Canines are no stranger to comics, from Snoopy to Krypto to Snowy, but Xolo is in a category all his own.
The skeletal dog is at the center of cartoonist Gregory Benton's upcoming original graphic novel Smoke. Xolo follows Benton from his previous work, B+F, into this new wordless story about two young migrant workers fleeing from a tobacco farm into a surreal universe fraught with both danger and wonder.
Due out September 15, Smoke is the latest release from Hang Dai Editions (which Benton co-founded) in partnership with with Alternative Comics. Benton spoke with Newsarama about the series, about Xolo, the book's ties to migrant labor, Aztec mythology, and the unique craft of wordless storytelling.
Newsarama: Gregory, what can you tell us about Smoke?
Gregory Benton: Smoke is a wordless tale of stark reality and escapist hallucination. It is rooted in the world of migrant labor and industrial farming, but inhabits part of the same surreal universe as my previous book, B+F (AdHouse).
Nrama: How did Smoke come about?
Benton: I was working on the second part of B+F, when the story for Smoke crept up on me. I was absent-mindedly doodling the Xolo from B+F (the skeleton dog) as he hung around and seemed to protect two young brothers who were in peril. I had been thinking about and discussing reports of kids working on industrial farms and being exposed to hazards they are ill-equipped to handle. The Xolo, in Aztec mythology, is the protector of souls. The Xolo and the brothers make a dynamic group.
Nrama: Can you tell us more about Xolo, and what he means to you?
Benton: I’ve always drawn dogs. And the concept of a loyal spirit that accompanies people when they pass has a long history that strongly resonates with me. Skeleton dogs have been finding a way into my sketches for years. And right before doing B+F, I took a trip to Mexico and spent time in museums seeing a lot of dogs in pre-Columbian sculpture form.
Nrama: You’ve drawn other dogs before Xolo (and probably other after), but how do you feel he fits into your informal canines in your cartooning?
Benton: I feel that this Xolo is a character that combines all of the pups I’ve been drawing over the years—a sort of amalgam of the ancient Aztec and modern Day of the Dead styles combined with pitbull. Mutts are the best, obviously. The Mexican aesthetic, folklore, and sentiment spoke to me more than any of the other myths of shepherd dogs, be they Cerberus or Lassie.
Nrama: Smoke, like B+F, is wordless. How hard a rule is that for you, and how much of it is just natural?
Benton: I wanted to communicate both stories without relying on written or spoken language. Not far off from a cave painting, if you stare at it long enough, the story will come through so long as the general tropes of human expression are similar. Hopefully this enables the narrative to sidestep geographical boundaries so it can be understood most anywhere. And to be honest I haven’t evolved much beyond the Stone Age.
Nrama: What does the Smoke in the title refer to?
Benton: The title makes reference to the fact that the story takes place on a tobacco farm.
Nrama: As you said, this was inspired by you reading about the plight of some migrant farm workers. How did that hit you personally enough to work its way into the story?
Benton: I guess a common thread throughout my work has been the subject of children, who by default are vulnerable and not in control of their own circumstances. Thinking about it now, it is a subject that runs through a lot of my stories. My first book, Hummingbird (1996, Slave Labor), is about a girl who relies on the adults in her world to have her safety and best interests at heart, but they fall atrociously short. Smoke just puts this theme into a larger social and political context. It’s an observation and a meditation on an issue of social justice that would affect anyone with a pulse.
Nrama: Smoke is done as part of Hang Dai Editions. Not only are you the cartoonist, you're also the publisher. How was that part of the process for you?
Benton: This process has been both difficult and rewarding. As of this writing, I still have not received a copy of the bound book, so I’ll let you know how it works out in the end. It was a different experience to carry on with the story rather than just upload it to a publisher’s FTP server and forget about it until publication. Though I have had some prior experience dealing with printers it was still a huge undertaking.
For a very brief period in the mid 90’s, I co-edited World War 3 Illustrated and would go on press checks in Long Island City where the magazine was printed. More recently, I’d published my HDE comics Stake, and Pocket Book 2 with a printer abroad. Printing these short books served as a dry run to get a sense of what wrangling Smoke would be like. In summary, it’s an ongoing learning process and hopefully all goes well for HDE.