“Simplifying Is My Thing”: Sloane Leong Talks To Giorgia Marras

Giorgia Marras is a cartoonist born in Genoa, Italy, on the 12th of March 1988. She studied Graphic Design and Visual Communication at the Accademia di Belle Arti of Genoa and Art Plastiques at The Université Paris 8. She was an artist in residence at the Atelierhaus Salzamt of Linz (Austria), and then at the Maison des Auteurs d'Angoulême for 4 years. Her first graphic novel, Munch before Munch, is based on the early life of the painter Edvard Munch, was first published in Italy in 2014 for Tuss editions, and then translated in French (Steinkis éditions) and Spanish (Sapristi Comic) in 2016. Her new graphic-novel Sissi, une femme au delà du conte de fées follows the life of the Empress Elisabeth of Austria and is now out for the French publisher Steinkis, and it will be soon translated in German (for Knesebeck) and Spanish (for Sapristi). I got to visit Giorgia in her shared studio where we discussed Sissi, her technique and how to engage narratively with a historical figure.This interview was conducted and edited for clarity by Sloane Leong, with transcription by Sena Crow.

SLOANE LEONG: I know you just finished your book, tell us a bit about it. 

Giorgia Marras: Ok, so I just finished a book, and this book is about an Empress of Austria, Sissi (Elizabeth). She was the Empress of Austria in the mid-nineteenth century to almost the end of that century. Emperor Franz Joseph is the one who started the first World War, so it’s this time of history. I decided to write about her about 15 years ago, when I discovered the reality behind this figure. I saw one documentary about her life, and it was so interesting. author, and she was very interesting. In Europe, it is very famous because in the fifties they did a lot of films about her; they pictured her as if she was a character of a fairy tale. She became huge, really huge. It’s like the film they always put on at Christmas, on television, each year from the fifties. Everyone, my grandma, my mother, was watching that film, and I wanted to discover the true story of her. I was totally shocked because it’s so much more dramatic and she was not at all like she was in pop culture.  

And I was amazed that no one was telling the truth. She was a very modern woman, who had different ideas from her husband who was very conservative. This empire was one of the biggest in Europe, and was about to fall after the first World War, so this is just the moment before it crashed. Europe was full of nationality, and new ideas, aristocracy was about aristocracy was about to die, as it was before. So there were true ways of dealing with that politically, like trying to solve it, trying to accept its changes, or being very harmed. So she had very liberal ideas, and was married with him when she was fifteen years old so she was very, very young. She was not raised for being an empress, but more in a free way. She was used to walking alone, she would go to horse riding and do other stuff. 

She was more independent. 

Yeah, independent. And when she felt herself constricted in the very strict court, she suffered a lot. She became anorexic—

Was this all after she got married?

Yes, when she got married.  After that, she went into a high land to cure herself, because they were thinking it was psychosis, but it was a nervous breakdown, basically. She understood then that she was also beautiful, and with beauty, she could have power, and maybe have more freedom. It’s very similar to the story of Princess Diana, like all the media attention around her, but in reality she was very shy and very reserved, a very introverted soul. And then she died in 1680 by an anarchist who recognized her. Even though she decided, after a life of being in immense spotlight, to retire completely by herself. She was all dressed in black, with an umbrella, when she was killed by a fan; she was too recognizable and someone recognized her and killed her. It’s really complex, I’m trying to be short about it. In Europe, she is very, very, famous. So in this book, I try to deal with that judgement. 

The bias, of what they already know about her…

Because a lot of people see Sissi as a fairy tale character, who is  Or like, a lot of people think, “Oh, Sissi! I love it, my grandmother loves it so much, I would buy the book!”  And then they just go, “my God!” Even my mother, she was like “what?”— she’s like that— “just stop handing me this stuff.”

So it seems to be a lot of heart-wrenching aspects of her life, it’s very dramatic.

Yeah. Even if I didn’t tell a lot of this stuff, like this is a story about Sissi, but this is also a story about a woman who found herself trapped somewhere, and how to deal with that. She didn’t deal with it, in a way, but so many women today have to deal with these cages. Maybe they’re less evident, but— by the way she was privileged, a person that has money, you know, she was not humble—

She was more wealthy. 

Yes, she was lucky in a way, but still—the pressure on women—

Right, she still had a lot of challenges from society and around her and expectations, probably. Interesting. So what made you want to tell that story now? What is your connection, how is it relevant to now, more specifically? I think a lot of our plights as women are very similar. We also have so many expectations on us from our family, or our workplace.

Actually, I started to think about that story about ten years ago, or even before. The first thing that connected me with Sissi is the fact that she wanted to travel, and she liked to travel. For me, I always liked to travel, but in that moment I was also in a couple, and I also like to travel alone. My ex-boyfriend was a little bit possessive, and so I was like, oh, she’s feeling guilty for doing that because she was living alone or also maybe with sons or children and I was like sympathizing with that, because even now that the world is changing, I clearly remember living in my hometown with other people who are not really artists, I remember the mother of my ex-boyfriend, saying, “Oh, why are you trying so much? Why Are you not at home with him? Why are you doing this residency?” 

They wanted you to settle down. 

Yeah, yeah, really! No joking. In the beginning, it was like, oh my god, would it be impossible to be like—I was feeling bad. This was a little personal thing, I was—even though this is a story of the past, I always think stories of people can teach us something. So I’ve learned so much, and I put in the story, yes of course, her life but also my life and the life of my friends and so many things. Maybe you arrive to understand that in a second reading. 

Yeah, it’s more relevant today, her struggles. Very cool. What are some other inspirations for this book? There are a lot of comic biographies, were you taking inspiration from other ones in how you approach this story?

No … 

Maybe not comics, but were there any other works that helped you formulate this story?

One thing is a film by the Italian Luchino Visconti. It’s a story about Ludwig of Bavaria who was the cousin of Sissi and was the one who built, you know the castle at Disney, the original castle Nueschwanstein in Germany. It was him who built that castle. So he was kind of a very eccentric man, an excessive man, with a very particular life, and also he was very tracked by people, because being homosexual, oh my god, impossible! He also died in a very mysterious situation. Very interesting! So I saw that movie, and in the movie there is also Sissi, played by the same actress that played Sissi but 20 years later. She is older, she is the true Sissi. I think the movie of Visconti kind of inspired me in that. But other than that, maybe documentaries of books. I didn’t really look at comics. 

I’d like to talk about how you formulate your comics, so your mediums, what style you like to draw in, what inspired you to approach the look of this comic? 

I always think that the style, the drawings, is at the surface of the story. My main thing is what I want to tell. Then I try to find the best way for it. I also like to explore. For example, the first book I did was a biography, but I’m not working only on biographies, just like that; the first one was because someone asked me to do it, and this one was because I wanted to do it. My first one was a little bit different, this one I really like. It’s very-- 

Very textural. 

Also because it was about Edvard Munch, and I wanted to do something similar to his graphic production …

Graphite? And charcoal?

No, no, it’s like, you know, printmaking. He was doing a lot of that, and so this was a way to…For example, in Sissi, everything is more like, I wanted a style that is more like … not sweet, but very…

It’s very – it is kind of hard to describe – like there are gently depicted figure, a little bit simplified, they’re not over-rendered. It’s very clean, the way you panel. It’s very storybook-y, there’s a whimsical quality to it. 

Yeah, I’d like to simplify. Simplifying is my thing, there is not much simplification. 

There is still a lot of detail.

Even, it’s true, there are still a lot of details, they are kind of classical. There are only things that are necessary. Even if it is fancy dress, it’s more volume …

Bolder shapes …

I think that I wanted a gentle way to draw a hard story. 

To counterbalance the story. 

Yeah, and also like, add a certain elegance or grace, because I think that she was like that. 

Yeah, because this is a very dark scene, where someone is dying … they’re coughing up blood, there arm is gone, but through the style it’s softened a little bit, so it’s not so jarring. 

And also, one other thing: this character is so loved. So loved. I know that I will have people that really love that book, but also people that say, “Ahh, why did you do that?” because I’m touching an icon. So having this style, I’m trying to be respectful in the way I draw, this might be helping me to have a balance, to try to be respectful for her, because I’m not her, I’m not linked in any way with the Hasburg, I’m not a monarchist, I’m nothing. Sometimes they tell me, “Why are you doing something about rich people?” Because there are so many other things. But I like to put my characters in a difficult situation; this is one these stories.

Yeah, that makes sense, because if you stylize it enough there creates a distance. Whereas if you had drawn it really realistically, people might have been way more critical and would not have been able to connect as much because they are like, “oh, Sissi!” and they connect it with the movies, probably, or her real life, but here because you have this style that is more non-literal, they can probably connect easier with it, and maybe be less critical or less biased from what they have been exposed to over story, so it’s very interesting. 

Yes. So I think that, in a way it is kind of realistic … but there is also my attachment, I think that this is my interpretation of it. I hope people will take it as a story, and not as a historical biography. Even if I was really, really precise—really, because I did a lot of research, I went to Austria and visited all the places she lived, where she died, in Switzerland, in Germany, in Austria, in Hungary, Italy … so I worked a lot. 

That’s very cool. You were very diligent in all your research. It’s so hard because you can never really know what happened, stuff gets so subsumed in history, and then it’s only told through certain people’s perspectives, but I like that you tried your best to get a sense of the time and place and her character. 

Even if it’s true, it’s very difficult to be objective. In history, I don’t know, I’m not a historian, of course there is my filter. I am a writer, I’m an author, so it’s normal. But even if sometimes I read witnesses, the people that lived at the time of Sissi, even what she was writing, there is always a filter. 

Exactly. What was behind the choice to draw it in … is it black or white, or it’s like a sepia color …?

It’s like a sepia. It’s this one … those are the other pages, for example. Those are the originals. 

Very beautiful. What did you use to draw? 

I used this watercolor paper from Fabriano, which is nice. It’s kind of an expensive paper. And then I just used sepia watercolor and a black pencil and stock. I will show you, it's Isaro. It’s a Belgium brand, just for comics, and brushes, Winsor & Newton. I think I’m still not good at color. When you have to deal with deal with an entire color palette for a book, it’s huge. I have a huge respect for people that can do it. Because I can’t. For now I can’t. But I would like to. Maybe the next one. 

Full color, maybe? 

I like to work traditionally. Because at the end of the day, when you have worked on a page, you’re tired. But you’re not so tired when you work on a computer, it’s killing you, totally. 

Yeah, totally. The eye strain is real. [Laughs]. So we talked a little bit about what you’re using. What is your process for planning out comics? Do you like to do thumbnails, or do you just start roughing it out? Also, I’m assuming you probably use a script as well to plan. 

Actually, I do not. 

There is so much information, it’s probably hard to keep it straight. 

Yeah, in the very beginning, I write a lot. Maybe like a full paper, just write ideas. I have my scenes, just the scenes. What I want to tell, like my focus, what I want is to really explain to the reader. So I write a lot. Then, once I write, I write like this one maybe...this one is the final result, but it was made by seven other little papers. 

So a timeline? 

A timeline. With a first act, second, third. With a lot of other writers are doing, such as Syd Field, a very classical way to write stories. So like here, I write all the things that happen scene-by-scene, I move if I need, and so on. This is crucial for me. Then I do that… 

These are pretty detailed thumbnails, or like roughs, kind of. 

This one is, I think. They are very rough. For example, I can get the feeling of the page. I don’t know, they are very important to me. Then, I do that. I do the pencils. 

Okay, then you do another pass, with more pencils. 

This is the final page, because, if I make a mistake, sometimes I just cut that and then paste it. Because I don’t want to see my mistakes. [Laughter.]  They don’t exist!

Never happened!

I should learn how to say, “oh, I can fail sometimes.” [Laughter.] So I do that, and then I use a technique I’ve learned here at the Maison des Auteurs because I was with an American guy in the same studio, Braham Revel, who was working for American publishers. I learned from him this technique: basically, he draw in blue all the pencils with the Cintiq, and then he printed and then he retraced everything with ink. I did the same, but without Cintiq: I did my pencils in blue, then scanned them, then printed them in very low opacity in a good watercolor paper and then I painted. I didn't much use my light table! 

How long did it take you to draw Sissi? 

[Laughs.] Too much. Too much of my life wasted on her. 

Maybe just the drawing part, how long? 

Let’s say that I started to work on it seriously with the writing the story and everything, was July 2015. To do research, seriously research and revise the story, because I had already written it. And I had already drawn Sissi. This is 2011. 

Oh, like an early attempt at drawing her story. 

Yeah. Also, the story was differently, really…I don’t know. But for example, I kept the same dress for the end of the comic. 

So how long have you been at the residency for? 

All four years. On the last day of the month I will end it. 

And you’ll head where? Back home? 

I’m staying here. I’m Italian, and here is a nice community of artists. So for now I’m not very—I don’t feel the necessity to go back to the country. 

You like it, that’s cool. 

Yeah, I like it. Then, of course, as I think everybody that has moved to somewhere else, sometimes you miss the country, family, friends. So sometimes it’s like, why am I there? Or sometimes when you’re there, why not there? It’s the same thing for everybody. 

How would you think the residency helped you on your project or with your work in general? 

I think that I really…If Sissi exists in that quality, I don’t say that like because “I’m so good”—I think this work is a result of all the people I met during these years, really. I’ve talked so much about my work, about my story, but really I constructed this story with the help of some friends that were there. They helped me a lot. Even the last part, I was always, oh, can you check? But it was mutual, and it still is mutual, so it was a very good exchange. Another thing is in Italy, especially comics and illustration in general, maybe more comics, even if we have a lot of very good authors there tends to be not much money. We are used to seeing us as not professional, and even here, in France, you see that there are people like Olivier Balez and others really honing the money for comics illustration. So you have a different view on yourself and this helps you so much in dealing with publishers, because you understand you have a value, you can ask more. 

You feel like you have more value and you’re more professional here. That’s what I was going to ask also—where are you from in Italy? 

I’m from Genoa. It's the northwest of Italy. 

And how is the comic—I mean you haven’t lived there in a long time, but, how is the comics scene there? Is it difficult to make a living doing comics? Is there many people doing comics, or is it pretty small? 

In Genoa specifically, when I went away, there were not many people doing comics. Now there are some young people doing them, but historically it’s a city in which there are a lot of authors that work in classic Italian comics. I don’t know if you like Bonelli’s Dylan Dog, his kind of comics. Or Disney. Because Mickey Mouse—the comic of Mickey Mouse—in Italy they have a big industry of that. Especially in Liguria. That region is full of artists that work for Disney. So I’d grown up with Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck, but it’s not what I do. I did not know anyone doing the same thing I was doing. So that’s why I came here. 

That makes sense. Very cool. So where can people buy Sissi? It’s available, right, it just came out? 

Yeah. In France, of course, in bookshops. On the internet? But support bookshops. But if you are living abroad, of course, on the internet. It will be out in March in Germany, and next year in Spain, so I hope I’ll see all the Spanish-speaking countries, and also, in Italy, but it will be out this Fall. And I would have liked to have an English publisher too, but we’ll see. We still have to figure out if it’s possible. 

Who is your publisher here in France? 

In France it’s Steinkis. I can maybe write to you the name. 

The link, you can give me all the details. 

Yeah, if you need something. 

Ok, perfect. Very exciting. Well thank you so much for talking to me. 

Thank you to you!