Monday, October 21, 2013

[NYCC] Tableside Chat with Cameron Stewart of Sin Titulo

While down at New York Comic Con, I also had the great pleasure of sitting down and chatting with the incredibly talented and prolific Cameron Stewart.  While he's collaborated with some of the industry's best and greatest, we were getting together to talk his critically-acclaimed webcomic, Sin Titulo, which was a one-man effort.  So please join us at the table as we discuss pronunciation, the differences between print and digital, working in a grid, and much more!

Cameron Stewart has worked on such celebrated titles as Catwoman, Batman & Robin, B.P.R.D., and many more.  Back in 2007, he decided to start up, Sin Titulo, a webcomic for him to work on in his spare time (since he obviously had so much to spare).  As a side project, it took him until 2012 to complete the story, but in the interim, the comic nabbed him an Eisner Award for Best Webcomic in 2010.  It also elicited interest from print publishers, with Dark Horse releasing a beautiful hardcover collecting the story last month.  [This conversation took place the evening of October 12th, 2013.]

Grant McLaughlin: Please excuse my ignorance, but I need to get this out of the way at the start: what is the proper way to pronounce “Sin Titulo”?

Cameron Stewart: Just think “Tea-Two-Low”.

GM: “Titulo. That's way easier than I was expecting. Now that we've covered that bit of phonology, where did that title come from?

Stewart: When I began working on that comic, I really didn't know what it was going to be about. It was just something where I wanted to do a story, and originally, I started working on another project entirely and I was trying to write everything out in advance. I wanted it to be this really clever script with clockwork precision where every scene was meticulously crafted. In doing that, I actually was terrified and found that it wasn't fun. I was putting all this expectation and pressure on myself and so I scrapped that idea. What I wanted to do instead was something that I could, at least to begin with, just make up as I went.

So I really didn't know what it was going to be about at all. The first page was me having this dream, so I wrote it out as a little strip and that was kind of the beginning of the story. So I didn't know what it was going to be about and I didn't know what is was going to be called. And years ago, I had seen, in an art book, a painting that was called Sin Titulo, and it literally just means No Title. Or Untitled. I liked the the sound of the words and the way they looked written down stuck in my mind. So I used it as a title almost like a placeholder. Like, I don't know what this is going to be called, so I'll call it Untitled for now. But I'll call it Untitled in Spanish and so it looked a little more deliberate that way.

But then, as I was working on the comic, the title actually worked into the story. When you read it, there's actually an important painting in the story – I don't want to give too much away for people who haven't read it – but it ended up being – although it was kind of a random decision initially – it ended up almost being by design.

GM: So if you were working on it without not really knowing where it was going, was that a scary or liberating proposition?

Stewart: At first it's very liberating. It's very fun to make it up and just be like “And then what happens? And then what happens? And then what happens?” The scary part is when I got about halfway through and realized that, “Well, okay, now I have all these things in place and now I have to tie it all together in a very satisfying way. In a way that makes sense. And a way that people don't think is stupid and terrible.” That basically avoid the ending of Lost. It was a really intriguing, serial mystery show, but then by the end of it, it had a terrible ending that nobody liked. And that's terrifying. Is having that freewheeling abandon of making stuff up but then having to take responsibility for it and to clean up your mess afterwards and kind of put it into a nice box that works. But, you know, I honestly think that most writing is done that way anyways.

With comics, and certainly when I was putting it online, I was basically committing to the first draft. Whereas a novelist just makes stuff up and then they have the opportunity to go back and refine and rewrite it and whatever. All stories, I think, and all writings, start from a place of improvisation. Making it up and seeing what works.

GM: On that note, how did you find the webcomic experience of “working live” and committing to that first draft, as it were?

Stewart: It was great. It was liberating. I did one page a week, because I was busy working on other stuff. So this was a thing I was doing just purely for myself as a creative outlet, and I wanted to get into writing, but obviously without any professional writing experience, nobody would hire me, so I had to do it on my own. So I had to fit it in in my spare time, and because of that, it often was very stressful, since I knew I could only really had one day to do each page. So Sundays were my day to work on it

I would think about the story and where it was going to go throughout the week, but that Sunday morning would be when I sat down and actually begin to craft that page. And then I would have to draw it, letter it, colour it, and put it up online. They were long, exhausting days, and I had to change my work habits and the very look of the book – the aesthetic of the book – was really determined by me having to work efficiently. That's why it's always eight-panels. That's why it's only one colour. That's why the drawing is kind of looser and less refined than some of my other work is. It's just because I had to work quickly. But I think in doing that, I learned a lot of things about how I enjoy working and what works for me. And so all of these things that began just kind of necessity are now things that are now common for me and just ways that I enjoy working.

GM: And was there any point during the creation process where you were really frustrated with that eight-panel grid that you set out for yourself in that first comic?

Stewart: Not really. I chose eight-panels because I wanted to make sure that each page had a sufficient amount of story, because I didn't want to rip anyone off – well, I mean it was free, so I couldn't really rip anyone off – but I didn't want to cheat people by, you know, doing two panels on a page. Or cheat myself, even. I wanted to make sure that there was always – every week – a satisfying little chunk of story. Eight panels always. And the grid, the unchanging grid, was so that I didn't have to think about page layout. I could focus instead on what was in the panels and not what shape they were. I think in a way it's also very liberating because you don't have to think about that. I know that I have eight spaces to work with. And they're always going to be the same size, the same shape. It really makes me focus on the story, rather than showing off the ostentatious page layouts.

I broke it once. There's a moment in the book where I deviate from it for dramatic effect. But it was only for dramatic effect, it wasn't because I was frustrated or anything.

GM: You mentioned that you started Sin Titulo off as an experiment for yourself. How did it come to be picked up by Dark Horse? How did that relationship start up for the publication of the story?

Stewart: Well, in 2010 I won the Eisner Award for Best Digital Comic. I had also won the Shuster Award for best webcomic (a Canadian comics award) and was nominated for a Harvey. That obviously caught the attention of pretty much every publisher. So I had multiple offers from different publishers, but I'd already been talking with people at Dark Horse about working on other stuff, like BPRD. And I just really liked them. I really like the people there. And of all the people who approached me about doing the book, they were the ones that I felt had the most enthusiasm for it, had the most invested in making it a really nice art object – the production quality on the book is terrific, I think it's really, really beautiful. And I'm not so sure I would have had that if it had been a different publisher.

They were also the only ones who trusted me, because at the time that they approached me, I hadn't finished Sin Titulo yet. So it was about halfway through. All the other publishers wanted me to basically write an outline for how the rest of it was going to go, and then they wanted to have their input and whatever. I didn't want to do that. And that's me being a diva, but I was like, “No, I'm doing this the way I want to do it, and this is my process and I'll give it to you when it's done.” And Dark Horse were the only ones who were cool with it. They trusted me, which again just reinforces the fact that I think they were the right people.

GM: So since you started work on Sin Titulo, you've actually moved into the writing and a more, I suppose, all-inclusive control of your work. Is that something you want to do more of as you move forward?

Stewart: Absolutely. I think there's something that's uniquely satisfying about creating your own story. I love collaborating. I've been super fortunate in my career that I've worked with some of the industry's best writers, bar none. I'm really, really happy with the people I've worked with. I'm really lucky. And they've taught me a lot about how to write. And I will continue to collaborate with them. But there is something that's special about creating something entirely on your own. Not being beholden to other people's ideas and kind of doing something that's purely you. And I want to keep doing that as well. I think that it's a smart move - even just business-wise - it's a smart move for people to develop their own ideas and their own concepts and not really be dependent on other people. Better create your own jobs than wait for other people to give them to you.

GM: With Sin Titulo coming out, what's next for you? What are you up to going forward?

Stewart: I have the script for the next Seaguy. I've got the first issue script, although I'm probably not going to start that until next year.

There's the Captain Marvel / Shazam issue of Multiversity that I did with Grant Morrison that's coming out next year.

I have another online comic that I'm going to do. Not as a webcomic in the way that I did Sin Titulo – I'm going to do it as a digital download. It's called Niro. I released a preview of it a little while ago – it's probably easily Googleable [note: it totally is]. And that's something that I'd like to work on. I don't know how long it's going to be – it's intended to be something that's quite long. Like, I want to do four or five chapters at ninety pages each as a digital download. As a .cbz file or a .pdf. And then release it as a print book.

Aside from that, I've also been doing illustration and drawing for myself. Which is nice to have the time to draw for myself. That's really fun. And do a drawing and then go, “Oh, maybe I'll make a print of this,” is really fun.

Oh, and I have an Assassin's Creed book that's coming out at the end of October.

GM: That's not too bad! Keeping pretty busy it seems.

Stewart: Always.

GM: So just as we wrap up, the way we do our things at the Weekly Crisis, is we like to finish with what we call the Literary Rorschach Test. So pretty much I have five terms and your job is to say the first thing that comes to your head.

First one, Mystery.

Stewart: Intriguing.

GM: Truth.

Stewart: Important.

GM: Surreal.

Stewart: [Pauses] I'm blanking. I know it's supposed to be the first thing that comes to my head, but I'm honestly blanking.

Say it again.

GM: Surreal.

Stewart: [Pauses again] I can't think of a word.

GM: We can go to another, if that works.

Stewart: Yeah, skip over that one.

GM: Alright, skipping over. Mundane.

Stewart: Surreal. [Both laugh]

GM: Of course. Ambition.

Stewart: Ambition?  President.

GM: And, The End.

Stewart: Never.

GM: Alright, that's all for me. Thank you very much.

Stewart: Thanks so much.

Sin Titulo can be read in its entirety online for free (and it's well worth your time).  And of course, it is also available in a delightful hardcover from Dark Horse should you be looking for something of class to add to your bookshelf (which you should be).

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