Polar wouldn’t be Polar without the Black Kaiser, an archetypal killer with ties to German and Russian intelligence who’s something of the “white whale” among hired assassins. If anyone can manage to bump of the Kaiser, they’d have serious bragging rights as well as more money than they could dream of due to the bounties on his head.
Angular, scarred, but not entirely inscrutable due to his emotional entanglements with enemies and with his protege, Christy White, the Black Kaiser dodges his way through the intersections of stories in the several volumes of Victor Santos’ Polar series, soon to be a major film starring Mads Mikkelsen in the Kaiser’s role. He sprang from an original comic that has never appeared in English before, and that will be released in re-mastered edition by Dark Horse in March, titled Polar Volume 0: The Black Kaiser. This now stands as a kind of preexisting prequel Polar Volumes 1, 2, and 3 already released by Dark Horse, and gives readers the opportunity to learn some awesome seminal things about the character’s origins.
My own relationship with the ultra-stylized, super-violent, horizontally presented (due to the original webcomic publication format of Volumes 1, 2, and 3), graphic novel series started with personal fandom for Santos’ endlessly creative artwork, then the great pleasure of working as editor on Polar Volume 3 during my time at Dark Horse, and latterly to becoming an early reader of Volume 4: The Kaiser Falls, also being released in March. The fourth volume’s title is ominous and accurate, as Santos has been clear with readers that this volume represents the end of the Black Kaiser. Every great archetypal killer deserves to have his full story told, Santos feels, and he’s delivering that in spades.
Victor Santos joins us to talk about the two new books coming up, and also his excitement about the film due to be release by Netflix and Constantin Film in 2019.
Hannah Means-Shannon: Victor, how many years have you been working on Polar comics, and how much about Black Kaiser’s personal history have you revealed in that time?
Victor Santos: I created the character in 2007 for a Spanish graphic novel simply titled “Black Kaiser” and resurrected him in 2011 for the webcomic Polar. From the three seasons of the webcomic, I made (considerately extended) the three first graphic novels. And now a fourth novel is arriving, never pre-serialized.
You really can build his story by picking up pieces here and there, even in the Polar books (volumes 2 and 3) where he´s not the main character. For example, in the second Polar book, “Eye for an Eye”, you have a back-up short story where I tell how he lost his eye. But every Polar book is a self-contained action-thriller story like the classic Bond films. You can even read them out of order, but you have the clues about him as little links between the books.
HMS: When it comes to the making of the Polar feature film, what most excites you about what you’ve seen so far?
VS: I have not seen images other than the shooting pics posted on the internet. I imagine how difficult it would be to send me footage, just imagine the problems if that leaked…I would be dead! (Laughs). I have been close to the different drafts of the script, and I read the final version with my name printed in watermark (I keep it in an ebook without internet connection, just in case). And I´m very excited about the approach to the story I’ve seen, because my biggest fear was that it would be too conventional.
The first draft was pretty cool, but it was kind of a usual action story, with an almost friendly hero. You could almost see Bruce Willis there in the role. But the writer, Jayson Rothwell, Jonas Ackerlund, and Mads Mikkelsen worked hard on it, and the approach you are going to see in the film is more personal and twisted than the usual thrillers. The virtues of my book are more focused in the film and it reflects how I told the story rather than following the plot closely. I prefer that the movie respects the motivations I established, even if it is less faithful to the original plot of the book.
HMS: When you think of Black Kaiser, or other characters in the Polar series, do you envision them in your mind as real people walking around, or do you imagine them in terms of art and the “moments” you’re going to present on the page?
VS: In the early stages of the story, I “visualize” moments or scenes that I want to show, and sometimes writing the script is finding a way to present these moments coherently. But in Polar, I never think about these characters as real. Maybe in others books, yes, but not here. It’s overstylized fiction. They are living archetypes with some human details… Maybe the Kaiser from “The Kaiser Falls” is the most human of his incarnations, but he’s the twilight version of the character.
HMS: Many writers say that a hero’s end is as important as his or her exploits while living. Do you think this is true for Black Kaiser here, or for you as a storyteller?
VS: As Ghost Dog says in the Jim Jarmush masterpiece, “The end is important in all things”. It gives sense to his past life. That’s the problem with mainstream superheroes and their eternal cycle of death and resurrection, you become immune because you know they are dying for financial reasons or due to a lack of ideas. I read a lot of manga in my teenage years, and you felt that the deaths in them were real. Well, maybe not in Dragon Ball (Laughs) but the first time Krilin died was traumatic at my school. We felt like it really happened. If you read The Walking Dead right now, you feel the same way, and when you the story again knowing the ending, you will enjoy its authenticity.
HMS: Why did you set Polar Volume 4 in Miami? What opportunities did that setting afford for you as a storyteller?
VS: Well, I placed the three previous books in cold places, and when you begin to read this book it seems like the same story again… This was a little joke I inserted. Then the story moves to sunny Miami. The point is: Black Kaiser takes “the cold” with him (Laughs). He’s the “polar” of the story, instead the place. Moreover, the character has been hidden away in remote places, even in an old WWII bunker! I found this idea funny: “Where could an old man hide better than any other place in the world? In a crowded city, full of thousands old men like him!”
And Miami and Florida gave me more opportunities for cool action scenes. You have a long action scene in a swamp. I basically made it because I want Genndy Tartakovsky to give me a job! (Laughs)
HMS: I see some more “modern” elements in Volume 4 than in even the previous volumes of Polar, although that contrasts with the classic style of Miami. We have computers, phones, social media, hacking (kind of) and references to electric cars. Did you feel like you wanted to make this story more tied into the here and now?
VS: Yes, maybe it was not completely conscious, but I wanted to show that “Time has reached to Black Kaiser”, so the world feels more real and modern than the other books where you can see cellphones and computers, but mixed with these are 70s and 80s elements.
I also wanted to show a new breed of young assassins and make a little fun of my own environment. So, you have this hitman who is vegan, an ecologist, and inclusive. He also has a Twitter and Instagram account, but and at the same time kills people for money. I´m not making fun of being a vegan or an ecologist, but this is the point of view of an 80 year old, Cold War, German-Russian, retired agent. Young people are like Martians to him.
In fact, I have an idea for another graphic novel about hitmen, outside of the Polar universe, with characters like these young assassins and about how an ultra-connected-recorded world affects to their job.
HMS: Victor, you need to make that book. Please. I think I’m right in saying that Volume 4 represents the most tattoos you’ve ever drawn before. How do you come up with these tattoos, and do they have particular significance to the different characters?
VS: This is Victor, the writer, shooting Victor, the artist, in the foot! (Laughs). We have a Cuban gang, Los Libertadores, with all that Latin paraphernalia, and we have the hipster hitmen with tattoos of vintage cartoons, and all of them are full of tattoos everywhere. I thought it would be easier drawing them separately, and later pasting them in with Photoshop, so I drew dozens and dozens of cool tattoos in my sketchbook… but trying to keep all the tattoos in their place was a hell, checking again and again, thinking, “Ok, this guy has this tattoo in his left shoulder and this one In the right cheek.”
HMS: I love seeing the routine of Black Kaiser’s life at his house. What he does or rather doesn’t do all day, and what he does at night. Even his piles of books! This is really a unique portrait of the man. Did you have fun creating this part of the story? Why is he someone who would read these particular books?
VS: I thought it would be interesting to take time and show his life in the calm before the storm, and it would be a great contrast to when bad guys “wake the beast up”. I didn’t want to introduce action so quickly. Simply taking a break and showing his -more or less- normal life: cooking, jogging, driving, reading, even having sex! Remember, he’s a man from another age. But he has discovered books, and he’s reading all the things he couldn´t read when he was killing people. But because of his past, he begins to read about war and warriors, and the things other people have written about his kind. Now that he’s old, he tries to understand himself and the world via these books, so he reads Machiavelli or Musashi Miyamoto, or “The Greek Myths” by Robert Graves, or even Jonathan Swift, because if you want to understand politics, you need to read Gulliver’s Travels.
I have a rule about books, because I don´t want be a smart-ass who puts references into stories because they look cool: I have to have read every book I refer to in my work and they have to have a special meaning for me.
HMS: This is a very difficult but important question: are the weapons that the Kaiser uses in Polar Volume 4 your favorite for showing him off in a fight? What are some of the weapons you’ve enjoyed showing him use in previous volumes?
VS: I always to try to create “iconic moments” with action and weapons. Weapons are an extension of warriors. If you watch Sergio Leone’s Dollar Trilogy you will understand quickly that every gun subtly explains things about its owner. Korean movies show this really well. The hammer of “Old Boy”…People remember those things. The Polar characters are usually pragmatic people, so they have no favoritism. They grab the most useful thing they have nearby. I´m proud of the “Came from the Cold” scene with the nightsticks, or the “Eye for an Eye” fight where Christy White slashes a gang with a folding umbrella. I tried something similar with the screwdriver scene in this book, surely one the most violent scenes I’ve ever done, and I have done a good bunch! (Laughs)
HMS: I didn’t want to spoil the “Screwdriver Scene”, but I’m glad you mentioned it! Now, Polar Volume 0 is also coming up, appearing for the first time in English. Is it “remastered” for the new edition? And will it be presented in horizontal or vertical format?
VS: It´s a normal comic-book sized book because it was born before the webcomics, so it was simply an action book titled Black Kaiser. My first idea about this new edition was to publish it as a cheap novel, softcover, with bad paper and digest sized, not completely linked with the Polar graphic novels. But Dark Horse preferred to keep continuity in style, so we created a hardcover edition with a similar look to the others. I remastered the drawing, digitally correcting some things here and there, like hands, faces and little details. I think I drew a couple of pages again…And added grey and red tones to give them more “depth”.
HMS: Is Polar Volume 0 the best way to learn about the early history of the Black Kaiser? It seems to contain a lot of information about him.
VS: Yes, it is still the hitman’s adventure, but it also reveals more background about his past as a KGB agent, and how he was trained. It also sets up some of the relationships you find in the later Polar books, like Ifrit or Irina. And when it finishes, you understand why he was hiding in the book Volume 1: Came from the Cold
When I built the character in the first book, the 9/11 tragedy rose as decisive subject matter because after the Cold War ended, this was one of the moments where the World Order changed. So, I linked part of his origin and enemies to that moment in time. Maybe that is one of the more important points about who the character really is. “Black Kaiser woke up in a different city. In a different world. In a different game.”, the story says. I am fascinated by the way in which America processes its tragedies using pop culture, from Vietnam to Kennedy´s death, to the current menace of terrorism.
But Volume 0 is the first book I created about him, so you can simply read it like you would watch the first Bourne movie, or approach it like any other origin story, without any previous knowledge about the character.
Thanks very much to Victor Santos for this in-depth chat about Polar Volume 4 and Volume 0!
Polar Volume 4: The Kaiser Falls will be released in comic shops on March 20th, 2019 and is currently available for pre-order through Diamond.
Polar Volume 0: The Black Kaiser will be released in comic shops on March 6th, 2019, and is currently available for pre-order through Diamond.
Look out for more previews of his lavish artwork in process as we come closer to those release dates.
Check out Victor Santos’ often-updated webpage right here.