Interview: A.C. Esguerra on 'Eighty Days'
We chat with the cartoonist about their new epic aviation romance, and discuss its Golden Age Hollywood influence.
There are debut graphic novels, and then there are debut graphic novels. Eighty Days by writer/artist A.C. Esguerra is a masterfully told, sweeping romance set against an alternative history where war consumes everything and the only freedom possible seems to be in the skies above. Told primarily through loose yet lush ink wash, the comic is a massive, magnificent hug around the reader.
Have you ever consumed a comic that's swept you off your feet? You're turning the pages, meeting characters, discovering new realms and ideas. You're enjoying it thoroughly enough, but then you turn the page, and a particular image just rushes under you. Suddenly, your feet are off the ground, and the comic has you in its arms. You're in love.
Eighty Days did this to me. The first section was powerful and compelling. The second section was equally so, expanding the world and introducing new perspectives as your guide. The third section brings the previous two together, and with its climax, commits the magic trick that made my head swim with butterflies.
Jay's only desire is to fly: until he meets Fix, the thief. Their relationship pulls them into war with the fascistic government that dares to rule over the sky as it does the land below. Their bond burns into resistance, and it encourages rebellion around them. Friends become enemies, enemies become friends, but Jay and Fix are ever constant.
I chatted with A.C. Esguerra via Zoom. It was a delight to discuss their fascination with flight, cinema's influence on their storytelling, and the exhilarating pacing that one can usually only find within manga. Eighty Days is a comic years-in-the-making, and it must be an incredibly surreal experience to finally have it out there in the world (via Boom Studios). This one gets a big stamp of approval from Comic Book Couples Counseling, and I wouldn't be surprised if Jay and Fix show up as one of our podcast couples in the near future.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
Brad: Can you remember the first idea that started you on the journey to Eighty Days?
A.C.: I can. I had a job at the time as an usher at an outdoor theater area, and I was listening to some old-timey music that they were playing over the loudspeaker. I was looking at a plane flying by above me, and I just had this image all of a sudden. I was reading a lot of pilot autobiographies at the time, so planes were on my mind anyway, but I remember this image of this man, this pilot in a leather jacket standing at the edge of the shoreline. It just came to me and then I couldn't get it out of my head, and it started coalescing with other ideas until you have a story.
Brad: And where does that fascination with aviation come from?
A.C.: That's a great question. There's a great movie studio, Ghibli's Porco Rosso.
Brad: Awwww, yeah.
A.C.: Hell, yeah! That's a big inspiration. I watched it as a kid, changed my life forever. But going even before that, I don't know why the idea of flight, and planes, and that time period just really appealed to me. I really loved The Little Prince as a kid and that was written by a real-life pilot, which I found out later. I don't know, it's always been in the back of my mind, I think.
Brad: I grew up in San Diego and my dad was Navy. We'd go to the Miramar base and I'd watch all the fighter jets and stuff like that, and that's where my flight fascination started. There's just something about leaving this planet behind and going away and up, there's a freedom there.
A.C.: Absolutely. Yeah. That was what really got me about reading the pilot stories, was how they would talk about how it felt to be so far above. Everything on the ground, above, the problems that plague us when we're wrapped up in our daily lives, it's just different when you're in the air. That sort of mysteriousness of it really appealed to me.
Brad: You incorporate flight as a metaphor throughout Eighty Days. Is that something that just sort of comes naturally in the creation process, or is it something that you were fine-tuning in writing the novella and then stretching it out into the greater graphic novel?
A.C.: Well, that's a good question. Flight as a metaphor for freedom just seems very natural to me. I'm not even sure if it's a metaphor. I think it's literally pure freedom, but yeah. As I developed the story, the nuances of what that would mean in the world, to people who may not necessarily have power, what does it mean to have the power to fly, to escape, to travel? That stuff developed along with the story and moved it forward.
Brad: What changed about the story as you expanded it from the novella?
A.C.: It did change with the increased amount of space. It also changed because I shift to different characters' points of view throughout the book, and that would kind of change how the panels get laid out, the pacing of the story unfolding, the kinds of imagery they focus on. Like Sable's chapter is a lot darker than the others, a lot more detail-oriented. Fix's is maybe more sensory, more sensitive to sound effects especially, there are a lot more crazy lettering sound effects in that one. So yeah, as the story progresses and shifts into different modes, the art followed.
Brad: One of the things that I was struck by were the POV shifts. Your approach to paneling changes quite a bit too, and that's really exciting to read. You're really playing with the form.
A.C.: The first eighty days [the first section] is all from Jay's voice. It's very strongly stated with his very short clip brief sentences, and then the images sort of maybe reveal what he's holding back or what he really feels about things. But the way that the other characters are honest or not honest about what they're thinking or feeling changes how the text and images interact. Yeah. I'm so happy to talk about this with comics people because yeah, you all would notice. [Laughter]
Brad: Well, I appreciate that. Words of affirmation are my thing. But I was reading a short interview that you did with the L.A. Times, I think back in February when the first few pages came out. And you were talking about the cover, and it didn't really click to me initially how much of a golden age Hollywood poster the cover to Eighty Days is. Looking at it now, I can't not see that era. What are you pulling from that period of cinema and applying to Eighty Days?
A.C.: I mentioned Porco Rosso earlier which is also set in the '30s, that has the aesthetics that are in Eighty Days also. But I was looking at, of course, classic black and white Hollywood movies, especially Casablanca, Roman Holiday with Audrey Hepburn, and Gregory Peck. These movies had this romanticism to them, from just the way they were lit to the way the stories were told that I really wanted to have my own take on.
It just kind of made sense because I wanted to work in ink on Bristol paper, write in black and white, and I feel that the texture of ink wash on Bristol really resembles the look of black and white film. The way that light falls through dark spaces, the way that those filmmakers played with light and shadow, I wanted to do the same thing in 2D.
Brad: Thinking about it now, replaying the book in my head, the second kiss that Jay and Fix share is a very Hollywood moment. To me, I don't even think black and white when I see it. I think Douglas Sirk, I sense that saturated Technicolor in that moment. You have this massive splash. I can see Rock Hudson in that frame.
A.C.: Oh, my gosh. I'm freaking out! Yeah!
Brad: When you do a page-turn like that and you want to sell that moment - because it has to be such a powerfully emotional moment - how are you channeling that moment? Are you channeling other experiences that you've had with fiction in whatever form? Or with life experience? How do you arrive in selling that page to the reader in that fashion?
A.C.: I think it's all the things you just said. I'm thinking of how I feel when I watch a movie and there's a big sweeping kiss, I want to feel carried away by it and overwhelmed by it, and I wanted to recreate that. There's also personal experience. Sure, I love my partner!
Brad: Could we talk just technically about how you capture the wind on that page, because, my gosh.
A.C.: As far as the technical side goes, the paneling, this pacing between building up tension in smaller panels or more steady panels, and then opening up suddenly after the page-turn, or changing the orientation to all vertical instead of all horizontal... I am inspired by manga, manga artists, the way that they expand and contract space and time. Their pages are a big, big influence on how I do it.
Brad: I'm relatively new to manga. I grew up mostly with American comics with a little European invasion here and there. Only in the course of lockdown have I discovered manga and started reading manga. And reading your comic, I was thinking about how you have passages where it is very dialogue-based, or journal-based, or notes-based, but then when you blow up into action or passion or what have you, the comic starts to race. The paneling loosens up and the speed increases, and so I think I can sense that manga presence just based on my very little knowledge.
A.C.: Yeah, that's great. Absolutely. A big inspiration for me is Shōnen manga, which is the more action or action-oriented towards boys, traditionally types of manga, and they are very good at giving that feeling of motion, not just physical motion, but also your emotion along with the character and what they're feeling. That shows up a lot for sure.
And, also, I mean good for you. I mean, what a great time to get into bingeing manga when you have all this time.
Brad: Yeah, what else am I going to do?
A.C.: They go so long and it's so great.
Eighty Days is now available from Boom Studios at wherever fine books, comics, or manga are sold. Be sure to follow A.C. Esguerra on Twitter and Instagram. You can also visit their website by clicking HERE.