Having now reached its stride, the Nintendo 3DS pushes the opportunity to explore some surprising areas. We already experienced it as a clever audioguide for an augmented visit of the Louvre, or as a personnal tutor with New Art Academy, a learning software which makes the techniques of the great masters accessible to anyone who is passionate about drawing and painting. Today, it is through a serie of downloadable content for the same software that the console attempts an intrusion into the world of the 9th art, offering drawing lessons signed by the most representative authors of contemporary comics. A perfect opportunity to listen to Juanjo Guarnido, the respected author of Blacksad – the best cat detective in 50’s New York – describing his own vision of comics in a rather technical interview.
Blacksad stages animal characters, which we are more used to see in works aimed at children, while the tone is decidedly adult. How do you make the big leap between a childhood imagery and a mature tone?
If you say to an adult that he does not draw well, he will not find it enjoyable whereas when you discover a child’s drawing, the reaction is always nice. Childish things are often more likable. But ultimately, it is mainly the desire to explore more disciplines and improve someone’s skills in specific areas that will determine the orientation towards grown-up or more youth-oriented designs. For my part, I am interested in both: a children audience as in Witchcraft, with a cartoon type drawings, dynamics, exaggeration and caricature, as lively and expressive as possible. With the adult drawing of Blacksad, cursors are positioned at different levels, I put more attention on the narrative aspect and composition.
Nintendo is often regarded as the Disney of video games. You previously worked for Disney, what did you learn from this experience?
I already had a Disney influence because I’ve grown with their cartoons and comic strips since I was a child, it is also certainly from there that came my love of animals. It’s a great art school, I worked with big names such as Glen Keane and Dan St. Pierre, it is a constant learning that demands a very high level of requirement, learning how to adapt the design to professional constraints and a continuous research for layout and animation. I am very satisfied with this experience.
New Art Academy offers its users to learn several drawing techniques inspired by great masters. What are your most important techniques?
Each designer uses the techniques he is the most comfortable with. I grew up with the pen for years but when I reached adulthood I realized that it was ultimately a chore for me, because what I wanted to do did not work with pen, but rather with brush. Conversely, a designer like Christian Rossi (Jim Cutlass WEST) worked with a brush for a long time, then, switched to the pen. Today, I only swear by the brush, but nothing is sealed.
Here is a little auto reverse question (you know, like the snake who bites his own tail): if we dig a little further, do you think that good techniques make a good designer or that a good designer knows the right techniques to use?
Probably a bit of both. In Angouleme, I spent more than one hour at lunch with a colleague talking exclusively about pens, brushes and ink. There are thousands of different feathers producing differents results and requiring the most diverse techniques, which can easily make you ask for very specific things, like working exclusively with a certain type of pen from England or the United States. In the comics world, it is very pleasant to communicate like this with colleagues, not only to exchange technical tips but also to discuss creative aspects of the work, our inspirations and how to best convey our desires of expressiveness. Because when it comes to inking, one might consider that this is only a technical aspect among others, yet this choice comes directly from the guts of the artist so he talks about it with passion because it deeply determines his work at the end. And don’t even get me started about paper type – smooth, satin, grain – or the choice of color – gouache, acrylic or other – all these technical aspects are crucial to the creation process.
Beyond the professional techniques, what techniques do you use in your everyday life?
I try to write down all my thoughts, unfortunately I don’t do it on paper anymore but on the notebook of the iPhone, I write my to-do list, reminders for equipment to buy and people to call. Outside this calendar function, I list and notes a lot of things daily.
In comics, we can distinguishe the European School, the American School and the Japanese School. Do you think these different approaches are best explained by technology or by culture?
Probably by culture. From a narrative standpoint, we can learn effective and efficient concepts from both manga or comics because at the end of the day, they are pretty similar. The drawing style is permeable: many western designers incorporate manga elements into their work – except large eyes which is a very particular point – and among them, there are several female cartoonists who go after this aesthetic. But the language, narrative and grammar of comics strips is still the same.
So we have European inspired by Japanese techniques, but there are also Japanese manga artists who are inspired by European culture, especially in terms of stories and scenarios.
Yes, it’s true. Objectively, in terms of drawing the manga is fairly uniform and has less variety than US or European comics, where we have a wide range of styles, the clear line, big nose, hyperrealism, caricature and so on. But it opens up to interesting loans for sure.
Blacksad’s atmosphere is inspired by novels and thrillers of the 50′s. In addition to books and movies, are you also influenced by video games and Internet?
To be honest I’m not a video game consumer, probably due to lack of time. When I visit friends who are true gamers, I often come accross quite sumptuous creations in terms of visual development. I buy games for my kids and some graphic worlds are little gems. I don’t have the time to get into it and I fear it would absorb me for too long as I’m already looking for my own graphic route and working on the release of new comics. However I always try to improve and diversify my drawing technique and Internet is a great tool for this. Today, my eyes are glued to the computer screen as much as on the paper, the whole references work is done through the web, my pictorial library of the 50’s, my research on the cities of the time. Internet is changing our approach to everything and the research time is now only a matter of a few clicks.
Some try to mix cinema with games or comics with Internet. Are these simple mashup techniques to get awareness or true creative attempts?
It’s an experimentation, these projects looks after bringing birth to a different medium that is not really comics nor totally cartoon. They are hybrid products, maybe some will be successfull to write tomorrow’s comics language while others will be forgotten. I have a manic aspect, I love comics as they have always been, I love traditional formats, I’m not against more innovative or experimental formats, but I’m still attached to cardboard, paper, 46/48 page album. It may be more sentimental than anything else, because this is the type of comic I grew up with, and I feel the same for cartoons which I like to consider in its purest form. Hybrids are produced at the intersection of several creative worlds. But this may be a personal thing because I’m so close to each discipline. I’m not a professional video game designer or press illustrator for example, but I can consider myself as a comics and animation professional, since I am both a comic artist and a storyboarder/colorist. So, since I know the two disciplines, mixing genres intimidates me a little. Yet it is something that interests me, and I must admit that some of the projects I have in mind take into account this kind of crossroads.
Comics adaptations to video game often get mixed results. Is there any technique to make it successful?
Perhaps the condition of success is that the creator should take a personal investment on the development. I think about Victor Kalbachev who is developing a video game based on his serie Blue Estate, published by Ankama. Since he is at the origin of the work and is actually quite involved, it promises to be extraordinary. I guess it has also been done elsewhere, look at the movie adaptation of Titeuf which was directed by Zep himself, the movie is very faithful to the spirit of the comics.
Beware, here is another auto reverse question: do you prefer drawing animals that looks like humans or humans who act like animals?
Jim Steranko (Nick Fury Agent of SHIELD) who prefaced the U.S. edition of Blacksad, said in a rather flattering way that we reached a turning point: they are not animals who behave like humans anymore, but humans that resemble animals. These humans have animal heads only because it is their appearance, then what is actually shown through animal traits, are not mere physical attributes like ears, whiskers or truffles, but the image that these animals projects to the collective unconsciousness, what they represent in fables and stories of the western culture.
And if you were an animal yourself? Or a character from Blacksad?
As I’ve never seen myself as an animal, I do not know if there is a good answer: if I answer with an animal that gives me a flattering picture, it would be perceived as a mark of vanity, and if I choose an animal that does not value me, it would be seen as false modesty. So let me just say: better to stay yourself! (laughs)