I caught up with Frank Espinosa over the phone at his California home today. He’d been busy this afternoon mailing out thank you notes for the people who helped him publish the first Rocketo trade, which is just hitting shelves. It collects the first seven issues of Journey to the Hidden Sea, the story about an explorer (Rocketo Garrison) setting out into a future world that’s been torn apart. Rocketo is one of the most different books out there, and in the best possible way. It’s fun, interesting and the art is like a Darwyn Cooke acid trip. We talked for about an hour, in part discussing the recent closure of Rocketo’s first publisher (Speakeasy) and the move to Image, but mostly we talked about the creative background of the comic.
Frank Espinosa – You know, Rocketo’s inspiration, in my head, started with everything I ever liked as a kid. Flash Gordon serials, “The Thief of Baghdad.” Everything that had fantasy and sci fi I picked up. Rocketo is kind of a thank you to that.
Q – How did it develop from there?
FE – I still am a big mythology buff. I started to figure out, if the world was destroyed, what kind of new mythology would take it’s place?
Influences? There’s a lot. I’d been reading a lot about explorers: Marco Polo’s travels, Shackleton. I had been reading those guys and how the world … we don’t seem to have that freedom … to look at a map and have all those exes [unexplored areas]. Rocketo’s mission is to re-explore this planet. My first thought was to put it in outer space. That seemed kind of hokey. And “Star Wars” sort of did that already.
I wanted to build the earth as the center of the action. Once I destroyed Africa it was all easy. Then the world was really interesting. I started at year zero.
And I kept a sci fi injection.
Q – Were certain mythologies more of an influence? It”s almost like Hellboy meets Jules Verne.
FE – I read all of the world mythology. It’s all important because I’m dealing with a whole world. I’m reading Indian mythology now.
He’s the first man to go to the broken moon. He goes in an Indian rocket, which looks like those Indian towers with all the designs. So it will play a big role.
Greco-Roman mythology – in book seven Rocketo has jump boots like Mercury’s boots. Any mythology I read somehow goes into this book. A lot of Homer.
I think Jules Verne, he is so timeless. Even the styles of the ships – that stuff is so romantic to draw and look at. I love that stuff. It’s just so much fun. Another huge influence.
Q – When did you start working on the story?
FE – It started as a way of keeping sane. [When he was an art director at Warner Brothers.] You’re in meetings. Come home and think [about the] working distress. I started doodling. I started collecting drawings and I had to figure out how to make it all work. I know that sounds hokey.
Q – Does the story reflect your experiences as a Cuban emigrant in any way? [He was born there and stayed until the age of 7, immigrating to the United States]
FE – I wanted to give a feeling – because Rocketo is an explorer – everywhere he goes he is an immigrant. The stranger. Especially in the first two books – from his experiences. It’s a big overview for this guy’s life, previous to the Hidden Sea. Later the story will get back to young Rocketo. … Coming from a home that he’s lost and will never get back.
I could always go back to Cuba. But it’s not going to be the same as when I left.
For Rocketo, it’s, “You’d better learn our language or we’re going to kill you.”
I had to pass an English exam.
Q – There are three sections of the story remaining after Hidden Sea. How is it all going to end?
FE – The stories do have an ending. There is a definitive end. It’s not going to go on for another 10, 15 years, thank god. It’s the story of this guy’s life. At the end there’s this big battle, and it’s over. It felt more like a complete story. There’s only so many dangers for Rocketo to face.
Q – The characters are so varied, how did you come up with them all and inject them with full personalities?
FE – Spiro [the part-dog captain and sidekick] to me is Humphrey Bogart in “Treasure of the Sierra Madre.” I would say I like to live my life like Rocketo but I always end up like Spiro. He’s the greedy side. Rocketo is the honorable side. They make a unit.
There’s always a sidekick. Usually he’s just completely faithful. You’re never going to find out where Spiro stands.
Q – What was your experience of working in animation for several years?
FE – At Disney I had two capacities. First I was an assistant animator in Florida for a year. Then came to customer products field, designing toys. … Getting art ready for people to consume for a few years.
I left and worked for little animation houses in New York. That was fun.
In 1992 I came to California to Warner Brothers, as art director for consumer products and did that until 2003 or 2004. I had a really great group of artists. A lot came from the comic book industry. I hired them because – you have to make that one drawing count [in comic books]. I learned a lot about that.
That’s where I met Marie Taylor, the co-writer on Rocketo.
Q – Did you first consider making Rocketo into an animated feature?
FE – To make an animated film would be so much time and so much money. If I had done it for two years, I would only have a five or seven minute segment done.
When I was a kid I loved comics. Comics gave me a freedom to tell the story, sort of like a giant storyboard. Put it out and let people see it.
I think comics are an incredible art form.
Q – How did you get back to comic books?
FE – I loved old newspaper serials. Seven or eight years ago, I bought all the stuff he’d liked as a youngster. Flash Gordon, Crazy Cat, Will Eisner. Captain Easy – I just fell in love with that guy. They’re just so beautifully drawn and so funny. I had this really big love for the old newspaper guys.
My sensibility was more toward that. I read Astro Boy.
I was thinking, how come, in America? we have a love for this very detailed sort of art? It’s something for kids and adults.
Q – How did you start pitching the book?
FE – I did like eight giant acrylic paintings that no one has ever seen. I thought I could show them these paintings like we do in film and talk about story. I had one issue finished – all ink. A bunch of character designs. I showed it to Adam [Fortier of Speakeasy]. It helps when you have Alex Ross introduce you.
That issue didn’t end up being issue one. I re-drew all of it. Parts of it later ended up in book three. The character design isn’t as finished. Instead, put the back story in first. I didn’t want to get to issue 12 and have that kill the pace. I learned that one from Homer.
Q – How did you get to know Alex Ross?
FE – I had friend from WB who was good friends with Alex. I had a life-drawing class on Wednesdays at my studio, and we had guest speakers. My friend said he was in town and invited him. I was like, “Oh, are you kidding?”
Geez louise. He brought his orginals. If the print looks great… the original looks better. This was not done by a human being. He talked about the process. I would invite him over when he came to town.
That was one of those wonderful gifts. Without him, you would not see a Rocketo book. Normally he doesn’t do those things, but I insisted he write the introduction [to the trade].
Q – The art on the book is so different. What is the process like of storyboarding and turning that into what we see on the shelves?
FE – When I do my pencils – layouts – it’s really strange. I think very abstractly. I take a red marker and make shapes. Then I put in some details with little black markers. Then I do pencils and try to get the anatomy.
When I ink it, I try to completely forget the pencils. I love movement. I’ve got to try to capture that gesture. If I draw a beautiful hand it slows me down. People know it’s a hand … but the important thing is to get the movement in that panel.
A lot of comic book artists are trained to think in the reverse – just focusing on the details. If they draw a car, they think, what year? What are the tires? I think, what is that car doing? Is it going over a cliff? Is it blowing up?
I looked at a lot of Japanese arts and prints. They use an economy of lines.
It’s peaceful. Some of later stuff, with just a few lines on the page, will be very peaceful.
I planned to color everything by hand in acrylics. Alex said, “Are you insane? Don’t you want to live?”
I bought an expensive coloring program for my computer, which didn’t work. I was going to do it like a regular comic. The pants were blue, the shirt was red. I was getting really bored. It stopped the lines.
I was talking to my sister on the phone once and I was just throwing stuff on the screen. I just put a streak of yellow down and I was like, “Eureeka!”
Now I’m playing, having a lot of fun with it. As long as it keeps it moving I’m happy.
Q – What led to the “floppy” or sideways format?
FE – I’m a big fan of cinema scope. I was trying to get Rocketo a feeling of looking at a big storyboard, an epic feeling. I’m sad to say the format will not be used in the next Rocketo stories. But I’ll still keep the longness of the panels. It’s kind of sad, because I was trying to play around with some weird panels.
We’ll make the other format work. Image initially wanted the same layout, but this was easier for everyone.
Q – How was working with Speakeasy, which just recently folded up shop, preventing the release of issues five and six of Journey to the Hidden Sea?
FE – I give a lot of credit to Speakeasy. I can’t thank them enough. Also to let me express myself in the way I wanted.
Q – Given a chance to go through the process again, would you have still gone with Speakeasy?
FE – Probably not. I would have sat on Rocketo, gotten the first five or six done and tried to sell it to Image or another company. My regret with Speakeasy is the books never got to the stores on time. Us small press folks, we have to get to the stores on time. If it doesn’t show up, it’ll kill you.
Other than issue one, every one was late. That just hurt the book.
Q – How has it been working with Image?
FE – They have done a great job. They’re always communicating with me about ideas. Hopefully we’ll finish off series and that’ll be great.
They’re fantastic. They love comics.
Erik Larsen has been fantastic.
Q – Where does Rocketo fit into Image’s lineup?
FE – Image now has such a diverse line … that are really, really cool. I think Rocketo will fit in.
It’s just pulp. It’s all comic book pulp.
Q – Do you have plans to work in comic books after Rocketo is finished?
FE – Comics are my life now. I got the bug. I don’t know how I’ll eat.
I’m in love with comics. It took for me to make one … I love this way of communication. It’s the purest form. Without focus groups, without giant corporations.
After Rocketo I’ve got a whole slew of stuff. I’m working with Glen Brunswick doing another book for Image. I’m sorry to say there’s no title yet. It’s like Dick Tracy meets La Femme Nikita. It’s kind of my crazy style but really violent. I told Glen I wasn’t sure I could draw that. Then I drew a head blowing up and I went, you know what? What the hell?
I have ideas for some more sci fi stuff, some more mature and some for kids.
I still have not mastered it yet. But, I’m a late bloomer.