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Saddle Up with STEPHAN FRANCK'S Palomino

CBY Contributor Andrew delivers a fascinating interview with Stephan Franck about Palomino. You can back volumes 2 and 3 on Kickstarter HERE! There are less than 2 weeks left to back the campaign and this is one you are not going to want to miss.


COMIC BOOK YETI: Stephan, thank you for taking the time to sit down with us today. It is an honor and pleasure, especially having just read through the first Palomino collection, which was an absolute delight. How is everything going in Los Angeles at the moment?

STEPHAN FRANCK: Thank you so much for the kind words, and thank you for having me! Things are well in Los Angeles. We’re getting a reprieve from the non-stop rain that we’ve been having for a few months. We’re at 14 atmospheric rivers in a row, or something like that! We desperately needed the rain, but that was too much of a good thing in too short a time.

CBY: Yes, we're definitely seeing extreme weather in all sorts of areas previously known for stable climate patterns. To that end, location and setting are central to Palomino - you've done an exacting job of marking your scenes by neighborhood and timestamp, mapping the action across the San Fernando Valley. The Palomino was historically located at 6907 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood, so besides relative proximity, what motivated you to select neighborhoods like Sylmar or Van Nuys as focal points?

SF: There is no doubt that, in Palomino, the town is not only the ecosystem where the characters live, it is a character itself. Having been an Angelino for most of my adult life, I aimed to capture the texture of life in this city–and in the Valley in particular. I stayed away from the touristy locations and went to the “deeper cut” areas, which all have their local lore. Sylmar, for instance, is a middle class part of town where many working musicians used to live–which was also the case in Tujunga, right next to it. That’s why Sylmar felt like a natural place to have Eddie’s house, because that’s where it actually would have been. Meanwhile, Sunland, which I’m hyping as an ominous place to meet if you’re involved in some sort of criminal conspiracy, used to be a place known as a dumping ground for bodies–whether they were mob related or the handiwork of serial killers. And a windowless bar in Van Nuys is definitely where you would go for day-drinking, if you wanted to forget while being forgotten. So it’s all about truth in storytelling – even if we’re not familiar with the certain specific aspects of a story, as readers, we know truth when we see it.

CBY: The range of personalities and interplay between figures from screen stars and executives to drifters and junkies – and all the riffraff in between – is put on full display throughout Palomino. The interview and essay in the afterword dig into the musicians who inspired you, but are there other figures from your life and Los Angeles kept in mind when developing characters for this story?

SF: As much as Palomino is a neo-noir, crime mystery and a musical piece, it is also a slice of life story that has to feel lived-in. The entertainment industry obviously looms large in this town, so art, commerce and everyday life casually collide, and people of all walks of life cross paths here more than they do anywhere else. From the people in the strip mall where Eddie shares an office, from the dry cleaner, the accountant’s office workers, to the cops, the club patrons, the waitresses… It’s all about trying to capture that texture and daily bustle of the valley. Another essential aspect in Palomino is the father/daughter relationship between Eddie and Lisette Lang. I happen to have two daughters, who, just like Lisette, are extremely powerful people, and they are born and raised Angelinos. So fortunately, we’ve never been involved in any crime mystery, there is a lot of their spirit, wit, and ability to keep it real with anyone in the Lisette character.

CBY: I know from my time living in LA (though in the indie rock scene) how crowded a social environment it can seem when you're active in creative spaces. You've published comics wholly your own through Dark Planet previously (Silver, Rosalynd, Romance in the Age of the Space God), but how does this story differ in terms of your personal connection to the subject matter? Is this as close to autobiography as you might get, or do you have childhood stories from France you're still planning to put on the page?

SF: I like to think that we’re in the business of telling the most universally human stories in the weirdest way possible. So whether it’s about vampire, heist, neo-noir mysteries…I can’t really get started until I find the real human angle in it. And of course, the themes that manifest in any stories, are the themes that live inside me. So in Palomino, it’s easy to spot because there is the LA aspect, the daughter angle, and my experiences as a musician playing that type of venue, and also, it’s happening in a world that feels more grounded in our reality.

In some of the other books, the autobiographical aspects are more deeply hidden. For instance, I lost my father at an early age, so I used to fear that I wouldn’t know how to be a father myself. Spoiler alert, that didn’t stop me, and it all turned out well, but that sentiment still feels real, and that’s what animates the character of James Finnigan in Silver, even though on its face, the story concept is “Ocean’s 11 in Dracula’s castle.” Something similar exists in Rosalynd , which is a prequel to Silver, and which is presented as Rosalynd Van Helsing’s childhood diary. At some point, it became clear to me that the Van Helsing family, moving west to escape the vampires, settling in town after town into some semi bourgeois life where he practiced whatever type of unlicensed medicine was required, until the vampires returned and they had to run again…that became a great metaphor for my own family history, moving west to escape pogroms in the early 20th century. If you had asked my grandfather if he actually was a dentist, he would say, “Well…I’m a practitioner of the dental arts,” which is a line that made its way into the book. Then again, he was also a badass who fought in underground boxing matches when he had to feed his family. He eventually was sent to Auschwitz where he survived being tortured by subhuman monsters, and, incredibly, escaped and became a war hero (so definitely Van Helsing material). Meanwhile, my mom barely escaped the holocaust herself, often left to her own devices on the road as a young child. For the rest of her life, whenever she would recall those experiences, you could hear the little girl inside her come to the surface, because that’s how those memories were baked. So that incredible point of view became the voice of Rosalynd. Something incredibly gritty, and yet seen through the innocence filter of a child. They say that, as an art form, movies are where the circus meets the theater. I think that’s true for any form of storytelling, including comics. And no matter what’s happening with the circus of it, the theater is always about yourself.

CBY: Obviously, Eddie Lang is a unique character, even amongst the range of private eyes in fiction. I'm curious, what other detectives from the media landscape have you gravitated towards over the years, and which are you drawing upon as you explore Eddie's character? It appears you've determined how he arrived at this combination of pedal steel guitarist/detective, and I wonder - what percentage of the background for Eddie you've devised in plotting Palomino have we gotten a glimpse of on the page thus far?

SF: Eddie definitely is a descendent of the classic LA noir anti-hero detectives of the 30’s, 40’s, or even 50’s, who, under a coat of cynicism, really are idealists whose burning need to do the right thing won’t leave them alone. For their trouble, they get beat up, they get framed, and at the end of the day, if they even make it, it’s through sheer resilience. But that was then. Eddie, while obviously carrying some of that, is of the later, Steve McQueen/Clint Eastwood generation. They are old-school men, but also hip to the 60’s in their own way, and most importantly, they’re here to kick ass and take names. There’s a wish-fulfillment to those characters – almost a superpower quality – that makes them really exciting. Our story takes place in 1981, and as much as these characters had an ambiguous and fraught relationship with the 60’s, their real conflict is not with the hippies. It’s with the looming institutional amorality of the 1980’s just around the corner, which they are able to see coming before anyone else does.

CBY: Yes, the LA setting and the colorful tone made me think of Harper, the first film adaptation of Ross Macdonald's Lew Archer character, starring Paul Newman. On a similar point of relatable design, you've noted the specificity applied toward properly capturing the look of the musical instruments featured on the page. I'm not much of an artist, but I particularly like drawing gear, and I wanted to note the exemplary depictions you delivered throughout Palomino - is there any specific equipment you particularly enjoyed, or found frustrating, putting on the page?

SF: Well, in real life, I never was a gear head, and neither was I in my art life. My original training was to be a character animator, so it was all about drawing living things – gestures, expressions – and I really didn’t know how to draw objects at all. The objects we see around us have all been designed with care, and those designs also have evolved over time, so their form and function – as they say in design – has really become woven into the fabric of our lives, and nothing will hurt the ability of a book to suspend your disbelief faster than generic, fake looking objects. So to get the shapes and, most importantly, proportions right, I use a lot of photographic or CGI reference. Then, of course, I have to redraw it all so that it fits seamlessly into the art of the book. But yeah, from cars to furniture, weapons, they used to be something I feared, until I had to really get better at it, and now, I’m obsessed with it. So from sofas to microwaves, to old TV sets, to beer taps at the bar… I’m enjoying drawing it all.

CBY: You mentioned playing a Fender Telecaster, but I'm curious as to what sort of equipment you use for your art, both in your comic illustration and animation. What do you do on the page, and what do you undertake digitally? Can you share with our readers a bit about your preferred methods and tools in your workflow? Did you employ any new techniques or tools for Palomino distinct from your previous work?

SF: Most of my process is digital, at this point, but the tools of the trade are very important indeed. Whether it’s a guitar or whatever Photoshop brush you’re using, it has to be something that you connect with on an almost physical level so that expressivity, character, and drama can flow from your natural gestures. For comics, my apps are fairly industry standard, but I have my own twist on things here and there. I write in Final Draft, and I write all my script in screenplay form (so there’s not a lot of descriptions, and no panel breakdown). Then I do most of my layouts in photoshop, because it is so fast and versatile to work things out (resize, warp, etc…). As mentioned earlier, I build CG sets in Sketch Up for the important locations, or vehicles, or props that are non trivial to draw. Then I bring the CG reference screen grabs into Clip Studio, where I redraw the environment. Then, I draw out the characters usually freehand, because that’s my basic training as an animator. My little bit of weirdness is that I don’t draw on a Cintiq like most people, I draw on an Intuos drawing tablet. So I’m looking at the screen while drawing, not at my hand. Maybe that’s the guitar connection, where I can coordinate my right hand gestures without looking at it. Then it’s colors in Photoshop. My wife Christina Franck did all the color flatting for Palomino, so I had to work hard at staying ahead of her with the inks! Then, lettering and book design is done in InDesign. Palomino is different from my previous books because of the extent to which I have used CG sets, which allowed me to be extremely specific, consistent, and to find angles scouting around them that I would not have had in my usual bag of tricks. Of course, the cool thing is to redraw them in a way that people can’t tell where the CG reference ends and the freehand begins. So all this process takes place inside a digital pipeline. I sometimes do an illustration on paper, but I save that for special occasions!

CBY: Thanks for the detailed insight into your process! As someone whose comic work stands on its own - solely products of your effort - can you also share a bit about how the process of working alone to meet your own expectations, compared to working with the various animation studios towards fulfilling a broader vision under external deadlines and specifications?

SF: While a big studio project and someone’s own sole-author piece are obviously very different beasts, in terms of expectations and demands on the artist, I think the two are very much the same. First, in any artistic work, as long as the thing is on your desk, the buck stops with you. It doesn’t really matter whether the work will be run up a flagpole after the fact or not. While your hands are on it, you’re committing to your own artistic choices. It’s just you and the work. Meanwhile, backing away from an idea just because it’s too challenging to execute is not an option. You just have to find your way through. I also love storytelling, and I tend to disappear in it, and I only have one mode: I go all in no matter what the project is. Then, from a more practical standpoint, even for indie books, they still interact with the rest of a production and distribution pipeline. There are printer deadlines, distributor deadlines, convention schedules, etc… so the only difference is that I’m the one running the spreadsheet!

CBY: For those readers interested in pursuing comic or animation careers, from your ample experience working on some of the most commercially and critically successful animation productions in the past thirty years, can you tell us a bit about how you’ve come to work on some of these productions and how the process of working between studios differs? What from this experience factored in (if at all) to your decision to publish under your own Dark Planet moniker instead of pursuing an existing publisher to release your comics?

SF: I fell in love with animation when I was just a kid, but back then, animation was considered to be a dying artform. As hard as it is to imagine in this day and age, by the mid 80’s there was almost no industry to speak of, at least in the West. Quality was mediocre. The talent pool had shrunk… And then Who Framed Roger Rabbit? came out and changed everything. All of a sudden, animation was everywhere and opportunities opened up that I would probably not have had otherwise. Today, animation is even more omnipresent. But what’s even more exciting is the fact that it’s finally tackling a broader range of genres and subject matters. Which is great, because it gives a broader range of voices the opportunity to find creative homes where their contributions have a natural place. So that would be my most important advice. Try to understand who you are as an artist and what you have to contribute that is uniquely you, and look for the place to work that is in the actual business of doing exactly THAT.

Meanwhile, there is a lot to learn, so find the best mentors you can, do not be precious about your art, learn by osmosis, and accept all constructive criticism. The two impulses may seem contradictory, but somehow, you have to square that circle. The reason I decided to start Dark Planet Comics and to publish independently was for one single reason: independence. Not only did I want to be creatively independent, but also to control my release schedules. Thankfully, we live at a time where distributing content has never been easier. Anyone can open a youtube channel or post comics online, table at a convention, and start making your own creative footprint. Then, at some point, if the series has been successful and is bumping against the limits of what you can logistically do as an indie, it can be great to work with a bigger partner. That’s why we are now working with Abrams ComicArts, who is publishing an absolutely fabulous new Hardcover edition of Silver.

CBY: You now have your Kickstarter campaign live for the next two volumes of Palomino. Without providing spoilers, do you intend to continue the story in subsequent volumes, or do you have other projects you're planning to complete for publication after this campaign cycle concludes?

SF: Yes! Palomino will be a complete story in four volumes, so I have one more to go! I have several other stories that are churning in the background, and any of them could be the next project. Weirdly, it’s never a conscious decision. The day comes that I have to get started on the script, and I don’t know which one it’s going to be until my fingers touch the keyboard.

CBY: You've shared a lot about your influences in creating Palomino, both artistically and musically. Can you share any other points of inspiration and media (comics, music, films, etc.) catching your interest lately? What else in addition to Palomino should our readers be checking out?

SF: In December, we lost Peter Cooper, who, among other things, was a wonderful singer songwriter, a prominent music journalist in Nashville, and a wonderful human being. About 10 years ago he put out a series of albums that were just mostly him on guitar and vocals, the legendary Lloyd Green on pedal steel guitar and Mike Auldridge on dobro. I cannot express enough the poetry and magic of those albums. That was the sound in my ear when I was drawing Eddie playing the pedal steel. So those aren’t new, but they are sadly timely, and they are not nearly well known enough.

CBY: Thank you for your time and the insight you've shared into your work, Stephan. We hope you find all manner of success with the current Kickstarter campaign, and we're excited to see how the Palomino story unfolds in the coming volumes!

SF: Thank you so much, and thank you for this chat! I have to say I am so excited about these two new volumes. I feel that it’s the strongest work I have done so far. And I am champing at the bit to jump on volume 4. A few weeks ago, I actually woke up in the middle of the night to write down a couple of scenes! Let me tell you, it was cold in the studio at that ungodly hour, but sometimes, you just have to roll with it!

To support the Palomino campaign for Volume 2 and 3, and to keep up with Stephan's work, please visit the links below:

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