BOYCOTT interviews Manuel Marsol

BOYCOTT interviews Manuel Marsol

Spanish illustrator Manuel Marsol (Madrid, 1984) won many international book prizes for his outstanding picture books. He got selected multiple times for the Bologna Children’s Book Fair Illustrators Exhibition. In this interview he talkes about his latest book project in collaboration with Javier Saez Castan, his background in animation and the exquisite elements for a good picture book.

Manuel Marsol ©INMA FLORES

Your latest book project is Museum, what can you tell us about the collaboration with author Javier Saez Castan?

“Already when I was still working in advertising, Saez Castan was standing out for me. He is the kind of author I am interested in. He can create a relationship between his writing and illustrations. Every book can be read in a very special way. We got to know each other little by little over time and he became interested in my work. He told me to come to his studio and find something that we could work on together. He always has many ideas projects that he is unable to finish because of time. Museumwas already all sketched out by him, only the final art wasn’t there. It was a special collaboration because I have never worked on someone else’s drawings. In some other case I wouldn’t have done it, but for Javier’s drawings I was happy to.”

Image from the book ‘Museum’.

So what can you tell me about the fact that the book is silent?

Museumis my first silent book, but in all of my books there is always that component. For example Yokai(De berg, Boycott 2018) could have been a silent book, there is always some kind of narration similar to animation films.

So your first works were in animation, how do you think this helped you in creating narratives?

“I studied advertising and visual and audio communication. I spent some time doing advertisement and on the side I did animations for Flying Tiger. This helped me because while I was working for these animations, that didn’t take that much time, I could work on my personal book projects. I tried to develop my carrier in a very personal way, in a creative way. I think there is a fundamental difference between the illustrated book and the picture book. One is a tale with illustrations, some tale that previously exists and an author illustrates it. I am not really interested in this. A picture book is different, the text and the images are conceived at the same time, and there is a play with the format as well. The pace of the pages, the act of turning the pages dictates the narrative. There is a surprise in turning the page, you can play with the boundaries. All of these things for me are related with the audiovisual language. It is almost like a cut of a film frame, I think there is a lot in common with animation. I like to explore these connections between different mediums. And all of these mediums are about telling a story. There is an example in the book Writing with pictures by Uri Shulevitz that talks about the difference between an illustrated tale and a picture book. If now on the phone I would tell you a story you would understand it very clearly, but if I was to read De bergto you you wouldn’t understand it. You wouldn’t get the playfulness between text and images. Probably you would understand a different story. For example when the character gets lost getting out of the truck and goes in the forest there is a play with the page boundaries. He goes towards a side of the page and the reader expects him to be on a certain spot but then when you turn the page he is in a different position, there is a play with this, and this is only possible in a picture book.”

Have you ever thought of doing comics?

“Many ask me this question, and sooner or later could be that I will do one. But the picture book interests me much more, all that can be explored in that format. There is something in comics that doesn’t fit me, the planification of things. It’s already hard for picture books, let alone for comics. Comics have this characteristic that doesn’t really interest me: all these images that are necessary but aren’t so interesting to do. There is a simplicity in a picture book that comics don’t have. I am interested in the artistic and expressionistic part, as much as the narrative part. I think Duel in the sun has very much to do with comics and movies, so I am considering doing comics, also I think Museumcould be viewed as a comic with one image per page.”

How did De bergcome about? And how was working with Carmen Chica?

“Some authors are capable of planning every little detail and have very clear idea of what they want, like walking from A to B. Not in my case. I‘ve been selected for three years in a row for the Bologna Children’s Book Fair contest and I wanted to try once more. So my idea was to present my five images with an idea that interests me, but could also be useful for a picture book. Childhood feelings and the sensation of being lost in a forest, the mysteries of the forest was a interesting topic for me. So I accumulated many references, things that reminded me of this topic. Movies that fascinated me for the way it portrayed the magical forest were Jim Henson’s Labyrinth, Dark crystaland Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke. Movies by Andrej Tarkovski because of the way he uses water and sound, things that are really atmospheric. Eventually I did 5 images of a man transforming. From that point on Carmen and I started working together and asking ourselves questions. How did the man in the book got lost? Suddenly we wrote a sentence and it worked with an image, connections were made and everything started to take form. Creation is not so linear, it’s a sum of things that start working well together. A orderly chaos.”

Spread from ‘De berg’.

You are a big fan of the western aesthetic, whatever happened to your western drawings? Those didn’t turn into a picture book?

“I am working on them right now, it’s not always easy to make sense of what you are doing. These drawings came out one summer when I was just drawing for the pleasure of it. It won’t be exactly a picture book, but more like a collection of western scenes. A catalogue of events, that took place in the Far West. It is a very long book to make and I also have to write a lot. There will be images with a text underneath, like a Coen brothers movie, images described by a voice-over, telling you how the West and its peculiarities was like.”

In your work dimension is a recurring theme — El Gigante, Ahab and the Whale and also in De berg. Why do you play with characters that have such different scale? And how do you think this helps from the narrative standpoint?

“There are many things to say: one is the idea of the romantic landscape. Think of painters like Caspar David Friedrich, for example his painting Wanderer above the Sea of Fog. The idea of very little figures standing in front of very big landscapes always interested me. Like I told you before, I am interested in the atmosphere. There are authors that focus on stories and in relationships between characters and others that focus more on the interior of the characters, what relation they have with the universe. In my short career I went more the second way. Who am I? Where am I? And why are my surrounding this way, big and inexplicable? Scaling is important in this way, it’s like a child playing with little toys, in a universe where he fits well. There are also influences in the videogame world. When I used to play videogames the character was also very little going through a big world. There’s a very strong impulse to create something alike, characters that move in a frame. In De berg, for example, a man is going through a world, he is amazed by the world he is in. What he feels going through the woods is what I felt playing with my toys, moving them in a field and imagining stories for them. Scale is always very important.”

Spread from Ahab and the whale.

What are your main other influences? — art, cinema, literature –

“Sometimes I rely more on cinema to explain my work rather than illustration. Also my studies, my visual culture comes mainly from the art world, the traditional painters. My parents were art history teachers and for this reason I visited many museums with them. My interest for plasticity and aesthetic comes from traditional painting. I always went to Museum del Prado in Madrid and Velasquez, Goya, Bosh, Caravaggio were all painters that fascinated me, but also more modern painters like Bacon. I always talk about this because I am interested in the controlled and uncontrolled. I like when artists have a more spontaneous part and a more controlled one, if it is just spontaneity or control the work can appear boring. I always talk about Bacon or Picasso, because they have this balance between the two. Regarding illustrators I really like Atak, for his color palette and freshness, and also because I think his influences come from the art world as well. I like Javier Saez Castan, Kitty Crowther.”

If you had to choose three favourite picture books, which would they be?

“All of the authors that I mentioned above, but I always talk about Saez Castan, he never really spent much time self promoting. This is a really complicated profession, you can have much success and consideration by your peers, but at the same time not sell many books or not be known in the whole world. Being born in the english speaking part of the world helps, probably you would have more opportunities, but Javier never dedicated much time in promoting and he didn’t really have to. I think his books — if in the hands of the right publishers — could have been more known worldwide. I am not saying he would have been a Sendak but his books are up there with him and Ungerer. He really took his profession to high levels. His books are amazing and far from banal.”

What makes a good picture book for you?

“This is the typical impossible question, but I think that more or less we talked about it. A good picture book shouldn’t be read in two minutes, but makes you go back an forth looking at the pages. The pages should not be just a sequence of images without connections, but form more a cohesion in the narration. A good picture book is slowing down time and gives importance to a surprising effect between pages. A good picture book is the one that makes you ask yourself, what’s next?”

Interviewed by Marco Quadri.