I just love reading and making comics about music.
Jersey couldn't hold music and art obsessed Sally Cantirino, who escaped to the marshy solitude of Florida to push the limits of new comics and old magic.
MagiciansHouse: Lots of times you gravitate to human level stories that dabble toward low fantasy. I respond very well to this approach because, for me, there's a low buy-in to empathize with the situation. When the character slams their foot in the door then I know how to feel about that. If she sees a dark shape moving behind a tree at night, I understand that fear. But if a creator wants me to follow along as she's being eaten by a nuclear dragon and traveling backward through time, the experience of that has to be explained to me (at least). You're fond of real world imagery that's very human and street level even when dealing with the fantastic. How did you arrive at this aesthetic?
Sally Cantirino: When I started picking up comics as a teenager the early 2000s, it was trade paperbacks of Sandman and Doom Patrol (later on Preacher and The Invisibles and Shade the Changing Man) at the local library-- but they also had the huge coffee table “Locas” book of early Love & Rockets, that I borrowed and read constantly. Even though it took place in California like twenty years before I was reading it, I saw myself in characters like Hopey and Maggie in a way that I never felt with other comics until then. During high school I got into stuff like “Local” and “Demo”, “Mai the Psychic Girl”, “Tekkonkinkreet”, “Tank Girl”, “100%” and “THB”, “Rock Band” by Gipi, “De:Tales” by Fabio Moon & Gabriel Ba, classic stuff like EC comics, magazines like Creepy, Eerie, Heavy Metal, artists like Wally Wood, Caniff, Sickles, Toth. Over the years my taste has expanded, and sometimes I’ve been disappointed by the creators I liked as a teenager, but to an extent my aesthetic choices are still rooted in what I was reading when I first came to comics, for good or for bad. I liked the interpersonal punk dramas and the specificity of the setting in Love & Rockets, I liked the road-trips and threshold-crossing magic/madness of Vertigo stuff, I liked energetic brushwork, I liked black & white art, I liked a little supernatural horror and twist endings, and I think all of those things contributed to my style today.
I love sci-fi and fantasy epics in theory, but those never end up being the stories I feel personally most compelled to tell. I don’t necessarily want to make auto-bio or memoir comics either, I don’t feel comfortable doing that just yet. I am drawn to making work about whatever evokes strong emotions for me, and that’s often rooted in specific songs, places and spaces. I’m still a little obsessed with the parts of North Jersey where I hung out in college, the industrial decay you see from the train between NJ and NYC-- there are certain albums I can only listen to when I’m home in those places, because they’re so deeply connected. I drove across the country earlier this year to help my friend move to LA, and getting to drive across the desert was overwhelming and amazing. I drove with some friends out to Salton Sea when I got to California, something I’ve wanted to do for ages, and we listened to David Bowie’s “Earthling” on the way-- I foresee more desert comics coming from me in the future, because I want to encapsulate that feeling of driving out to abandoned places blasting “Seven Years In Tibet”. Right now I’m also “filling the well” between personal projects with a lot of Bollywood too.
There are certain things that comics can convey incredibly well and there are things that comics do famously poorly. Attempting to translate the power of music via silent ink and paper is at the top of my Impossible Things To Do In Comics list. But music's such a big part of the Sally Cantirino game. In the back matter of your stories you often include things like track lists as bonuses for the readers and your comic Mysteries straight up took on the task of rendering out the emotions associated with a musical performance. Now with Last Song you're leveling up with the rise (and assumed fall) of a rock band told over four 60+ page editions. Is it simply that challenge of "the impossible" that keeps you interested?
It’s difficult but I don’t think it’s impossible. I don’t think I always nail it, either, but I don’t take it too personally because like you said, some people do it really well and some abysmally fail. I don’t think it’s the “impossibility” or the challenge that draws me in, I just love reading and making comics about music.
As a teenager I thought of art and drawing as the thing I would do until I started a band, or that I would make band merch or artwork for albums or something, music was my love before comics. I got really into reading/making comics right around the same time I started to get really into bands, so it’s all intertwined for me. I felt constantly inspired and motivated to make art by my favorite bands. Living in Jersey meant I had plenty of opportunities to go to shows, because everyone played NJ or NYC or Philly at least once on a tour. I probably put more time, energy, and money into seeing bands than into comics until I was 22, when I dropped out of college to do a comics program at Sequential Artists Workshop. But being a teenage girl, being labeled “fangirl”, not liking the “right” things-- both music and comics are full of gatekeepers and all-around jerks and after encountering a lot of those types I got shy about what I liked for a long time. I didn’t want to use that time in my life or my love for music as an inspiration or narrative source, I was embarrassed about it. Within the last two years though, I realized that if I didn’t tap into those experiences and emotions, I was letting them go to waste.
I still find myself influenced by the music I’m into when I’m making something, which is why I like to include a playlist in the back matter of stuff I self-publish. I make a mix or pick a few albums that I put on repeat or each project-- for Last Song #1 it was a lot of pre-2000s Placebo, Rowland S Howard’s two solo albums and some Manic Street Preachers. I wrote the skeleton of Mysteries on a day when I just couldn’t stop listening to “Every You Every Me” by Placebo, and In The Cold came from Thursday’s "A Gun In The First Act”.
There's a lot of beautiful and relentless codependence woven into the characters of Last Song and placed into the panels at an almost subconscious beat. The story never takes the easy way out and never insults the intelligence of the readers. Where do you feel that you most succeeded in bringing cohesion to Holly Interlandi's characters?
Last Song has been a very long time in the making for Holly and they know their story and their characters inside and out. They gave me very distinctive, solid people to work with, and I try my best to interpret them with care (even Charlie, I guess). Plus the way Holly moves the plot non-linearly at times, you get a bigger scope of the characters-- you’re either shown “how did they get that way” or left to ask “what happened between then and now that changed them”. The band members, their relationships, their interactions with each other are messy and intense and complicated, Holly does a great job of managing that in their storytelling.
Early on in working on Last Song, I happened to see three band-related documentaries playing in town (two of them involved Nick Cave). The first was “One More Time With Feeling”, the documentary Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds put out when they released “Skeleton Tree”. The second was “Autoluminescent”, which is about Rowland S. Howard, who was in The Birthday Party with Nick Cave and went on to be in a few other bands and do some phenomenal solo albums. The third was “Gimme Danger”, the Iggy & The Stooges documentary. I think “Autoluminescent” was the biggest influence of the three, the dynamic between Nick Cave and Rowland S. Howard felt very similar to Drey and Nicky in Last Song to me. Seeing all those documentaries early in the process helped inform my ideas when it came to the members of Ecstasy, their design, their body language, the way they relate to each other in Last Song.
You sometimes mix straightforward brushwork and traditional panel layouts, a very limiting type of design, to later break those rules for visual and tone effect. You're also very capable of pushing the limits of comic creation with things like Changeling which you made in 16 hours. When a project comes up, what kind of story gets your attention? What the hell are you out to prove?
With regards to layouts, when I started drawing Last Song I made a conscious choice to stick to a grid for the mundane, the everyday, the behind-the-scenes stuff. When it comes to the performances and shows, I get to play with the layouts a little more. I’m always balancing trying to portray something like music and performance-- which is chaotic, emotional, transcendent, moment to moment-- with the level of clarity that a comic needs for good storytelling. When you’re at a show you’re wrapped up in the emotions of seeing a band and the energy of everyone around you, and having an immediate connection with the music and its creators, but you’re also like-- you get distracted by the couple making out in front of you, or not losing your friend in the crowd, or wanting another drink-- you’re both in the world and not. How do you convey that, without losing the reader?
What kind of story gets my attention? I think I answered it in the first question, I want to work on stories that evoke strong emotions for me. But part of why I enjoy collaborating with other people is drawing things that are outside my comfort zone that I wouldn't otherwise make. “Rubies” with Rae Epstein was totally on brand for me, so is Last Song, but doing “Precog” with Mark Stack or “Eucharist” with Chris Jones-- those are stories I would never have drawn on my own. Collaboration allows me to get out of my head for a while.
What the hell am I out to prove? I think I’ve chilled out on that a lot. Like when I was a teenager, or when I was still in college, I would have said like “Revenge! I wanna stick it to everybody I don’t like! I wanna fight my heroes and be better than them!” But as I’ve gotten older I’ve realized that’s very quixotic, because you know, none of those people I was so mad at would care or remember me anymore, and I don’t remember them either half the time. It’s fine! The world is so much bigger to me now. I’d rather make stuff that resonates with people, I’d rather attempt to connect with people the way I felt music connect with me. I am an introvert and a bit of a hermit, I’m kind of reserved in my daily life so art is my best way of reaching out.
Thanks for stopping by, it's been a pleasure. Let everyone know where they can find you online.
The best places to find me are on Twitter and Instagram, both @thisquietcity . My instagram is mostly just art with an occasional cat picture or selfie so if you’re tired of me rambling after this interview, just go there.
I’ll be at Thought Bubble this year, with Sal Heron and Kellie Huskisson, Table 62 in the Leeds Town Hall Marquee. I believe I will also have some stuff at the Sequential Artists Workshop table at SPX this year.
My portfolio is http://srcantirino.carbonmade.com, and you can buy digital and physical copies of my comics at http://gumroad.com/inkanddestroy . You can get Last Song #1 at comic shops or on comiXology.