Smash Pages Q&A: François Vigneault

The cartoonist and designer discusses his ambitious graphic novel ‘Titan,’ the comics scene in Montreal and much more.

François Vigneault is a cartoonist and designer living in Montreal and the person behind the new book Titan, which is out this week from Oni Press. People might know Vigneault from the many things he’s done in comics over the years ranging from editing the anthology Elfworld, co-founding the Linework NW Festival, the artist of the graphic novel 13e Avenue, and one of the artists on the recently published Cayrels Ring, among many other projects. 

Titan is his best work to date, but also his most ambitious. The story of João da Silva, who arrives on the moon Titan to oversee roughly 500 Terran colonists and 50,000 Titans, oversize workers genetically modified for the moon’s conditions. What follows is a labor strike, a political battle, a shooting war. It’s also a romance comic about falling for someone at the worst possible moment. Vigneault manages to balance crafting a believable futuristic background while foregrounding a tender, unexpected love story, and the brutality of the unrest in ways that are moving and thoughtful.

We’ve met a few times over the years at different comics events and I was thrilled to get the chance to talk with him about the book, serialization and the comics scene in Montreal.

To start, I always ask people, how did you come to comics?

Always good to begin at the beginning! For me it was a sort of phased entry, like most kids I started with the newspaper funnies, especially those paperback collections of strips like Peanuts, the Spider-Man daily comics, etc. Then I got pulled into the comic book shop through Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Things moved pretty quickly from there, I think I fell into reading comics at a pretty fruitful and exciting moment for the medium, it was easy to just keep rolling with it. From say 1990 to 1996 (when I graduated from high school) I went from going into a shop for TMNT cartoon comics to real TMNT, Usagi Yojimbo, X-Men, and Dark Horse Presents to THB, Ranma ½, Bone, Vertigo, Eightball, Dirty Plotte, and beyond. It was a pretty wild ride in retrospect.

Where did Titan begin for you? From the start were you thinking, I want to make a comic about labor battles?

I started thinking about the seed of what would become Titan years and years ago, just riffing off the very simple, almost goofy idea of “What would it be like if there were giant people?” I can take a long time to sort of slowly develop a story in my mind before I ever put a pen to paper, so I had some time to sort of imagine a world where the giant humans at least kind of made “scientific” sense. The setting of a mining colony in space directly led to the idea of looking at labor relations through the lens of science fiction. I’ve always been interested in history, so there was a lot of material to draw inspiration from. I had read widely, and I took some fairly in-depth courses in the history of colonialism, slave codes, revolutions, etc., all of which found its way into the comic when I eventually started actually working on it.

How do you approach science fiction? Are you thinking about the time frame, about technology? Are these concerns very important for you as far as shaping the world or are they more secondary?

I am a fan of fairly realistic sci-fi first and foremost, I like it if the universe is somewhat believable, so I definitely do think about things like technology as I am writing the story. Like with Titan I put some thought into what year it should be set in that would feel reasonable (2192), where information technology might go (João has a cybernetic “i” implant that allows him to calculate “at the speed of thought”), and what things weren’t going to be in my book (no interstellar traveling or aliens). But all that comes after the main ideas, characters, and themes. I like world-building, but for me it is definitely the cart, not the horse.

Titan has an odd publishing history. What happened in the years before Oni published it?

In English, I originally serialized Titan both in print and on the web with the small-press publisher Study Group Comics. I only had a single issue of the series wrapped up when I first moved to Montréal five years ago, a copy of that first issue made it into the hands of Luc Bossé, the publisher of Éditions Pow Pow (who also publish great comics in English as well!), and he approached me about doing a French-language version with his press, which I eagerly agreed to do. For me it was a real honor for me to have that badge of acceptance into the Montréal comics scene. Once it was published in French I started shopping Titan around to American publishers, which can be a long process. It was actually Lion Forge that acquired Titan, but when they merged with Oni Press Titan ended up under the Oni umbrella – and I couldn’t be happier about it. It’s totally wild to me that my work is going to be appearing in the American market to a much broader audience for the first time.

How did serialization shape the narrative and how you approached the story?

It definitely has some effect on the structure of the book, for instance the issues were typically 32 pages, so almost all of the chapters were originally half that, 16 pages long. Which sometimes meant compressing story beats so that they would work within that specific page count—The final issue was double-sized, so I got to play around a little more with the length of the beats near the finale of the book. 

The spot color palette was also related to the serial nature of the publication. Not only because I dig the look but because it was much less expensive to publish black plus a spot color than it would have been to do a full color comic, while also having more impact than a purely black and white book. 

Serializing Titan also made me feel a sense of responsibility to my readers as well… I would get good feedback on an issue and it would keep me wanting to bring new material to my small audience, and to try to keep getting better each time. That said I definitely have appreciated having additional time and space to work on the collected edition of Titan, I got to tweak lots of the early art and writing that I didn’t feel was quite up to snuff for both the Pow Pow and Oni editions.

How did you draw Titan? What was your process?

When I first started Titan I was still drawing everything in an analog fashion, drawing with a brush and ink on bristol board, just as I had been my whole life. But a couple chapters in, a friend gave me a very cheap little Wacom tablet, and I decided to take the plunge into drawing digitally after years and years of resistance. Now I am a full-on convert to a digital workflow, I literally can’t imagine doing commercial illustration or comics work on a piece of paper anymore. It just takes so much longer, and it adds a lot of non-creative work (scanning, clean up, etc) that I would just as soon avoid. I drew Titan with Manga Studio, and now I work with Photoshop. 

I draw fairly loose “pencils,” often far less complicated than most artist’s basic “thumbnails,” and then I’ll got to town from there. Working digitally allows me a lot of freedom the “fail quickly,” I’ll try out a series of brushstrokes to find something that works without being too particular or precious about it, which I think can help maintain a spirit of spontaneity and imperfection in the final art that I really like a lot (I am so far from a perfectionist that there isn’t any point in pretending otherwise, I find). You can see a couple time-lapses of me drawing pages from Titan here and here.

Why did you decide on this color palette?

I really like the overall look of spot-color, there is just something fun in seeing what an artist can do with a limited color palette. For me I think it plays to my strengths as an illustrator, it lets me have an additional bit if visual information on the page that can suggest depth, shadow, etc, without being either beholden to lots of shading or cross-hatching on the one hand or full color on the other, which I feel can sometimes be a bit overwhelming on the page. I experimented with quite a few colors in earlier iterations of Titan, each issue of the series had a different spot color, and the French edition was purple! For the new edition I went back to a sort of pink tone, which was my original inspiration. I like it because it gives a somewhat romantic vibe to the book, which helps to undercut the somewhat grim subject matter.

Not to spoil anything, but the final chapter of Titan jumps ahead. I’m curious why you wanted to wrap up the narrative and do so in that way specifically.

I don’t think that’s too much of a spoiler, and I think I can keep my response vague enough. [laughs] Titan is a very tightly focused, almost claustrophobic story in many ways; it takes place over the course of a few months all in one location, with only a few principal characters. But Titan is also concerned with a fairly big overarching story, a massive conflict between the Terrans and Titans, so I wanted to expand the scope a bit at the end of the book to give the reader a sense of the broader story there, both in time and space. That also allowed me to look at Phoebe and João’s relationship from a different angle as well, to re-contextualize and frame the main characters.

Since then you’ve also made a YA graphic novel in French. Do you want to say a little about 13e Avenue?

Yes, that is a really fun project. As soon as Titan came out I was approached by another Montréal publisher, La Pasteque, about collaborating on a new graphic novel series. 13e Avenue is written by Geneviève Pettersen, a Québecois novelist and screenwriter. It is the story of Alexis, a young boy who suffers a family tragedy and moves to the “big city,” where he encounters the locals, deals with emotions of grief, and slowly realizes that everything might not be what it seems in his new home. I’m going to be working on illustrating the second volume shortly, and I am looking forward to it coming out in the United States someday!

So what are you working on now? What are you thinking about next?

I am working on a couple different things right now, but unfortunately it is still early days to talk about them in detail. I can tell you that I am drawing a monthly sci-fi comedy series coming out from Oni in early 2021, something totally different from my comics like Titan, but tons of fun. I am also just getting started on another political sci-fi thriller in the vein of Titan, that if all goes well would be appearing sometime in 2022. Fingers crossed.

I have some ideas for a sequel to Titan as well, but as I mentioned earlier it can sometimes take a while for a concept to percolate in my mind long enough to come to fruition, so I am giving that a bit of time before jumping back in!

Not to make you spoil anything about this monthly series, but how is what you learned making Titan – both in terms of drawing science fiction and the serialization, especially – affected how you’ve thought about and approached this new series?

I think one of the main things I learned from Titan had to do with my pace of working faster than I used to, and how important it is to keep momentum going. Titan took me five years to write and draw, but I drew about 3/4 of the book in just a year and a half. I had to really dedicate myself to drawing the book on a regular schedule and not allowing myself to slack off, so that I could hit my deadlines. As I mentioned, when I was serializing Titan I felt how important it was to keep delivering for the audience. To be consistent enough that the reader can expect the new issue to arrive on the “New Comics” wall regularly.

With this new series, it’s going to be a monthly book, so I need to keep up a pace of about six pages a week! It can definitely be a challenge to juggle that with all the other elements of my career, from doing illustration gigs and working on my own graphic novels to  Luckily I am just drawing the book, so it is more manageable than if I was writing too. For me the process of laying out the book from the authors’ script and drawing the story itself is all pretty fun. It feels a lot like this book is bringing me full circle back to my roots as a fan of comic books.

So tell me about the Montreal comics scene. What has it been like (or at least, what was it like back when we used to gather in groups)?

I feel super lucky to have found a place here in Montréal, it’s a really fantastic community and me and my work has really been embraced. It’s kind of wild, my work has been nominated for over a dozen awards since I moved here (and even won a couple), which I find incredible. Like, I would be very surprised if Titan got that kind of reception in the United States! The community here seems to really “get” what I am doing. I do think that also points to an important difference from any scene I have been a part of in the USA. Here in Québec and Canada there is a much higher degree of support for the arts and literature on every level, from the aforementioned prizes to grants to library programs and more. The people of Québec are really dedicated to supporting creators, and I think it has some definitely knock-on effects throughout the creative ecosystem.

I think one of the best things that ever happened to me was that Luc Bossé, the publisher at Éditions Pow Pow, approached me shortly after I moved here and offered to publish Titan in French. That led not only launched my “career” as a francophone creator, but it also put me in touch with all the other creators at Pow Pow, a really amazing and talented and very friendly group (Pow Pow publishes books in English as well, a fantastic way to discover some of the coolest creators from Québec, like Sophie BédardFrancis DesharnaisMichel Hellman, and Cathon & Alexandre Fontaine Rousseau). The creators here in Montréal all know each other, they go to each other’s book launches and they have holiday parties and such. As you mentioned, the pandemic has certainly had a major impact on the sort of socializing that I used to do, but I think that there is still a strong sense of community, I think people can’t wait to get back out.

One last thing I have really enjoyed participating in here is the Montreal Comic Arts Festival (AKA the Festival de Bande Dessinée de Montréal), which is a free, bilingual, outdoor event that takes place in May. For the last few years I have been working with them on doing translations and outreach to the anglophone community, and that has been so much fun. It is a really engaged and enthusiastic community, and even when Covid-19 brought everything to a standstill earlier this year they quickly adapted: The 2020 Festival was 100% virtual, with panels, live drawing, workshops, interviews, and much more, all of which can still be seen on their YouTube channel.

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