Lorenzo Montatore’s is one of the most original voices in Spanish comics. This is demonstrated by works such as Be careful, you kill yourself!, California Rocket Fuel or Dear departed. In his work, references such as Mihura, Tono, Valle-Inclán or Arniches are mixed with the pop of classic cartoons, eight-bit video games or popular songs. From that cocktail comes a voice of its own, whose treatment of transcendental themes through humor and poetry has been gaining more and more readers. Recently, he has published his most ambitious work: a free biography of one of his most admired authors, Francisco Umbral. The lie ahead (Astiberri) is one of the comics of the year.
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How do you choose the theme of The lie ahead? Until now, he had mainly made works of fiction with his own characters. It is the first time that it takes a real person as the protagonist.
Before deciding that I was going to do this play, I was drawing a fake biography. I had invented a character, a flamenco singer. But I was blocked, although, with time, that story ended up being a fanzine, It comes chasing me (2021). But one day, talking to a friend, I got stung by doing something about Francisco Umbral. And the truth is that there has been quite a difference with other comics. I have enjoyed it much more, I do not know if because of the fact that I am using other people’s texts, which has allowed me to distance myself.
You were already a reader of Threshold, but has much been documented about your life?
Much of what comes out in the comic I already knew. I documented myself, but I did not want to be very exhaustive, because I did not want to make a typical, orthodox biography. He wanted something more free, based on his own work.
There is a whole line of graphic novel of biography that is very conventional in formal terms, which is limited to aseptically recounting the events of the protagonist’s life. But The lie ahead it is something totally different. Did he intend to make Umbral known, or is it something else that animates him?
That intention is there, but, above all, the opposite encourages me: what I want is to turn Umbral into a comic, not to make a comic about Umbral. That would have been a collection of stickers, very respectable, I don’t fit in there, but it’s not what I wanted to do. I think Umbral has very interesting things to bring to the comic: that’s why I wanted to make him a character of mine. Among other things, because it wouldn’t work out any other way for me. If I wanted to do a conventional biography, I would not be able to.
It’s funny, because that “collection of stickers” is somehow found at the beginning of the book, on the first two pages. It’s as if I’m telling the reader that if you want to know the basics of Umbral life, there you have it. But the comic deals with other issues.
Sure, it’s like a map. Or like the Wikipedia entry. For people unfamiliar with Threshold, this is the summary. And from there, in the next two hundred pages, I am going to tell you about my Threshold.
That Threshold, are you building it specifically for this comic, or is it being built over the years and reading your works?
When you meet the work of someone who fascinates you, in your head you make your own character. Especially because to me, in truth, the person and the private life matter quite little to me. But it is true that there is another part that is born the moment I reread his work, already thinking of adapting it to the comic. When i reread Deadly and pink (1975) the day after deciding that I am going to make the book, other images are created, I see another Threshold different from the one I had in my head. One more comic Threshold. On the other hand, Umbral said that he filled his life with literature: that is the part that interests me.
We live in a time when the trend is the opposite: we demand to delve into the human side, to know what is behind the work of an author. It is something that we see in the documentary of Anatomy of a dandy (2020) by Charlie Arnaiz and Alberto Ortega, who deconstructs the character to see what is behind it. Did you like this documentary?
Much. It was funny, because I was already doing the comic when I found out it was going to be released. I got in touch with one of the directors, Charlie, who invited me to a premiere. I really enjoyed it, but my reading is completely different: neither better nor worse.
Currently, the intellectual world that you reflect – not only Umbral, but also Cela, Sánchez Dragó, Pérez Reverte – is reviled by many people, especially young people, who consider it rancid, machirulo… How do you see all this?
Well, I’m from my time, and Umbral was from his. All this is not alien to me. I do this in the year 2021 and I am aware of it. But I focus on his literature, and I think there are things interesting enough to vindicate them today. At least a large part of his literary work, which seems to me forgotten. It is unfair that it is remembered for a television anecdote … which, on the other hand, are things that seem very funny to me.
And that, after all, he consciously provoked.
Sure, and I’m sure he had a lot of fun doing it. But it is a pity that his work is not known more.
The lie ahead It is an ambitious book: it is built with small pieces, each one has its own tone… There is always a lot of intuition in your work, but, in this case, being a different project, did you plan the book differently?
The only difference is that I had to screen and assemble the puzzle of the structure. But once I had that, I thought about it like any other book. As you say, I work a lot with intuition. But it is true that there came a time, when I had already drawn enough, in which I realized that it had to have a certain order, even if it is not strictly separated into chapters. I was very well advised by Antonio Hitos [autor de cómics como Materia (Astiberri, 2017)], which always helps me a lot, and also because of my editor, Lucía Álvarez.
How do you decide the graphic tone to give each sequence? The color palette, the platform video game resources… Are you always aware?
I have a hard time explaining that. I select a text that suddenly suggests that it be preceded by a sequence in which, for example, Threshold jumps from platform to platform. It comes to me like that, without further ado. As for the color palette, sometimes I do try to make sense of it, that color counts things, and I pause a bit longer, sometimes even correct what I have done before. But, in general, I work a bit crazy.
However, the coordinates are clear, because in his previous works he has built a very solid code of his own. If you had tried to make this comic four years ago, would it have cost you more than now?
Yes, exactly. In fact, I have a vague memory that, years ago, I thought about doing it. Shortly after posting Death and Roman Tesoro (Dehavilland, 2016), in which he introduced a cameo from Threshold. But I immediately discarded it because I didn’t see how to do it. Now I have seen it clearly, because experience has given me tools that allow me to face any issue in my own way.
Somehow you can translate it to your style, to your cartoon.
So far, almost everything that I have considered I have been able to do, yes.
Respecting his attitude towards literature and life is the best way to respect him. I can’t know if he would have liked my comic, but I am sure of one thing: if I had done a conventional biography, he would not have liked it at all
The lie ahead shows that cartoon can also be applied to themes serious. Are you worried that readers will understand that?
I handle things that, although they may clash at first, at the same time are very familiar. Some of my influences are very pop, while others are very Spanish. Taken together they have a meaning, because they allude to a popular imaginary, to an amalgam of references that we have in mind. An example: when I was little, I played Super Mario Bros and immediately afterwards he would turn on the television and watch Gila: what do both things have to do with it? Nothing, but they are part of the same memory.
Regarding influences, we have seen in his comics a progressive refinement of his references. He has been incorporating them in a more personal way to his visual style.
I believe that I am tracing my path without being already so attached to those references. Maybe at first you have a lot and somehow, unconsciously or consciously, you want them to be noticed. I had that fixation with Tono or Mihura, and I liked it to show that it came from there. Now I no longer think about it, it is not conscious. In truth, the only thing I have had to worry about is that the cartoons look alike, that the drawn character be recognized. The rest has been a joy. And maybe that’s why: because I no longer have the slab of references. I go more to my roll.
This book is published with Astiberri, after publishing with several publishers and self-publishing many works. How are you living it, is there a lot of difference?
The comic is everywhere: there is not a day that I do not find the cover somewhere when entering social networks. I am very happy, really.
Do you think the book marks some kind of milestone? The beginning of a new stage?
I take it as another book that I have done. I don’t think of it as a before and after; although it may mark it in the sense of making myself known, of reaching more people.
Can you encourage him to do another similar project, with texts from others?
I would like to do something by myself, but also, I am already collaborating with another person on another project, about which I cannot say anything yet. In any case, I have taken away the fear of working with someone else’s texts, but you have to find the right text.
On The lie ahead, somehow the reader forgets that the texts are from Threshold: combined with his drawing, he makes them his own. It also happens that he usually has a very literary voice, a very careful way of writing.
What a compliment! I understand what you mean … Obviously, I don’t write like Threshold wrote, far from it, but I’ve always been concerned that the text has a literary quality. That is why it is not unusual to read certain things with my drawing. Also, it’s like a game, because I’ve stolen a lot from Umbral in other comics, and that makes the style familiar to my readers. Actually, I have assembled this comic as if the text was my own. I have given myself a freedom that is perhaps not usual in a biography.
There is a misunderstood respect in some biographies, perhaps …
If it can be. I believe that I have not been able to respect Umbral more than doing what he said had to be done. You can find many interviews in which he said that when he wrote a biography he did whatever he wanted. Well I’m going to do the same with you, friend [risas].
He was constantly making up things about his own life, even contradictory ones, as seen in his book. One day he says he is an ascetic who neither smokes nor drinks, and another day he is seen smoking a cigar on television.
Well, he liked to tease. If everyone was on TV smoking and drinking whiskey, he would eat an apple and have a glass of milk. Each day told a different thing. I have tried to maintain that spirit, without forcing it or taking it to the extreme, that attitude towards literature and life. Respecting that is the best way to respect him. I can’t know if he would have liked my comic, but I am sure of one thing: if I had done a conventional biography, he would not have liked it at all.