Frank Espinosa is known in Italy above all as the author of Rocketo, a comic published in the USA by Image Comics, which at the time of its release in 2006 proved to be an editorial success that also arrived in Italy and which will soon see a new edition for the Double Shot publishing house.
But Espinosa is an eclectic artist: illustrator, animator of famous cartoon characters, author of a comic biography on Salvatore Ferragamo and current artistic director of the International School of Comics in Florence. We talked with him about the various facets of his professional life and the return of the explorer Rocketo Garrison.
Hello Frank and welcome to Lo Spazio Bianco.
Can you tell us about the experience of illustrating Frankenstein‘s novel? For the images you have chosen a very material approach: your drawings give the idea of large canvases painted and then photographed, starting with the cover of the book. How did you approach this work with which other cartoonists have already faced, among all Bernie Wrightson?
The way of approach on the Frankenstein project was totally experimental. I was trying to get down to the symbols within Mary Shelley's words and illustrating that instead of a more literal visual translation. This type of approach gave me a visual freedom, which I think is important when starting any project. Frankenstein has been drawn, and filmed so many times that we have a visual library in our consciousness of these amazing images, my question before I put brush to paper to any project has always been, what can I bring to this, that is unique.
I suppose, before starting to draw, you reread the work: what aspects did you want to highlight with your work of a novel and a character so iconic?
Yes, I reread the book many times, making notes for the characters, locations, mood, but most of all for the underlying symbols that the book is so masterful at putting down. The symbols, the almost dream like aspect of the narration, was something that caught me. The idea of Frankenstein as almost the first superman, he is strong, can jump very high, he is fast, but he lacks the love from humanity that could have made him into something greater. Visually I wanted to go farther into symbols, and in the last minute I pulled back a bit, but I wanted to base the Frankenstein creation on some of the work of the Sculptor Henry Moore whom I love, I felt those forms really capture something unique. Maybe someday I can give it another shot.
After Frankenstein I knew you were working on illustrations for Dracula‘s and 20,000 leagues under the seas' novles: where are they and when will they see the light?
Dracula is finished, and sadly Captain Nemo one of my favorite characters will have to wait for another day. I managed to do a couple of small exploration sketches and but that is as far as the venture got.
There are many different examples of applying a pictorial style to comics, from the most photorealistic, like Alex Ross, to the more expressionist (if we can afford) like yours. When you draw, do you think more about the visual and artistic effect of the table as a whole or the readability of it, and how much of one or the other part are you willing to sacrifice with less regrets?
Great question, there are so many styles so many different ways of visual storyline all of them are wonderful to gamut is so wide. My personal visual approach is more abstract, I am fascinated by the emotions and the movement behind a scene. Its a challenge in every project for me to figure out how far can I take something without losing control. How far can I push it visually? The most important thing is to tell the story and if nobody can understand your pictures, regardless if they are very abstract or even very realistic, if nobody can understand what is happening then we have failed as storytellers.
In 2013, with The Birth of a Dream, you transposed the life of Salvatore Ferragamo into comics, one of the names that made Italian fashion great. The comic strips were exhibited in Florence, at the Ferragamo Museum in an exhibition that I remember gave me the idea of an artistic exhibition, with the boards exhibited in succession like paintings, without a balloon. What was it like telling the life of a man like Ferragamo who, in some ways, was a great adventure?
The Birth of a Dream – The life of Salvatore Ferragamo was an amazing project to work in. It really was this explosion of wonderful people coming together to create a project. That book was made possible by many people who really were passionate about getting the project done. To this day I look back and the entire thing from start to finish is like a dream. The entire process of the creation of that book deserves and interview in itself with many of the people that help to put it together. For me, working with the Ferragamo company was a breath of fresh air, finally a company that wanted to do something with art, and using a graphic novel to tell the story. They have a viewpoint that many Hollywood studios could learn from.
Your relationship with Florence continued, since from 2018 you are the artistic director of the International Comics School of the Tuscan capital. What can you tell us about this experience? What do you try to convey about your authorial experience to teachers and students of the school?
That is all from the Ferragamo book, it was the birth place of meeting and becoming friends with Alessio D'Uva who is now the director of the Florence School of comics. By some miracle he asked me to help him with the school, it has been one of the biggest honors in my life. Alessio runs the ship, and it moves through the waters at a wonderful pace, I think every once in a while I blow on the sails. The teachers are wonderful, they are all very driven to teach, that is important! Driven to actually share the knowledge, not just rattle of some theory, but actually share and learn with the students. The students have been great, they inspire me all the time, looking at their work I feel really good about the state of fumetto in the future for this, lovely country of Italy. Its so powerful what is coming in the future, great artists, wonderful storytellers. They work hard, but I know if you ask them they would tell you I work them always a bit harder.
Rocketo tells a very particular story, in a certain way the story of a man defeated by fate who never gives up. Is there an autobiographical component?
HA! Yeah! Never give up. No matter what. It sums up what making the new books is all about.
Rocketo Garrison boasts a complex, multifaceted and, in some ways, tormented character. Can you tell us how and when the narrative idea of this explorer was born?
Thank you for seeing that. If I were to do some sort of analysis on it, one can say it was born the moment a small kid leaves his home in Cuba to jump forward in time to the United States. Giant awakening there. Curiosity. It's a giant lovely world we live in, what a place! Who would not want to see it all? In a nutshell I was a bookworm when I was a kid, and reading Swift, Homer, Stevenson etc, then introduced to Kirby, and the gang of Marvel. Very explosive combination for a brain. One either goes mad or draws comics.
Rocketo seems to contain as much of Espinosa as an author but, no less, as a reader: suggestions, references, inspirations, tributes. The famous aphorism of being “dwarfs on the shoulders of giants” comes to mind. What are the foundations of the formation of your imagination?
One of the many ideas that the book plays with is that Explorers really dont discover much, they discover lands that usually, have people already living there. These folks have adapted and thrived in a place that would kill anyone else. The Explorers think they are the first but unless we are talking about the Moon, or the Deep Ocean, then people are usually there to greet the newcomers. The journey is how the explorer learns from these people, or doesn't learn. Its always seems to me like an explorer meets history head to head. In similar and crazy way I was trying to think how this works with comics, every generation thinks they discovered the splash page, or the inset panel, or crazy looking designs for panels, etc.. Its all been done. Most likely it was done back in the 1917s through 40s. Crazy stuff was being done by newspaper strip artists and the early comic book pioneers. Learning the history of this stuff is essential for any artists, from fine artist all the way to comics. Those giants are the past and we have to have knowledge, appreciation, and respect for the people who guided us to be here.
How and with how much will have you infused Rocketo with these elements of your being passionate as well as author?
Like any another character that one works with for a long time, there are traits that you start to project on that character. Sometimes it can work backward.. There are times that I have asked “How would Rocketo handle this?”, to a situation that I might be facing in real life. I have always said that I love to act like Rocketo in situations but mainly attain the rank of Spiro instead, if I am lucky.
You are known in Italy as a comic book author, but in the USA you have a remarkable curriculum in the world of animation. What is the difference between the world of comics and animation, what are the most significant memories of your work in Disney and Warner Bros?
For me, its always been about storytelling. Telling a story in the medium you have in front of you. So if I look at it that way, I dont think that there is much difference in the world of animation and comics. Sure, we have things in Animation that can only be only dreamed about in comics, animation is rich with movement, music, editing, timing, etc. Yet in comics, we are so strong in other ways, in both mediums we must tell stories, doing a Rocketo animation film would the ultimate synthesis.
How did the idea of giving a new look to the Looney Tunes characters come about and how did it develop in 1992?
The entire Looney Tunes line was created by young animators who were recalibrating the medium. In order to keep the characters and art form alive its important to keep that sense of experimentation. Sometimes that sense of experimentation has to jump back a bit, which sounds strange. When I came on board it was not so much pushing forward as moving back a bit, they had moved past the points visually of what made the characters appealing and fun. We were bringing them back to the Looney Tunes I remembered, so that we could move forward with it later.
The birth of the Baby Looney Tunes is also due to you. What was your reaction when Warner Bros entrusted you with the definition of the look of these characters?
Yes, we worked it all out in my department. I remember doing the first sketches of Baby Bugs and putting them up on my wall. The first reaction to any of this is usually why? Then the money signs go up, and the race is on, to try to get into the Disney Babies market. Then after that shock, it becomes a question of solving problems. Visual solutions if done right can have a lovely appeal and achieve a new life in itself, that helps to ease the pain of the marketing behind it. I think that we created some lovely visual solutions in that brand.
Will you ever return to the world of Rocketo? Are there any possibilities to see new adventures of the cartographer Rocketo Garrison in the near future?
Never give up. As I answer this interview there is a new Rocketo page staring at me in the drawing board. Its taken awhile. Lots of reasons why, but also its a human time thing. These new pages are painted by hand, done with gouache, some of the pages are even in Oils. I am working on experimenting with the style, going to another place with it then before. Being older I can work faster in some ways, and slower in some. A long time ago when this book started, in mind there has been a very specific ending for Rocketo and his journeys with the book, Journey to Ultamo.
Thanks for the nice interview, Frank. See you soon, therefore, with the return of Rocketo!
I like to thank you for the great interview, and to all the fans that keep Rocketo alive. Best to all of you in these times.
Interview made by email in June 2020
Frank Espinosa attended New York School of Visual Arts, specializing in cinema and animation. At the beginning of his career he worked for Walt Disney Animation and later he was Art Director at Warner Bros., creating an award-winning character design manual, redesigning Looney Tunes characters and creating Baby Looney Tunes and the complete set of i Looney Tunes stamps.
He received Martin Luther King's Visiting Professor Fellowship at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 2006 and 2007; attended Ohio State University and Collins College Lecture Series; developed a series of comics for Princeton University; he created and illustrated a color graphic novel based on the life of Salvatore Ferragamo, whose illustrations have been exhibited in shop windows all over the world. His graphic novel, Rocketo, has been nominated for three Eisner Awards.
He was the Art Director of the Zum zum Books and is currently illustrating the Frankenstein and Dracula books that will be published in Italy.
Since 2018 he is the Artistic Director of the Florentine headquarters of the International School of Comics. (taken from the website of the International School of Comics)