There are a lot of ways for independent creators to get published these days. You could start a Kickstarter campaign. You could publish on the web. Or, if you’re Guillermo Zubiaga, you could have it financed by scholarly cultural institutions like the University of Nevada and The Center for Basque Studies. His comic Joanes, or the Basque Whaler, has garnered him considerable attention, much of it from sources you wouldn’t normally associate with comic books.
Derek Mainhart: So first a little background info: What’s your professional comics background?
Guillermo Zubiaga: I started my career working in an animation cartoon studio, while getting my degree at Syracuse University. After graduation I decided to move to New York City, to expand my professional possibilities. I got my first job in the comic book industry around 1997. I did a year or so work “ghosting” (uncredited work) and after a relatively short time I managed to get my work credited in Marvel’s X-Force. I also ghosted on Images Comics’ HellHole #1 and then on Witchblade INFINITY, for which I was given credit.
Around the same time I also worked as a toy designer with Art Asylum, drawing designs for action-figures for ToyBIZ: X-Men, Spider-Man, Lord of the Rings and others. I also worked on the Image Comics title Nosferatu 1922 and some more ghosting for Vertigo (DC) on Big Daddy Danger, for which I was occasionally credited. I did some inking on an issue of B.P.R.D. for Dark Horse, and on an Image graphic novel, The Romp.
I have also drawn quite a few storyboards, mostly for TV-advertising, some music videos, but most notably for the short film Witchwise (2006) by Joe Harris and Night Messiah Films-Lointerscope.
DM: So you’ve been around. How did you feel about the “ghosting” process? Did it bother you to not get credited for some of your work?
GZ: I found ways around it. For example, perhaps semi-consciously, I began peppering a few subtle Basque “winks” and “tags”. Well, some not so subtle at all: there were iconic Basque symbols, letters, words, even phrases and names of Basque rock and rap bands, etc. Things I thought would not be recognized by anybody. I figured no other Basques were likely to be working as artists in the comic book industry. I never thought I was getting away with anything. If any of the camouflaged, incomprehensible Basque “winks” I drew in the background would have jumped out as any kind of red flag to an editor, the worst that could have happened was that I would’ve simply erased them and drew them over. But that never happened. On the contrary, I think that my when some of the books I worked on in America got published back in Europe, the “Basque winks” that I thought I had concealed so inconspicuously were eventually discovered. This led to some very considerable attention until finally the University of Nevada got news of my “affairs”.
DM: What was this “considerable attention”? When the University contacted you, were you already working on Joanes?
GZ: Yes. In 2007 I finished the flying whaleboat, showed it around to different editors in NYC and throughout the Comic Con circuit, trying to find a suitable venue. I gave myself a self-imposed deadline of one year to find somebody to publish it. If not, I’d try self-publishing it.
During this time several articles were published about it in just about all the newspapers back in the Basque Country. I also was invited to participate in several interviews in a couple of Basque Radio shows and featured in a small piece on Basque News television.
A few months before my self-imposed deadline to find somebody to publish my book, I received a call from the University of Nevada, Reno. In 2009, courtesy of their Center of Basque Studies I published Episode 1 of my Joanes or the Basque Whaler saga: The Flying Whaleboat.
The second installment of the Basque whaling trilogy, Whale Island, premiered two years later at NY COMICON.
DM: What part did the University and the Center for Basque Studies play in publishing/promoting the book?
GZ: The Center for Basque Studies of the University of Nevada, in Reno holds and publishes (for the last 50 or so years and counting) the largest Basque themed library in the world (outside of the Basque country). So it has been, along with its vast distribution network, pivotal in spearheading this project and making it a reality.
I want to think of it as having been the right fit, and in retrospective I think I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.
DM: What can you tell us about the story?
GZ: I would describe it as a fictional epic scattered with Basque mythological references. Regarding the first volume, Joanes, the protagonist, tries to make his fortune as a whaler during an era when the whales in the Bay of Biscay were becoming scarce. He’s forced to look farther afield, but without the means to do so. Here is when the story begins to depart from historical fact and the narrative weaves in elements of Basque legend. With the help of witches, Joanes summons a sea-devil who assist him…But for a price!
The episode ends with danger hanging over the recent success of Joanes and his crew as he has to live up to his unhallowed pact.
As far as the second book goes, continuing with the idea of Joanes as an anti-hero, we see that his fame and fortune grow, but so does his notoriety as a blasphemous and impious drunk. This defect will ultimately become his downfall, something quite real, human and flawed, characteristically lacking in most heroes.
This volume represents a turning point in the narrative: it’s the point of highest tension, before the conclusion in #3.
DM: The story takes great pains to recreate 15th century whaling practices. What interested you about the subject?
GZ: I hold the entire framework to be genuinely a Basque Western genre, comparable to The Cowboy in America, The Samurai in Japan or The Viking in Scandinavia. A truly epic age for the Basque people, which to quote a friend of mine “was the time when Basques have shined the brightest in their history”.
We Basques have been sitting on a buried treasure. As luck would have it, in our lifetime we have had the opportunity to discover the oldest and best preserved wreckage from the exploration age in the world. Not to mention two of the oldest written documents in American history, acknowledging us with the verifiable truth to claim back such a historical and cultural wealth.
DM: In addition to the whaling stuff, the narrative teems with historical detail. How much research did you have to do? Can you tell us about the process?
GZ: Research indeed!! I believe that the success of anything you do in this life depends 90% on research. It wasn’t easy, especially since not all investigating, in terms of archeological study, was done when I began this project. I realized that there wasn’t a whole lot to be found, although I am quite a library mouse and as much as I like to research, I had to talk to quite a lot of people. It wasn’t easy. I remember I went to different academic and cultural museums in the Basque Country as well as in Canada and Iceland, requesting any kind of visual aid, but like I said there wasn’t much. Luckily today I would say the field itself seems to be experimenting a bit of a revival.
DM: The story has the feel of folklore about it. How much derives from Basque tradition and how much is purely invention?
GZ: As far as the narrative is concerned, with the exception of personifying the natural occurrence of the Traganarroo (“watersprout” in Basque) into an anthropomorphic killer whale, I have painstakingly gathered every single element from the vast Basque mythological tradition; the witches and their relationship with the sea as well as the night whaleboat air rides, etc. I also drew from a very rich (though often little known) maritime history. The way I see it, all the elements were already there I just had to find them and weave them in a cohesive way that made them all fit.
DM: You incorporate text and symbols into some of your page design. Considering your penchant for hidden “winks”, are these meant to provide added layers of meaning?
GZ: Well of course! One would only hope those “added layers of meaning” are deciphered. However, unlike my days of ghosting, where my Basque winks were somewhat unpremeditated, every element in JOANES is fully planned.
DM: The overall storytelling approach, episodic in nature, with an omniscient narrator, reads less like a traditional comic and more like a heavily illustrated narrative. In fact, the combination of this approach with your exhaustive attention to detail and realistic rendering style put me in the mind of nothing so much as Hal Foster’s work on Price Valiant. Was this approach dictated by the type of story you’re telling? Why did you choose this method?
GZ: Right off the bat, thanks for that reference to “the Prince of Illustrators”! I am not sure if I could explain my method or how I choose it; however I knew from the very beginning that I wanted to do something “different”, with a clear conscious effort along the way that I wanted to avoid most (if not all) cliches, narrative as well as visual. Yet I also knew I wanted something done with a traditional feel, especially if we consider the atavistic nature of the subject matter. I even considered doing it in sepia tone as opposed to B&W to give it a weathered look, although I do think the current print works fine.
DM: There is some interesting conjecture in the story concerning the Basque’s discovery of the New World (you even provide some historical footnotes to this effect). What evidence you find supporting this? And was this part of the impetus for the story?
GZ: Impetus for the story? You bet!! There is a whole lot of undisputed evidence on the early presence of Basques in the New world. The tale itself is inspired by two of the oldest known texts to be produced in North America, the last will and testaments of Juanes de Larrume and Joanes de Echaniz, Basque whalers who respectively died in Canada in the years 1577 and 1584. ( A recent discovery by Michael Barkham places Domingo de Luça, also a Basque Seaman, who died in 1563, as the oldest written document in North America). Along with these written documents, the oldest shipwreck found north of Florida is the Basque Galleon, San Juan.
Furthermore a recent discovery (it happened while I was wrapping #3) at a Huron village site near Toronto, places one of the oldest pieces of iron (an axe fragment) in North America. The item was radio carboned to be from around 1500 A.D. and it has yielded very suggestive results because not only does it turn out it is Basque in origin but forensic archeologists were even able to locate the actual forge where it was manufactured back in the old B.C. (Basque Country).
In 1497 A.D. when Giovanni Caboto sailed for the King Herny VIII of England and “discovered” Newfoundland, on his arrival to the New World he encountered several Basque ships already fishing its coast.
Later in 1534 A.D. as Jacques Cartier explored the east coast of Canada on his “discovery” expedition for France, he also reported seeing Basque whalers off its shores. Moreover, some of the French-Basque crew that Cartier brought with him were the only ones who could understand a few trade words that the natives were using. An Algonquin-Basque pidgin had developed over years of trade between the two groups. Modern Micmacs today claim that when both Cartier and Cabot were first encountered they were greeted in Basque. The Basque language was without a doubt one of the earliest European languages that the natives learned, before, English, French or Spanish.
You see the whole subject of Basque whaling shrouded in a halo of mystery. Besides working so far from their home ports, they were exempt from many taxes that the crown or the church would otherwise claim, so naturally the occupation itself was quite secretive, in the nature of the fisherman who keeps quiet about the source of its catch to protect him from his competitors.
At any rate, all these elements were like a jewel for at least the backdrop of the centerpiece for a narrative work.
DM: The second issue ended on a note of almost biblical proportions. What can you tell us about Joanes #3?
GZ: The whole narrative of Joanes could be described as a journey of self discovery where the protagonist begins as a clear cut anti-hero but events transpire which transform him into a more traditional hero. Self sacrifice comes into play in this last issue, but even though the character appears more benign, the inner scoundrel never fully disappears.
The only two things that I can reveal is that our character has himself ordained and in addition to that becomes a pirate!!! (hence the title, Priest of Pirates)!
Look for Joanes or the Basque Whaler on Guillermo Zubiaga’s Blog: