Smash Pages Q&A: Sal Abbinanti on ‘The Hostage’

The creator of ‘Atomika’ returns with a new Kickstarter project that’s been 10 years in the making.

Sal Abbinanti might be familiar to comics readers for his series Atomika, but even those who read that series will be surprised by his artwork in the new graphic novel The Hostage, which is being crowdfunded now.

Abbinanti has been drawing the book on and off for years, but it has its roots in a trip he took to Brazil decades ago. Since then he couldn’t get the image out of his head of homeless children living just around the corner from the bright, colorful tourist district of Rio. In The Hostage, he found a story and an aesthetic that allowed him to tell the story in a way that is unsettling and unsentimental.

For the campaign, Abbinanti enlisted a number of friends to draw work for stretch goals, but the star is what Abbinanti was able to achieve in the pages. He was kind enough to talk about The Hostage, its road to publication and his crowdfunding campaign.

You mentioned before that this is an idea you’ve had since college.

I graduated college in 1989, and in the ’90s, when everyone was drawing indie comics, I wanted to draw superheroes. I wanted to draw Luke Cage and Captain America. But over time you don’t get invited to the party so you say, “Screw it, I’m going to have my own party.” If you’re going to do something, the only real leverage you have as a creator is if it’s something near and dear to your heart. I knew that once you say, “Homeless kids in Rio,” I didn’t want to patronize it. That wasn’t my motivation. I thought it was something interesting that I needed to tell.

The Hostage is a hard book to describe in a lot of ways. Was that by design?

I think why it affected me so much was that I went to Rio to get laid and drink and have a good time and party. My roommate was from Brazil, and I was excited to go. I didn’t expect to get kicked in the ass like that. I expected paradise, but you turned a literal corner and saw these kids. Little kids. When we think of the homeless in the United States, we think of adults with chemical dependency or people down on their luck, but there it’s kids under 13 years old. Four and five year olds sleeping on the sidewalk and begging. I couldn’t believe it. 

People might remember your series Atomika, but artistically it’s a very different experience from The Hostage.

That’s good. I don’t go into this knowing what to expect or expecting hugs and kisses – cause I never got hugs and kisses. People always had a good reaction to it because it doesn’t look like anything else. I can live with that. Better than looking like another Jim Lee clone or the flavor of the month. Your style is your style. It’s a blessing and a curse.

I remember Atomika and I could see you had a certain style and influences, and in The Hostage you have a different approach and set of influences. I’m curious why you drew the book the way you did.

I started with a straight forward narrative, but the sensibility of guys in capes didn’t work. What I always loved about Kirby was that everything in the books was a product of his imagination. To me, that was the definition of what comics were. It was supposed to be a product of your imagination. When you work with Alex [Ross] and Bill [Sienkiewicz], they’re polar opposites. Alex is a machine and he wants it a certain way. Bill, if you want him to draw the Joker, he’ll draw the Joker 10 different ways 10 different times. He’s more cerebral. I learned from Bill to just surprise yourself and don’t be afraid to try something different.

When I started this I thought, I’m not a draftsman like Neal Adams or John Romita where their lines are perfect. I came from advertising, where you were in a hurry and used whatever you had to use to get it done. When I approached Atomika, I didn’t worry that the guys at Marvel or DC might think its too messy or whatever. If I was going to crash and burn, I was going to do it my way. When I made portfolio pieces, the voice in your head is, “What do they want? How do I draw it so they’ll hire me?” Then you look back and go, “That’s not how I would have done it.” And I didn’t get hired anyway! I should have done it the way I did it. So when I started The Hostage I thought, “I’m going to do it this way.”

I would have said that here you took from Bill the idea of having a script and the art has to be not a realistic accounting of events, but this experience of what those events were like.

I learned a lot from Bill in the sense of what you said. Letting the emotion do what you’re trying to convey. I purposefully used neon colors because there’s something weird about all these neon colors and samba and Carnival, but then there’s a dark underbelly in Rio. I approached it as if, “What the hell. I’m not a kid anymore.” People say, “You know what I’m going to do when I get older?” Well, I’m old. [laughs] I was going to do it the way I felt I should do it.

You use a lot of bright colors and a lot of blacks, and that contrast is so important. And beyond the colors, you were clearly trying to break the page down differently and not draw a traditional comics page.

I worked backwards. I knew the story and the narrative. I was originally working with a writer. A lot of artists think they’re writers until they start writing. I was working with Andrew Dabb, who I worked with on Atomika. He’s a great writer and a good friend of mine. He’s in Hollywood, working on Supernatural, and I said, “If you’re too busy to do this, I’m cool with that.” He said he wanted to do it but our schedules didn’t work out. I painted the whole book and finally I just wrote it myself based on the notes I gave him. I showed some people and there were revisions, but I’d been working on this so long, if I didn’t know the story, something was wrong.

What materials did you use to draw the book?

I used a lot of markers. The stuff you buy at the grocery store. I wanted to get a lot of cross hatching. I used a lot of sharpie highlighters. I found this great store in New York that makes their own watercolors and had these great neon paint sets. I started to use a lot of watercolors. Another thing I stole from Bill was that whatever you need to get you there, just do it. Because once you scan it, you don’t have to worry.

The book has this very handmade aesthetic.

A lot of that was by necessity. I’m not the draftsman that a lot of guys are. I use nice brushes when I paint, but I was never a great draftsman with perfect inked linework. You can use that as a crutch. With Atomika I worked with inkers. I mean, if you can’t ink, there are a lot of great inkers. That’s the good news. The bad news is you’ve got to keep them on a deadline. With The Hostage I said, “I’m doing all of this myself.” I got so sick on the flow getting interrupted and having to call people and ask where the pages are from the inker or the colorist. 

I think the book needed that aesthetic and feeling. If you tried to draw the book like Alex Ross, I don’t think it would have worked.

It’s funny you say that because when I did Atomika I wanted to find any way I could to get people to pick it up. If they bought it and didn’t like it, I could live with that. A lot of readers go to the store with only so much money and don’t necessarily have enough to give a new book a chance. The same with comic store owners. Back then I thought, “If I put Alex Ross or Bill Sienkiewicz or Glenn Fabry or Simon Bisley and a bunch of guys I knew from cons on the cover, maybe people will check it out.” But if you look at the cover, it’s not indicative of the work inside. I did that because I wanted to market it that way. With The Hostage I knew I couldn’t get them to do a cover because the book is meant to look a certain way. With Kickstarter you have stretch goals, so I have people doing stretch goals, but it’s not the cover of the book. I want you to see the cover and see what it looks like on the inside.

In some ways this book is very personal, even though it’s not your story. It has the feeling and texture of this emotional story you had to tell.

If you’re an artist of any sort, you need an outlet for your creativity or you go crazy. We don’t choose to be artists, it chooses us. You either have to do it or you don’t. I think the medium needs new styles, new people, new ways of doing things. What’s cool about Kickstarter and indie publishing now is that it’s not expensive to publish comics now, the way it used to be. The real sweat is drawing it and writing it. If you’re not paying yourself, you can put out a book. I think its important for artists going, “How do I get hired by Marvel or DC?” Well, that’s tough. But there’s nothing stopping you from putting out your own book. I knew that I wasn’t going to get hired. So either I quit comics or I do it myself.

What is it like having finished this story you were carrying for so long? Relief?

It’s like after finals. [laughs] You’ve been cramming and staying up late, and then you don’t know what to do. I started volume two When I went through my notes because I’m putting together a sketchbook, I realized that I had lots of different stories before settling on what’s in the book. I thought, “If it does well, I’ll make a second volume.” But then I realized, no. I’m back to where I started, waiting for validation. I’m going to make a second volume because there’s more that I want to tell. So I’m working on volume two. It’s not going to take me 10 years! I’m six-seven pages into it already.

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