Smash Pages Q&A: Gerardo Alba

The cartoonist and editor discusses his work on ‘Guantanamo Voices,’ working at the Latin American division of Webtoon and much more.

Gerardo Alba is a cartoonist who has had a busy year. He colored the recent graphic novel Fault Lines in the Constitution, which was adapted and drawn by his wife the artist Ally Shwed. He is one half of Little Red Bird Press, which released the anthology Votes for Women earlier in the year. Alba recently took a new job as editor at the Latin American division of Webtoon.

Alba is one of the artists on the recent book Guantanamo Voices, a great and important work of comics journalism, where he drew one of the key early chapters of the book. Alba was kind enough to take time out to talk about Guantanamo Voices and his many projects. 

To start, how did you come to comics?

It sounds cheesy but since I was like three years old, I wanted to be a cartoonist. Back then I wanted to be an animator. That became my path. The art schools in Mexico, where I grew up, are more traditional. There’s not a lot of new media in art school, but that started to change when I was in high school. Art schools opened animation and digital art majors. I found that animation was not for me, but as soon as I started doing comics, I fell in love with it. I’m sure a lot of people would agree that comics are a labor of love. It’s a lonely profession sometimes. If it’s not a labor of love, I don’t know what is.

So how did you end up working on Guantanamo Voices?

I got to know Sarah through The Nib. She knew my work, and at some point I collaborated with her and we had a great experience. We became friends after that. She had mentioned this project and asked me if I was interested, and I said yes immediately. I thought it was very interesting because I didn’t know much about Guantanamo. I think that’s pretty universal. When Sarah offered the project, it was not only interesting because I would learn something about it, but any project that can shine a light on anything as secretive and dubious as this is a project worth pursuing.

When she asked you, the project and the structure were laid out, that you and others would each draw a chapter?

She told me that when she approached me. That each person would draw a chapter about some person who had some involvement with Guantanamo. At that point we didn’t have the chapters assigned. Then the world of publishing can be a little slow, so I think it was a year and a half when Sarah said, “Great news, the project is a go.”

Did you choose to draw the chapter of Mark Fallon?

No, actually. Sarah was asking who was able and willing to take long chapters. At that point I said, “I’ll take whatever length you have,” and Mark Fallon’s ended up being one of the longest chapters. It’s funny because I took it, and at that point I was applying for my marriage visa, and as soon as I started production, I was granted the visa, so I drew it in Mexico, while I was moving, in the States without my work setup, and then once my stuff arrived. So I had to draw it in four different stages. 

It’s a great piece and I’m not sure what people are expecting, but most of the people Sarah talked with are people who worked for the U.S. government and are speaking about this because they were offended and disgusted by what’s gone on at Guantanamo.

It was very surprising. When I was given the script, I was slightly intimated. A lot of what I kept reading, my only reference was movies or TV, so the world of a former NCIS agent and interrogator was very foreign to me. To picture someone who lived through this was very intimidating. I’ve now had some contact with Mark and I really admire what he did. He’s a super nice guy and that eased the tension a little bit. At first I was intimidated. 

As far as the research for the book, you had a lot to do.

This is something I talked about with my wife, Ally, who also makes comics. We both make nonfiction and journalistic comics, and we always talk about how much it takes to do the research. That’s for any comic, but for this one in particular. So much is secret. If you look up Guantanamo, there won’t be photos that give a sense of the layout of the place. All the images are very curated. It was hard. I went through testimonials trying to capture everything people mentioned.

You also had the challenge of depicting and designing these abstract scenes.

Those challenges of how to convey the severity of George Bush signing a document that condones this type of interrogation. That’s when I think, in terms of nonfiction, comic books really shine. You can use a lot of visual metaphors or you can take some liberties that maybe in a movie would feel cheesy or too editorializing, but in comics you can control the heft that any given scene has with very small decisions.

I was thinking of page 36 and that bottom panel, which was so striking.

I don’t want to take all the credit for it. Sarah thought about what we could do. That’s also a part of collaborating with someone you trust that makes everything so much easier. Sarah could write it and then I could make it my own and make some adjustments. Obviously I wasn’t going to change the quotes and text, but visually it was an easy project because we were all on the same page. Our mission was to do justice to the people who were speaking up. 

As far as working with Sarah did you two have a lot of back and forth?

She sent me the script, but she also said that we could play around with it. For the most part I kept to her original script because I thought it had a very good flow. It was just a question of how to visually translate some things to guide the story. Journalistic comics tend to be text heavy and that is sometimes a challenge because you have to do something visually to keep it interesting. That was very easy because my way of working with Sarah was I checked in with her and the editors at Abrams every step of the way. I sent them the thumbnails, we made some adjustments, I sent pencils, we made some adjustments. There’s a limited color palette in this book, so there was a back and forth with the editorial team, Sarah and the artists on that.

It’s a limited color palette but not that limited.

It’s like a controlled color palette. 

Also, everyone’s pieces are colored differently.

That was another thing. I’m used to coloring either with three or four colors, or I have every color at my disposal. Trying to figure out this in between took some experimenting, but I ended up learning a lot from the process of coloring this book.

It’s harder to color this way than with three colors or with all colors. For example, you colored Fault Lines in the Constitution, which has a very limited palette that compliments the style, but this is more freeform in a lot of ways.

If you have a limited color palette, you can set the tone. Like, someone can be blue and that’s fine. [laughs] There were some artists who used color in a more limited fashion and it worked. It was interesting because I didn’t see people’s work until I saw the book in print. I’m familiar with some of the people so I was very excited to see what they were doing. It wasn’t until I got the physical book that I saw what everyone did, and it was interesting how given the same tools and a similar subject people came up with completely different visions.

When you saw the book, what did you think of the entire book and how do you think yours sat in conversation with the other chapters?

I was very happy with how mine was in the context of the book. I think it’s an integral part. All of them are, really, but Mark’s story helps put the reader in the time period. There’s talk of what Mark was doing before, during and after 9/11, and it’s such an essential part of the book to give it that context. Mark’s story is also a bridge between the very cold government angle and the more human side. The fact that he decided to cross that bridge sets the tone for the other stories in the book. Mark found out about these horrific interrogation techniques that are later depicted or other people endured or were part of. It was almost an introduction – even though the book has an introduction. I think it helps set the tone.

As you said, he arrived after Guantanamo had been set up and he had spent years working on al-Qaeda. He shows up going, “Who are all these people?” That sets the tone for this book in which people are saying, “This is both morally wrong and it also doesn’t make any sense.

I really like that sequence where he cannot recognize any of the prisoners. Before working on this book, if I had to guess who was in Guantanamo, I would have guessed it was the top members in the chain of command of terrorist organizations. To see that it’s not, that there were people who had nothing to do with terrorism — it’s both heartbreaking but very interesting.

You also have a new job as an editor at Webtoon. Could you talk a little about what you’re doing and hoping to do?

I started working there a little over a month ago. I am currently working as an editor for the Latin American division of Webtoon, which is this huge South Korean company that made its way to the U.S., where it exploded. Now we’re opening to different markets. The Latin American market is super interesting because it ties to what I was mentioning before about how commercial art is relatively new as a discipline there. There’s this new wave of creators, and when I saw the opportunity to become an editor, I immediately started thinking of the types of stories I would like to see and the people who I would love to see what they could do. Right now I can speak from experience growing up in Mexico, where comics are poorly paid if paid at all. To have an opportunity to shape the platform with these super talented creators, who have been very undervalued to this point, is very exciting. I saw the job posting just a day after I got my work permit in the U.S. and I thought, “This is a sign.”

So is the idea everything will be published in Spanish by Latin American creators?

The main objective is to have stories by Latin American creators for Latin American readers. Obviously if down the line some series can be translated, perfect, but our main objective is for Latin American readers.

I know some artists from Latin America, and comics there don’t seem to be as organized. Not that comics are necessarily organized in the U.S., but you know what I mean.

I do. It can be as something as simple as, if you go to most publishers website, you can find submission guidelines or a path to submit your work. In Mexico a lot of publishers don’t have that. Maybe you’re a talented artist but if you don’t have connections, there’s often no clear path to getting published. It’s very unfortunate and a lot of people get lost in the shuffle. In a lot of countries the biggest supporter is the government, who gives stipends for creators to work on projects. There are stipends for self-publishing. 

I’m excited to see what you come up with. There are fabulous artists there now and I’m sure even more who are talented but don’t have an outlet.

I think something that is interesting with the Latin American market is that for the longest time many Latin American creators have been part of the talent pool for big corporations to pay less money. There’s a lack of a defining Latin American style or voice where I think a lot of people would be able to see a European comic and see something stylistic and people would go, “This is French or Belgian.” Even narrative styles, not just the visual approaches. We haven’t had that opportunity in Latin America. I hope with time to help build that unique voice in Latin American comics. The fact that we don’t have to figure out a distribution system to get comics form Argentina to Guatemala, we just post it, and it’s available to anyone to read.

Related to that, you and Ally have been running Little Red Bird Press, so you’ve been working and thinking as an editor for a while now.

That was my beginnings of that path, which I genuinely never thought. There’s so much about my career that I never thought I was going to be. I never thought I was going to be doing journalistic or political comics. I never thought that editorial was something I was interested in. For example, when we began Little Red Bird, both Ally and I were working as college professors. I think the jump from being a college professor to being an editor is smaller because it’s still directing people and helping them to be the best they can be. The difference is that as a professor I don’t always want to give creators an answer. You’re pointing at a direction and hoping they find a way. As an editor, you can be more direct. It’s very similar. In Little Red Bird we’ve had to work on a couple of anthologies and I cannot stress this enough, Ally does the heavy lifting on the editorial side of Little Red Bird. But we’ve shared an office for the past six years and I’ve learned so much. When thumbnails arrive, we both read it, we discuss it, and it’s very helpful to have the opportunity to edit in tandem because you start noticing things that you wouldn’t be privy to. Ally is very aware of word economy and that’s something I never really thought about. The difference between having a huge balloon covering half a panel and then cutting a few words makes a huge difference visually and narratively. I learned so much from Ally.

You mentioned that this is not the work you thought you would be making when you went off to school. What kinds of comics did you want to make?

I don’t think I knew what type of work I wanted to do. I knew what I liked then, and it was more action heavy comics, a lot of manga influence. I was part of this forum Gingerbox, which was a lot of artists. Corey Lewis was the creator and there was a lot of that type of anime and video game-focused comics. It was very hyperactive and that was the type of story I wanted to do. Then I started consuming other types of work in school and grad school. For example, I didn’t know Maus. You start to broaden your understanding of the medium and you realize, “I have so many more options. I can do so many things.”

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