Smash Pages Q&A | Mike Cavallaro talks ‘Free Speech Handbook’

The creator of ‘Nico Bravo,’ ‘Parade (with Fireworks)’ and more discusses his work in adapting Ian Rosenberg’s ‘The Fight for Free Speech’ into a graphic novel, his ‘comics graffiti’ approach to the art and more.

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Mike Cavallaro is the artist behind the new title from First Second Books’ World Citizen Comics, Free Speech Handbook: A Practical Framework for Understanding Our Free Speech Protections. For people who know Cavallaro as the creator behind the acclaimed Nico Bravo graphic novel series, it seems like an odd project, but Cavallaro’s entire career has been marked by the way he moves from one project to another, adjusting his style and approach for each.

Cavallaro has drawn a number of graphic novels including a pair of fantasy stories with Jane Yolen (Foiled! and Curses! Foiled Again!), a dark science fiction tale with Adam Rapp (Decelerate Blue). Cavallaro made two different projects with J.M. DeMatteis (Impossible, Incorporated and The Life and Times of Savior 28). That’s in addition to his own work, which includes the Eisner nominated Parade (with Fireworks) and his work as a member of Act-i-vate.

Free Speech Handbook is based on Ian Rosenberg’s book The Fight for Free Speech, which looks at ten landmark court cases that defined the First Amendment and relates them to contemporary controversies and cases. Like all of the World Citizen Comics books, it tackles a complicated topic in a way that tries to give people an understanding of not just what it means, but of the history behind it and the people who took up the fight for freedom. Cavallaro was kind enough to talk about making nonfiction, what makes Mark Siegel such a great editor and how Frank Frazetta inspired his style for this book.

How end up drawing Free Speech Handbook?

Going back to the 2016 election, I was blindsided by the results and I went down the rabbit hole like a lot of my friends did. The same panic, daily anger, confusion and outrage over one thing after another. I was watching my circle unravel on social media. My relation with First Second goes back a long time. I know Mark Siegel and like working with him. I thought, there’s got to be more we can do. We do a certain thing and there has to be a way that we can use it to contribute something constructive to this conversation that’s not simply half-informed reactionary outrage. When Mark announced the World Citizens line I sent him a note to say, this is awesome, I’m proud of you. If there’s any way I can contribute, I would love to. That was not a freelancer fishing for a gig. My hands were full. I wasn’t trying to get a job. This was what I’d been hoping for. I really worked to stay off social media and not use it as a way to vent. I sent him that message and he replied almost immediately, “I just got this proposal,” and he forwarded Ian’s book proposal. If you had asked me to name a project had a more obvious reaction to the Trump administration, it wouldn’t have been a book about the First Amendment, but as I read the outline, it grabbed me right away and was so engaging. I didn’t know much about the subject, or at least, no more than the next person. I read the proposal and said, “I will do this,” and it just came together.

You made Parade (with Fireworks) years ago, which was nonfiction, but a very different kind of project. Free Speech Handbook required a different approach from that and from your fictional books. How much did the way you work change for this?

A lot. There was an imperative to get the World Citizen Books out. This book deals with a lot of recent events. As Ian says, this is 10 cases ripped from the headlines and he pairs them with 10 Supreme Court precedents and tries to discuss these contemporary cases through the lens of free speech precedents. There was an imperative to get this out and that schedule dictated the process. One reason I like working with Mark is that every time we work together, he throws down some gauntlet. It’s usually almost imperceptible that he’s done it. It’s usually just a sentence and I don’t always realize it until a few weeks later. I think that’s what makes him such a great editor. He just lays down this challenge that you don’t even notice. He said, “We need to find an approach that allows us to move quickly. Almost in a journalistic way.” The burden of research was on Ian so I needed to move quickly and come up with a style that I started calling “comics graffiti” because I would draw something quickly and then run away. [laughs] 

It really was like a shorthand. There were no roughs, no pencils. It went from script right to the page as you see it. That is not how I normally work. It required doing research, photo reference, and I had to find that balance. It just happened organically after I started working. Again, the schedule dictated it. You have to work quickly but you have to research what did this person look like, what did this place look like. I couldn’t do what I normally do because I was so busy finding reference. It reminded me of a Frank Frazetta quote, believe it or not. As a kid I was a huge Frank Frazetta and fantasy fan and one of his more recognizable paintings is of this viking holding an axe coming towards the viewer. At a very young impressionable age I read this interview where he was talking about this painting and he said, the hand is really out of proportion. The hand is much larger than that hand ought to be because it implies the threat. It’s meant to be menacing. That was a new idea to me when I read that in high school. That it wasn’t just about anatomy. That there was another aspect to it. I’m a huge Jack Kirby fan and the way I eventually understood Kirby was that, he wasn’t drawing the way something looked, he was drawing what it meant to the story. It’s a visual language. It’s about the intent and the meaning. I had that in mind with this book. That I have to give myself a time limit on research and if after a certain time limit, I can’t find the right research I need, then that’s not what the image has to be. It has to be an idea, not a thing. I try to show people and places and things, but the book led me to illustrate concepts and ideas when I couldn’t find reference. And as it went on, that became more intentional. That’s what I love about comics. You’re learning the demands of the narrative as you create the narrative. It should be telling you what it needs to be. Mark always creates the space to let that happen when I work with him.

One of the challenges of the series is that it’s about ideas and it requires a lot of photo reference for different aspects, but it’s abstract and it requires a different approach.

You’re really looking to create an interpretation of these ideas that put the concept across. I spent a couple years doing these white board explainer videos and we were regularly dealing with these scientific projects and constantly trying to create a visual narrative for these very abstract things. I fell back on that.

It’s a very text-heavy book, but you’re adapting a book that’s very different from a comics script and very involved.

Ian had written The Fight For Free Speech for NYU Press, and my job was to create a comics format adaptation. I had a page count limit from First Second that matched the page count of his manuscript, which was a challenge. I sat there deciding on a path through the manuscript that was coherent and cohesive but left room for the visuals. I think that’s where my unfamiliarity with the subject matter helped. Ian is an expert while I more represent the average reader. Having that perspective helped me remove what I thought could be removed and highlight what I thought needed to be highlighted. He was a great collaborator and allowed me to do that. A lot of writers would be very protective of their manuscript but he was cool with whatever I did.

And he wrote a book for New York University Press, which has a very specific audience, and this version was for a general audience and younger audience.

And he understood that. Not everyone gets that, but he got it.

So you didn’t do roughs? You just worked on a tablet?

It was all digital. I’ve been working in Clip Studio. I don’t think I could have done this on paper. Someone could do it, I’m sure, but I could not have done that on paper. The digital aspect of it made the whole thing possible. It relaxes you because nothing is real or permanent and when you’re released like that, I think you can do your best work. If I was working on paper and I knew, this is what it will be, I would have froze.

I feel like in talking with other artists who worked on the World Citizen books that they were done digitally, but I could be wrong.

I think that’s where people are at. I switched to an iPad not too long ago and it’s amazing. I’ve been a cartoonist since 1991 and I’ve spent so many of the best summer days trapped indoors at my desk, but now I can work in the park if I choose. It’s amazing and so freeing. Sometimes I miss paper and ink, but not really.

You were talking about finding your way into the style that the book needed. How did you decide on the color palette?

That was an ever-evolving thing. I went into it with this idea of every chapter having a different palate. That seemed like a good idea, but there are flashbacks and different time periods and so finding a color that would work for those parts and to then assign a different palate to each chapter just doesn’t work. That’s what usually happens when I color any book. I have a first idea but when I get in there, it starts to warp to become something else. If you look closely, I did try to use color to evoke the fifties, sixties, seventies, eighties, but in a limited way ultimately. The color just needed to be loose and lively and simplistic – just like the art.

You mentioned coming into this book knowing what the average person knows. What did you get out of making the book?

I learned a gigantic amount. I got the manuscript and I read it over a weekend. The first thing I really felt was this discovery of how much I didn’t know about my own country’s history and this very important topic. Which was Ian’s point. We think we know, but we don’t know about this topic. I was shocked at how little I had learned in school. The book deals with this road that the country has been on. People aren’t aware of the fight that citizens have made. I was exhilarated by the script. It made me angry. It made me depressed at some points. When I got to the end, I was amazed. I emailed Ian and said this book put me on a roller coaster and I learned so much. I didn’t feel like I knew any of it. To me it was a crash course. I think that’s the best thing about the book. I think most people will feel the same. 

It sounds like you and Ian had a good collaboration.

When I’ve worked with people like J.M. DeMatteis, we’re in daily communication because of the nature of those projects and the way we work together. On other hand, the books I did with Jane Yolen or the book I did with Adam Rapp, they were great collaborators, but I was really off on my own for the most part. If I needed something they were there, but it was me taking a script and doing my job. I worked closer with Ian than I have with any of the writers on my other First Second books. It’s weird because Ian was basically done. He had written the book by the time I started, but he was my go to for reference. I would look for stuff and if I couldn’t find it, I would hit him up. He seemed to have a library of out of print law books that had portraits of people that I couldn’t find anywhere. That opened a door and we were in pretty close communication the whole way through. I was bouncing ideas off of him and showing him what I’d done in batches. He would offer suggestions. He worked closer together than I otherwise normally do. We just hit it off and it became a friendship. We would like to work together again.

You’ve made a lot of good books at First Second, including your own series, Nico Bravo. The second book came out a little while ago. Are you working on the third?

The third one is done. I’m working on the fourth. There are a lot of delays. The release of the third one was delayed, but it is finished. I’ve written book four and I’m just starting drawing it. I love Nico. I want to keep doing Nico Bravo books as long as people will let me do Nico Bravo books. I’m having a great time.

You mentioned before that you’re starting the fourth book and this is the longest you’ve worked on a project. How does that change how you work?

The challenge of a Nico Bravo book has been me working as a writer. I’ve done a lot of collaboration, but this is me learning to write. That’s been the exploration. The art is a breeze. The art for me is a fun, naive style. The challenge and the fascinating part of the experience has been figuring out the trajectory of these stories and learning how to write. When I pitched the first book to Mark Siegel, the first thing I said was that I wanted to build a huge world with a vast cast of characters who could be spun off.

So you’re constantly thinking about this larger world that spills out beyond the story and the borders of the page.

That’s what I hope. That’s what it does for me. There’s just so much going on.

Will you and J.M. DeMatteis ever make more Impossible, Incorporated?

We would like to. We talk about it. I think everyone’s experience in comics is a little bit different and you mentioned Parade before. I got into comics because I wanted to write and draw my own stories. When I transitioned out of dishwashing and into comics, my prospects were very limited. I was a colorist for many years. I couldn’t seem to get anyone to take me seriously as anything other than that. I actually left comics for nine years and worked in animation. Parade was kind of my comeback to comics. It was the first time someone published a book that I wrote and drew. I felt a little vindicated just by that. I felt more vindicated by the Eisner nomination that the book received. I thought, “This is going to open that door finally and I’ll be able to do these projects that I’ve wanted to do.” It didn’t. I started getting more comics work, I started being asked to draw things, but I had friends and family members and other cartoonists who would ask, “Are you going to do more Parade?” And I would say, “Comics doesn’t want me to do more Parade. It doesn’t want more stories like that from me.” Because I was getting asked to draw corporate franchise stuff. I want to give people Parade, but the comics business wants work-for-hire stuff from me. It was demoralizing. Things like Impossible, Inc. are like that too. I would love to do more. It could happen. J.M. DeMatteis has such a great ethic and he believes that stories happen when the time is right. I’ve tried to learn that from him. He doesn’t get ruffled, he just waits. He’s amazing. He’s just one of my favorite people. Reading his stories like Moonshadow and Brooklyn Dreams were the comics that made me want to make comics. They were the inspiration for me to become a cartoonist. And so to work with him and get insight into how he approaches stuff is a real learning experience for me. 

To close, how do you describe Free Speech Handbook to people?

It’s a look at where the conversation about our free speech rights is today through the lens of how we got here. I feel that it is a living conversation. All of this is subject to change. These rights need to be defended and they need to be understood. In my opinion, they need to be expanded on. You can’t participate in this conversation if you don’t understand what it is and what’s already occurred. You need to understand what’s happened in order to carry this conversation forward. That’s our job. That’s our responsibility. To carry this forward. It’s not completed. It’s not perfect. When you see the dissatisfaction and anger and outrage that people express on these topics, I understand it, but there’s an aspect of crossing your arms and waiting for someone else to fix it. I think the biggest lesson of the book is seeing the examples of people just like us who never intended to participate in this story, but had to. I found those to be very inspirational. They didn’t know any more than I did. They’re weren’t experts, but they were forced to the front lines and took up that fight. That’s on all of us. I feel like it’s a great introduction to that conversation and hopefully gives people some framework to participate in this conversation.

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