BUCKLER: Can you talk about the difference for you between drawing comics for someone else’s story and creating something wholly on your own like In My Darkest Hour?
SANTIAGO: I have worked in the industry non-stop since the 1990s, to varying degrees of failure. It went from “no way do I want to write” to “let’s give it a shot” to actually doing it. Unlike working with someone else’s script, there’s no linear method when I work on my own. That is to say I write while I ‘toon, and I ‘toon while I write. So the most important step is editing–what’s left on the page before going to the printer and into the sweaty hands of readers. I do believe writing has improved my cartooning. I don’t think it’s an accident that some of the best cartoonists are writers. I’m not putting myself in that group but I strive for it.
BUCKLER: How do you edit? What is your process like for figuring out what to leave on and off the page?
SANTIAGO: There are many ways to get there. In a book like 21, every element inside the panel plays a part; every panel in the page moves the story forward. Between a sketch and the final drawing sometimes changes are made on the spot. Sometimes the stuff is made free range, and pages are assembled on Photoshop, then colored, lettered, and finished. Because of software I can have editing power in the shortest amount of time. The final stage is very important. It’s where I try to get rid of something that doesn’t work well or is redundant, and redact the dialogue. Trying to strip things down to a simpler version
BUCKLER: How much unusable material do you end up with generally, editing scraps?
SANTIAGO: It varies; it could be a detail in a panel, a whole panel or scene. Example: There was a scene in 21 I began to work on, a game where the Pirates’ pitcher had a no-hitter while on acid. It would have been fun to do but for a number of reasons that scene does not end up in 21.
BUCKLER: Do you see yourself ever returning to the type of emotional spectrum that is involved in In My Darkest Hour?
SANTIAGO: Yeah, I do it all the time.
BUCKLER: In My Darkest Hour uses a limited color range, a lot like 21. In fact, the colors themselves are similar. What drove you to use only a limited range of colors in that book and were there any similarities in your thinking between these two very different books?
SANTIAGO: The cover and back cover images of In My Darkest Hour are from a series of paintings I worked on mostly in black and yellow. The graphic novel spawned from those images, so it was natural to bring a similar color scheme this time using a deep blue instead of black to achieve the appropriate palette of piss yellows, despairing blues, and dooming blacks.
When 21 came about, the colors are similar because the Pirates uniform happen to be gold, black, and white. Had it been a different team…
BUCKLER: If we can switch gears, why did your family leave the island for the U.S.? And do you still have any family living in Puerto Rico?
SANTIAGO: Yes. Like most Puerto Ricans on the island, I have relatives in the States and everyone is always on and off of the mainland; some were actually born in the States. I’m the black sheep of the family, close to none of them, so I don’t know. They all think I’m crazy but they are too dumb to know I’m not. Sure, I’m disturbed, but not crazy.
I have a younger sister and when my mother married for a second time to an Army nurse we all came to live in Maryland close to his job at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. I was nine and it was one of the highlights of my life. Then she divorced him and it was back to Puerto Rico, and that was the most miserable I had ever been. All I dreamed about was to go back to the States, and I did as soon as I got the chance. Don’t get me wrong, Puerto Rico is a beautiful island, but I don’t belong there.
BUCKLER: What was the most attractive thing about the U.S. for you? What made you want to come back so much that second time?
SANTIAGO: There are a lot of reasons, and they are all selfish ones. I left the States when I was ten but I spent a summer in New Orleans when I was fourteen, and went to Miami during summers to stay with aunts and uncles until I was nineteen, when I came to the U.S. on my own.
BUCKLER: You said they were mostly selfish things, what kind of things?
SANTIAGO: It doesn’t matter.
BUCKLER: How does being Puerto Rican figure into your art and storytelling in general?
SANTIAGO: I’m an Earthling first and foremost, so I write and draw for the people of Earth. Yes, my genetic makeup is Puerto Rican but it is not the center my work. It probably gives me a unique perspective in some cases. I try to bring that uniqueness to the work, but I don’t want to be labeled as the Puerto Rican Dave McKean or the Ricky Martin of comics.
BUCKLER: Can you talk about the presence of art or artistic talent in your family?
SANTIAGO: As far as I know, they are all talent-less, or they give up easily. They don’t know what art is other than imagery from a religious context. As a child, my paternal grandmother was the only person who encouraged me to draw and exposed me to some art, most of it religious in nature, of course.
Something extremely critical happened though. As far as my memory goes, there was always all kinds of music in my family, and the album covers were crucial in my development as an artist. I was always studying them.
BUCKLER: What were some of the more memorable album covers from your youth?
SANTIAGO: The original cover for Guns ‘n’ Roses’ Appetite for Destruction by Robert Williams; Black Flag’s Slip It In by Raymond Pettibon, and 2 Live Crew’s As Nasty As They Wanna Be, though that was a photograph.
BUCKLER: Can you describe some of your first illustrations, as far back as you can remember?
SANTIAGO: Around sixth grade, all margins in my school books were used as an animation flipbook, usually sci-fi themed. The earliest I remember is of a drawing of a cousin in the back of a photograph with a ball pen; it was a crude child’s drawing. I was about five but I still remember very clearly when I drew it.
BUCKLER: Can you recall the moment or moments when you realized you might have what it takes to become a professional artist?
SANTIAGO: That’s tricky, but I guess the first few occasions where you see your work printed, whether it’s on a cover of a demo tape for a band or your school yearbook, etc. But it wasn’t until In My Darkest Hour that I truly felt I got there.
BUCKLER: What more can you tell us about your current project Thunderbolt?SANTIAGO: Thunderbolt, the story of American abolitionist John Brown, is a project I’ve thought about for a long time. It’s a powerful story done with a different approach from 21. Ideally, I want to see it serialized but I recognize there are not many publisher options. So I don’t know what shape the story is going to take. The first issue of Thunderbolt will definitely be available on July 4, 2013—for free, kids! At CaptainJohnBrown.com. Also I have recently been in talks with a major publisher on a potential graphic novel about NBA megastar Michael Jordan, a very exciting possibility given that he’s considered the best player ever by many, perhaps including himself.
BUCKLER: Up to today, how have your feelings toward cartooning evolved since your initial indifference before working for Milestone?
SANTIAGO: Well, obviously something has kept me doing it all these years. There are so many feelings at different periods. I totally respect the craft and those who do it well from my view, while recognizing the power that lies beneath its surface. In the mainstream most of the time they make cartoons and such look like this dumb thing, but whether it’s the most powerful cartoon known to man, Mickey Mouse, the cartoons that can piss enough Muslims off to commit acts of terrorism, or the inspiration of some imagery for contemporary movements like Anonymous or the OWS, it’s obvious you can’t fuck with cartoons.