Smash Pages Q&A: Otava Heikkilä

The Finnish cartoonist discusses the latest chapter of ‘Letters for Lucardo’ from Iron Circus.

Otava Heikkila had been drawing comics for a while, but he made an impression when Letters for Lucardo was published by Iron Circus Comics in 2017. The book is about the relationship between a vampire and a mortal, which is a familiar and recurring story, but Heikkila managed to play with the genre in interesting ways — in this volume by making the vampire young and the mortal old, and by featuring explicit gay sex.

Letters for Lucardo: Fortunate Beasts is the second volume in Heikkila’s series and he answered a few questions from Finland about the book and the series, and how to approach drawing the sex scenes.

I always like to start by asking people, how did you come to comics?

Finnish kids get weaned up on comics. Donald Duck is very popular here, it sells around 500,000 copies weekly – and this is a country of 5.6 million people. I read it weekly as a kid, and once I found my grandparents’ archives of old issues of Asterix & Obelix and Lucky Luke, I consumed through all of them, too.

When I was in my teens, my family visited France, where I would sit in comic book shops and get my hands on Barbucci & Canepa’s Skydoll and Loisel’s Peter Pan, and honestly so many other amazing artists that I don’t know the names of, because I’d buy one volume in French and bring it home, or speed-flip through it at the shop, and have no way of accessing it again before Google was properly a thing.

I also got into manga during the same time, back when it wasn’t a thing in Finland but was starting to be in France and Germany. I’d grab copies of Dragonball and Sailor Moon where I could get them and be totally immersed in the new, different feeling world in them. In my late teens I got intensely into seinen and more serious, bloody titles, like Samura’s Blade of the Immortal and Takami’s & Taguchi’s Battle Royale.

Since I was young I was reading comics from very different kinds of genres, which made me grow up with the idea that not only can I take comics seriously, but that there are so many different kinds of stories you can tell with them. I started putting my own comics online in 2008 in the form of webcomics, and although my current projects are all going to print, webcomics still feel like my home turf.

For people who may not know, what is Letters for Lucardo?

Letters for Lucardo is a four-part comic book series about a 61-year-old mortal, Ed, beginning a relationship with an immortal aristocrat, Lucardo. It’s an adult graphic novel series, so there’s sex as well as political intrigue and court drama. It’s a vampire story, and sincerely a love letter to that genre, but it’s also a drama about found families and queer love, which I hope gives it a wider appeal for those who aren’t such fans of the objectively perfect ’90s film Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

So who are Edmund and Lucardo?

Edmund and Lucardo are the protagonists of the story. Edmund is a 61-year-old scribe from Talvark, a cold and backwards region in the northern Cyldike nobody wants to voluntarily visit (modeled after Finland!). Ed is a sweet, pernickety, deeply sharp older gentleman who’s riddled with anxiety most of the time. Lucardo, on the other hand, we don’t know much of beyond names and titles. He’s charismatic, a little cavalier, a lot handsome heir to the title of the Lord of the mysterious Night Court. We learn pretty early on that Lucardo hasn’t exactly volunteered to live a life of mystery and vampiric intrigue – he’s just here to have fun.

This idea, of a mortal and an immortal falling in love, isn’t new. What about this idea first appealed to you and what did you want to do with it that you hadn’t seen before?

I love stories where two people have to cross deep chasms of difference and perspective to meet each other in the middle. Age and socioeconomic status both inform us deeply, and make our lives play out differently in relation to other people. Making royal immortality the backdrop of the story turns those elements all the way up. Lucardo and his family are so deeply beautiful and rich and untouchable. They’re immaculate in Ed’s eyes, and he fears the family as a whole entity  – and who wouldn’t? Ed is getting old, and he’s human, and he knows his own fate.

Ed and the Night Court seem worlds apart, except for Lucardo who throws a wrench in that narrative. He’s emotional and flawed and full of living desires, just like Ed. On an interpersonal level they suddenly have a lot in common, two older gay men interested in gently out-witting each other and having fun, to forget something big and out of their control for a moment.

Of course one aspect that people will talk about – for good reason – is the sex. How do you approach the sex scenes — what to include, how to draw them?

Oh yeah, this book has sex! It’s actually the hardest part to script and write. I draw and re-draw sex scenes many times, changing the contents fully. It’s difficult because you don’t want scenes to pointlessly linger or get stuck in dead waters with narrative or character development, but with erotica you kind of do want to linger, the self-indulgence is the very reason for it.

It also makes things more difficult that most visual media has a “fade to black” tradition for sexual contents outside of porn, and porn in turn isn’t a treasure trove for narrative long-form stories. There’s not a lot of existing media to look up to for guidance, and it’s important to me that the comic doesn’t end up looking like a relationship drama with abruptly tacked-on porn interludes. Something that really informed me was reading E.K. Weaver’s Less than Epic Adventures of TJ and Amal. It was the first piece of media that made me go, oh, that can be done really well.

I must also give a shout-out to fanfics, which really are the unsung hero of deeply well-crafted stories where erotica is often a sincere, but not exclusive, goal.

In general, I wish the hard divide between sexual contents and all other contents in culture was lessened a little. I don’t really think of Letters for Lucardo as a porn, even though I do call it that in light conversation, and you can call it too. I’d like it if reading it left people feeling like they consumed a story that happened to also have sex in it, and not like they just traveled through the world’s longest mental olympics solely to derive more sex acts out of. I mean, I do want readers to find it hot, too – but I want them to cry, as well. And laugh! Dance for me, monkeys!

I always think that if well done, the sex scenes should be like action scenes in an action movie or songs in a musical. It serves a purpose. But it’s also self-indulgent, like you say. No one watches John Woo movies for the plot. Do you feel you’ve gotten better at balancing these elements with the second book, or figuring out how you want it to work going forward?

I absolutely agree with the action/musical comparison! With Letters For Lucardo, all four books are going to have fairly individual tones for sex depicted in them. The books divide organically into different stages of Ed’s and Lucardo’s relationship, and it reflects the kind of sex we see, how it’s framed. First book has this over-the-top-horny, honeymoon-esque, let’s-run-out-in-the-middle-of-the-night-and-party-down feeling to it. Fortunate Beasts has the same general energy, but it’s different both because of the constraints of the elements around them, and because their sex life is changing from the fact they’re getting to know each other better. I’ve started outlining the third book, and I recently did a pretty big decision concerning the book’s sexual tone that I’m looking forward to delving into. The growth of Ed and Lucardo and their relationship dictates the direction of the sex scenes and not the other way round, but I do also hope I’m getting better at creating seamless, efficient sex scenes in general. Efficient but indulgent!

This is a period piece and I can’t help but think after reading the two books back to back that one of the big things you loved was getting to draw the costumes, the backgrounds, the details?

I’m really glad you got that feeling. My sorcerous sleight of hand is a success. I’m actually mostly tortured by the detail. Well, no, just kidding! I love to research and I love to create a sense of realism, whatever the genre or time period, it’s my favourite part after scripting/penciling the character acting itself. In that sense, I do love it, and I’m glad it shows. Only the masochist in me pulls me through the actual physical act of drawing the umpteenth baroque chair, though.

Where does the new book Fortunate Beasts pick up?

The first book ended on a cliffhanger. Two years ago! Sorry readers.

We return to see the aftermath of Ed making an impulse decision (slightly inspired by Lucardo’s affluent father and the Lord of the Night Court) that effects him and Lucardo both.

In Fortunate Beasts we’re getting to the meat of the story, we learn more of all the main players and begin to part the veil on the bigger mystery at play. That sounds all very vague, because I don’t want to give away any of the surprises. As the creator, it feels like I finally hit the tone I’ve been looking for during this book, and it has many of the scenes I’ve been looking forward to since I started the series.

What did you want to include and do in the second volume that you didn’t do or didn’t get to do in the first volume?

I have a lot planned both for the main story and the world that this story is set in, but I dislike information dumping or deploying character perspectives that aren’t tied to the POV just to show the perimeters I’m working with as soon as possible. In the first book we follow Ed, who is fairly new to this environment, and who up to this point has had no real motive to stick his nose in the Court’s business, and I tried to reflect that in the contents of book 1. This has left me chronically itching to show all the juicy stuff I have planned, of course, but we suffer for our craft.

In Fortunate Beasts I was especially glad to finally get to have more scenes with Lucardo’s father, Ibauld, and his partner, Elimedes. Ibauld, in particular, seems to have stuck out as a memorable character in book 1 despite having only a few pages’ worth of appearances. He’s a complex opposing force to our heroes, and the first book doesn’t yet do him justice. I’m excited to slowly reveal more about the leaders of the Night Court. I don’t want to play favorites with my creations but you can probably, definitely, see that I enjoy crafting those scenes a whole lot.

Do you have an ending in mind for the series? Has it changed since you started?

Yes I do! I’m as surprised as you are. The fates of Ed and Lucardo were sealed fairly early into the process. The building blocks of how we get from the beginning to the end have changed a lot, though. The story grows with me, and we’ve both had a lot of growing to do. When I started the series I was living my life as a woman, with the insecurity and internal values of a 25 year old closeted person. I came out of the closet as bi in 2017, and as a trans man in 2018, while tackling through Fortunate Beasts. The emotional core of the story has shifted slowly but surely, and the way I’m planning to resolve a lot of the conflicts and turns of the last two books have, in my opinion, changed for the better as a result.

So people who read the first book I’m guessing are onboard for the second, and people who love really hot sex in comics are onboard, but how do you pitch the book to people? Or is sex and vampires usually enough to get readers?

I’m published by Iron Circus, who are great at making effortless feeling promos and pitches for their books. As a result, my own abilities are withering away, and soon I won’t even be able to string together a single sentence about my own comics. Help!

Kidding aside, I find that when your opener is that your comic is about gay vampire porn, people are already on board or not, and it’s all pretty rambunctious from there. As with a lot of things, being funny and making somebody laugh usually does the trick. I don’t know how else to advertise this ridiculous thing, I have to make a fool of myself preemptively because people will then have to read over 300 pages of totally serious vampire sex drama with no irony in sight.

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