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Original short interviews with notable, rising or overlooked
figures from comics or the larger entertainment field by Bill Baker.

BAKER'S DOZEN for 10/14/2009
False Front
Nicolas Cinquegrani on The Big Kahn

Some of the greatest works of literature and the other arts take as their central concern a character’s quest for self-knowledge. One of the aspects which make those tales so powerful arises from the fact that the various protagonists’ journeys all somehow mirror our own, personal search for both meaning and our proper place in this world.

But what happens to your sense of self when you discover that one of the most essential pillars of your identity is naught but a hollow lie?

That’s question an entire family is confronted with in The Big Kahn when, on the day that they’re putting their patriarch to his final rest, they learn that the man they’ve known as a husband, as a father, as a teacher and as a religious leader was never who he appeared or claimed to be. The result, as imagined by writer Neil Kleid and illustrator Nicolas Cinquegrani, is as surprising, telling and, ultimately, as illuminating of the human condition as the work of those past masters alluded to above.

I recently caught up with Cinquegrani via email, and he was kind enough to supply some details about his experience working on this project, why he took the assignment, and where he hopes it might lead readers in their own lives.

Bill Baker: For those who might have missed it, how would you describe The Big Kahn?

Nicolas Cinquegrani: The Big Kahn is a graphic novel (174 pages) about a Rabbi who dies, and at his funeral, his family and community finds out he was conning them; he wasn’t even Jewish. It’s a drama about a family dealing with lies, beliefs and heritage. It’s published by NBM,written by Neil Kleid and illustrated by me, and it came out in early September.

BB: How’d you get involved with this project, and what about it led to your decision to work on it?

NC: The writer, Neil Kleid, got in touch with me by email. I'm not sure how he found me; I think perhaps someone had given him a link to my website. He gave me a quick run through of the story, which sounded intriguing, and told me NBM would be publishing. That was a big plus for me, I've been a fan of theirs for a while, and loved the books they published from Europe. The biggest reason though was that I was just about to leave the US, and return to my home country Argentina. I wanted to leave something behind, and keep some connection to the American comics industry.

BB: How did you and Neil work together? Did you have any input into the shaping of the story, or was it a case of Neil provided a script which you then drew?

NC: Neil had the script done before he contacted me. I think he'd had it for a while, so it was revised and polished and ready to go.

BB: What kind of script did you work from? Was it a full script with panel breakdowns and specific descriptions of what was in each panel, or was it more of a bare bones plot?

NC: It was a full script. Neil is a cartoonist himself, and has an excellent sense of timing and storytelling. He knew what he wanted, and I mostly stuck to it. Since this was my first long book, it was a good thing for me to have such a well-planned script to work from.

BB: How do you approach drawing something like The Big Kahn? Do you read through the entire script first, taking careful notes or perhaps even doing thumbnails, or do you tend to just start drawing page one and work your way through it?

NC: I read the entire script before I accepted. Then it was a matter of doing some character sketches and a small blueprint for the house, where most of the book takes place, to make sure I didn’t have to go back and redraw things later on. Then I started doing thumbnails.

Usually I would do tiny scratchy indecipherable thumbnails by the side of the script, but I needed Neil to look and be able to understand them, so I made bigger, clearer ones. Then I started pencils for that chapter, or sometimes I'd thumbnail the next chapter. It was all back and forth like that; I didn't want to do a whole chapter from start to
finish, but instead move them all forward together.

BB: What about the pages themselves? How do you create your art, and what kind of process does that entail?

NC: It's about the same as any cartoonist: thumbnails, pencils, lettering digitally, inking and finally adding some greytones, also digitally.

But I never did a page from start to finish; instead I would pencil the whole chapter, or ink the whole chapter. The only things I had to really plan ahead were the supplies. I was moving to Argentina at the time, and I wasn't sure what I'd be able to find here, so I bought all the paper, ink, nibs, brushes and pens that I would need for the entire book.

BB: Did the fact that Big Kahn is presented black and white, rather than color, have any real effect on how you created the art for it? How about generally? Does knowing what you’re working will be in color, or simple black and white, have any effect on how you draw something?

NC: Color, or in this case greytones, are tools to show information — the mood of the scene, the setting or time of day, etc. If they are unavailable to you, then you have to find other ways to show that information, it has to be present in the inks. So yes, it makes a big difference in how you approach the page. That said, whether you can
use colors or not, I believe the drawing must work well without them, because colors won’t hide the problems in a drawing.

BB: Did this project present you with any particular problems? For example, given that you’re not currently living in the US, did you have to do some research into what the specific area the tale takes place in looks like, or was that of little consequence?

NC: It would have been a great advantage to live in the US. I was living in New Jersey just before I left the US, and so it would have been easy to go out to some of these suburban communities and get reference shots. As it was, I left right as I was starting the book, so I had to use a lot of internet research; photographs of Jewish communities,
suburban America, etc. However, since I had lived there for a while, and in NYC where some of the book is set, I could also use my familiarity with the area and some photos I had.

BB: I know you’ve done a lot of work as an illustrator, so I was wondering how that work might feed into your comics and cartooning. Do you have to mentally switch gears when you’re moving between spot or one page illustration work and drawing sequential stories, or is it all pretty much the same to you?

NC: The illustration work I do is mostly for children’s books or textbooks, it has a lot of cartoony elements; so that was the biggest leap from doing Big Kahn, which is for an adult audience. Overall though, drawing illustrations and comics don’t differ that much; good composition and layout, clear storytelling all matter. But illustrations often don’t have the benefit of multiple images or panels, or even text; so all ideas have to be presented more clearly
and in a concise manner.

BB: Well, what’s next? Do you have any new comics work coming up, and if not, are there any particular projects you’d like to do

NC: I haven't given much thought to what’s next for me in comics. Whatever comes my way I'll be happy to consider. I'm focusing on illustration right now, which pays the bills better than comics. I do have some ideas I'd like to see through some day; I'm a bit of a history geek, so I’d love to do fun adventure books set in different times in ancient history. In my spare time I do research and doodles for this (hopefully) eventual project.

BB: How about creators? Are there any writers whose work you admire and who you’d like to work with on a project?

NC: A writer I admire and would love to work with is Jim Ottaviani, who does science and history comics. I'd also love to be invited to do a story for the Flight anthology. When I started coloring my work, I was looking a lot at what some of those artists were doing. I would also love to work with the publisher FirstSecond one day, since I love
almost everything they put out.

BB: What do you get from creating art? Is this something you enjoy doing, or does it feed a deeper need than that?

NC: I love the work and enjoy the heck out of it, that’s the main reason. It has its frustrations, but overall it’s great. I can't think of what else I could be doing with my life. But I also love telling stories, and I believe that a well-crafted story, that entertains, that influences people, and that teaches about other cultures and places, has tremendous value. I’m an artist because that’s what I hope one day to do with my life.

BB: What do you hope readers get from your on The Big Kahn? How about your work in general?

NC: With The Big Kahn my job was simple, to tell that story, as well and clearly as I could. But there’s a lot to be gotten out of this story, it’s more than just a good yarn. It’s a meditation on faith and heritage, on family and community. Most reviews of the book so far are quick to point out how deep the narrative is, how three-dimensional
the characters are, and the issues and ideas raised by the book.

As for my other work, my illustrations and shorter comics, I always try to give them a sense of wonder and excitement, and a sense of history.

BB: Anything else you’d like to add before I let you get back to work?

NC: The Big Kahn came out in early September, so don’t forget to check it out, or go to my website (www.ncinquegrani.com) for a 10 page preview and see some of my other work.

Thank you so much for giving me this interview, it was a delight!

BB: It was my pleasure, Nicolas. And thanks for the thoughtful answers!


Well, what are you waiting for? Head on out to your favorite local comics shop or book store and grab a copy of Nic and Neil’s Big Kahn for your library. Or, if you’d prefer, you can always order it directly from www.NBMpublishing.com.

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