“The Graphic Novel ‘Captures’ the Moments that the Camera Missed”: An Interview with Augusto Mora
Augusto Mora is a Mexican comics artist and graphic designer. Author of web-comics, graphic short stories and novels, he has lately popularized the documentary style to relate the recent history of the student movements in Mexico from Tlatelolco to #Yosoy123 (#Iam123). In this conversation, he tells us about his beginnings and of the process of creating his graphic novel Grito de Victoria (Cry of Victory).
Radmila Stefkova: How did your interest in combining your drawings with a textual expression emerge?
Augusto Mora: I have been drawing since childhood. For me and for my brother, it was like a game. Together, we would read the Mexican Spanish edition of Mad magazine and we would write parodies for ourselves of what we had read and of the cartoons. When I was fifteen, I discovered a comic school. I began to take classes, and I realized that one could dedicate oneself to doing this, that it was not simply a game. Thanks to authors such as José Quintero, the first jobs I had were with the Milenio newspaper. I was very young and there I became acquainted with the Taller del Perro (The Dog Workshop), and it provided me contacts, who became the first clients I had. They integrated me. Bef, for example, always says that I am the youngest of that generation, but also the oldest of the ones that are coming up. I’m between these two generations.
R.S.: To understand the art of Augusto Mora, what do we have to keep in mind? Who or what has inspired you?
A.M.: It has happened in phases. I still like the first comic authors that I liked, but in the course of my career I have come to know other authors who inspire me. In the beginning, I liked the Mexican authors from the Taller del perro such as Patricio Beteo, who fascinated me. When I started out, I liked all the trends of the Mexican and North American comics. Later, I began to read the European comics, Paco Roca in particular and also the non-fiction graphic novels written by Marjane Satrapi, Sarah Glidden, as well as Joe Sacco and his documentary and journalistic work. I also very much like the underground comic vibe of such authors as Robert Crumb and the comic book series Klaus. I recently discovered an Italian author, Gian Alfonso Pacinotti, who signs as Gipi. My style continues to evolve and I think it has influences from all of these authors I have mentioned. I notice how each one chooses the inks or the water colors.
R.S.: What change do you see in your own work?
A.M.: I have been refining my drawings. In comparison to my early work, I have made the lines finer. Suddenly, my strokes were very polygonal and the lines were very thick, too much ink flowed. I believe that some of it had to do with insecurity at the moment of releasing the stroke. I have been refining the line, trying to make the stroke on the first intention, not having doubts at the moment of letting the stroke flow. That indicates an evolution and that happens with a cartoonist who doubts himself and his abilities.
R.S.: You work with serial web-comics, also with short comics, and graphic novels. How do you choose the format for your narratives?
A.M.: A lot depends on the story. I don’t tend to work on serial comics due to the issue of working independently. In general, I like to do closed stories that are auto-conclusive. It has to do with the complexity of the story, the theme, the development of the characters. It’s similar to the difference between the short story and a novel. The short story has a lot to do with the action, the immediate impact, while in the novel, you can work more with the history of the characters, you can develop them. For example, in this story, “En busca de una voz” (In Search of a Voice), which is about Tlatelolco, there is some mention of the childhood of the character, where he is from, but it is done very quickly. In two or three vignettes everything is explained. The focus falls on the action, on what happens. It has to do with this.
R.S. We have moved from the comic books that were read on the public transport to documentary graphic novels. How do you see the evolution of the language of the comics in Mexico?
A.M: This thing about not giving due importance or value to the language of the comics comes from the first comic strips that became popular. These were the comic strips for pure entertainment that were provided on the Sunday strips. They came at the end, after all the news of the day, so that you could relax. It seems to me that the language of the comics is another way of telling stories, another way to have content as is the cinema, or prose. This whole idea of starting to do documentary comics emerged precisely thanks to that book Grito de Victoria, because six years ago, in 2012, I was living very close to the student movement that arose as a result of the elections. I was seeing from very up close all that was happening, the protests. Although I don’t consider myself a militant of the movement, I did participate in many marches with people who had very strong ideals at that moment. I liked what they were doing, their way of fighting for freedom of expression, for the media, for real democracy. So then, when I saw myself involved, suddenly being there in the marches, I told myself that this should turn into a story. It is important that other countries know about what is happening in Mexico and by the means of communication that I know how to use, which is the cartoon strip.
R.S.: So, the book has an autobiographical touch?
A.M.: Yes, in fact in the book there is a particular section in which I appear as a character because it is something that I experienced very personally. I was going along with my girlfriend in the middle of traffic, it was precisely one day after the elections, the second of July, and Peña Nieto had been declared the winner. Everything that the student movement had done during the previous months had not worked since the PRI had won. During that time, I was investigating, taking pictures, so I told my girlfriend, let’s park wherever we can and take pictures. To our surprise, the people who were blocking the street were not people who were angry because the PRI had won, but instead were persons who had been promised a payment for voting for the PRI, but they had not been paid. They were PRI supporters angry with this same party. That situation seemed very curious to me, so then I thought that it was a good idea to include this in the book. Grito de Victoria is a very personal book. I met a lot of people within the movement. Later, I tried to include the part about 1971, an event that for obvious reasons I did not have the opportunity to experience, but I conducted a lot of interviews with people who had participated in the march. I was able to recreate a lot of things thanks to interviews and anecdotes that people would share with me. I obtained a lot of documentation from newspapers as well as from books and documentaries.
R.S.: Can you comment further on this investigation process?
A.M.: It is work that requires a lot of time. The first contact that I made for the investigation was with the 68 committee, a committee which is still in force, and in which the survivors are still the ones who organize the October second march to commemorate Tlatelolco. They were the ones I approached first. The first person I interviewed was Raúl Álvarez Garín, who then began to give me some contacts and facts. Later, I met Joel Ortega Juárez; he was also part of the ‘68 movement, but in ‘71 he was one of the leaders. Afterward, I went to the Miguel Lerdo de Tejada Periodicals Library in Mexico City. I began to read the newspapers from days before June 10th as well as those from the days after. I also talked to journalists who had researched the subject. Ultimately, I use research methods, but I don’t have journalistic training. The one who helped me a lot was Joel Ortega. He opened up a lot and even wrote the prologue for the first edition of the book. I also went to the marches of the anniversaries of ‘68 and ‘71 to talk to the people who had been involved in those events. They opened up to give me their perspectives, their experience. With Luis Fernando, we made a tour of the streets the march followed and he talked to me about the things he remembered. He would say, “Here we started to hear the screams and over there the hawks with their sticks appeared.” He would tell me about the high school kids that leaned out to look at them. I depicted these details in the drawings. I tried to recreate them as faithfully as possible, thanks to his memories. Thanks to these conversations I was making the map for my book. They are things that perhaps the reader is not even going to notice, but there are a lot of details in these oral stories. For example, the movies that are shown in the story at the cinema on San Cosme Street were the ones that were actually showing that day.
R.S.: Where do the photographs you use in Grito de Victoria come from?
A.M.: All the ones that are from 2012 to the present are mine and some that are in the ‘71 part are somewhat “adjusted.” They are current photos by me of the places of the ‘71 march. I did research to compare them with newspaper photos to see how these places were esthetically. For example, the facade of the Normal School has not changed much and I took the black and white photo for the book. I went back to illustrate many of the reference photos. Above all, for example, there are some scenes where there are advertisements from that time, which I took from newspapers. These are advertisements, posters for theater plays and for movies, things that were happening at that time.
R.S.: What is the difference between a written document and something drawn? Is there a problem with the perception of a drawing as something less true?
A.M.: Of course, because by drawing you make a representation from your perspective. This work is very subjective. I have attended conferences where Joe Sacco says that his work cannot be absolutely objective or neutral as journalism should be. This work has the filter of his emotions. However, in the end, it does the same thing that a photographer does. The photographer also captures certain angles and planes according to what he is feeling about what he is observing. Despite that, the photographer cannot control what is happening around him, he searches for an angle to communicate an idea. Of course, one can communicate emotions, but what one cannot do is falsify information. One can look for angles, perspectives, and even personal expressions that work to narrate the story, but not invent something that did not happen.
R.S.: Do you identify with the comics journalism popularized by Joe Sacco?
A.M.: My books are not completely documentary and I don’t consider myself a journalist. Joe Sacco is a career journalist, and he is a journalist who knows how to draw. I simply draw what is in my surroundings. However, I always try to clearly indicate to the public whether the story is fictional or real. In Grito de Victoria there is a clear difference between the two parts of the book, the fictional part and the documentary part. The fictional characters in the first part, Victoria and Valentín, are subjects who might or might not exist, but their participation in the march cannot change the events. The character is like our camera, it’s telling us things, but it is not modifying anything. It cannot intervene.
R.S.: We are living at a time in which we are surrounded by digital files, so what need is there for drawing a story?
A.M.: The first aspect is that a digital file is infinite, while a book offers condensed information, information that has a unity. The second motivation to do a project like this one is the fact that a comic is a different language. The language of the comic simply reaches other publics, other types of personalities. Many teachers and professors have gotten in touch to teach this book given that it generates more attention from their students. It’s an excellent pedagogical tool.
The third point is that graphic narrative has elements that perhaps photography or documentary movies do not. With cartoons, one can “capture” moments that escape the camera. You control the graphics and can communicate your emotions and ideas. The chiaroscuro, the size of the vignettes, the kinetic lines, the expressions of the characters, the plans—all this helps generate a certain impact on the reader. The comic does not necessarily have an advantage over the other media, but it does have its own unique characteristics. The reader’s experience is different. At the beginning, we talked about a condensation. I like for books to be something like introductory works that induce active, participative reading. I am much inspired by the works of Rius. I grew up reading his books and comics. His books led me to other books.
R.S.: You experiment a lot with the spacing and the sizes of the vignettes. Tell me about the technical process you follow with your graphic novels.
A.M.: On one hand, I try to make the vignettes have a rhythm. Normally, I begin with scenes that establish the context, that take us into the space. From the macro, I go toward the details. The size and the quantity of the vignettes prompt other reading experiences. In the sudden violent scenes during the marches, rapid vignettes appear, the rhythm accelerates. Here, time is established by the rhythm and size of the vignettes. In addition, the details are very important. By putting in a lot of characters and a lot of textural details, the reader naturally stops to observe them and this makes time pass more slowly. It’s a somewhat premeditated process, but later the story takes on its own rhythm. I always make a storyboard first, which are like movie frames, and after that comes the design of the page. Of course, the first step is always designing the characters. While writing down their characteristics, I also make the initial drawings, some sketches. Particularly for the main characters, I try to do a detailed study. Using these details, I make the storyboard.
R.S.: What are your current projects?
A.M.: I’m going to work with the National Commission of Human Rights to create a comic about the Yaqui people’s struggle for water. Also, I’m working on a story about a father’s search for his daughter who immigrated to the United States. It’s fiction, but it’s about the reality of immigration and the dangers that immigrants encounter while crossing Mexico. The country was turned into a trap where immigrants became a business for organized crime. Many times, they became cannon fodder. The book tries to make visible this problem, about which there is already a lot of talk. My idea is to do the same thing I did with Grito de Victoria and to do a short graphic documentary at the end of the book.
Translated by Rosario Drucker Davis
Radmila Stefkova (Lale) is a PhD student at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where she teaches and conducts research on contemporary Mexican literature, publishing, and media. She is a regular contributor and editor for the Spanish and Portuguese Review. Her non-academic work includes advertising and promotion, human rights advocacy, and translation. Lale holds a Master’s degree from the University of Oklahoma.
Augusto Mora (Mexico City) is a comics creator and graphic designer. He has worked with newspapers and magazines like MAS Magazine México, El Chamuco, and the Milenio Diario. His graphic work has been displayed in museums and arts centers in Mexico, France, and the United States. He has published graphic novels, both fiction and nonfiction, including El Maizo: la maldición del vástago, Grito de Victoria, Fuertes Declaraciones, ¿A dónde nos llevan?, and Encuentro en la Tormenta.
Rosario Drucker Davis was born in Mexico to an American father and Mexican mother. At the age of eleven, she moved with her family to Lexington, Kentucky where her father took a position as professor of anthropology at the University of Kentucky. Rosario earned a B.A. in linguistics at the University of Kentucky, an M.A. in English as a Second Language at the University of Arizona, and an M.A. in French literature at the University of Cincinnati. During the 2007-08 academic year, she was a visiting teaching assistant at the English Department at the University of Angers, France. She currently teaches Spanish at the University of Cincinnati Clermont College.
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