Continuing our weeklong look at the comics available on the Stela platform (which provides great digital comics for your iPhone and iPad), Jason Sacks spoke to Ibrahim Mustafa at this year’s Emerald City Comic Con about Ibrahim’s new project Jaeger. As you’ll read, the series sounds fascinating and explores areas not commonly presented in comics.
Jason Sacks for Comics Bulletin: I’m here with Ibrahim Moustafa. We were just in the middle of an interesting conversation about how tough it can be some times to create a page.
Ibrahim Moustafa: Yeah, there is what you want it to be and what is in your head and then there is what you are capable of. I think being an artist is always trying to close that gap. The problem is that the bar that you’re trying to reach keeps getting higher and higher as other people continue to do amazing work or you discover other artists you’ve never heard of. So it’s just sort of this sense of we made an attempt that we all just kind of…
CB: So you aren’t challenging yourself when you read someone like Pope or whoever. You’re like, “Why can’t I draw faces like he does?”
CB: Do you literally do that?
Moustafa: Absolutely. And then you get to a point where you realize they are probably thinking the same thing about somebody else. So you have to swallow it and hope that what you are doing is working.
CB: I think it’s that way with a lot of things in life though.
Moustafa: Yeah, definitely.
CB: You look at your friends that have a nicer house than you or better job than you like, ‘What makes them better than me? What’s their secret?’
Moustafa: I think it all just comes down to is that we all’re doing the best we can with what we have.
CB: And that’s when I struggle with this existential doubt, “I’m terrible!”
CB: But at least I have some friends, you know.
Moustafa: Yeah, absolutely!
CB: We should talk about your Stela project.
Moustafa: So it’s called Jaeger, which is the German word for hunter. It’s about a French Algerian spy who works for the Allies in World War II. He was interned in Nazi prison camp and had some terrible things happen to him. After the war when Nazis kind of skated via rat line and just went to South America and Africa, he became disillusioned with that and is hunting them down on his own.
Then he’s approached by a former colleague who is now with MI-6. She says, “Some of these guys have falsified death certificates and we know them to be live. So technically they don’t exist. Your job is to hunt them down and bring them to justice.”
So he’s dealing with that while struggling with trying not to become the monster that he is hunting.
CB: Wow, so you’ve got a lot going on there. There’s history, the ghosts of the Holocaust haunting him. And also like him trying to transcend what he has gone through.
So you’re obviously both writing and drawing this. How did you build a character that has so many levels?
Moustafa: You know, I’ve always been fascinated with that period of time and how things transpired. I just tried to think, ‘What would somebody be going through if that was their life?’ I also have a real fascination with revenge stories. So it’s kind of like my love letter to things like The Count of Monte Crisco and movies like Man on Fire and John Wick and sort of James Bond, all wrapped into one.
CB: It’s the ultimate wish for vengeance, right? Or the ultimate kind of redemption. And it’s not just him. I’m sure his family and his friends and everyone he knew. There is not anger more righteous than that!
Moustafa: Yeah, and it is also maybe in a weird way kind of… It was such a terrible, terrible time and so many terrible injustices happened. It’s kind of like my fantasy way of writing some of that, you know? I guess maybe in like a weird sort of-
Like it would be cool if this is what happened. Not necessarily revisionist history, but like I hope something like this went down, you know?
CB: You could totally imagine something like that going down. That’s kind of the interesting thing about writing historical fiction. You can really put yourself in that position and imagine being that guy, having gone through all that trauma. That’s the only thing that makes sense, right?
Moustafa: Yeah. I think, you know, all of us to some extent know what it is like to live for one specific thing and you kind of get that tunnel vision about it. I’m certainly that way with comics and art. So I just thought, ‘What would that be like if that mission was to exact some kind of revenge or something like that?’
CB: So how did you bring that time alive in the page? How much research did you do?
Moustafa: I did a ton of research. One book in particular was very, very helpful. It’s called Hunting Evil. It is a nonfiction account of where certain Nazi Gestapo generals ended up. A lot of them were eventually brought to justice by the Israeli Mossad in the sixties. I relied on that heavily for accurate historical stuff. And then from there it was kind of taking what actually happened and weaving my own narrative through it, kind of piecing together. A lot of it is things that could have happened that maybe necessarily didn’t.
And then from there a lot of research on locations. We live in this magical time of the Internet where all of this information is at your fingertips. The trick is finding out what things looked like seventy years ago.
CB: Yeah, and also imagining being the person who is living that life, too, who has never had the Internet or television or anything we take for granted.
Moustafa: Right. You know, there is a series of events that lead the character to where he is going. A lot of it is kind of done through, I guess for lack of a better term, detective work. He’s kind of got to connect one dot to find where the next one is.
CB: Yeah. Sixty years before Google to do the detective work.
Moustafa: Yeah, exactly.
CB: It must be an interesting artistic challenge for you then. Plus working in the Stela format, which is very different from the printed page.
Moustafa: Yeah, that has actually been a really, really fun aspect of it because, you know, at first I wondered will this be something that kind of restricts what I am doing? I’m used to having a whole page to work with. What I realized is it is actually kind of freeing because it limits the amount of infinite amount of possibilities that you can sort of approach it with.
It is a really cohesive format in terms of telling a story. It sort of stretched out a lot of the flourish you might distract yourself with and really get you down to the bare bones of storytelling.
CB: That’s interesting. It removes so many of the variables. Simple figures mean so much. So it must be nice to remove a lot of the variables.
Moustafa: Yes, definitely. And I’ve also paired down my drawing style for it. I’ve been reading a lot of Alex Toth and studying a lot of art from that era to try to visually help envoke something more of that time or at least closer to that. My regular drawing style is very-
CB: Yeah, I was going to say it’s an interesting contrast to Godzilla in Hell, right?
Moustafa: Yeah, I do a lot of heavy rendering and brushing stuff. This is a lot more subtle. So that and the coloring style; I am using a very limited palette. So I think that is helping to kind of give it that time period feel to it.
CB: So in some ways you set this up as a challenge to yourself.
Moustafa: Definitely! And it’s really interesting because I feel like it has made my other drawing much stronger. It is sort of breaking it down to the essentials and stripping away a lot of the extraneous things. It has given me a better outlook as far as coloring and how to be more smooth.
CB: Just what you were talking about earlier, kind of growing as an artist. It pushes you to grow. That’s very therapeutic.
Moustafa: It’s very true to an artist. When you draw a lot for a living and when your idea of fun is also to draw, you kind of have to find ways to sort of normalize it for yourself and keep it interesting and keep it challenging and not fall into ruts. So this has been a really, really great way to do that.
CB: So you feel if you came back and did another volume of High Crimes, for example, you’d do it in different ways or try it.
Moustafa: Yeah. And the interesting thing about that is it took Chris and I a very long time to get that book done. So I had to make sure that I didn’t start to draw drastically different later in the book than I did at the outset.
CB: It’s always interesting when you look at an anthology collection and you see the artist’s early work and the late work. It just doesn’t match up at all. So you actually consciously drew in ways that echoed earlier pages and stuff?
Moustafa: Yeah, there were certain things that I would discover artists doing or whatever I would want to try and I would have to remind myself, “Don’t get too crazy.” I definitely tried to evolve within it without it looking like somebody else drew it in the later half.
CB: Right. Are you going to do another volume of High Crimes?
Moustafa: No, that one is done. We joke every now and then about doing Higher Crimes or Criming Higher or something. But, no, it is nice and complete.
CB: I know it was very popular. I really enjoyed it. It was a great book. So, yeah, I would love to see more of that world I guess. Such a clever idea.
Moustafa: There is always a possibility of translation in other media. So we’ll see what happens.
CB: It could be anything! So what are you working on besides this project?
Moustafa: Right now Kyle Higgins and I are putting together an Image project that is in the gestation period as we build the world and get it going and work on other stuff. Currently, I drawing issue #13 of Dr. Fate for DC. Then my Stela project.
CB: I’ve really been enjoying Doctor Fate. Your work is kind of an interesting contrast to Sonny Liew’s work.
Moustafa: Yeah, it was interesting because I was such a fan of the book already. His work is fantastic.
Moustafa: And stepping into those shoes, which are pretty big shoes to fill, trying to sort of stay true to what he and Paul and Lee had been doing while bringing my own flair to it. So I did a lot of studying of how Sonny draws the characters, some of the poses, and what not to try to kind of fuse that into what I am doing.
CB: And you get to flip between the more indie stuff and the DC level stuff. That must be fun for you.
Moustafa: Yeah! It is really great. And you know, Paul is writing this love letter to New York in this book. So learning some of the different locations and incorporating them into the work has been really, really fun.