One of the best things about attending San Diego Comic Con each year is the opportunity to meet wonderfully talented (and very nice) comic creators from around the world.
A true highlight of my long weekend at SDCC this years was my morning meeting with K.I. Zachopoulos and Vincenzo Balzano. It was a treat getting to discuss their new Archaia graphic novel The Cloud with them. The stories of these men’s careers are fascinating and the way they arrived at BOOM Studios’ Archaia imprint even more interesting.
My appreciation of this wondrous book grows from a deeper understanding of the creators, and my appreciation of the creators grows from a deeper understanding of the work they delivered.
Of course, I had to start by asking what The Cloud is about. Writer Zachopoulos described The Cloud as “a post-apocalyptic fairytale.”
“It happens in a world, not our world, and it ends with an apocalypse,” Zachopoulos smiled as he shared his vision. “A thousand years go by and the people forget their past. They call it the Great Before. They’re not sure what happened in the Great Before, they’re not sure about a lot of things. Most of things have been forgotten. They have huge clouds. I won’t say what exists below the clouds—it’s a big spoiler. But the clouds have huge skybound cities. I can’t say a lot of things, it’s good to explore it alone by yourself. One day, a boy with a wild wolf appears and says he’s in search of a wishing stone. It grants only one wish. And he wants to change his past.”
If The Cloud sounds like a mix of classic mythology and a traditional quest story, then Zachopoulos accomplished much of what he was hoping to deliver. This gorgeously illustrated book is a truly imaginative journey, a trip to another world that is unimaginable by most of us. I was deeply impressed by the complexity of the world Zachopoulos and Balzano create. The world somehow manages to seem both allegorical and literal, both European and American.
That global feel was no accident, of course. Zachopoulos was born in Greece and Balzano in Italy, though both now live in Germany. Zachopoulos acknowledges the international nature of this project and sees a parallel in that international approach to the story he and Balzano are presenting.
“As the story goes on,” Zachopoulos added, “our heroes see different areas of the world and they get in touch with amazing beings. We had to use our Japanese tradition, our European tradition, and our American background we have as readers. So we tried to do our best and do a lot of research [so that] the worlds would look familiar and yet otherworldly. If we are successful, this happened because of the art of Vincenzo and his very special way of seeing things and, let’s say, transforming them into other beautiful and otherworldly things to see.”
Indeed, the worlds presented in this book feel as familiar as the worlds we see on certain cable channels but as complex and sometimes as distant as our own emotions. “We created it together,” Zachopoulos shared. “For example this page here with the glass river, I had no idea that this thing could exist in Vincenzo’s imagination. That was an amazing idea. So we had to insert it.”
Balzano added, “I’ve seen many films that take place in Arabic lands. [Pier Paolo] Pasolini [director of films such as Oedipus Rex, Medea and A Thousand and One Nights (Arabian Nights)] created many films in the Mediterranean region and I’ve seen many many pictures of the Mediterranean Sea. At this moment of the world, some of the most famous structures of the region are at risk. It’s not good because the Mediterranean Sea had very very long architectural tradition. Example, on this page I see pictures of Syria. City of Sana. On another page I traced Libya because this is an ancestral temple in Libya. I like putting that in the book. This is part of the world that maybe in the future will be lost.”
The allusions to Arabian Nights and to a lost Mediterranean world are very much at play in this book. As the writer and artist tell us early on in the story, “fear not, for this is not the story of a dying planet… it is the adventure of a boy and his wolf.”
That adventure takes readers from one delightfully strange landmark to another, from the cloistered home of a writer’s office to exotic wastelands, with talking whales, singing dolphins, spacefaring pirates and exotic creatures all making appearances in the story. The world feels distant and strange but at the same time comfortingly familiar in motifs with which we are all comfortable.
Zachopoulos discussed the strong impact the work of the great Hayao Miyazaki and European comics creators had on his careers and how those influences helped construct this book.
“In Greece and Italy, while we were growing up, we had the chance to watch a lot of Japanese animated movies,” he declared. “We had the chance to read European material and sometimes material from the USA. It came with a small delay, but it came, it was there. Personally I appreciate the work of Miyazaki, I LOVE the work of Miyazaki. And I also like Jodorowsky, I like Manara, I like Moebius. One of my favorite European creators is Don Lawrence. Every panel was a different world. You could see a world living in a small panel.
“I said in the beginning,” Zachopoulos continued, “we are a mixture of those wonderful traditions. The European, the Japanese, and the American. I would say that’s amazing because we don’t have the rules constraining us. We aren’t afraid of the Japanese tradition. We use it. We embrace it. And of course our European traditions can sometimes be too culturally oriented. Sometimes it’s too heavy, sometimes—of course, we can find small elements in this book. Sometimes the narration can be a bit heavier than what somebody would expect in the US or Japan. Sometimes it gets a bit philosophical, I would say not in a bad way. Yeah, we are children of our world. A globalized world.
“And I would say that, because we said a lot of the Japanese and European tradition, there is also amazing things that happened in America. I mean, if somebody would just see the work of J.M. DeMatteis. I would like to say that a friend of mine, we worked together for many years, he works with Mr. DeMatteis and they do their best work. He is a master. There are a lot of creators who try to unify philosophy in art, in comics, and pop art. Everything together. That’s a wonderful thing. A wonderful sight to behold. We see that our medium is slowly changing. And that’s good. Go far away from the ‘70s and ‘60s. And I tell you, push it forward.”
It is precisely that philosophy that gives this book a bit of its unique edge, its striking emphasis on the importance and significance of the actions our young boy takes. On one level it’s an Arabian Nights-type adventure. On another The Cloud has a deeper significance, one that can be traced back in part to the fact that this was a passion project for the two men. In this book, they push the medium forward in ways that excite and engage them.
Zachopoulos explained how the team conceived their world: “We had to think that there was a world, it ended, and there is something new that is still young. We had to find some places of our world that we like and are really inspiring and we had to alter them. We had to think how it would be if thousands and thousands of years would passed by. And how would they look, and how, what would people think about them.
“I don’t want to say a lot of things, but I would say that Vincenzo’s art is the main narration of the book. Somebody can just cover the captions, can cover the dialogue, the balloons, and read the book with his eyes without reading. Because the captions and the dialogue, they say something else.
“So we have two different narrations. One that promises to people who open this book, that give their heart and money for our work, they will not read the things that they’ve already seen. It was a very, very beautiful and organic process. It was a bit old fashioned.
“We began with the ideas, then with the summaries, then I would print storyboards which checked with Vincenzo and our editors. And I’d have to say that the book is good because of our editors. Without Whitney Leopard, without Sierra Hahn, the book would have been something completely different and of course it wouldn’t be—if we say that our book is good—it wouldn’t be so good.
“We, as readers of our work, enjoy it. This is because of the work of a lot of people that are behind the scenes, and they do a lot of hard work. We’d like to say a huge thank you. And so, after the storyboards were ready, we did a lot of pre-sketches to see what we would like to show and how, then we did the pages, then when everything is ready we wrote the dialogue. Because as said, we want our narration to be based at the optimal level. Because this is also a book for children. It’s something that you can sit and read with your child. Not only to your child but with your child.”
Balzano approached the art and coloring in a way that gave him the freedom to fit the scenes he was depicting. He said, “The process is different from page to page. One page [I’m] painting by hand, another page [I’m] coloring by computer, another page coloring by hand and passing through the computer. It depends on the atmosphere of the page and the inspiration. For this book, Koustas and I saw cartoon work from Japan. Miyazaki. And we’ve seen many, many pictures. In this book, [the world] is important because the world changes from events in the age.”
One of the most striking aspects of the book is the excellent storytelling qualities of Balzano’s art. He does a masterful job of moving the eye through the story, using smart page layouts and an effective placement of word balloons to deliver pages that are beautiful but that also advance the story. That quality of layout makes this work a delightful comic book more than a simple illustrated book. In fact, The Cloud deserves credit for remaining true to its goals to be parable, adventure and drama all in one work.
It’s a heady mix, tough to pull off, especially for relatively new creators. Zachopoulos and Balzano give much of the credit to the team at BOOM!’s Archaia division. The creators dreamed of working at this imprint, where they found empathetic editors. The longtime friends met online and decided to work on a project, as long as they could find a publisher interested in the property. Zachoplous reflected, “Vincenzo asked if I wanted to try something. Both of us, we said that what we’d do, we both had the idea, we had the summaries, we would send it to Archaia. We just wanted to give it to Archaia. We tried nothing else. I’m telling the truth, we didn’t send our samples anywhere else. It was just Archaia for us.
“We knew nobody personally from Archaia, and there is a submission policy. There’s some steps that follow in order to send a sample, and it works. I want to say this for the people that want to become professionals, they want to work and write and paint books, it can happen. If the idea is good, if the art is good, if the dialogue is good, if you’re a good person, you can work for a very, very good company that creates wonderful books and change the reader’s [worlds].
“The first one I found,” Zachopoulos continued, “was Mouse Guard. I remember it looked so different. It was a comic book and yet it looked like a fairytale, but it wasn’t quite a fairytale. It was so otherworldly, it reminded me a bit of the old British paintings, you remember, the small mouse… But then it was like a heroic fantasy, epic. So good.
“And also Vincenzo very much liked the art of the books from Archaia. And since we had the chance, we were so happy, we began working with Rebecca Taylor—she was our editor in the beginning—and then with Whitney. It was such a creative procedure, it was such a democratic procedure. Because it is amazing that out of the blue, you have a chance to create something that is greater than you and greater than your abilities. It’s like holding a rocket that goes on wide in space, and it brings you there!”
The experience lived up to Balzano’s best hopes as well.
“[Editor] Whitney [Leopard] is a special person,” Balzano said. “I didn’t have to change any panel in this book. Very rare. I worked in Italy, in America for Marvel. One panel, two panel, for ten pages, you change. But for Whitney, not anything. At BOOM!, they’re patient for the comics.. patience and love… I think the best idea is having the creator free. Because if you changed the creator, have them change the idea, it’s not the original spirit. You’ve changed the original spirit.
“This is very special because they created the perfect condition for work. Deadlines without stress, very difficult to knock the company. Deadline is a stressor, because I pencilled, inked, and colored. [For me] it’s not good [doing it] in 20 days. But BOOM! created the perfect condition for work. They were patient with my part of the book, because the graphics and painting.”
If there’s one word that fits The Cloud, it’s spirit. It has a spirit of charm, a spirit of mythology, a spirit of new creators stretching themselves to deliver work that is uniquely theirs. In that way, they also channel the spirit of the great Will Eisner, artist of the Spirit, and a never ending enthusiast for creators to create work uniquely their own.
Zachopoulos appreciates the special position he and Balzano are in with this project. “We’re blessed,” he said. “We have the chance to create the books that we want, the books that we like, they come out in the best shape possible. We see our book and we are happy. Normally, you know, we see our book and we throw it away and we say ‘I don’t want to see this thing again.’ But it was good. It was a lot of work, two years of hard work. Every panel is really in depth, analyzed, well thought.”
What creator can ask for more than that?