Ballad for Sophie is one of most accomplished works in comics of the year. You can read my review here. The following is an interview I had with the writer, Filipe Melo, and the artist, Juan Cavia via email. Many thanks to both men. I hope to meet each of you in person in the future! You can pick up your copy at Top Shelf Productions. We begin with Filipe Melo.
HENRY CHAMBERLAIN: Would you share with us something about your musical background and how it compliments what you do in comics?
FILIPE MELO: I’ve been a musician for many years – mostly in the jazz idiom – we had no jazz schools in Portugal so I travelled to the US to go to Berkley. I had the chance to see my favourite musicians in the world – and I really had more access to films and comic books than I did back home. When I got back to Portugal, I really wanted to try to make a living doing these things. I mostly worked as a sideman, playing piano, backing up many American jazz musicians that came to Europe. From there I fell in love with orchestration and composition. My passion for films remained the same – and I kept practicing screenwriting and the piano – so Ballad for Sophie is a direct result of that. Also, an advantage for choosing music as a theme. I did not need to do as much research. Less homework!
Please share with us about your collaborative working relationship with Juan. What can you share with us about previous titles that you have both worked on?
We have been working together as a team for many years – we started with a series called “The Adventures of Dog Mendonça and Pizzaboy” which we did for Dark Horse Comics a few years ago. Those books were our comic book school… Juan is in Buenos Aires and I am in Lisbon, so we worked via Skype for many, many years. I actually only met him in person on the release of our first book. Over the years we became great friends and we learned together, mostly from seeing our own mistakes on paper and listening to people’s reactions to the story. I think of ourselves as a band. We know each other well and the process we have is the one we found by trial and error.
What can you tell us about the writing process? For instance, would you describe a little how Ballad for Sophie took shape, when you felt that the book was coming together and why?
First, the story was set to be a classic rivalry story, and the tone was more humorous. After I started writing I guess I used the story as an excuse to talk about many things that are important to me, personal things – and so it all became a bit darker. The process was quite fast – the story was writing itself – but, as always, Juan’s feedback on the story was essential – he kept pushing me to make it more personal. In the end, I wanted to make a book where the protagonist and the villain would be the same person. I never felt like it was coming together – the whole process is always full of doubt, fear and uncertainty. I guess now it exists, so it was all worth it.
Any thoughts on the differences or similarities you may know about, or imagine, between American readers and readers in other parts of the world–especially how they respond to graphic novels?
I come from a country with a very, very tiny comic book community – so, both France / Belgium and the US have huge markets for comics and graphic novels. Maybe different in styles, but there’s a universal appeal for stories. I believe stories have a unique power to connect cultures – just like music does. I fell in love with jazz, an American artform. Why? I have no idea. It just struck some chord, for some inexplicable reason. So, although the markets and the readers are different, I think we are all connected by this curiosity and humanity that good stories provide.
What are some of the graphic novels, or other media, that have inspired you–and you believe have helped in the creation of Ballad for Sophie?
We did draw a lot of inspiration from the italian film classics – like Cinema Paradiso, Once Upon a Time in America, 1900, etc. – in the sense that we set out not to be afraid of expressing emotion, we really wanted to tell an epic story, that occured throughout many decades. From literature – the south american magical realism – García Márquez, Borges… And musically, we were all over the place – from Glenn Gould and Bill Evans to Liberace and Jerry Lee Lewis. Also, a more recent film that I absolutely loved called “Toni Erdmann” – that one made me cry like a baby.
Do you and Juan have plans for your next book, anything you can share with us? Or what do you see down the road?
I am sure we will work together on more books – I can’t wait – but in all honesty, we took a pause to see what to do next, to take our time. During this period, we worked on a short film, a one take, called “The Lone Wolf” – it’s doing the festival circuit. We hope you get to watch it!
Questions for artist Juan Cavia:
HENRY CHAMBERLAIN: Would you share with us how you got into creating comics and where does Ballad for Sophie fit into your body of work? I mean, is it your best work to date?
JUAN CAVIA: I think that I started making comics when I was a child, starting around the age of eight. My parents worked on theater until late hours at night and drawing was a kind of hobby. I wasn’t a child with natural talent for that but I was always determined. I studied with Carlos Pedrazzini for almost 12 years. I left that to study film, the paradox is that working on movies gave me the opportunity to make comics. So today I work as a production designer for movies but my passion is working on the books with Filipe. I guess that Ballad for Sophie is our best work until today because it’s was a project with a lot of emotional engagement.
Please describe a typical day for you during the creation of this book. For example, what was it like to collaborate with Filipe on this book?
When we started to work on this partnership ( 12 years ago ) we needed to talk at least four times a week on skype, we live in different continents and different time zone. Year after year we needed fewer meetings, we understood each other better and better, but Ballad for Sophie had many challenges, not only the extension in time and amount of pages (almost five years and 320 pages) but also that emotional engagement that I mentioned. So we had to find a better way to work, our own method.
Summing it up, we divided the process in parts like : script, mood board with pictures and references, sketches and layout and then the final process of clean up.
How was the book received when it was released in Portugal?
Because of the pandemic this was the first time that I couldn’t experience that in person. Honestly, it was very sad because in my country, in one sense, our books don’t exist. In the past, I have relied on that process of a live book presentation to measure the response to the project. That said, I’m grateful for social media since it allows me to experience some of the reaction to the book from afar.
Tell us about your process. What tools do you like to use? What size is the paper for the actual artwork? And what can you tell us about the digital process? What hardware and software do you prefer?
Okay, I never consider myself a creative person, but I find my creative way when I need to fix something. So I take the visual translation of the script as a fixing process taking some limitation as a tool. I’m talking about time limitations, artistic limitations, etc, the same things that I’ve worked on as a production designer for movies. With that in mind, I design a way of work specifically for these conditions to the best advantage. Accordingly, I decided to work with two assistants: Sandro for flat colors in Photoshop and Juan Cruz for some backgrounds. And a smaller size of paper than usual ( I drew this in A4, almost the same size as the book). I drew all the book in blue pencil for the sketches and black pencil for the clean-up. For the color and the final rendering ( textures, color correction, etc ), I always use Photoshop with a traditional Wacom tablet.
If you do happen to create hand-drawn work in this process, do you sell originals? Ha, I’d be delighted to buy a page from you! I can easily sense your love for texture and expressive line.
Yes! I always draw in pencils on paper and yes we sell the originals to recover the initial investment of the book, each sale helps finance the next project.
we have an Etsy shop for that =) https://www.etsy.com/shop/JuanCavia
What do you hope readers will take away from Ballad for Sophie?
My only wish is that readers can connect emotionally with the book. With that, I feel whole.