As an artist, how do you follow-up after working on things like Batman & Robin, Sea Guy and The Other Side? If you’re Cameron Stewart, you look inside and explore your own past and find your voice not just as an artist but as a writer as well.
In the upcoming graphic novel Sin Titulo, Dark Horse will collect Stewart’s 5-year webcomic series in an impressive hardcover volume chronicling this complete story which won him an Eisner for “Best Digital Comic” in 2010. The story follows a meager proof reader named Alex Mackay who learns that his grandfather passed away weeks prior and no one thought to inform him. As he digs into his grandparent’s death and their history, he discovers a photograph that sets him down a physical and metaphorical journey into his personal dreams and family secrets.
Sin Titulo, which comes out in print on September 25,is a story that Stewart admits is based somewhat on his own life, specifically about the late discovery that his grandfather died, and the creation of the book took the cartoonist down a new road of self-discovery about himself as a professional artist and as a person. Newsarama spoke to Stewart while he was in the middle of the Italian countryside, preparing for Sin Titulo’s promotional tour and the next volume in the Assassin’s Creedgraphic novel series.
Newsarama: Let’s ease into talking today, Cameron – can you tell me what you’re working on today, art-wise?
Cameron Stewart: I'm currently on a bit of a break - I was most recently working on the third volume in the series of Assassin's Creed graphic novels for Ubisoft, with Karl Kerschl and Brenden Fletcher. This one, entitled Assassin's Creed: Brahman, is set in India and debuts a new Assassin character and his modern-day descendant. Since wrapping that up I've had very little time to do any more work and for the rest of the year I will be touring North America and the United Kingdom to promote Sin Titulo, so I probably won't be working on anything significant until next year.
Nrama: Speaking of Sin Titulo, that’s why I reached out to you today. This is a comic you launched online in 2007 and finished online in 2012. What’s it like having so much time pass before its formal print debut for you?
Stewart: It's a strange feeling - I've drawn a couple hundred comics pages for other projects since finishing it so it often feels like a distant memory. At the same time it's nice that it continues to be present in my life, that despite being close to six years since it began it's all of a sudden new again and hopefully will find an audience of people who are seeing it for the first time,
Nrama: After making a name for yourself on Seaguy, The Other Side and Batman & Robin, this series Sin Titulo shows you going head-on into auteur mode – writing, drawing and even lettering and coloring this work. I know you’ve said in the past that you did it as an unbridled creative outlet on your own, but now with it done and finished – how do you think doing it, and doing it all by yourself, changed you?
Stewart: The biggest change for me was giving me the confidence to actually think of myself as a writer - for most of my career I had thought of myself as only an illustrator, working on other people's ideas - despite my desire to write stories, I found myself intimidated and didn't feel creatively strong enough to attempt it on my own. Of course that changed once I actually made an effort to actually do it, instead of merely intending to. Creating - and crucially, finishing - my own complete book was I think the first step into a new phase of my artistic growth.
Nrama: Sin Titulo bleeds noir with some very personal, seemingly autobiographical elements to create mystery story that’s sincere and not really trying to fool the reader like some do. When you started Sin Titulo, did you know where the story would end up in the final page?
Stewart: When I started Sin Titulo I didn't know what would happen on the second page. It really began as an exercise in improvisation - the title (literally "Without Title" in Spanish) was chosen because of its ambiguity and I started writing the story as I was drawing the pages, just to get the wheels turning. Eventually after establishing the characters and basic drive of the narrative some ideas coalesced and about halfway through was when I started having a clearer idea of what it was about and where it would go. There are a few scenes near the end that I had envisioned fairly early on, but didn't really know how I would arrive at them. I just trusted that my subconscious would make the right choices. The last twenty or so pages were more carefully thought out and planned in order to draw everything to a (hopefully) satisfying conclusion.
Nrama: Speaking of that beginning page, I’ve learned that it was taken verbatim from a dream that you yourself had. This is a fiction story, but it’s soaked in personal things. Since you were, in some ways, creating the story on the fly, did the amount of personal details in the story change from what you originally intended?
Stewart: The first page is indeed a dream that I had, and that page was drawn the following day. The inciting incident of the story - Alex finding out that his neglected grandfather had passed away without his knowledge - is sadly also pulled from my own experience, but I didn't intend it to be an autobiographical work. However I began to include more of the caption-narrated "memory" scenes, most of which are in some way or another autobiographical, and felt that they created an interesting punctuation to the main narrative, as well as fulfilling a broader thematic purpose.
Nrama: The idea of drawing your dreams is something some artists have spent a lot of time on – Rick Veitch’s work springs to mind, as does Jesse Reklaw’s excellent Slow Wave strip. Is it something you dabbled with before, or is Sin Titulo the first time you’ve grappled with that?
Stewart: This was the first time I've put my dreams on paper but it's an incredibly fertile source for, if not actual story ideas, at least images or emotional impressions. I think dreaming and writing are both ways for the subconscious mind to organize thought and experience so it's natural that they would overlap.
Nrama: The story starts off when an office drone fact checker named Alex finds out his grandfather died and no one told him for a month, and then into a photograph he finds that asks more questions than gives answers. As you said this is somewhat autobiographical, at least as a launching pad, and you yourself had this happen where your grandfather died but the news didn’t make it to you till weeks later. Can you tell us about that experience yourself?
Stewart: It's really as it happened in the book - I had gone to visit after an shamefully long absence and was told on arrival that he had passed away many weeks earlier. I was shocked and ashamed and it made me think about how little I had really known of him, and about how our memories and experiences - our stories - can disappear if there's no one to listen to them. The mysterious photo in the personal possessions and the monstrous orderly Wesley were my own invention.
Nrama: Your grandfather was a cartoonist during his day, is that correct?
Stewart: Not the same grandfather. My mother's father drew political cartoons - I remember seeing funny drawings of Hitler and Churchill on the walls of their house as a child.
Nrama: My mistake, sorry about that. Getting back to the book, in Sin Titulo Alex takes a real journey, physically and mentally. At the same time, you uprooted yourself from Montreal and moved to a place you’d never been to before – Berlin. Can you tell us about how you changed as a person during the course of Sin Titulo (and afterward) which pushed you to where you needed a change of scenery?
Stewart: I don't know if working on the book specifically prompted me to move to Berlin, other than a general desire to expose myself to a wider range of cultural experience, which in turn can be processed into future stories. Berlin is also significantly less expensive than anywhere else I've lived so I feel more confident to spend more time working on more personal art rather than taking on work-for-hire jobs.
Nrama: Over the course of the book, The Alex character has a catharsis in terms of his view of himself. Being this such a pivotal project for you and some time has passed, looking back did you have any degree of catharsis?
Stewart: I hope so. I think I figured some things out, but I won't know if I truly have until more time has passed.
Nrama: Re-reading Sin Titulo for this interview, I’ve come to the personal conclusion that in essence the series is a human story about stories; Alex trying to find out the story behind things from his childhood and his family, but also about finding out his own story and where he fits in things. This is all told in some fantastical, whimsical and a few dark elements that mix fantasy, surrealism and some hints of science fiction here. When you were creating this story, did you know how all these elements would work together without overpowering the human side of it all?
Stewart: I think that's a very apt - though by no means definitive - interpretation. I didn't know exactly how to balance all of these elements other than just trusting my own instincts and, most importantly, approaching it with sincerity.
Nrama: Sin Titulo has its fair share of surrealism, with dream sequences and that personally scary scene to me with the blindfolded waiter and the crab. Were there any points in this where you pulled back from any planned panel, or scene? Or alternatively pushed yourself further in the depiction of something than you initially planned?
Stewart: I'm glad you find that scene scary - it sounds cruel but I intended several scenes to be unsettling to the reader. I've said before that one of the huge influences on Sin Titulo is David Lynch, whom I admire for his ability to provoke a profound sense of horror in me through imagery that is surrealistic but also, I feel, deeply honest despite its outlandishness. I find his work so terrifying because on some primal level I feel like its revealing some dark and indescribable truth with complete sincerity. There is no artifice or calculated manipulation in what he's expressing, it's totally honest. That's a quality I attempted to emulate in Sin Titulo. I don't think I held anything back or went further than I should have - like anything it's an instinctive process, shaping it until it feels right to me and hopefully to the reader.
Nrama: One of the perks of writing about comics is I get to study comic artists and their works, and there’s a very stark economy of line and composition here compared to your more dynamic work like in Batman & Robin and Batman Incorporated. How’d you go about finding a style that’d work for this, and how’d you meter what to draw and then what not to draw?
Stewart: I definitely wanted to draw in a style that was visibly different from the work I'd done previously, to clearly indicate the departure into my own personal work, but honestly most of the aesthetic decisions were initially made for efficiency. I was trying to write, draw, color and letter a complete page in a day, between other work that I was doing, so I decided that the way to make that easier for me to accomplish was to use a limited color palette, drawings that were less fussy and labored, and a consistent panel grid that allowed me to not waste time trying to work out a new layout for each page. I think that ultimately these decisions ended up working to the artistic benefit of the book but they were devised for practical reasons.
Nrama: You finished up the online version of Sin Titulo last year – with it going to print this month, did you go back in and make any edits, corrections or fine-tuning before the final version was locked down?
Stewart: I relettered almost the entire book, because the early pages in the online version of the strip I think looked cramped and amateurish. I also went through and made the color more consistent, cleaned up some of the art, redrew one page entirely because the original was improperly scanned. None of the actual content is changed but it's a cleaner, print-optimized version of the entire book.
Nrama: With Sin Titulo finished, I hear you’re working on a new series you’re writing and drawing called Niro. Can you tell us about that and the format you’re doing it in?
Stewart: I've had to put it on hold for a little while but I hope to return to it soon. It's another departure, this time I wanted to play with genres and do something that was a sort of hybrid of fantasy and western, but not in the way that you probably immediately think when I describe it like that (i.e. no cowboys and aliens). I'm thinking of it as something that might result if Alejandro Jodorowsky and Hayao Miyazaki collaborated on something. My plan is to release it as multiple chapters of 60-80 pages each, digital first as downloadable PDF or CBZ files, on a pay-what-you-want model (I was beaten to the punch on this by Brian K. Vaughn and Marcos Martin's Private Eye), with an eventual print edition nice it's all finished.