Bad girls, bad girls, what you gonna do, what you gonna do on New Year’s Eve 1958 in Cuba when you have twelve hours to escape Cuba with six million dollars? That’s the questions creators Alex de Campi and Victor Santos set out to answer more eloquently and stylistically in their new graphic novel, “Bad Girls.” On New Year’s Eve and the eve of the rise of dictator Fidel Castro, De Campi and Santos tell the exciting story of a group of woman attempting escape the chaos with their lives and the money.
This new graphic novels will hit stores this July from Gallery 13 and to learn more about the release we spoke to creators Alex de Campi and Victor Santos. The team discuss telling story in a historically setting, the benefit of the graphic novel format, and creating compelling characters who happen to be bad girls. A huge thanks to Alex and Victor for taking the time to talk about the novel and look for “Bad Girls” in stores and online July 17th.
When I first heard the concept of the story, “three women have twelve hours to get out of Cuba with six-million dollars on the night of New Year’s Eve 1958” I was instantly fascinated. I love stories that focus on one brief moment in time and the people who inhabited that moment. How did this idea manifest and develop for you into “Bad Girls?“ What interests you both most about telling this story?
Alex de Campi: I love stories that happen in real time. I take a lot of inspiration from drama / the theatre, and so many great dramas are the stories of one night. Obviously, we can blow more stuff up in a comic than we can on stage, but that feeling of immediacy is still there. Also, I’ve lived through some pretty interesting times as an expatriate, and I’m endlessly fascinated with how Americans (and British) do and don’t interact with the local culture when they’re living overseas. And the late 1950s are such a great time in terms of fashion and music, and at the time the cultural capital of cool was Havana.
The amazing thing to me about the events we based “Bad Girls” on is they all actually happened. Batista really did flee Cuba on New Year’s Eve. El Colony really existed and its storyline is 100% based on contemporary accounts of that night. Many other things that I fictionalized in this story have real events as their basis.
I’m fascinated, as you can tell, by history. Nonfiction will always be stranger to me and more wonderful than fiction. Once you start digging into autobiography and firsthand contemporary accounts, the past is WILD. I’ve read autobiographies of Soviet diplomats and East German spymasters where one throwaway paragraph has more story ideas than all of Frank Herbert’s Dune. And I’ve gotten really good at taking a historical framework and using that to tell a story which, ultimately, isn’t about history but about characters.
In terms of what interests me most about telling the story, it’s the very tense relationships between the women. This isn’t one of these convenient stories where three folks from different backgrounds learn to love each other and work together. Nope. There’s very little trust here, and part of the tension of the story is who is going to double-cross who and why.
Victor Santos: I had worked on crime stories set in different ages and places. In “Filthy Rich” (Vertigo) the 60s in NY, in “Violent Love” (Image) Texas in the 70s, even in my complete author graphic novel “Irreproachable” (Panini) telling the rise and fall of the Spanish political class in three decades… Cuban History and that change of paradigm was something fresh. I have read and watched a lot about US modern History, and the Cold War is one of the most fascinating ages. So you have here the story of some small women with humble lives in the big scale of things like Communism and Revolution and Dictatorships and all those wild times, and how they try to survive among the streams of History. I read the complete script (something unusual because the usual way is you read a pitch, maybe a couple of chapters…) and it simply charmed me.Continued below
The story centers on these three women trying to make their way out of Cuba. I would imagine much of the success of the story relies on the readers’ investment in these women and their escape. Who are these women? How do you create three characters the readers can invest in without breaking up the pace the story is working under?
AdC: There are four main female characters. Carole is the mob casino boss’s girl, keen to escape her abusive relationship… especially now that she secretly has another man. Taffy is the gambling-addicted nightclub emcee / singer, who wants to get paid and start over in Europe. Ana is the star dancer, a mambo queen and single mom who has reason to hate Batista’s government. They find the money, and they try to get it out. Then there’s Kitty, an 18-year-old wannabe actress who just wants to be at the coolest New Year’s party. We see a lot of the history through Kitty’s very ignorant eyes, so there’s no way of being pedantic about it because Kitty doesn’t know and doesn’t care. She is, low-key, the most savage and self-interested in the group.
How do I create interest? Gosh, I dunno. All the women have clear jobs and interests, so our main three (Carole, Taffy and Ana) are busy from the moment we meet them. It’s New Year’s Eve and they work for the hottest casino in Havana. There are shows to put on, guests to take care of. So there’s no time for backstory, but it’s there, between the lines. As is their various vulnerabilities.
VS: I tried to work on the acting of the characters. Transmitting emotions and empathy with the reader is something really important to me, it´s like a bridge, or maybe the key, between the reader and the script, an emotional connection. How they move, how they interact… Carole´s distant sights and how she hides her own pain is a good example. Or Kitty´s personality, she acts like a straight fired arrow, innocent and practical at the same time. I tried to put in images and acts the inner world of every character so well detailed by Alex.
I was excited to see the two of you team up on this book. I always enjoy how Alex realizes the characters in her comic and Victor is so good at visual storytelling. How was the creation process for you guys on “Bad Girls?“ What did each other bring to that book that become important into what the story is now?
AdC: I actually wrote “Bad Girls” several years before meeting Victor. It sat with another artist who kept promising to begin for ages, until finally I had to take it back from that artist in order that we remain friends. I approached Victor about it because of his exceptionally strong visual style – the book is set in a nightclub, it needs to swing — he read it and loved it, did some sample art, and a couple weeks later we had a publishing deal.
Victor’s graphic design sense and colour sense is one of the strongest in comics. Under his pen, all these locations come to such vibrant life. You can feel the drumbeats, hear the music, and the ice cubes cracking in the heat. He took a script and made it into a work of art. And then this pushed me much harder in the lettering stage, because I had to do justice to these amazing pages.
VS: In every book I always try to empower the story and its purpose. I love playing with storytelling but I don´t want to “eclipse” the content with juggling. I want to serve to the emotion of that moment. If you must feel pain reading this dialogue, I ´ll design the composition with this in mind, I will make mess with the panels in a riot scene and I will play with vertical and horizontal lines and empty spaces in a quiet and calm scene. Alex helped a lot because she thinks very visually, it´s something I really appreciate in a writer. She can suggest composition and visual solutions but at the same time she´s opened to my own storytelling purposes.
And Alex surprised me because she has an awesome sense of design in the lettering stage, because she used the sound effects and balloons lettering in the same direction I tried to do with her script. Maybe you will hate the story or you will love it, or you will love the story but maybe you will hate how I draw the girls, I don´t know… But I can say: when you really can´t distinguish where the task of each of us begins or finishes, I think it´s a job well done. Because then it´s not a production line system but a single and unique vision.
Both of you have experience and excelled in telling a crime/thriller/noir style story and “Bad Girls” really nails a lot of that feeling. What makes that a style that works so well in comics and does that experience come into play in this story?
AdC: Well, as noted, I’ve lived outside the US for almost as much time as I’ve lived in it – six countries across four continents by the time I was 27, and that’s not counting Poland or Switzerland because I knew I wasn’t staying in either beyond a couple months. And, uh, I’ve done some crazy things: breaking and entering in Cambodia. Sneaking across the Soviet border. Some other stuff I probably shouldn’t mention on the internet. I have friends in both low and high places. So if nothing else I’ve had a lot of experience with… unusual people and situations, and it helps me write the emotional truth of those moments for those characters. Which is really all writing is: taking the truth and wrapping it up in a big tasty lie.
“Bad Girls” also plays a lot with music of its era. If I have one skill, it’s having an almost musical rhythm to my comics work, and that makes the pacing quite exciting for the reader.
VS: In the visual aspect, I think the noir genre in comics moves in a playground where stylization works really well. You can play with lighting and colors and a lot of composition/drawing resources even the most expressionistic movie can´t reach. And comics still having the closeness of very few hands creating the magic, this make those personal stories more epic and intimate at the same time. It´s like a close friend telling you a story face to face.
Each of you have worked on single issues and graphic novel releases in the past. Why was this a story that works as a complete graphic novel versus a monthly issue release limited series? Is there more freedom in telling it as a complete story as a creator?
AdC: I like variety. It’s fun to do books, and it’s fun to do monthlies and webcomics and shorter works. They scratch different itches, creatively. But I’m also a weirdo who just… goes off and writes the entire story, then comes out of my cave with 225 pages of script, blinking owlishly. But I gotta say, if I could just do graphic novels, I would. Gallery 13 is ruining me for other forms of work. The print quality on “Bad Girls” is SO good. It’s this gorgeous hardback, spot gloss on the cover, amazing paper stock… and to be honest, you get all the press and all the notoriety only on the first release / first issue, so why not just release the whole thing at once? With the advent of graphic novel divisions in big trade publishers, we can do that now for genre work.
VS: I agree with Alex, every format has its own charm. Even in these paperback times, I love the simplicity of the 22 pages of a comic-book where you can learn and grow month to month, you can see the art printed before you have finished the complete story. And at the same time the novel format is exciting, working on a book for a long time and then throwing this complete story to the world, readers can enjoy it in a row. One of the reasons I accepted this assignment was testing another field, working in a different way and reaching a new audience.Continued below
When focusing in on this story there is a very specific time and setting for when it takes place. As creators is it fun to fit your own story into those set pieces and are you still able to play around a bit creatively?
AdC: Oh, absolutely. There’s a lot of creative freedom even within the most exacting or distant historical settings. People are still people, no matter what era they lived in. I try not to write about actual historical figures in my work, and I try to avoid factual inaccuracies, but I do happily bend the truth when it suits me.
VS: When some story is set on the past, you can play with the big picture of History. It can work like a metaphor of the kind of story you want to tell. But it´s always a modern point of view. I try to be respectful but don´t get obsessed with the accuracy.
In the same thought I doubt most are going to be experts on 1958’s Cuba but was this a story you found yourself researching to get looks/feels of the places and people?
AdC: I’m a research fanatic. You can assume if I write about it, I’ve read about 20 books on the subject and there’s a Dropbox file with several gig of photo ref.
VS: Of course, avoid the big documentation mistakes is important, so God bless the modern Google times. But at the same time it is one of the funniest part of the previous work.
One of the coolest elements of the book for me is the idea of this ticking clock that the story and women are under. How does an element like that play into your respective elements of the comic?
AdC: Anything to add tension. Every choice I make when I’m writing – and let’s be honest, pretty much everything I write is a thriller – I’m asking myself, how do I add tension? How do I raise the stakes?
I think a lot of writers misinterpret what “raising the stakes” mean, though, which is why so many comics stories and films about world-ending villains are so goddamn BORING. There are no consequences. The “stakes” are just about making the baddie bigger, like post Wes Craven 1980s horror, where it was about maybe the supernatural killer can have machetes welded to his elbows and no, no, sit down. Back to drama: I’m a massive Edward Albee fan. “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” is a play about four mediocre people with mediocre jobs with pissant stakes and it’s GRIPPING. Because the stakes are about what is important to the characters, and why it’s important isn’t revealed until near the end, in one of the greatest twists in modern theatre. There are so many lessons there.
So for “Bad Girls” we set this countdown clock going, and then it’s like a game of Jenga: we keep tugging out supporting pillars of their plan until the whole thing is ready to fall.
VS: : As I said before, the storytelling serves to this, is the oil of the gears Alex is assembling. One thing I did was narrow the panels in some stress moments, the characters look uncomfortable and trapped there… later, when calm arrives (surely, calm before another storm) I opened the space and let them breathe… Sometimes colors are the key, I saturated tones or used a high contrast to mark that tension and lower it later with other monochromatic sequences… it´s just a couple of examples, all graphic elements need to work in the same direction.
Many readers might be familiar with your work at publishers like Image and Dark Horse. Gallery 13 might still be a new idea to a lot of people, even though they have put out books like Lemire’s Roughneck and Chabouté’s Park Bench last year. Why was Gallery 13 the place to tell the story of “Bad Girls”?
AdC: They were hugely supportive of adult, genre graphic fiction; are a division of the very powerful trade publisher Simon & Schuster; and they produce gorgeous books. We wanted to get this book into bookstores as well as into comic shops, and Gallery 13 seemed the best equipped to accomplish this for us.Continued below
VS: Having a big publisher behind us is very important step, I think this is a very accessible (but not simple) story and it could be a great entrance door to new readers.
What do you hope readers take away from their experience with “Bad Girls?”
AdC: Hey, I just want them to have fun. Shock them a little, scare them, thrill them, and leave them wanting more. Oh and possibly ruin “Mambo Italiano” for them for life.
VS: Emotion, always emotion! I want to reproduce the effect I had when I read this script for first time: “I really need to know what will happen to these bad girls later.”