologies LOVE MACHINES and DEATH SAVES: FALLEN HEROES OF THE KITCHEN TABLE. You can learn more about Josh by visiting his website, JoshTrujillo.com, or following him on Tumblr/Twitter/Instagram @LOSTHISKEYSMAN.