Creating A ‘New Criminal Mind’ In A Feudal World – Victor Santos On Rashomon

by Hannah Means Shannon

This week, Victor Santo’s new book, Rashomon, arrives in shops, following on from his spy-noir thriller trilogy Polar at Dark Horse, and alongside his second series of Violent Love at Image Comics with Frank Barbiere, and the launch of a new webcomic on his website, titled Guts. Santos is a busy man, but one of the ways in which he keeps particularly busy is in making sure his books are published in accessible ways internationally, since he’s based in Spain. Rashomon was originally published in two black and white volumes on the European market, but now fully colored and collected in a single volume, is reaching English readers for the first time.

As you might guess from the title, the new book focuses on events in feudal Japan, but is also about the investigation of a crime, just like Akira Kurosawa’s film of the same name, which was in turn based on a short story by Ryunosuke Akutagawa. Santos picks up the same story as an inspiration and runs with it–deep into the life of an investigator, Heigo Kobayashi, and a woman whose motives are ambiguous, and possibly deadly.

Victor Santos joins us today to talk about Rashomon: An Inspector Heigo Kobayashi Case.

Hannah Means-Shannon: Have samurai films been as big an influence on you as a comic creator as noir films? The detail in your artwork on Rashomon suggests you have a deep love for the setting and subject matter.

Victor Santos: I feel a special affection for them for many reasons. For example, Akira Kurosawa samurai films were my door to classic cinema like “Citizen Kane” or “12 Angry Men”, two of my favorite classic movies. You need cool duels with swords if you want to sell a black and white movie to a teen (laughs).

Also Japan’s Edo period fascinates me, on the level of history books and of pop culture, movies, anime & manga…I have a weird love/hate relationship with Japanese culture, that closed society of rules and codes, that difficult relationship between individuality and society… I feel both charmed and disgusted in reactions to things at the same time, and this means it’s a good breeding ground for stories. So I love the samurai films, from the classic stuff, such as 70s savage B series like “Lone Wolf & Cub” and “Lady Snowblood” to more modern movies like Takashii Mike’s “13 Assassins”.

The graphic novel is full of little tributes to some seminal movies, for instane the name of the main character comes from “Harakiri” director Masaki Kobayashi and Kurosawa´s brother Heigo Kurosawa

HMS: What gave you the idea of bringing detective work further into the setting of feudal Japan? What existing material were you able to work with, and what did you have to imaginatively create?

VS: Initially the book was going to be a literal adaptation to some Ryunosuke Akutagawa tales, the same source than the Kurosawa’s movie “Rashomon”. But reading the stuff, I discovered (like in the Rashomon movie) that the investigator character is a kind of invisible presence. You never read his words or listen his dialogue. I began to think about how that guy might be as a character and how he would deal with the investigation, so the approach changed and become a detective-focused story.

HMS: Tell us a little bit about Inspector Kobayashi. What makes him someone you wanted to get to know better?

VS: This character born from my own relationship with that Japanese feudal culture. As I told you, I was super-fan from my teen years, and I read a lot of novels like Eiji Yoshikawa’s classic stuff ( the “Mushashi” and “Taiko” sagas). This was very nationalist  stuff, but I was fascinated by honor codes, strong males performing seppuku… Later I read more questioning history books and I put the Bushido code into its context, looking at how it worked as a system of control of the military class, and how that nationalism influenced some of the Japan’s bloodier imperialist wars.

My own life experience made me more skeptical about religion, politics, and moral codes promoted by the governments, of course… So I tried to translate this experience to that blank canvas of a character. He’s a man who really believes in that code and the book’s real underlying story is about what happens when these beliefs are shaken. This part is highly developed in the second chapter of the book, titled “Seppuku”.

HMS: It seems like we have a very interesting female character in Rashomon, too. Who is she, and what should we know about her?

VS: The Lady is the personification of the femme fatale concept translated into a Japanese context. She’s very ambiguous and you never know what her game is. I present her as if she could be the possible birth of a new criminal mind, a modern concept entering into a feudal world. Is she discovering an inner power in a male-dominated world? Is she an innocent dame trapped in a degrading situation?

We only know she finds her force in her solitude. It’s my attempt to prove that you don’t need to completely know all of a character’s intentions in a story. That’s something I learned from looking at Brian Azzarello’s scripts.

This character is also influenced by the British TV series “Luther”, where the rivalry relationship between Luther (Idris Elba) and Alice Morgan (Ruth Wilson) blurs the line between investigator and investigated.

HMS: What elements of Japanese artwork and tradition inspire you the most?

VS: Japanese ink drawings and engravings are a big influence to my own art, especially the Hokusai drawings. Surely everybody knows him for the engraving of the giant wave, but he made a lot of stunning ink art… I made that inspiration more pronounced by mixing it with a noir shadowy effect and fitting it into the storytelling.

HMS: Tell us a little bit about the process you went through to bring Rashomon to a color edition and how that changed the experience of the book for you.

VS: I thought a lot about it… Originally  the book was published as two Spanish black and white graphic novels separated by time with some differences in art approach, and adding color was a way to level out the two styles into a single volume edition. At the same time, I wanted to differentiate the book from my Dark Horse “Polar” Trilogy (which had spot colors but not full color).

Polar and Rashomon have a lot of influences, one of them obviously Frank Miller’s work, but also a lot of other black and white artists like Alex Toth, Jose Muñoz, Hugo Pratt, Goseki Kojima… Sometimes readers and critics only see the obvious popular references. I didn’t want the “Miller effect” to condition the perception of the script, because Rashomon was a very different story to Miller’s own approach to noir. Color was a useful tool to focus the attention of the reader where I wanted it to be.

But I’m happy with the two editions coexisting. It’s something usual in French market, like Hugo Pratt’s “Corto Maltes” books or now the noir editions of “Mad Max Fury Road” and “Logan”. Enjoying them is a different experience and I love both.

HMS: How about the decisions you made in constructing the cover for this new edition? What did you have in mind or want to convey?

VS: Well, that was based on an idea from a Dark Horse editor and I agreed because Dark Horse has awesome designers and the covers of the original two books were too referential to individual chapters. We needed something containing the whole story.

They adapted the original logos to the Dark Horse style and the book looks gorgeous.
It’s cool, I own five or six “Mad Love” editions (laughs) from USA, Spain, France… with different covers, extras… I encourage you to find the Spanish black and white editions on amazon and buy them (laughs).

HMS: And yet, you are back in the noir on other projects. You’re deep into Violent Love at Image, and you’ve started a new webcomic. As we know, the comic Polar, in all three volumes, comes from your webcomic site. Tell us all about your new one and what your goals are for this project.

VS: Yeah, I’m just finishing the issue 10 of Violent Love written by Frank Barbiere, the end of the Daisy Jane’s story and end of the initial planned arc, resulting in two paperbacks. We’ll have news about continuation on that soon.

Guts is my new online comic after Polar and I’m using the same platform for practical reasons. But this is a new story with no links with the Polar universe. It has also been conceived as a web-based mute action story with a later book publication in mind, but with a different graphic approach and a new structure: I’ll try to update it every month, with complete chapters of variable length.

I’m not sure how many pages will be in each update, but initially from 8 to 12 pages. I want to use this chapter structure for – once again- playing with the concepts of Will Eisner’s “The Spirit” and for testing different storytelling techniques. The inkwash style comes from Eisner too, and because I’m usually working with digital colors, I find that sometimes you need to return to a more “handcrafted” path as an artist.

About the story, ever since the second Polar book, “Eye for an Eye”, I wanted to work with a strong female lead character again like Christy White. But Christy was an avenger, and I wanted a survivor for this story. She’s an African American teenager, a sportswoman kidnapped by Neo-Nazis in a manhunt game, and she’s using her knowledge to strike back and kick their butts. This story is set during 1986 and Reagan’s “Irangate” controversy, so it has a political subtext if you want to find it. But mainly it will be an action and horror tale with a touch of rural noir.

I was a little concerned because the Charlottesville events happened in August 2017, with an innocent victim and a tense climate, and we all saw those disgusting scenes of American citizens holding Nazi flags… I considered whether I ought to delay the launch of Guts until 2018. I didn’t want to be (or look) insensitive or opportunistic… but at the same time, maybe these comics could be more necessary than ever, you know. I consulted some friends and authors and decided to keep my release date.

I’ll update at the beginning of every month on www.polarcomic.com

Thanks to Victor Santos for participating in this interview with Comicon.com. You can find Rashomon: An Inspector Heigo Kobayashi Case in shops this Wednesday, October 18th, 2017.