Today on Artist August, we have a very special guest: Scalped’s R.M. Guera. Scalped wrapped yesterday, and Guera and writer Jason Aaron ended it in predictably great fashion. Guera has spent 60 issues creating some of the best art in comics, filled with iconic moments, painful atmosphere and some of the most powerful character moments in the industry. The guy is one of the best around, and I was honored to talk to him. We chat about what Scalped meant to him, how he came to the book, what the best (and most difficult) parts of the book were, and much, much more.
What was it that led you to wanting to work in comics?
RMG: If you’re asking about why doing this at all — than I really don’t know. Don’t know where it comes from, and what this need to make lines lie so alive and awaken in someone. Musta’ve been something forged too long ago to catch clearly sight of. I’m talking being maybe three-four years old. Although an interesting subject — I never gave it too deep a thought. I don’t know where I’d start. It just is.
And if you’re asking about choosing it as a profession, it’s simpler still, I just love to do it since I know about myself. I most probably would do it even if nobody pays me. As a kid, I played outside as all my friends did, y’know — all day long. But once I’d come back, I’d draw as if possessed, my parents say it was since I saw pencil for the first time, I’d take it and time would stop for me.
So I maybe want to make a profession out of stopping the time.
For many fans of comics, Scalped was their first experience with your work. But you’ve been working on comics for a long time in many countries outside of the United States. Now that we’re nearing the end of Scalped, can you tell us a little about what has led you to this point?
RMG: I gravitated towards American market since pretty long time, but somehow never did anything about it seriously. Just few short stories in Heavy Metal. Especially because of my admiration for effectiveness story telling wise, I wanted to have the experience of working in American style of publication. Wanted to know personally about it, y’know. Are scripts offering this type of page solution, or is it something everybody just grew up to?
At that moment, twas early 2005 I think, I had my pirate serial (“Howard Blake: Under the Shadowlight”, for French “Glenat”), and thought it would be ideal moment to try something aside, and have it as secondary gig. I just called my long time friend and known pro Igor Kordey, who for years has been working for Marvel and DC. Also, his friend Alex DeCampi (“Smoke”, “Ashes”), she was also very nice and helpful, so they gave me personal e.mails of some editors. I wrote, sent some pages with mail. After receiving replies, it was Kordey who said I should stick with Vertigo’s Will Dennis, saying something like “oh, he’s like you”, “he’s your man, you’ll see” or to that effect, and he was. Still is, thank goodness. Will Dennis was a stroke of luck, such a great pro, all style with steady ease. Decisive, but could charm a crocodile if he’d want, y’know. We at first talked about known DC heroes to jump in, but I asked for something more low key, simply to get to know each other better first. And he obviously has some extra sense, as the first thing he offered was “Scalped”.
Secondary gig became primary. Almost instantly. I just loved it.
What appealed to you about working on Scalped from day one?
RMG: Great synopsis that wasn’t perfect. I loved that about it. It maybe could be called chemistry, you know. Really was as somehow Jason had left hints for me to fill in. I liked the heart of the synopsis, and sensed what it exactly needs from me. It was noir-western-docu-action all at the same time, so it desperately needed realism to connect all these and start the wheels going. I just very clearly sensed the feel of it. So the decision to accept it was effortless, really. I think that reading the synopsis for the second time was when I knew that something in it already made the decision for me. I’m in.Continued below
And I had this idea, something like an aim. As I grew up on both American and European style of comics, I just had this sense about it — like a small vision inside bundle you show to nobody — that it is possible to make something like “best of both worlds”. I wanted to make those differences blur, and underline the sensitivity. It’s not important which “school” it is, it’s important that it’s a good story to tell. Make it more real. Like finding a great spot to intervene creatively.
So ‘Scalped’ really looked perfect for that also. Looking back at it now, it was so many elements being just right. And these things happen very rarely in one’s life. Instead of deciding, I maybe just recognized it.
From “Hello Mr. Dennis, my name is R.M. GuÃ©ra” to a signed a contract was maybe month and a half max. Probably less than ten e.mails. Will calls it kismet.
In that same vein, what did you find to be the most challenging aspect of the project throughout?
RMG: Search of characters depths. No two ways about it. Most challenging, most inspirational to me.
Once you’re sure they’re born, you have them in front, that’s the first part of two. The tricky second part is not to show everything everywhere. Character is not only face or style of clothing. Ambiance, gestures, movements, details, shadows… but all of it in its core is for two purposes: to show or to hide. That’s the whole game.
Dash’s body is changing along the story line. He became thin, less strong in his actions, but closer to last issues, when with Maggie, he becomes fit again, eats well, y’know. Catcher’s body, Red Crow’s, all give great material.
You must dose and find aims. Purpose should be the most important word in “storytelling dictionary”, artists and writers alike. Big truck or a rock is heavy. With deep shadow weighs even more, and yeah you’ve drawn it beautifully, but what is it that you want with it? It really is very important to have at least 50% of purpose in what you’re drawing, other part being compulsive and feel based. Too many styles were spent rapidly, became so empty so soon because of not caring about this equilibrium.
I just believe you first ought to have a good story to tell, inside of yourself, y’know. People usually have effective stories, less the good ones. It should be the other way around. Good is first. Felt. We never were sure how effective “Scalped” is, we were sure it’s good. Working on “Scalped” was in fact evolving “Scalped”, finding what’s good about it and let it breathe.
And that’s where Jason’s talent works incredibly. Also, he’s really skillful in indicating just the right amount of what’s necessary, but left for you to make sense of it visually inside the panel. So this way you’re left free with clear objective ahead. Perfect.
Past that, the 60th and final issue of Scalped arrives August 15th, and it has been one hell of a journey. It’s one of my all-time favorite comic series. What has it meant to you to tell this tale with Jason and the rest of the Scalped team?
RMG: Thank you. I mean it. People like you, and sites like yours helped enormously. Readers passing the word was maybe crucial moment for us, and naturally makes us even more proud of the whole thing. The most important part is that people are coming back and re-reading it. Sign that there’s life in it, that it has something extra to offer, to put it some way.
It is very clear that ‘Scalped’ is a serial of our careers, both Jason’s and mine. Surely Giulia’s, and possibly Will’s also (although he’ll come up with something again, I have no doubt). We will be compared or measured by it in the future. So how to valuate it personally? Again, I’m not sure I know how. I’m just incredibly grateful it happened, it obviously is a beginning of something, and it is by far the most fruitful period of my life ‘till date.
Cured lots of my page obsessions anyway. I’ll try to be a better person for it.Continued below
Looking back, so many of my favorite moments of the series have been tied to your art. In fact, one of my favorite arcs was Knuckle Up, much of which prominently featured the lead being unable to talk. Yet, so much of the character’s thoughts were skillfully portrayed through mannerisms and expressions through you art. What is it about this book that fit your skills as an artist so well, and how did the relationship between your art and Jason’s writing improve throughout?
RMG: Nice question, thank you. I think it’s positive chemistry mixed with respect. I was always trying to somehow make Jason happy with the pages, and I suppose he was trying to make script work for what I’m eventually good at. It’s most probably first time in my career I felt as organic part of team. You also can call it trust.
We both in a way were discovering “Scalped” while creating it. When Jason wrote that Carol should look like a girl everybody would go to bed with, but nobody would marry, or our understanding at the certain point that Red Crow may be a bad person in various aspects – but he still doesn’t know it; well these right there are the keys for drawing them. Or at least in my case they are. Ideas or impressions like these are the ones that make me want to draw what could happen to them when they interact. You just try hard to be ready to complete or help the story Jason offers on a page.
To me, the most important part of any comic that’s writer/artist created, is how much do they appear together in pages they do. It should be unnoticeable, flawless. This is one of most important elements to qualify when I read comics.
Maybe even the first criteria to look for.
But to me personally it’s about that feel we had from the get go, the one that told us it’s not even important how successful this is. Important is we-ourselves knew it’s good, and we’re doing it like a million dollars, y’know. Let everything that happens be the consequence of this.
Scalped has always been a book that is dark, in tone, atmosphere, and often-in art. What did you look to for inspiration for bringing this world to life, both inside and outside of comics?
RMG: I always go for the feel first. Feel it first in art, y’know. Hopefully it is very clear what I felt on the pilot page I did. And it should be said that I do think in black/white. I grew up on black/white comics and I’m not sure people understand how great an advantage this is.
Also black/white movies, they definitely formed me. Maybe I tried to mix realism of Kurosawa, or “Treasure of Sierra Madre” with stylized approach of “The Third Man”, because the real job was to put in peace the noir and documental part of the story. It surely offered both in abundance. And I never was worried about the western aspect of it, as I have it in my veins; almost everything I do in my head is just closer or further from western.
Also, I did consciously go much more for strength instead of toughness in all of the cast. I was looking for to show the strength point in all of ‘em. As each character has it differently planted in.
Than I try to somehow convert the whole thing into style, way of thinking, way of justifying emotions of panels. It is hard work, I must admit, but it also is a pretty great party, if you know what I mean.
One thing I’ve always loved noticing was how there were many panels throughout the series that both you and Jason would sign. Often, you see artists sign covers, and full or splash pages on occasion, but rarely would you see both a writer and artist sign smaller panels like the two of you did. Why was that something you both did?
RMG: Well the whole thing is my idea, Jason is a very modest guy in his attitude, and I really like that, decency matters, y’know.
I just felt this could be the way to hint we created this together. Without Jason’s script I wouldn’t do those pages. To my mind he is the essential part of them, although he doesn’t draw them. But he does in a way, y’know.Continued below
So here-there, when I see there’s a good or significant space to place, I’d put both names. Also trying to keep on placing it unexpectedly. As I said, the most important thing is that we create as one. Maybe I tried from the beginning to show our trust in it, but through small door.
Your work has been just wonderful throughout, but many artists, namely Jock for his covers but also others like the very talented Jason Latour and Danijel Zezelj, have contributed as well. For you as both one of the primary creative forces behind Scalped, and as a fan of art, what has it meant to share this book with those other artists?
RMG: Cut right in half. I enjoyed a lot to see their look on it, while at the same time hated every inch of the idea of it. But I started pretty ambitious style, that simply couldn’t be maintained on intense monthly dead lines. It was very clear that something has to be done. Will commented on it, and I accepted right away, really.
To my mind, ‘other artist’ option offers more natural approach, instead of penciler-inker or something like that. I tried it just once in my life, and twas instantly clear I’m not tailored for it.
Now that we’re nearing the end of the book, what is it that you’ll miss most about this book and the experience of crafting it?
RMG: I’ll miss it as a whole. Not any special part of it, but the presence of the feel in my day. You know you belong to something, but it’s not there anymore.
I like the fact that people first think “Scalped”, and afterwards who made it. This is good order. It took life. I suppose it’ll always matter we were present while the bow was tensioned, but once the arrow flies, you’re out. You did what you could, now it’s out of your power, you just hope it’ll go further because of effort and love you put before it flew. Away.