Comics/Graphic Novels

Interview: Emma Ríos on Craft, I.D., and Island

Jake Shapiro

Staff Writer

Jake works for Fantom Comics in Washington, DC. He has a Shel Silverstein drawing tattooed on his arm because he's ten years old. Follow him on Twitter at @jake_shapiro.

Emma Ríos works in dream-states–the Spanish artist’s flowing, manga-influenced art is recognizable from a mile away on cerebral books like the mythological Western Pretty Deadly and the watercolor fantasy Mirror. But when she’s not drawing or writing her own series, Ríos puts together Island magazine with Brandon Graham, an industry-defying monthly anthology of comics by indie comic artists from all walks of life with a science fiction bent.

Not content with simply editing the series, Ríos also contributed her own story to the magazine: I.D., a two-part hard sci-fi tale about three people seeking brain transplants. The story is about to get released in a handsome trade paperback collection, so we got the chance to ask her a few questions about the book ahead of its June 22 release.

Emma Ríos

Image courtesy of Emma Ríos

Jake Shapiro: Let’s start at the beginning. I.D. is your first major project as both artist and writer–how has the transition been from artist to writer/artist, especially in your second language?

Emma Ríos: I used to do small press and write my own stories here in Spain, so writing again feels nice and very familiar. But I also take it too damn seriously, questioning myself every line, and normally becomes exhausting. Collaborating with people, having deadlines and sharing responsibilities are rather good for health in comparison.

About writing in a second language, well, I guess I’m getting more and more used to it. That said, it’s still difficult and definitely takes more time. In general I become overly self-conscious about my limitations in terms of being nuanced, catching the right tone or nailing expressions, and wouldn’t dare to submit anything to print before revising it a thousand times, and double-checking it with a native English speaking person.

I.D. by Emma RíosJS: Island is such a huge project for you as both a creator and curator—how did you decide I.D. was the story you wanted to tell with your first comic in it?

ER: Working with Brandon immediately suggests me doing sci-fi because it’s fun and we both love the genre. For I.D. I chose a dystopia because I wanted to do something rather personal—to develop the characters from within—and having an environment that could resemble the real world was going to be more direct in order to look for instant reflections.

By something personal I mean that on one hand I had a selfish need to feed my ego as a creator at that moment, on the other, an embarrassing urge to be honest and show how I question myself about things that worry me.

You know, the classic need of exhibitionism and the desire of hiding under the blanket, vanishing and forgetting about the world.

JS: You consulted neurologist Miguel Alberte Woodward to make your story as realistic as possible, and he even wrote an essay on the real-world prospects of brain transplants that appears at the end of I.D. How did your collaboration with him come about?

ER: Working with Miguel was amazing. I always wanted to do something close to hard sci-fi because it’s frightening, and the coolest, but obviously I don´t have the knowledge, neither the confidence, to make assertions, and internet is never enough for serious research. So, I remember asking on Facebook, looking for a neurologist who enjoys comics, and a very close friend whose wife is a doctor introduced me to Miguel, who to my surprise, took all my sloppy speculations seriously and got onboard the project interested and rather excited.

I think I.D. started in a weird conversation I had with a couple of friends, a few years ago, about changing to another container and still being yourself. It was so clear in my head but one of them—who actually was very skeptical and also pretty much into scientific divulgation—was very hesitant due to the death of the original body, a reaction that totally caught me by surprise.

I.D. by Emma Ríos (1)

JS: It’s interesting to think about the emotional connection we have to our bodies even when our consciousness is removed from it. North American comics can feel constrained by the monthly 32-page issue grind, but Island gives you the opportunity to create stories as long or short as you want. Did you always envision I.D. as a two-part, 80-page story?

ER: Maybe not exactly, but I.D. was definitely built under the idea of being a tale from the beginning: something short that could actually finish and be considered a whole. I never intended to develop or create a different world like what we’re doing in Mirror or Pretty Deadly for example, in my head I.D. should work more in a sense of a concept; an attempt to make people think a bit about those questions I wanted to ask myself by drawing them on the pages.

In general I work a lot with ellipses to focus on what’s necessary without showing every minute in the lives of the characters, and for that I can´t improvise. Having decided a limited number of pages myself allowed me to have more control and to be more accurate choosing the information I wanted to show, and how to play with the rhythm of reading selfishly experimenting things: from talking heads, to frenetic action, to overwhelming scientific explanations, to extreme decompression to show feelings towards the end. It was very fun.

I.D. by Emma Ríos (2)JS: That’s been a constant part of your layouts through all your work: your distinctive paneling style with lots of in-set panels and close-ups of body parts, plus all your dreamlike spreads with the panels flowing into each other. Could you talk a bit about the layouts for I.D., and specifically that opening sequence with all the circular panels?

ER: When designing I.D. my obsession was trying to explain everything as much as possible, as fast as possible, and with as few words and pages as possible.

Even if the story evolves through a lot of noise, most of the conversational moments—specially the longer ones—are rather irrelevant in terms of what really matters. The heavy dialogue focuses on political background, shows social common prejudices to look for an empathetic response, or explains the crazy medical process behind the transplants looking to make you feel as overwhelmed as the characters are; and even if it is important for building a particular atmosphere, the only thing you truly gain from it is decoration.

When I drew this first page I wasn´t truly aware of how important it was going to be for the narrative later. But now that I see it from some distance I think it was definitely a settlement, a decision of how the characters were going to communicate for real in the story, and a tip on how they should be read: by paying attention to their eyes and hands.

JS: Despite the wraparound cover art and the gorgeous splash pages, I.D. doesn’t feature any two-page spreads at all! I love that bold choice to keep the layouts intimate.

ER: I really wanted to play with the rhythm in I.D. My intention was trying to overwhelm a bit at the beginning with the violence and the overdose of info here and there—especially during the scientific explanations—and then decompress like crazy towards the end. I still like how those sleeping splashes work—right after the tense discussion and its absurd resolution. The mood had to change a lot in that sequence and my inspiration for those two pages in particular was the ending of Satoshi Kon’s Paranoia Agent.

Screen Shot 2016-06-13 at 5.09.23 PM

JS: Could you talk a bit about your lettering? On both this book and Mirror, you’ve chosen some unconventional fonts for the dialogue, with distinctive tall, narrow letters for I.D.

ER: I’d always prefer hand lettering to any mechanical font. My problem is that I tend to edit dialogue a lot until the very moment the book goes to print. So with the font in I.D. I was looking for one that could be close to the one I use when I do hand lettering on my own, and also one that I felt could fit with the tone I wanted for the story.

The font in Mirror was chosen by Hwei, and it looks close, and has a lot to do with the kind of lettering she uses for her webcomics.

JS: Let’s switch gears to Island, the magazine this story comes from. Through Island, you’ve exposed North American readers to European artists like Roque Romero, Gael Bertrand, and José Domingo. Especially now that I.D. is done and Pretty Deadly‘s second story arc is wrapping up, what would you like to do next with Island?

ER: I’m still working on Pretty Deadly as it’s going to be 4 and a half arcs, and also on Mirror. Mirror’s first arc is also about to close but our plan is to return in November, and besides writing I’m also drawing the first two issues of the second arc myself, which is going to be longer than the first arc, or so we hope. So, I’m afraid my plate is still rather full.

Since the magazine had to get to 72 pages to survive, it has been more difficult to include articles but I hope we can have more prose, illustration and design in the future, not necessarily only connected to comics. I think I’d be interested in building the magazine as multidisciplinary as possible, as we first planned.

Emma Ríos' wraparound cover for Island #2, where I.D. was originally serialized.

Emma Ríos’ wraparound cover for Island #2, where I.D. was originally serialized.

JS: What artists would you like to see in the magazine that we haven’t seen yet? Are you going to do another Island story?

I think Island has a lot to do with how Brandon and I developed our careers. In my case, I have always been in some kind of no man’s land between mainstream and independent comics, a very weird barrier we’d like to see disappear. Having creators like Michael DeForge, Dilraj Mann, José Domingo or Roque Romero published by Image is truly thrilling and I hope we can include more work like that. Also, we have huge plans to publish some amazing Japanese creators there too, and maybe having the magazine flip around. I’d like to show more of the Spanish scene because I think we are living in an amazing time here in terms of creation, Luis Yang and Ana Galvañ are already working on stuff that will be included soon.

About me, I have plans to do another solo story but I doubt I’d be able to start on it for another year and a half. If the magazine is still healthy by then I’d love to publish it there first, why not? And I’d love to prepare short stories or illustrations to include too, between pages of Mirror and Pretty Deadly, as soon as I organize my schedule better.

JS: I had never thought about that connection between you and Brandon before–both of you have very strange career paths and you both fall somewhere in between mainstream and indie comics. And you guys have been hinting at that manga issue for a while!

I.D. by Emma Ríos (3)

JS: Final question: we’ve debated this for months at my comic shop. What do you think it will take to get Island‘s sales to a point where it can sustain itself in the long term? It’s hands-down my favorite thing happening in comics right now, and I’d love to see all the strange things you can do with the magazine for years to come. I just hope it can sell well enough to get to that point.

ER: If only I could have the answer…

This market always feels very difficult to predict for me, or at least, I’m learning very slowly. I wish I could have more keys, clues, magic… to make my books—or in general the books I love—do better. But for now we all seem to depend so much on monthly single issues and preordering, which, on one hand kills creators and teamwork, and on the other makes things extremely difficult when it comes to attempting to do long term projects.

Having weird little things like Island holding up after 9 issues makes me feel truly hopeful, though. The reasons we made it this far is because Image has been very supportive, as well as our readers and retailers like you, that help spread the word. The most important thing for us is the creators, that they can do what they want and get paid for it. We try to save money on paper, format, etc… and also the releasing of trades will hopefully help balance things out, but the moment in which we lose any of these factors it’ll be the end of the magazine. In any case none of the people involved will let this island go without a fight 😉

Thanks so much to Emma Ríos for doing this interview, and to Image Comics for sending us a review copy of I.D., which will be available everywhere June 22.