by Jarrod Jones. To the Frank Miller faithful, Santos’ iconography would seem familiar: Flying bullets, arterial spray, beautiful women, scarred anti-heroes, often displayed in balletic compositions of improbable violence. Crime as art. Neo-noir at its gnarliest. But when it comes to this particular brand of neo-noir—the gnarly kind, I mean—Victor Santos is in a class by himself.
Take a look at his bibliography, and be stunned. Violent Love at Image Comics, Bad Girls with Simon & Schuster’s Gallery 13 imprint, others. But it’s at Dark Horse Comics where Victor Santos feels most at home, the publisher who once housed Legends and inspired an avid reader all the way in Spain. Matt Wagner, Mike Mignola, the aforementioned Miller, all of them played a part in molding Victor’s mind, bending it towards a career in comics where he has ceased to be a fan and has become a peer.
All that inspriation, all the skills he’s honed over the decades, has brought Victor to his latest project, Against Hope. Set in two timelines—one in the Eighties (1986 to be exact, a formative year for comics, don’t you know), one in the Nineties—Against Hope tells the story of a young black girl who lost everything to a heinous pack of white nationalists, and the revenge she ends up craving as a result. I ask Victor about the chaotic energy contained in his latest story, and what he was feeling when he set out to tell it.
“Yes, this genre of violent stories, like the grindhouse-style movies, I love so much,” he says. “They play with violence and catharsis. I’m an emotional guy and an emotional writer. It’s the way I connect with readers, I think […]
“Surely, I keep a lot of anger inside… Maybe I’m so nice because I purge these feelings with my comics,” he laughs. “But I think anger is good against the correct enemy.”
With the release of Against Hope still a few months out (it’s scheduled to drop on June 3 in the US), I wanted to crack open the methods to understand the madness behind Victor Santos’ latest, bloodiest (and, yes, gnarliest) crime story yet.
DoomRocket: Congratulations on the new book, Victor.
Victor Santos: Thank you!
1. Before we get into the meat of ‘Against Hope’ I wanted to talk about its premise, where a young girl goes on a bloody quest to kill a crew of neo-Nazis. Was there a moment in your life where you felt you had to tackle this particular subject as a comics storyteller? If so, what was it?
Well, the true origin of Against Hope is that it was the kind of story I wanted to do after the Polar books. I like this thriller-action-violent kind of story but I wanted to work with a different character. Black Kaiser was a legend, a man with a developed, almost-perfect set of skills… I found it interesting to write about someone who really struggles in every step of the story. I worked with this concept in the second volume of Polar with the character of Christy White, the Kaiser’s protégée, but I wanted to explore this archetype more. A young character who becomes a legend, a mythical hero, instead reading about the legend at his peak.
So, I [needed] to put this main character through a series of hard challenges and suffering… And this young black woman fighting the Neo-Nazis through the decades appeared.
2. Reading through the gauntlet of death, sex, violence, crime, and even more death in ‘Against Hope’, I got the sense that you were looking for some sort of catharsis here. You’re clearly captivated by crime comics, but this story feels like it’s tapping into some deeper reserve inside of you… perhaps anger? What were you feeling when you made this book?
Yes, this genre of violent stories, like the grindhouse-style movies, I love so much. They play with violence and catharsis. I’m an emotional guy and an emotional writer. It’s the way I connect with readers, I think. You can be a master outlining storylines and plot structures but you need readers [to] care about the characters.
Surely, I keep a lot of anger inside… Maybe I’m so nice because I purge these feelings with my comics. [Laughs] But I think anger is good against the correct enemy. You know, we live in a strange age where joy is almost imposed… Sometimes you feel guilty if you feel sad or depressed… And a world where you must be mean to the guy who did the Star Wars movie you hated so much and polite with a douchebag who says gays are mentally ill. So don’t underestimate hate; it can be a good motivation.
3. You’ve said that when you’re collaborating with a writer, you try to “become the artist the book needs.” There is a clear change to your style when you compare stories like ‘Bad Girls’, which you worked on with Alex di Campi, and ‘Polar’, something you wrote yourself. How does your sense of experimentation change when you’re working on your own stuff?
Usually the artistic decisions are motivated by problems. In Against Hope I had two major timelines I wanted to differentiate. I used a colored inkwash style in the 80s timeline because I wanted to recall some 80s painted comic-books. Not specifically one title, but when paper quality and printing of the books began to improve, the colorists tried to do more daring things. That vibe. And with [the] 90s timeline I decided to use a more anime or animation style, making it clearly digital. It’s 90s, digital had come.
When I fixed these two, I colored the additional minor timelines using a process of elimination, choosing the graphic elements like ink lines, color styles of brushes, to create a contrast with the others.
It seems that Victor the writer is fighting the Victor the artist but it’s something more organic when you are the sole creator. And, funny, these challenges made this job stimulating.
4. Tell me about Hope, the eponymous, vengeance-minded lead character of ‘Against Hope’. Her father was a cop and taught her self-defense growing up, as well as his righteous philosophy to stand up and fight for good—”with two fists,” as he put it. How does Hope go from an idealistic young woman to a methodical killer?
She’s a woman with strong moral principles and they will be tested. That’s the reason of her family flashbacks, to tell her background. She has this strong father, a cop and a martial arts trainer. And we have the shadow of her mother, an immigrant—the American dream—with, we sense, a strong sense of family. The point of the story is how Hope deals with the process of vengeance. A righteous vengeance. She will have a price to pay, even if she wins. A price in her sanity, in her relationship with her beloved people… But I try to do action and adventure stories and I like to put these things subtly, sometimes with little visual details or seemingly trivial dialogue.
5. The sense of reality is so heightened in ‘Against Hope’ that the moments inside almost feel satirical on a level we often see in Frank Miller’s work: Garish Nazi pageantry, an intense grid of panels displaying a deluge of violence, dim-witted politicians, the works. There’s a small girl character who walks around in a Hugo Boss-inspired SS uniform, for instance. Your work in general is real Legends-era Miller stuff, ‘Sin City’ stuff, but here the influences are all over the place. Would this be a fair comparison?
Of course, Miller is one of my “Sacred Trinity” of influences, with Mike Mignola and Bruce Timm—and thinking about [it], I could add Matt Wagner and make them the Four Horsemen. The Ronald Reagan on TV is a clear tribute to [The Dark Knight Returns]. But I must say the more satirical of Miller’s work influenced me on this book. Less Sin City and more these Space Nazis and corporate giant mascots of Martha Washington, or the little president’s “I have the button” against the liberal politician portrait of Elektra: Assassin. Even the Robocop 2 commercials.
I miss this satirical Miller, the writer who explored those grey areas… Think on the Holy Terror book. Maybe the pre-9/11 Miller could have written a brilliant satire about propaganda but, well, all we know what sadly happened in the world…
But I wanted to satirize in a very Miller—even Howard Chaykin—style [in] some parts to lighten others. Have you checked the Nazi salutes in the panels? They do it with the left hand sometimes. Even the gross jokes help to lighten and contrast with the darker parts.
6. Let’s talk about the clear Tarantino influence in ‘Against Hope’. Wanton violence against Nazis, insurmountable odds placed against a single female anti-hero—there’s ‘Inglourious Basterds’ in here, and definitely shades of ‘Kill Bill’’—what is it about Tarantino’s work that speaks to you, as a storyteller?
Well, I must say right now I hate being a little too Quentin Tarantino… [Laughs] I’ll say, I love his movies—except Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood—and we have a lot of common likes. I think he was a huge influence to a lot of writers and artists during the 90s (myself included) and overall he contributed tons of cool stuff from martial arts movies to blaxploitation… But this stuff was there before him! I grew during the 80s but I had access to a lot of 60s and 70s culture… Spaghetti westerns, Bruce Lee’s movies, Charles Bronson stuff and French and American crime movies, Italian horror and Rape & Revenge films… I love the 70s Marvel books, those urban heroes from Moon Knight to Iron Fist or Shang Chi. Tarantino reminded me how much I love this stuff and I discovered other jewels, like the John Woo movies… So maybe he’s the more popular—and surely one of the most talented—figures in telling these kind of stories, but I consider Tarantino more a bridge than a direct influence.
7. When I flip through a Victor Santos comic, I’m often struck by your use of the wide, squat panel layout. Dark Horse is publishing ‘Against Hope’ with the dimensions 9″ x 6 3/8“—what is your fascination with what we’ll call “the widescreen format”? What challenges does illustrating a comic with these dimensions pose for you?
I enjoyed doing the Polar books with that same format. I always say this is the natural way: We see the world in “landscape format.” When you go outside, your sight doesn’t scan the street up and down, you usually move your eyes from left to right and right to left… So it seems the more fluid choice in a visual medium.
At the same time, I love doing the page composition; it’s a subject in comics I’m obssessed with. And I produce a lot of comics too, so I’m working on a big number of pages… So having some of them in a different format is refreshing. I think comic books and graphic novels should have different formats, bigger and smaller books, even square, panoramic… It’s an advantage we have and we don’t exploit. Think in movies, cinema is limited by the screen size. I know this opinion comes tumbling down with the people who love the balanced shelves. [Laughs]
8. In ‘Against Hope’, you juxtapose Hope’s jet-black path of vengeance against this white supremacist family with the fateful day she was first forced to kill members of this family in order to survive their gruesome attack—against her, against her late boyfriend. There’s not a lot of time for peace in ‘Against Hope’. Was this intentional?
As writer I wanted to play with how the different storylines alternate and even overlap, how dialogue from the past infiltrates in the future pages and reverberate with the things we know. The consequence is: No rest. But I tried to put little capsules between some of the major events… like the single page flashback with Hope and her boyfriend losing their virginity or the two pages of how Hope and him meet. It’s like mini-comics inside the comic.
9. Without giving anything away, there’s an epilogue chapter that is lightyears away from the intensity found at the center of ‘Against Hope’. Even your style shifts somewhat, from the expressionistic vistas of gore in the chapters before to this Hernandez Bros-style of cleanliness. The lines get tighter, the panels cleaner. What were you looking to explore with this epilogue sequence? A chance to expand the world some?
I made this story originally for a short-print magazine, like a way to practice with the character… And I re-made it for this book as a backup story. It’s a light tale to compensate the grim-and-gritty main story, but it gives us a clue about what will happen with Hope years after the main events… A way to show some “extra hope” to the book, too. And I found the aesthetics of the bounty hunters very funny to draw.
10. You, like me, like most of us, are a real content junkie. What are you watching these days? Reading? What does Victor Santos enjoy when he’s not making comics?
Right now I’m enclosed at home because the coronavirus quarantine in Spain, so some of the things I love—like drinking with my friends, dinner with my wife or jogging—are forbidden to me right now. I’ll practice patience, which is not one of my virtues. [Laughs]
Luckily, I have tons of movies, novels and comics here. Surely I’ll watch all the Kubrick movies in a wonderful pack I bought on Blu-ray, and the Takeshi Kitano’s Outrage yakuza trilogy, too.
I love the Warren Ellis’s creator-owned books, like Trees, Shipwreck, Injection… I recently bought his Cemetery Beach with Jason Howard. My latest comics purchases are books like Head Lopper, Criminal, [Matt Wagner’s new] Mage series, the Fist of the North Star manga reprints and [the new edition of] Don Rosa’s The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck published by Fantagraphics.
I just finished Hunters and enjoyed Treadstone, The Undone, Doctor Who and The Expanse in Amazon. On Netflix I watch Brooklyn 99, Mindhunter, Better Call Saul, The Good Place, The Umbrella Academy and Peaky Blinders, amongst others.
And I have been reading a lot of Philip K. Dick lately. I always liked him but right now I find [he makes more] sense than ever in these weird times.
Victor Santos’ ‘Against Hope’ hits stores on June 3. You can pre-order it now. (Diamond Code: FEB200249)
Check out promo art for ‘Against Hope’:
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