“You Have To Swallow Your Fear And Do The Thing Anyway”: An Interview with Maria Llovet

Photo by Jorge Quiñoa.

For the past three years, Spanish artist Maria Llovet has been releasing comics in America at a breakneck pace. Beginning in 2019 with BOOM! Studios' Faithless, a collaboration with veteran writer Brian Azzarello, Llovet has been proving to audiences that her work is defined by a single-minded commitment to visual narrative.

Faithless delved into the Prince of Darkness’s evil inclinations as he rampaged through the art world and took on an unlikely protégé; the title was so successful that it spawned two sequels, Faithless II (2020) and the just-concluded Faithless III (2022). Due to the demand for her work, Llovet was able to release five more creator-owned titles in quick succession, which she wrote, illustrated and colored: Heartbeat (2015, translated 2019-20) and Luna (2021) with BOOM! Studios; Loud! (2020) with Black Mask Studios; and Eros/Psyche (2011, translated 2021) and Porcelain (2012, translated 2021) with Ablaze Publishing. Some of these titles were released in English for the first time, and allowed readers exhaustive access into Llovet’s progression as an artist.

Llovet tells me that the source of this creative diligence has been years spent honing instinct and intention into an artistic path that she can fully commit to. Having conquered the self-doubt that plagues every artist at one point or another, she now finds herself in a critical moment in her career where she can be explosively generative in her output. I corresponded with Maria in English to discuss quota percentages in the arts, the hypocrisy behind the treatment of eroticism in comics, and how fear masquerading as laziness can be an artist’s worst enemy.

-Jean Marc Ah-Sen

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JEAN MARC AH-SEN: Your work merges a European erotic sensibility with the avant-garde. Very few people in comics are mixing the approaches of Guido Crepax with say, Frank King or a filmmaker like Maya Deren. If this is an accurate appraisal of the influences in your work, can you tell me about how you hit upon this unique combination?

MARIA LLOVET: Crepax was a great influence. When I was a student at a comic school here in Barcelona, a teacher saw my drawings and recommended I search for Valentina. Of course, it was love at first sight, although instead of Valentina, the first thing I encountered was Crepax’s version of [Anne Desclos’] Story of O. I think it's good to have influences from different disciplines and art forms. Since I was a child, I have been fascinated by the art history books my parents had at home. Looking back, it's as if art was always present in my life, one way or the other. I always knew I wanted to create, I just didn't know what exactly. Comics are great because they blend together not only writing and drawing—two of the things I love the most—but also visual narrative, which through the years has become my greatest passion. That is only shared with cinema, hence my great interest and affinity with that medium.

Pages from Loud!, 2020.

Before you came to comics, you studied fashion and jewelry design. How important has adaptability or perhaps even disillusionment in one field been for your evolution as an artist? Have you been able to incorporate these other artistic disciplines into your drawing with character design or the baroque panel work you create?

I studied graphic design and fine jewelry, but I never practiced either of the two (though I use design constantly in my comics). As for fashion, I love it, and I sometimes do sketches, but I never really worked in it either. I'd love to at some point. When I was studying graphic design, there was a great emphasis that designers are not artists; that they shouldn't have a personal style, but try to accommodate every commission differently. I remember we students arguing about it, about prominent artists working as designers, but I guess that's precisely the opposite approach to what the teachers were saying. Right then and there, I knew that those careers weren’t for me; but the discipline and concepts of graphic design are really useful tools for artists of any field.

You have spoken about the influence of French artist Moebius, and Japanese manga artists Yoshiyuki Sadamoto, Ai Yazawa and Suehiro Maruo on your work. Were you attracted to these figures because of the traditions they were working in, the work philosophy they embodied, or perhaps on a more obvious level, the aesthetic quality of their styles?

Not specifically Sadamoto (though I love his work), but more Hideaki Anno or Shinji Higuchi, who worked on Evangelion, of course. Anno's work on his live-action movies, and Higuchi's visual narratives, are amazing. I don't know what attracts us to the things we like. Some of my favorite directors like Park Chan-wook or Wong Kar-wai have this aesthetic quality too, but I think aesthetic is not something superficial—it's a tool used to express. Each has a very personal way of using the visual aspects and aesthetic elements to "transport" you, a particular way of telling whatever they choose to tell. That's what's interesting.

Are you still influenced by other artists or do you feel that you have to close yourself off from your contemporaries in order to work the best?

I don't care who the work comes from, to tell you the truth. I just want it to be good. I don't believe in quota percentages in art, nor in [questions about] "What women authors have you enjoyed lately?" I find this very condescending, like they're making you sit at the children’s table (I want to sit with the grownups, thanks). As my style gets more defined, influences are more and more filtering through. I finally know what direction I'm taking, so something really good that goes in the completely opposite direction doesn't get me thinking I should throw everything out the window and start from scratch. I can enjoy it with the knowledge that it doesn't overlap with what I do, no matter how good it is. This sounds simple, but has been, and still is, one of the hardest lessons to learn: to let go, to find an "artistic path", to follow it, and to make decisions. It's so hard, because what if it's no good? The secret has been realizing there's no such thing as a "wrong path" to choose.

Page from Porcelain, 2012.

I'm interested to know how you balance the themes you return to with the expectation from audiences that projects you embark on provide novel reading experiences. You often draw upon homosocial friendships, the illusory innocence of childhood, and the perils of social conformity in your books. Would you say that your work is evolving on a trajectory of fixed thematic goals, and the challenge and pleasure of working is finding new ways to articulate them?

I never thought about the audience at first. I was just trying to figure out what the hell I wanted to do, and it was hard enough without thinking of anything else. With time, I'm thinking more about audiences, but especially about structure and trying to communicate better—to get better at what I do in general. There are so many aspects to have in mind if you are to be a “complete author”, so that I can reach more people with my work. But I think it's natural to get back to the same subjects as an author. There are things that interest you, and just talking about them in one work is not enough. There's more to explore, or to improve on. What I've noticed is that even if I'm writing about something that I've never written about before, I tend to make the story follow a certain path or have a certain "core" that is related to ideas and subjects which I have an interest in. I think that's good—to have a "line of work" that defines your style. I'm not trying to force that, but if it happens naturally, I'm not going to recoil from it either.

Does auteur theory have any bearing on your work? You often write, draw and color your own projects, and exert such a profound amount of control in how your work is presented, that it may be difficult to imagine yourself “disappearing behind the text”, so to speak. Auteur theory contended that creators who operate on this level of intent are revealing elements of themselves to audiences, but maybe this is something that, as far as modern artistic ideas go, strikes you as a little outlandish?

I think auteur theory applies even more to comics than to cinema, because of the amount of people involved. You can do a comic all by yourself. Even if there's a team, the artist can take control, and should, if something good is to come out of it. You can have a great writer with a great script, and it can be ruined if it's "directed" the wrong way. Things that are in the original script can be lost, or emotions can be wrongly portrayed, if the visual narrative is not properly done. That's the artist's job, but this notion seems to be in "no man's land”, and is often overlooked, even if it's the most important aspect of doing a comic. The modern way of doing comics is so fragmented and compartmentalized that there is little encouragement for the artist being this involved—in taking control. The fact that the artist is never seen as the author, and is in general relegated to a secondary place behind the writer, doesn't help things either. That never happens in cinema. I've said on other occasions that I think the writer is the author of a work, but right now I'm not sure I believe this or not. I would say "directing" something needs intentionality, and narrating needs good craft. You really need to put the two elements together to create something good. Intentions alone won't get you anywhere, and good craft without direction can result in mediocrity.

As far as revealing elements from myself, I don't know. I guess it is inevitable, but people tend to get it completely wrong. They take things literally, and my work is never literal. Even in an autobiography, you shouldn't take it literally. The weird thing is, if audiences want to believe something is about you, they will no matter what, even if you say it is not true. This is why so many creators have played with the concept of the "enfant terrible"—the public loves to believe it. My life is very boring, and I love it that way. It's the only way to create. Try to quiet the noise around you, and let your mind be silent enough so you can fill it with your creations.

Because eroticism tends to be written off as a form of titillation, it often isn’t given serious consideration as an artistic form. Cheesecake and beefcake art are denigrated as lowbrow forms of expression in some circles, after all. Was “rehabilitating" or “revoking” this understanding one of the goals you set out to achieve by working so heavily in this genre?

I don't know what's wrong with titillating. I think there's so much hypocrisy about this. It is one of those things that never changes, but that wasn't my goal. I just do what I love—there are no other intentions there. But I 'm glad you mentioned this subject; because of this denigration you mention, it's even more scary to do work like that. Creating is very scary in general. You have to swallow your fear and do the thing anyway. But besides regular fear—of sucking basically, but also of succeeding, and of a thousand other things—I've encountered two other fears that are related to this.

One was including erotic themes. At this point, I don't care anymore, but at first it was scary. What would my grandma's friends think? What will people see when they look at it? Or, like we were saying before, will they think I'm speaking about myself? Probably. In the end, if you're going to do anything that's worthy, you have to think of what you want, not in terms of what others will think. I don't care. Sometimes I do care, but then I don't. Nothing is more important for me than being honest with my work and what I decide to do. It's not that easy, because you have to explore, and find your voice, and the way you want to do what you do. But this applies to any work of any kind, so it's not because it's erotic. That's just learning your craft and learning about who you are as an artist.

Spanish-language page from Heartbeat, 2015.

The other fear is related to romance and sex, and the way it's usually portrayed by women, and mocked both by men and especially by other women. What if it's too "girly", or too romantic, or too stupid because it's about sex? There's still shame about speaking about sex, no matter if it's only romantic, or kinky and romantic. It's labeled as silly, and nobody wants to be perceived as silly. We all want to be very interesting and very important. All this can affect you and make you change the way you write or the subjects you write about. These fears are more castles in the sky than real things you encounter. No matter what you do, there will be people who'll love it and others who'll hate it, so better to choose what you love. Of course, there are things that are garbage in erotica, and others that are brilliant, just as everywhere else.

Your work is said to explore the competing pleasure principle and death drive—Eros and Thanatos—at work in human psychology. Would you say that your books probe the resulting psychological paralysis from these impulses, or a surrender to the dominant drive? How does psychoanalytical theory inform your characterizations and narratives?

I'm not sure! Sex and death are the ultimate subjects, right? It seems like everything else derives from either one of them, or maybe from both. We're fascinated and horrified by them. Maybe sex is such a controversial subject because it's like a mirror of death. I have to say though, I think my favorite subjects are desire and attraction. Maybe perversion too. I first became interested in psychology when studying philosophy in high school. I remember it being fascinating for me, and I still have my student book and consult it sometimes. It really influenced me, along with literature class. I think these two subjects defined the way I write. I also usually get back to my love of poetry and romantic literature—The Sorrows of Young Werther was a favorite of mine for a long time.

In previous interviews, when you have described your plotting process, it sounded almost associational or aleatoric in nature, with "scenes in [your] head, popping and developing." How are you able to get into the right frame of mind to receive this flow of ideas, and does it require discipline, receptiveness brought on by rest, or something else? Is it a question of cataloging everything and paring down ideas at a later interval?

No, it's nothing like that. I may have expressed it wrongly. It’s not a transcendent state or anything. It's more like playing images in my head and imagining a scene or something interesting developing—the beats of visual narrative. Sometimes it is just a character or a pair or characters, or an idea of a moment. Then you turn these ideas in your head and develop them further. Then there's a real writing process, with structure, and plot, and revising and rewriting. At first, they tend to come as these "scenes”, characters interacting in some way, or in conflict, but sometimes I'm just following a train of thought, or an interesting concept. It depends.

Unlettered page from the 2021 colorized version of Llovet's 2011 work Eros/Psyche.

Can you speak about the evolution of your linework? When you started publishing with Eros/Psyche, you drew in a very precise and delicate manner, but your current style in Luna, Loud! and Faithless is much looser—bolder and impressionistic, perhaps with a view to how you will color the work. Do you think style is something that continues to evolve over an artist’s lifetime, or is it something artists build up to, and that when found, can never be lost again?

When I started with Eros/Psyche, I actually did have a kind of loose quality to my lines. I didn't want to use "line correction", so I changed to Photoshop instead of another program I was using then. I wanted my lines to be a bit more loose and even "dirty". I think I didn't know how to balance it so much then, though. That intention was a bit lost in both Porcelain and Heartbeat, where the lines were more refined and detailed. When I finished drawing Heartbeat, I was very dissatisfied. I was happy with the story, but drawing it took a very long time, and in the end I felt as if the art was "scared". I took a month off before starting to paint it, and decided to explore what I wanted to do. I made drawings of a more erotic nature during that month, started loosening the lines a bit. I was so happy during that period, that I knew I needed to follow that path.

I made a very conscious decision then. I needed a change. The result was Insecto [Norma Editorial, 2016], my only work not published in the U.S. right now. It’s [a] story about lust and two siblings falling in love. I did a lot of experimentation in this work, and the style is somehow a step in between my older work and my current style. After Insecto, I knew I needed to free my lines even more. I wanted to really loosen up. I was looking at Frank Miller's and José Muñoz's work a lot, but the artist that was really mind-blowing for me was Jim Mahfood. His style is amazing and energetic. It looked like the epitome of freedom. It felt like just 10% of that energy could shake anyone's style completely. Looking at his work gave me "permission" to go a bit crazy. That was the foundation of the path I'm currently following. When that happened, I felt so relieved. I finally found a direction to follow instead of questioning everything all the time. I felt I could finally start growing as an artist because I wasn't going in circles anymore. Paul Pope's and Ashley Wood's work were very important for me then, following this line of "loosening up". They're all wonderful!

Page from Insecto, 2016.

One thing about all this process, is that it's very difficult to follow your own path if you listen to others. While I was trying to do all these changes, people praised Porcelain and Heartbeat for their detailed lines—basically the things that I wanted to change. This is dangerous, because people’s opinions can make you change your intentions to please others. French editors used to refuse me interviews at conventions to look at pages with my new style, while Heartbeat had gotten me interviews before. I knew what I had between my hands was precisely what I wanted, so I didn't listen.

You sometimes work with other writers between projects you have written, such as your collaboration with Patrick Kindlon on There’s Nothing There [Black Mask, 2017]. How do you decide when you want to put projects where you oversee every creative domain and decision on hold, and pursue more collaborative work? Do you look for creators who might be receptive to your story ideas, or when you are working within this kind of artistic arrangement, do you "stay in your lane", so to speak?

Until now, it's been a bit by chance. Patrick approached me precisely at the right moment when I was thinking of doing something in the U.S. market with a writer. He wrote to me and what he wanted to do sounded great. It was similar with Sierra Hahn, my Faithless editor, who approached me with the project (I didn't know who the writer was then). It sounded very cool, and it was a perfect moment as I had just finished working on Loud!

On There's Nothing There, we discussed a bit about what the subjects of the work were going to be, because Patrick was creating the script knowing from the start that I was going to draw it. I don't like to interfere with the writer. I take control of the visual, and the pace, and the directing of the actual comic, but I wouldn't step any further than that. Maybe it's because I have my own projects to explore, but for me a collaboration needs to respect the spaces. I don't think about this as "teamwork", where everyone throws ideas at the same time. I wouldn't like to work like that. I know this is not a popular thing to say, but it's the truth. This might seem to conflict with what I was saying earlier about the artist needing to take control, but it doesn't—take control of their part of the thing, which is bigger than it seems.

What is your perception of the differences between Spanish and European audiences and your American one? Do you strive to create a sensibility in your work that might somehow transcend geographical cultural differences, or is this not really a consideration you pay attention to?

I'm not sure I see many differences between audiences, really. I don't think about this consciously in my work, but I think it's something natural. Maybe we are all more alike than we think? Human nature is the same everywhere, for better or for worse, and that's why so many works of art resonate with people around the world. Our hopes, dreams, fears, and sorrows are the same. The context is different, but we can understand because we are empathic. That's how fiction works, right? We want to follow someone into a story because we can understand them, even if (or precisely because) we haven't lived that specific situation.

Your most prominent collaboration in America thus far has been with Brian Azzarello on the three volumes of Faithless, which is about to come to an end this year after 18 issues. What has this collaboration taught you with regard to longform book commitments or working on a broader scope? Are you and Brian considering working together again?

I love Faithless. It's been amazing working with Brian on this, and it has marked a milestone in my career, and for that I will always be grateful. Brian's an excellent writer, with a very personal voice, and I think both our sensibilities got along very well. I'd love to work with him in the future if the occasion arises, but working on Faithless has been really hard for me. Not the actual thing—working both with Brian and Sierra has been very smooth. But it has been hard because of the dedication it demanded from my time. Every moment I spend away from my personal projects, I hurt. I know it sounds overdramatic, but I live that way. Right now, I'm about to start a very short, very cool collaboration, the kind you cannot say “no” to. But after that, I hope to spend a very long while working hard on my personal projects. I really need it!

You have said before that you believe that "every artist is a self-taught artist." I took this to mean that no matter what training you undergo, at some point you have to learn how to integrate those lessons within yourself as an artistic practice in a way that no theory or teacher can prepare you for. Do you feel that artists are working ineluctably within inherited traditions, and are struggling to create new ones of their own?

Some people just sit in a classroom with the idea their heads will be filled automatically by listening to a teacher, and that's not how it works. You can attend the best school in any artistic discipline, but if you don't do the work—listening and filtering and questioning what your hear, and searching for yourself what works for you and what doesn't—you'll graduate without having learnt anything at all. I didn't finish any of my artistic studies, but I extracted conclusions and decided what my aspirations and dreams were. I prepared myself mentally for rejection, and I felt it never really came, or at least not in the way I imagined it. Maybe because any misstep or hard moment just feels like part of the process?

Page from Luna, 2021.

I was 20 when I realized that the only person that could stop me from being what I wanted to be was myself. Nobody could make me stop, only myself. The only way to fail in this is by giving up. I'm 40 now, and I still believe the same, and I live and work by this principle. It's not as simple as it sounds, but in a way it is. It means making a very powerful commitment, one I've never backed away from—not for a second. I have to say that it wouldn't have been the same without my partner, author and filmmaker Jesús Orellana. We both shared a vision, and we kindled each other's flames of hard work and big dreams, and still do.

What has been the most difficult lesson for you to learn in your career? Has there been some advice you have received that has helped in tackling the burdens of the creative life?

The most difficult thing has been dealing with myself. We are truly our own worst enemies, and sometimes it is very hard to keep going. I suffer from anxiety—who doesn't these days?—and sometimes that is a big struggle too. We've already talked about overcoming fear: fear of exposure, fear of failure and, most shockingly, fear of success. At a certain point, I realized fear also disguises itself as laziness, and that was an important revelation for me. If I see fear, I know how to proceed—to ignore it, swallow it, or whatever. But laziness, paired with self-doubt, makes you feel you don't want to do something—like it's your choice. That's puzzling. Why on earth wouldn't I want to do what I want to do most? That's more difficult to deal with. I'm not sure I received any advice that I treasure. Something I've learnt is that it is very important to think about the things you want and don't want, especially regarding your goals and your intentions. Intentionality is one of the most important things, not only in art but in life.

Every generation of artists engages with certain imperative questions entailed by the mediums they work in at a given moment in time. In comics, certain decades were defined by the question of artistic freedom, by the flattening of the difference between mainstream/underground, by struggles for representation, or by the fight for adequate compensation regarding subsidiary rights. I am wondering what have been the most pressing questions you have dealt with, or that you foresee will occupy you in the future?

I understand what you mean, but I don't think in those terms. I'm just an author and I don't think in terms of a generation, or in "schools" or "movements". I'm just trying to figure out my own thing, and see where it gets me. I'm not interested in trends, nor in what others say art is supposed to be about. Moreover, these are questions we can easily spot once the time has passed, when we see patterns at a certain moment of time. But I think, while we are living it, it's difficult to spot what's really going on. Sometimes what seems like the biggest thing at the moment, can't survive the test of time—the only thing I know for sure is that I love telling stories, and that I have a very deep, burning passion in me to keep creating, and I hope this never extinguishes.