The following is an interview with I.N.J. Culbard (Everything, Tales from the Umbrella Academy: You Look Like Death) regarding the recent release of the graphic novel, Salamandre, with Berger Books and Dark Horse Comics. In this interview, Fanbase Press Editor-in-Chief Barbra Dillon chats with Culbard about the inspiration behind and creative process of bringing the story to life, what they hope readers will take away from the story, and more!
Barbra Dillon, Fanbase Press Editor-in-Chief: Congratulations on the recent release of Salamandre! What inspired you to share this evocative story with readers, and what can you tell us about your creative process in bringing the narrative to life?
I.N.J. Culbard: I’d hit a brick wall in the pitching process when my big sister, who’s a writer, gave me some advice. Use a dramatic event from your childhood as the finale of your story and work backwards from that. So, write what you know and start at the end. So, I did exactly that. There was this event which features as the basis for the finale, and I asked myself, “What on Earth was the responsible adult in the room thinking?” And that, in essence, was where the book came from. I wrote the whole thing as a comprehensive breakdown in about 11 or so pages, and then the final document I think was about 7 or 8 pages. That got it the green light, and then Karen and I worked for a few weeks on that breakdown to hammer out the shape of it a bit better, a lot better I should say—the previous version had far too many dinner parties in it—and then I spent a month or so writing the script.
Despite the fact that I would be drawing the book, when I write, I don’t really think about having to draw it. It’s better that I don’t. The drawing part of the process is really like an additional draft because it’s a whole bag of additional storytelling skills that come into play. Staging always changes, blocking (taken straight from theatre) is a way of telling a subtextual story on top of what’s already there. As an artist I work in scenes, and I’ll block out the composition with stick figures and then approach a scene one character at a time, knowing where each character is standing in the sequence. I look through their dialogue as an actor would in a film or stage play and then consider the weight of the words, how they would be conveyed, what the emotional entries and exits would be for the character in the scene. This is visual storytelling now and an opportunity to add to the writing. As the scene is written, I’ve considered their goals, what conflicts they might have in their way, when I come to the scene as an artist I can expand on that. Is there some way an emotion can be conveyed using the environment around the characters, what props they may pick up, that sort of thing.
And then bit by bit, character by character, I go through the book till I get to backgrounds and finally color and lettering and then I’m done. Which, when I put it like that, sounds enormously simple. Really, it’s a case of taking something overwhelming (144 page book) and breaking it down into bite-size chunks so I can tackle each thing one at a time.
BD: As you revisited your own memories of the Cold War, did you find there to be aspects of the story that were more challenging than others to put to paper?
INJC: Emotional events are more likely to be remembered. When we try to recount those events anecdotally, those stories are subject to confabulation, probably because in the telling we’re trying to articulate that emotion. Stories change over time. Consequently, the truth of a story is not how something was but how it felt. So, I leaned hard into the “I once caught a fish this big” of it all, and I found it enormously liberating.
BD: What makes Berger Books and Dark Horse Comics the perfect home for this story?
INJC: I’ve been enormously fortunate in my career to have worked with the best people. Back in 2018 when Karen was looking for an artist for Chris Cantwell’s Everything, I said yes before I’d even seen the outline for that project. And that was such a fantastic project to work on. I learned so much working on that book. The entire Berger Books team is fantastic. After that project finished, I really wanted to do more. So we talked, and out of all that talk came Salamandre. As for Dark Horse, I grew up reading a lot of European comics like Asterix, Tintin, Valerian, and Laureline. Dark Horse used to publish an anthology book of international stories called Cheval Noir. It also published Dylan Dog in English. It brought a lot of international titles into the English language. That’s an aspect of Dark Horse’s publishing history I’ve always loved, as well as Hellboy and The Umbrella Academy.
BD: At Fanbase Press, our #StoriesMatter initiative endeavors to highlight the impact that stories can have on audiences of various mediums. How do you feel that Kaspar’s story will connect with and impact readers?
INJC: We all inevitably experience grief at some point in our lives. Not necessarily grief for someone who may have died, it could be the loss of a friendship, it could be having to come to terms with a fundamental change to the way we live, there’s even the isolating grief that goes unacknowledged because of estrangement or the death of a family pet. As mentioned in answer to an earlier question, what I was looking to explore with this book was how memories are emotions and the importance of memory and how memory itself is an act of imagination and how imagination might liberate us.
BD: Are there any other projects on which you are working that you are able to share with our readers?
INJC: I’m presently drawing Brink which is a series for 2000 AD (home of Judge Dredd) which is written by Dan Abnett and lettered by Simon Bowland. There are 5 collected volumes published by Rebellion, and you’ll find that in most good book shops and comic shops.
BD: Lastly, what is the best way for our readers to find out more about Salamandre and your other work?
INJC: I have a Twitter account and an Instagram account: @injculbard.