Oscar Zarate has had a long and interesting career in comics as a longtime illustrator for such British comic magazines asCrisis, as well as illustrating the fantastic A Small Killing by Alan Moore and graphic novel guides to such subjects as existentialism, Marxism and Freud. Recently SelfMadeHero released Oscar's latest graphic novel, The Park, about which I raved, "This is a thoroughly satisfying novel about interesting people having unexpected events happen to them. I love being surprised." When offered a chance to interview Oscar via email, I jumped at the opportunity. What follows is a fascinating conversation about surprising characters, the infinite possibilities of comics, and why thought balloons shouldn't go completely out of style.
Jason Sacks for Comics Bulletin: How would you describe The Park to readers?
Oscar Zarate: Much of this story is set in a large beautiful North London Park.
It's about the life of a father and his daughter and a father and his son. Something nasty happens to one family in the park and his event triggers the beginning of the story. The park is an essential protagonist of the story, it has a strong influence on these four characters.
Also a silent film by Laurel & Hardy (He's Darn Tootin…) mirrors fragments of this story.
CB: How did you approach creating the characters in this book? These characters are all very specific people; are they based on anyone in particular?
Zarate: The characters came to me in different ways, some of them had lived with me for a long time, waiting for the right story.
The idea for Vic, (son of Chris) the young man who runs in this story, came from a young friend of mine, a marathon runner who works in my gym. For years I've always seen him in the gym and we talk about all kind of things. However, one day I bumped into him walking in the park and this encounter gave me a jolt. Sometimes it's a bit of a shock and awkward to see someone outside of their usual context. You are used to seeing that person with a particular background and suddenly you see him in a different landscape.
This image of him with trees and spacious blue sky stayed with me for quite a while until in my thoughts I saw him running in the park and this evolved into me thinking of him running at night in the park, at that special time when nobody is there, just him and the animals, birds and insects who actually live in the park. All this made me think about the other characters in the book I realized that they could all have a particular, individual relationship with the park, without them themselves knowing they share this life with the park.
I must say that the personality of Vic is completely different from my actual friend, the gym instructor.
The idea of Ivan (father of Mel) came from an argument I overheard when I was walking in the park. One overbearing man was arguing with somebody else. He was quite loud. Somehow this situation felt remarkably aggressive in the midst of the quietness and natural beauty of the park. Probably if I'd heard the same argument in a city street, I wouldn't have given it a second thought. This situation and this man stayed with me and gradually he became Ivan Grubb.
CB: How do you work out the parallel intersecting storylines in this book?
Zarate: To begin with I had a kind of map of the story. I had an idea of certain paths and intersection points along the way.
I knew a dog bite would trigger the action. (Years ago a dog actually bit my left leg quite badly and on my way to get my rabies injections, I told myself I had to get something positive out of this horrible event. This is where the story was born.)
I knew the setting of the story would be Hampstead Heath, a beautiful park near where I live, an environment where regular users are always bumping into each other. The life of a huge park is extremely interesting. You can witness all kinds of human and animal behaviour amidst the beauty of nature. It allows you to start to make all kinds of connections. This organism, set in an urban context, creates the pulse of the story.
I knew revenge would be one of the themes of the story.
I knew that the Laurel & Hardy film You're Darn Tootin… would be part of the story. For a long time I had felt that it was saying something very powerful to me about human relationships, what it is to be human in this world of ours, which is basically what this book is about.
The geography of the park and the four characters gradually began to tell me where the paths would intersect.
CB: One interesting facet of this book is that all the characters change and grow as the book goes on. How did you approach creating these stories and are there any characters who you like better before they changed?
Zarate: Chris, Victor, Ivan and Mel come to this story as already fully fledged characters, each with their own baggage, frustrations and expectations. I believe that each human being is in continuous construction, made up of genetic, familial, psychological, cultural and socio-economic components and that every day this 'work in progress' has to deal with whatever life throws at it. The dog bite unleashes all the unresolved thoughts and feelings of the four characters.
Somehow, for reasons I don't fully understand myself, I am very fond of all the characters, with all their faults, before and after the story's dilemma is presented to them. I especially like Mel's gutsiness – she dares to do things that I would never do.
CB: How do you see the central metaphor of the park in this book?
Zarate: I see the park as life and life is a very long journey around one's parent's house.
CB: I was struck by how unusual it was to read a book that contains thought balloons these days. What made you decide to use such an unfashio
Zarate: In order to make each of the characters believable human beings to me, it was important to find their internal voices, their internal monologues. I was very curious about these characters, I wanted to know what they were thinking before they spoke, I had to find a way of expressing the gap between what is being thought and what is being said (and what is not being said) since one of the central themes of The Park is misunderstanding between the characters.
Thought balloons were a natural and essential device, I never thought it had to do with being in or out of fashion.
CB: The back cover refers to this book as "Part Greek Tragedy…". What about this book do you see as classically tragic?
Zarate: Even if the primal myth of a son killing his father as in Sophocles's Oedipus Rex is not expressed dramatically in my book, symbolically the inevitable confrontation is there.
As a father you would prefer not to repeat the tension, rivalry and confrontation with your son that you experienced with your own father. Somehow though this eternal law of life is likely to be repeated in some form or another.
CB: Do you see an emerging British school of experienced graphic novelists creating straight, non-autobiographic novels? As someone who's been involved in comics for over two decades, how do you see the changes that we've seen during your time in the industry and where do you see comics going?
Zarate: I will talk about my personal experience working in Britain for more than 20 odd years. Around that time a couple of book publishers with no experience in comics became interested due to the huge success of Art Spiegelman's Maus, Alan Moore's Watchmen and Frank Miller's Batman. A kind of renaissance in comics was predicted and in that context Alan Moore and I created A Small Killing, a graphic novel (straight fiction) for the book publisher Gollancz. Despite critical success, awards and reasonable book sales, there was not nearly as much readership as for superhero books. At that time there were not enough readers for this kind of storytelling in comics. People didn't know what to do with a book which didn't fit the expectations of comic readers at that time. The majority of readers wanted to read superhero comics.
So this revival was short lived.
I always wanted to tell stories close to my heart. I have a strong need to make stories that reflect my way of understanding the world, about human relationships, how to be human. As there was no publisher for me in England at that time, I went to France, where it was possible to find publishers for my work. I worked for two French publishers for more than ten years.
While all this was happening to me in France, back in England a younger generation were coming up with wonderful stories. Women were involved too, an incredible and welcome event, breaking into the nearly exclusive boys club. Now there are many women involved in comics in Britain, including comic book publishers. They bring their own experiences, enriching the scope of what can be done in this beautiful language of ours. Younger publishers are also welcoming all kinds of storytelling, fantastic stuff is coming out. The Park was originally meant to be published in France but when I had an offer from an English publisher, I had no doubts. I wanted my work to be published where I live.
Right now Britain is very active and stimulating and there is room for us, the ones who want to tell stories without a safety net, depending on what is happening in every single frame and not knowing exactly what is going to happen on the next page.
Right now I see a genuine energy and although the readership is still small for straight fiction stories, my feeling is that it is slowly growing. Our main concern as authors is to create the best and most original stories, in order to challenge readers and not only to satisfy them, to enter into another level of consciousness with our work, which I believe is possible. We have the unlimited language of comics at our disposal. Now is the time to use it as never before.
Where are comics going? The future of comics? I don't know, I can only speculate, nobody knows what is going to happen in a year from now.
I know what I prefer to do personally. I prefer to work directly on paper and to be printed on paper. That is what I want to continue developing. There's still so much to learn and to do.
But where I see incredible changes is in digital comics. We are only at the beginning of what can be done once you are involved in the most sophisticated technology available. I imagine that in the very near future, this will dictate the way most comic stories will be told. What I've seen so far in digital comics are mostly adaptions of what has already been published on paper, though I've also seen short comic stories created exclusively for ebooks. To date, I haven't seen substantial differences in the actual way of telling a story, whether it is on paper or in an ebook. Still you read the balloon and the image in one dimension. I'm speculating that future generations will make use of all the technological advances at their fingertips and they won't see the point of not adding sound and moving images. The borderline between digital comics and animation will become very thin. I guess once again comics printed on paper will have a reduced space on people's shelves. But I believe they will still have their space. I prefer to think people are always going to have the emotional need for the sensuality of touch – the feel of a book in their hands.
CB: Do you think there's a difference between the British and the American graphic novel scenes?
Zarate: Because of your question, I looked at my comic book shelves. I saw several books by Daniel Cloves, Adrian Tomine, Robert Crumb, Joe Sacco, Chris Ware. I'm just talking about American contemporary comic authors. They all have a remarkable amount of work published, their work growing with each book, each of them with more than 20 years of continuous publishing,
in each book polishing and shaping their vision, each of them talking about their inner concerns, which is what interests me in comics.
I looked at my bookshelves to see the British output and with few exceptions I didn't see the same equivalent. I have all the books of Posy Simmonds, a remarkable English visual storyteller. She's been working for a long time now, there's a consistency and continuity in her published work, quite unique here in Britain, and to my eyes she's getting better and better. Then there are Bryan Talbot's books. In the last few years he has found a British home for his stories and we eagerly await his new book.
However, it looks as if British publishers are beginning to wake up to the idea that the graphic novel can be a valid vehicle for telling stories as straight fiction. It's a stimulating time to do comics in Britain and I look forward to the day when British comic authors will have a substantial body of work in print.
When you go to see an exhibition of a particular artist, you expect to see more than one or two pieces of work. One painting is not enough to tell you what an artist is about, what she/he is thinking or where he/she is going and the same applies to comic authors. One book is not enough.