It's difficult to separate the dark, conflicted world of Scalped from the artwork of R.M. Guéra.
Mixing the grittiness of crime noir with a stylized Western feel, Guéra's work on Scalped has defined the series' look since the Vertigo title was launched in 2007. Written by Jason Aaron, Scalped explores the darker side of reservation life, and Guéra's haunting images of that grim world give Aaron's stories their voice.
Most American readers didn't know of Guéra before Scalped, but he's a veteran artist in Europe. He's one of the most respected authors and illustrators from the former Yugoslavia. He started on comics in his native Serbia in the '80s and has worked on comics throughout Europe, illustrating within a wide variety of genres.
While Guéra speaks somewhat broken English, Newsarama reached out to the veteran artist to find out more about his work on Scalped and more.
Newsarama: Readers in the United States aren't that familiar with your work before Scalped. And I know it's hard to sum up such a varied career in few words, but can you tell us a little about how you got started in comics and what type of work you've done over the years?
R.M. Guéra: Difficult to put this one in short. In a way, I did comics all my life. I don’t recall my life before the urge to scribble up and down the paper. And it always was comics.
I’m fairly known in my ex-country, Yugoslavia, now non-existent. Divided to Serbia, Croatia, etc. I’m Serbian. I was awarded, presently respected and things like those.
I did short comics, Westerns, not big quantity but somehow I was recognized. I moved to Barcelona, Spain, in ’91, where I still live in. The Yugoslavian civil war made pretty big push to this decision, but it was to happen anyway.
In Spain, along with several short stories, somewhere around ’92 and through ’93, with Oscar Aibar on script, I did an album sized shorts Killers…Like You and Me, later published in Heavy Metal.
Then long years of working on publicity, design, covers, museums, and especially animation story boards. So finally around ‘99, I got a call from French agent and started comics full time. For French/European market, I did two albums, Le Lievre de Mars with Patrick Cothias on script, presently third on the way, and one pirate album which I wrote, Howard Blake: Under the Shadow Light, presently second on the way. All for French Glénat Editions.
But all these are secondary for years now, as I’m married to Scalped.
Nrama: Why did you take this job in particular? Why did Scalped appeal to you as an artist?
Guéra: It maybe is question of chemistry, eh, as it felt like family from the first step.
To be more precise, because I think I sensed what’s not written, but must be seen, and it made natural fit in my head. It looked like Jason left this for me on purpose, like a hint of some kind. I don't know how this sounds, but that’s how it happened.
Reading the synopsis, my mind went "aw, this is good but it needs that... and I know how to do it."
Besides, there was no emotional dead spot. I think Jason wrote synopsis with heart, which is as long as I’m asked, important gear to use if you are planting a story. Script goes otherwise, but story needs heart. Personally feeling what you want to say with it. Lots of times, it’s more important than what you actually say. Feel it first in art, you know.
This type of appeal doesn’t happen often to me, such a clear chemistry joint, so it was effortless decision to me that I should do it.
But big credit goes to [Vertigo editor] Will Dennis, for offering this collaboration to us. He sensed something there and this is priceless, really. As Jason puts it – if Will would need a kidney transplant, he has it covered from Scalped crew.
Nrama: What artists have influenced you? And what was the influence for the style you use in Scalped?
Guéra: My influences, well, I’m still trying to figure that one out.
Many, many, many of ‘em, but basically all old guys, old heroes. Sickles and Robbins. Wally Wood and Jack Davis. On European side, Moebius and Franquin as most important, but along with my very early years strong rooted in Joao Mottini, Alberto Breccia and Giovannini. They’re strangers here, I suppose. But don’t feel too bad, as they’re strangers in Europe as well, sorry to say.
Regarding style in Scalped, well that’s more influenced by movies, I think. But besides Peckinpah, not flashy ones, eh.
I can’t be specific, but I do think in black and white, that could be the hint. I recently bought DVD of a movie that’s in my veins. Didn’t see it for at least 15 years — The Last Picture Show — and was almost shocked how much of Scalped's core is there. Like long breath that caught up with me at some point.
Nrama: Looking at some of your illustrations and comics work, your style seems to match the subject of the stories you illustrate. Is that true?
Guéra: Yes, it is true. Because I think that the interpretation of the story is, or should be, being aware of what’s best for it. So I do try to adapt my attitude, my condition, mood, act, however you want it, to the objective.
For example the Issue #9 of Scalped was about Catcher, and I did try to make the lines dirty and condensed.
To visually add the inside conflict Catcher has, as when that conflict is touched by the reality, he breaks, opens up, which is the moment we should not mind his dirt, but his s.t.o.r.y. instead. His dirt and unpredictability should appear to be logical & human. So my lines should go just a bit unpredictable and distorted as well.
As contrast to this, Issue #25, with the black hustler and gambler, I cleaned the line as much as I could, because the guy himself is a cold, heartless bastard, so the aspect should indicate this also in some way. This control he applies should be “lined” as well. Somehow insinuated to your sub-conscience while reading.
The real hard work part is to envelope the whole thing into the natural evolvement of the style you started. Because it must not differ too much, eh, that could be wrong decision to take. It must differ at just right amount.
I dunno if I’m succeeding, nevertheless that’s what I’m trying. But from time to time only, eh. When I sense it’s needed.
Nrama: Why did you choose the style you use in Scalped?
Guéra: Because I think it fits the story. It’s noir stylized enough, but realistically executed. And both are needed. So when they evolved to one, they became the essence of Scalped. Marked as some kind of column I can always go back to rest against. If you look at my pirate pages, on my web page, as it’s not published in states, you’ll notice the epic approach in style, and so forth.
Nrama: Is there anything you can share about the tactics you use to make your art in Scalped?
Guéra: I really don’t think I do anything special, really. I do read a lot, which I recommend to all visual artists. Sometimes non-fiction, or books specialized on a subject. Also, I daily try not to talk too much about comics; it dulls my feel for it when I work afterwards. There’s some kind of contrast in my general attitude, I think. I’m a movie freak but I never saw any of the Star Wars movies. I saw Amistad dozen of times instead. I also adore simplicity with depth, maybe in photography, as well as paintings…a mix of things.
So it’s attitude maybe, absence of system, difficult for me to point on exactly, but I try to interpret script with all of my reachable means. That’s what guides my day.
Maybe adding some kind of game between risk and understanding to anything I visualize.
Nrama: For readers of Scalped, so much of the emotional attachment to this story is through the characters. Do you have a character that you enjoy drawing the most?
Guéra: All of them equally, really. Their ambience also, as it’s also them, y’know. Maybe Granny Poor Bear, as she’s a portray of my own grandmother on mother side, so it’s almost obvious that I add little of something there. Making her each time look more “there” than others.
But I really love ‘em all, that’s the truth of it.
Nrama: What is the biggest challenge in drawing Scalped?
Guéra: Depth. No doubt, no two ways about it. Depth of them all. Desperately searching for what’s making them simple and familiar with life around us, but somehow exotic enough to want to know them better.
There’s a lyrical side to Red Crow, as well as tough side to Gina.
Nrama: Do you ever research the subject? Do you use references?
Guéra: Yes, I do research and do use references. No end to it. I enjoyed the recent Vietnam issue a lot; that was fun, but while actually drawing page, I clean my table of everything and put on paper what’s left in my head. I’d very rarely look at something directly to draw it.
I think this is very important, the utility of it, and keeps one from meaningless show offs, which I really dislike. Absence of reason to do it, so to say.
Nrama: How has it been working with Jason Aaron?
Guéra: Wonderful. Each letter of this word. Great guy, great script and original approach. But most of all, there’s a challenge in each new story. I feel what we’re doing is not explored, or not explored enough, to say the least. There’s a collision of strong characters of every corner of the story, and there’s absence of black and white look on their relations. Action is short, fast, necessary and brutal. Feels like reality, more than enough for me.
Nrama: Then to finish up, how would you describe your overall experience of working on Scalped?
Guéra: It’s gratifying on all levels, especially the feel of tremendous luck it came to be reality at all. Giulia Brusco on colors, that also is absolute blessing.
I think that by now it’s obvious that Scalped is a serial of both of our careers, Jason’s and mine, no matter what we do after. There’s a strong sense that the best is still to come, which is simply inspiring, as we’ll go on together.
I said it once somewhere, I’d draw Jason’s recipe for a cake. And I mean it…
What's your favorite part of the art in SCALPED?