Smash Pages Q&A: Johnnie Christmas on ‘Crema,’ coffee, romance and ghosts

The creator of ‘Firebug,’ ‘Sheltered,’ ‘Tartarus’ and other comics discusses ‘Crema,’ his collaboration with artist Dante Luiz for comiXology Originals.

Johnnie Christmas is best known for his recent work like Catbird Angel, a collaboration with Margaret Atwood, and William Gibson’s Alien3, which he drew and adapted from Gibson’s original film script. Christmas has also made comics like Firebug and Sheltered, and is currently writing the comic Tartarus, which comes out from Image Comics.

Crema came out recently from comiXology Originals, and the romance comic involves coffee – no surprise, given the title. A romantic ghost story, it involves Esme, a New York barista who can see ghosts, and Yara, a Brazilian model who is the heiress to a coffee plantation. It is a love story set in New York and Brazil involving Yara’s family and legacy. The collaboration with artist Dante Luiz is charming and sweet and strange and beautiful, and as we talked about, there’s a lot happening that’s unsaid and under the surface of events.

To start, how did you come to comics?

I always dug them as a kid. My dad would come home from work and bring these comic books and the Flash really resonated with me. I was into comics before like Peanuts and newspaper comics and even Archie, but those stuck. In high school I got into X-Men and I wanted to be a comic book artist. The Image guys were very inspiring to me, like you can be your own guy. Then Love and Rockets and Alan Moore and Otomo. Slowly it all came together. Starting with those Flash comics from my dad.

Were you always writing and drawing comics?

Yeah. I started writing Firebug before Angel Catbird, actually. I was writing even in high school. Right before I got into comics professionally I was going to try my hand at the Jaime Hernandez single author indie comics route, but the opportunity for Sheltered came along and that set me on a different course. But yeah I’ve been writing the whole time pretty much.

Where did Crema begin?

I’d been saying for years to anyone who would listen, I would love to do a romance comic. I was dead serious but there wasn’t much room for it in North American direct market comics. Someone turned me onto Dante’s work and said maybe you should do something with this artist? I thought his work was great. Dante is from Brazil and I tried to think of which of the wonderful exports that come out of Brazil would be resonate with the North American audience. Coffee was the one I landed on because I love coffee and everyone I know either loves it or can’t avoid it. [laughs] Through lots of little threads it all came together. I sent Dante two ideas and something about Crema resonated and we pitched it to comiXology, and from there we were off and running. Every step of the way before we got the green light, I thought it wasn’t going to happen.

So from the beginning you had this idea that it would be a romance, it would be a ghost story, it would be a melodrama set in multiple time periods.

These are all things that I love. We talked about making it a horror-romance – mostly thinking that horror would be a bigger sell in North America than romance – but luckily the folks at comiXology said, “You can go more romance on this.” That was encouraging. I’ve always loved telenovelas and I love the permission to go melodramatic. In a lot of North American comics, there’s not a lot of emoting, so to have a space where we could emote and a genre where it was encouraged to emote, we decided to go all the way. We have a ghost of a fading TV star, nostalgic love letters, unrequited love. 

I think toning down the horror element worked, especially because it made the role of the ghosts and what they mean uncertain until the end.

Thank you. Yeah, at that point the ghosts’ will and intentions are an extension of our characters’ journey instead of just frights. It’s much more resonant when you realize that the true horror is living a life without love

And it all gets solved through love.

That’s always the answer!

So tell me about Esme and where she came from.

All the character are an extension of myself in some way, I’m sure. We all walk through life at some point and feel unseen or feel that we’re not understood. I thought, what if Esme is so unseen that she’s almost part of this ghost world in that she can see them. The ghosts’ relationship to the world is like her relationship to the world. I thought having her as a character that we follow would be more relatable. She’s a normal person whereas Yara is much more dazzling. Yara is the person that we all want to be, but Esme is more who we really are. As I was writing when Esme would lash out and be mean, I had so much sympathy for her. I knew how it was going to end, but I just wanted her to win so bad. She deserves it.

Esme starts out very passive and invisible, and part of the plot is her becoming less so. Yara is almost the opposite, it seems initially, but she and her family have this complex legacy.

Yara has wanted to leave home this whole time. Circumstances made it so she was kind of trapped. Much like some of the ghosts. She wants to be free so she leaves. At this crucial point in time she has a great desire to come home and bring everything she learned from the world with her – Esme included – and what that means when you confront home and what you’re running from. It all comes crashing down.

When Yara comes back home, her response is to initially reject it, and then find some synthesis of how to go forward.

It’s almost like she wants to come home to bury it. Tie up the strings and not have that part of herself drifting around. She wants to resolve it, but to resolve it, you have to go all the way through it. That’s what she doesn’t want to do – but ultimately has to.

She also comes home and has this sense that she can’t fit or live in this small town. By living elsewhere she feels like she’s outgrown what she could be there.

You’re so right. This beautiful little town that believes in an old ghost curse and she’s got this grandmother who believes in keeping up the family legacy and that they have this debt to it. Yara has left and has been modeling and living in the world and being her own self – and then she comes home to this creepy coffee farm. She has to confront how much of it is her. Yara can’t see ghosts, but what comes across as a ghost to Esme just feels like the weight of family legacy and responsibility to Yara.

And it’s possibly more present, because Yara can’t tune it out the way Esme can.

True.

Part of it is the coffee chain that wants to buy her out, but I kept thinking about how coffee is so tied up with imperialism and capitalism.

Right. If we had more time I would have hit on more of that, but again, this is a story about legacies and the past and the weight of these things. There’s this coffee farm in Brazil that Yara’s family has and this mega coffee corp that wants to buy it. It’s like this cycle repeating itself. There’s so much to be said about the relationships that European powers and North American powers have had in South America. There’s one great book, Open Veins of Latin America. There’s so much to be said, but it’s great to just open a little to all these things that aren’t quite resolved. The answers can’t be found in a 100-page horror/romance comic.

Yara is this gorgeous, dark-skinned woman with natural hair and in Brazil – and throughout the Americas – that means something. Being part of a dark-skinned woman who owns this plantation. There’s a lot of history that’s part of this weight you mentioned.

There are so many layers. When you see Yara, she is a dark-skinned woman with natural hair from Brazil, and she’s rich, and what does that mean in society? What does that mean in her small town? What does that mean when she comes to North America and New York City? I love that we didn’t hammer at it, because to me as a black man, it’s very obvious. You’re right, it says so much by not saying it. You can see some of the things we’re playing with, all these layers to the storytelling through the visuals that you don’t have to pepper with words.

What was collaborating with Dante like? He’s a fabulous artist and I think this is his longest work.

He’s good. His sense of character and emotion and place is so warm. Every time a page came in, you can feel the characters and feel this great empathy. It was an honor, I have to say, to work with him on his first long form work. A lot of our communication was through editorial, but we had a few one on one conversations, but for the most part it was sending notes and then getting back these beautiful, beautiful pages.

He has such a great sense of design and color. Flipping through you can see which pages are set in New York City versus Brazil and it’s so clear, but subtle.

We wanted New York to feel cold, and the way Dante did cold was so interesting. He kept reds but did it on the cool side of the color spectrum. So when we went to Brazil the reds went to the warm side of the color spectrum and the colors exploded. He showed how Esme’s world got bigger, and it was this warm world filled with flowers, and they’re zipping around town on a scooter and part of a community. His linework and color work were so telling in those sequences. There was a sequence where I had captions but when I saw those pages, I cut all the dialogue because he said it so much more eloquently than I could have in words. 

Right now Tartarus is coming out from Image and Jack T. Cole also has his own sense of color and design, and you really like working with artists who have their own unique vision and sensibility.

Absolutely. If we’re going to say something, let’s say something. It’s great when you work with an artist who has a very particular voice. Every time you crack open one of their works, you’re pulled in. They’re so singular. It’s always such an honor and pleasure and privilege to work with artists like Dante Luiz or Jack T. Cole, who have such a singular vision that’s just undeniable. I’m so lucky that both have said yes to me. Maybe it helps coming from an art background, but I’m not looking for what’s hot, I’m looking for art. They’re artists who are built to last.

I’m curious how you think about color because you don’t color your comics work and Dante and Jack do and have their own sensibility. I think Tamra Bonvillain has colored your recent comics.

Speaking of another genius, Tamra Bonvillain is just insane.

For many years I identified as a painter, not a cartoonist, so I used to paint more and color was a very big part of my life. When I became a full-time cartoonist, I quickly realized that I couldn’t, I would have to choose. Either go European style and have a small body of work that releases every now and then, or you have a monthly series. At that point I switched over to working with these wonderful colorists. I was hoping in the next projects I would be able to showcase more of my coloring, but it looks like that won’t be happening either. Maybe one day. But I’m blessed to be able to have that wonderful collaboration with a person like Tamra.

You finished Alien3 at Dark Horse last year. What are you working on now?

As you said I’ve got Tartarus still going. We’re working on the second arc now. We’ve been getting positive reception, but it’s hard to know what’s going on. Interesting times. All we can do is keep producing and hoping that whoever is reading it is enjoying it as much as we enjoy making it.

As far as me drawing, there’s an announcement coming soon. An exciting new chapter is about to open in my comic book life.

To close, how do you describe Crema?

Crema is the story of Esme, a barista who when she drinks too much caffeine, starts to see ghosts. She falls in love with Yara, the heiress to a coffee farm in Brazil who has a family history and legacy that threatens to pull apart their nascent love as they find their way in Brazil going back to the haunted coffee farm in Brazil where they will learn whether love is strong enough to save the day.

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