After the Final Girl Walks with Monsters, what is Human, Remains – An Interview with SALLY CANTIRINO
Sally Cantirino hasn't had a proper vacation in over two years, and it shows with all of the amazing comic books she has been working on. Jimmy Gaspero was lucky enough to get a chance to talk to her about The Final Girls, I Walk with Monsters, and her newest Vault series, Human Remains.
COMIC BOOK YETI: Sally, thank you so much for joining me here in the Yeti Cave. I first wanted to talk to you after reading I Walk With Monsters, but I also just read The Final Girls and the first issue of your newest series Human Remains, which will be in comic shops on September 22, 2021. How have you been doing?
SALLY CANTIRINO: Other than the constant background radiation of anxiety of the last 18 months or so, doing okay! Keeping busy, taking my stupid little daily walks for my stupid little mental health, trying to stay safe, masked and vaxxed.
CBY: Your website says you started making comics after discovering Love and Rockets and Vertigo stuff at your local library (shout out to local libraries everywhere.) Is that where your comic book origin story begins, and have comics been a part of your life since that time?
SC: Before then, I had a little exposure to manga as a kid and pre-teen. There was this thing called MixxZine that came out in the 90s, I think it was from TokyoPop, it had the Sailor Moon manga and then Magic Knight Rayearth and Parasyte. Shonen Jump when it first came out, too. As soon as we got internet access I was reading scanlations of manga that were still inaccessible at the time. It wasn’t until I was a teenager and reading Love & Rockets that I realized that comics were just a thing you could DO, you could just go make them. Then I found out I could take classes at SVA [School of Visual Arts] and the rest is history.
"My first response was pretty much like, "Holy shit." I read Peter’s run on Shade, The Changing Man as a teenager and I had gone back to it while working on I Walk With Monsters. So I was very excited, and very intimidated!"
CBY: How would you describe your art style and has it changed/developed over time? Specifically, how do you create your comic book art?
SC: I don’t know! Sometimes I look back on earlier work I’ve done and I’m like, “what the hell, I feel like my art was better then than it is now,” which I don’t think is an uncommon feeling for artists. Most of the time I don’t look back though-- I finish an issue and it goes away into a drawer, I finish a book and it goes away into a bin under my bed and I never look at it again.
SC: I think if anything I have gotten more streamlined and efficient, a little more simplified. Working with a colorist means giving them room to breathe and do their thing too. I got an iPad Pro when they first came out and it changed my life. Switching to working digitally on my layouts and pencils sped up my process and got me to loosen up A LOT, and having the option to work outside the house (well, when that was still an option) was great for my mental health. I still ink traditionally. I was using a sable brush and ink up until the pandemic. When shipping and supplies became a nightmare, I switched to using whatever brush pens I had on hand until I found one that I loved (a Pentel Pigment brush pen in a medium with the ink replaced with Platinum Carbon Black, if you’re wondering.)
CBY: I was wondering, thank you. The opening of Human Remains was brutal, in particular the look on Joshua Moore’s face right before the Life-Forms attacked. His look conveys both the terror and confusion of someone that didn’t quite realize what they were calling down upon themselves. How did you become involved in the creation of this series with Peter Milligan and, in particular, can you talk about the design of the Life-Forms?
SC: While I was working on I Walk With Monsters, Adrian asked me if I would be interested in working on a sci-fi/horror comic with Peter Milligan. My first response was pretty much like, "Holy shit." I read Peter’s run on Shade, The Changing Man as a teenager and I had gone back to it while working on I Walk With Monsters. So I was very excited, and very intimidated!
SC: Our starting point with the Life-Forms came from Peter attaching some macro photography of the faces of tiny organisms-- bugs, mites, things not visible to the human eye. They were alien and weird and bizarre and very creepy and gross. There was one in particular that looked a bit like a bird skull or a plague doctor’s mask. I added tentacles and gave it a body somewhere between a pill bug and a palmetto bug. I wanted it to be spindly and unfold and move like a daddy long legs.
CBY: I think the design is successful. The Life-Forms are deeply unsettling. The panel layouts are fairly traditional, I’d say, except for panels showing the Life-Forms attacking, which really adds to the chaos of those moments. Generally, when you get a script, how do you approach laying out the story as it relates to pacing? Specifically, with the script for Human Remains #1, was it tightly scripted or did you have freedom to tell more of the story in the artwork?
"That said, there IS a panel in Human Remains where I drew my boyfriend and I about to get eaten by a monster together. I’m very romantic, what can I say."
SC: Peter gives me fairly tight scripts, but usually minimal edits-- so far most of the edits have been just misreading something completely on my end. I feel like I get a lot of freedom with my choices when it comes to layouts and design.
SC: When I worked on The Final Girls, because it was for Comixology, there were a lot of rules to follow to make it look its best in their Guided View function. I had to learn to make the most of that structure, and I think that carried over. I like saving dramatic layouts for dramatic moments. If you use them for everything you lose readability, you lose clarity, you lose the effect. So that structure, those traditional panels, that’s the everyday, that’s the world the characters inhabit. When the Life-Forms come through, they’re coming through from another dimension, they can break all the structural rules they want.
CBY: What is it that drew you to tell a story like Human Remains and what, if anything, can you tell CBY readers about where the story is headed?
SC: One of my favorite things about working on Human Remains is seeing all the different threads of characters and stories come together. They intersect in unexpected ways sometimes, I love getting a new script and seeing how it unfolds.
CBY: It seems like Human Remains will be a series where very bad things happen to the characters in it. Do you ever base your characters on real people, and is that tough if you have to draw very bad things happening to them?
SC: I don’t directly base main characters on people I know. There’s sometimes elements of people-- people I know, famous people, whatever-- but never a whole person. I think the exceptions are Hays and Naresh’s husband, I kept imagining Hays as Frank Conniff and Aaurush as Rahul Kohli and couldn’t un-imagine them that way. Sometimes I’ll sneak people into the background though-- like, “Oh, they’re a nurse, I’ll draw my friend who’s a nurse.” I’m much more likely to draw real places into a comic than real people.
SC: That said, there IS a panel in Human Remains where I drew my boyfriend and I about to get eaten by a monster together. I’m very romantic, what can I say.
CBY: That‘s amazing! This is your second series with Vault Comics, and second time having your art colored by Dearbhla Kelly. Did you know Dearbhla prior to working on these two series, and what particular discussions did you have about the art and colors beforehand?
"The reason I love working collaboratively on comics is because it makes my heart full to work with new, interesting, smart, creative people who have different ideas than me and make different choices than me and teach me things I didn’t know I needed to learn."
SC: I knew Dearbhla through a lot of mutual comics friends, I was familiar with her work and was a fan. When I first started on I Walk With Monsters, we had a very small window for turn-around on stuff. I asked Adrian if I could see if Dearbhla was available to color the first covers because I was struggling with it. She was, and she crushed it, and then she crushed the rest of the series too.
SC: For I Walk With Monsters, it’s a very autumnal book. I think the main color notes I gave her were sunsets and autumn leaves. She worked in these great red and browns and yellows that also feel very vintage to me, and then this fingerprint brush for texture. For Human Remains, it’s a spring or summer book-- it’s got more bright colors, it’s got more bright blues and purples and oranges. And she uses this fantastic texture brush that’s like, it feels like spores floating around!! I’m just absolutely enamored with the textures that Dearbhla uses on my art, the life and the depth they add.
CBY: Thinking of the colors of those two books tied to the seasons makes a lot of sense. Seeing the Life-Forms on the page, I immediately thought of I Walk with Monsters (the trade will be available on October 13, 2021) and your design for David and the Important Man. The creatures in the two series are very different though. What was your inspiration for the literal monsters in I Walk with Monsters?
SC: All of my monster design fundamentally starts with, “What do I find unsettling and gross in nature?” For David’s monster form, I thought about the weird unsettling proportions of a gibbon skeleton, and the way monitor lizards or Komodo dragons move. When we discussed design, we wanted it to be clear that it wasn’t a werewolf book. He was a shapeshifter, he was something else. I wanted to capture a feeling like static, like the way shapes look in the dark, something less corporeal. It didn’t fully come together in my head until I inked the first cover-- I shredded up a brush pen for the texture and that was the secret key to it for me.
SC: For the Important Man’s monster form, it was Saturn Devouring His Son and oil spills. I wanted to keep the same unsettling proportions as he appears in Jacey’s memories and the same shape as the way his face is scribbled out in her memories. I wanted him to just feel like he was always leering, always fake smiling, just gross on as many levels as possible.
CBY: All three series that I mentioned in the beginning of the interview, I Walk with Monsters, Human Remains, and The Final Girls, have very serious subject matter at the heart of them, including issues of sexual assault, domestic violence, and child abuse. Historically, I don’t know that comics as a medium has addressed these issues enough, or in a serious enough fashion. With The Final Girls being essentially a superhero story that drives home the importance of accountability, all three series are quite remarkable. What drives you to tell these stories?
SC: I always feel incredibly honored to be picked to help tell these stories, and I always try to approach the heavier topics with care and empathy, even amongst the gore. I try my best not to be exploitive with the heaviest parts. The reason I love working collaboratively on comics is because it makes my heart full to work with new, interesting, smart, creative people, who have different ideas than me and make different choices than me and teach me things I didn’t know I needed to learn.
SC: Working on The Final Girls back to back with I Walk With Monsters-- both kind of deal with the topic of “what does justice actually look like? What does justice look like when it’s truly centered around or led by the victim, what could a non-punitive form of justice look like?” It’s a heavy topic to approach and I feel humbled in how much I learned from the people I worked with.
CBY: I have to imagine that being immersed in these worlds for as long as it takes to make a single issue of a comic book can take its toll. Do you find that you have to decompress in some fashion after working on something like The Final Girls or I Walk with Monsters and, if so, what have you found works or you?
SC: I haven’t had a chance to stop and decompress since the end of 2019!! All of the last three series, my work on the Rise Against book from Z2, and everything else I’ve done has either overlapped or started as soon as the last one ended. I know I’m overdue for like, a solid two weeks or a month off, but I’ll never ask for it. If I’m not constantly in motion my brain starts to turn into pure anxiety jell-o.
SC: I’ve been better about taking weekends off now that I have a significant other in my life to spend them with. I try to never ever work on the weekends or holidays anymore if I can, and never work past 8 or 9 PM. I started playing guitar again after my dad passed away last year and I inherited his guitars, I take breaks during the day to do that. At the end of the day I try to just chill-- some nights I have D&D, some nights I just play video games or knit while watching documentaries, whatever shuts my brain off and keeps me away from doomscrolling.
CBY: The creative team for The Final Girls is incredible. Written by Cara Ellison, your artwork, colored by Gab Contreras, lettered Joamette Gil, flatted by Chefel Peterson, designed by Cecile Richard, and edited by Katie West. How did this team come together for this ComiXology Originals series?
SC: KW from the amazing band Vile Creature passed my portfolio along to Katie West, and she reached out to me from there.
SC: I was coming off a period of my life where I was feeling intensely burned out by the comics industry-- every project I took I was mentally like, "this is the last one I’ll do and then I’m out, I’m going to get a normal job or go back to school or disappear into the woods." So, you can see why doing a book about burned out, disillusioned, maladapted freelancing superheroes who just want to fuck off to Scotland spoke to me. It was a cathartic book to work on. I just felt like every single collaborator I worked with on the series was uniquely awesome and brilliant and kind, it really built me back up to be in that environment.
CBY: Thinking of the aforementioned amazing creative team for The Final Girls and was reminded of a tweet from Stephanie Cooke where she asked other industry professionals what questions do they wish were asked more in interviews. I believe it was Sweeney Boo that responded, “How is it to be a woman in the comic industry?” So I will ask, how is it to be a woman in the comic industry?
SC: I will be completely honest, I have a lot of privileges that shield me from the worst of what’s out there. But, I’ve still had times where I’ve felt, in retrospect, that I’ve been taken advantage of in a business sense because I was young and female and insecure, and it impacted my mental health significantly. And I spend a lot of brain power and energy researching every entity I consider working with, because there are so many bad actors in the industry. I still have a lot of days where I feel like I’m in a miserable stew of anxiety and self-doubt, and social media certainly doesn’t make it better but I’m afraid to lose the access to information and news that comes with it.
CBY: Who are your biggest influences as an artist?
SC: Oh, absolutely Becky Cloonan-- her and Jill Thompson were some of the first female comic artists I saw as a teenager. The Hernandez Brothers. Junji Ito. Richard Case and Chris Bachalo and David Mazzuchelli. All of those golden era EC comics horror artists like Wally Wood and Jack David and Johnny Craig.
CBY: If you were the curator for a comics museum, which 3 books do you want to make absolutely sure are included?
SC: Moto Hagio’s Iguana Girl, Yoshiharu Tsuge’s Screw-Style. This is a hard question!! Cecil Castellucci and Marley Zarcone’s run of Shade, the Changing Girl?
CBY: Is there anything else you have coming up in the future that CBY readers should be on the lookout for?
SC: Right now the only comic I’m working on is Human Remains, but I’ve been bouncing around doing some art for TTRPGs here and there-- I think the next things out will be kickstarting Tanner Yea’s Nightcrawlers and 3,2,1 Action with John McGuire and Geo Collazzo.
CBY: I read that you’re from New Jersey and a fan of diners. Being married to a Jersey Girl, I understand. I’m a big fan of diners myself. Do you have a favorite diner food? Mine is creamed chipped beef on toast.
SC: I keep it simple-- grilled cheese and tomato, with a side of fries and coleslaw. Disco fries if it’s late night. Coffee, always.
CBY: Where can you be found online?
SC: I’m @sally_cantirino on twitter and instagram.
CBY: Sally, thank you so much for taking the time for this interview. I very much appreciate it and I am looking forward to the rest of Human Remains.
SC: Thank you!!