Interview with graphic novelist Joseph Lagos

 

The graphic novel has burst onto the publishing scene with a vengeance in the past few years. Like their French counterpart “le bande dessinée”, the graphic novel is a book in which the artwork and the text are equally important. Joseph Lagos and his brother Alexander are joining the wave of graphic novelists with their new series The Sons of Liberty. The series traces the adventures of two run-away slaves who discover superpowers during the time of pre-Revolution America. Recently, I visited with Joseph about collaborating with his brother, growing up in New Jersey and the ubiquitous SRA reading program.

Where did you grow up?

I was born in Montevideo, Uruguay and moved to the United States at the age of two.  I spent most of my childhood in Elizabeth, New Jersey in a predominately Irish-Italian neighborhood.

Elizabeth, New Jersey in the 1970’s wasn’t that different from Montevideo or Buenos Aires, Argentina, so the adjustment, with the exception of learning English, wasn’t as drastic as it could have been for my family and me.  We assimilated into our new American lives quickly, and eagerly went about acquiring all the good things that hard-working American people are expected to get, including a private school education and a Country Squire station wagon with side panels. New Jersey was and continues to be an amazing place for the imagination, saturated with such an amazing history. Although I still love the old-world European feeling of Montevideo, nothing compares to America’s precious offerings of opportunity and freedom. At the age of fifteen, my parents moved the family to Houston, Texas, where I grew to be a man and where I have chosen to settle down and raise a family of my own.

What made you want to become a writer?

Remarkably, I can pinpoint the exact moment in my life when I wanted to become a writer. It was at St. Anthony of Padua School in Elizabeth, New Jersey and I was eight years old.

My third grade teacher introduced the class to the SRA kit, a collection of short stories on postcards intended to sharpen reading skills and develop a life-long love of reading. One of the cards featured a scary story about a haunted mirror that reflected “ghostly images.”  

The story was short, but it captivated me in such a way that I read it over and over again; I simply couldn’t get enough. I began to wonder about how writing stories was done and how a few simple paragraphs of written text had the power to make the reader feel scared, happy, angry, or sad.

Naturally, it was impossible to imagine at the time that these “postcards” would be the introduction to something that would fascinate me for the rest of my life – works of great literature.

Soon thereafter, I began my own writing journey and I’ve been on it ever since.

What is a normal “writing” workday like for you?

Truth is, I never stop writing. When I am working on a story, I am thinking about it all the time, trying to look at it from every possible angle, attempting to find the best way to work out ideas on paper.

Writing can be both wonderful and annoying in the way that it gets under your skin. I usually work late at night when all is quiet. When I do finally “sit down and put pen to paper,” it moves pretty fast because I have the leg work already done and I have a pretty good idea of where I am going with the story.

You are writing your graphic novel series with a partner. How do the two of you work together?

My brother, Alexander, and I created a four book graphic novel series entitled “The Sons of Liberty” that is being published by Random House.

This is the way it works: Either Alex or I will submit a basic scene idea to one another; then we begin discussing it. These conversations usually start off rather tame, beginning with “What if…?“ or “You know what would be cool…?”  The whole thing soon evolves into marathon conversations that are as productive as they are exhausting.  

Following the planning stage, I begin writing. As chapters become available, I forward a copy to Alex, in Brooklyn, who looks for ways to improve it. When all is said and done, we send the first draft to Random House and await a response from our editor in New York.

How do you format a script for a graphic novel? Do you give the illustrator directions for example?

Absolutely! I try to be thorough in the panel description so that the illustrations support the dialogue.

The format is not unlike a movie script in many ways, detailing scenes and action and even time of day and weather.

The “Sons of Liberty” is not a typical comic book story. It deals with controversial subject matters during a very hard time in American history.

The subject of slavery, for example, demands a respectful approach of which we are always cognizant.  

We have a responsibility to research historical events, compile supporting data and images, check for accuracy, and identify key players that are consistent with history; but then, of course, we throw in masked superheroes and make the whole thing entertaining as well as educational.

We find ways to have our masked heroes make a contribution without altering facts or undermining the heroic contributions of real-life patriots. All this goes into preparing a proper script. Since the artist charged with the duty of interpretation is obliged to consider all the facts before doing his work, the more we supply in the way of details, the better. 

Where do you get your inspiration?

A lot of it comes from the places I visit or the people I meet and, of course, books.

In some cases, seemingly useless things are filed away in my memory only to re-emerge suddenly in a story years later.

To me, inspiration doesn’t have an expiration date.

An example of this would be a visit I paid to the San Jacinto monument. I would love to one day write about the battle that took place there – not from a bird’s eye view, but from an intimate mosquito-bitten perspective. Fortunately, there are re-enactments that take place there once a year that help me to sense and feel what I cannot learn from books, impressions such as what gunpowder smells like after it has been fired, or what an enemy army sounds like when marching on wet grass.

So I will gather those little inspiring details in a pot, let them simmer for a while, and maybe a tasty plot will emerge someday. 

Who are your favorite writers and why?

My list is endless; here are a few:  Mark Twain, Jack London, P.D. James, Ernest Hemingway, Harold Pinter, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Pablo Neruda, Jorge Luis Borges, Franz Kafka, Henry James, Edgar Allan Poe, T.C. Boyle, Kurt Vonnegut, Oscar Wilde, Joseph Campbell, Robert Louis Stevenson, Washington Irving, and Voltaire.

I enjoy the visceral approach to story-telling utilized by these writers and I learn something new everytime I read their work; they are to me the undisputed masters of the art of writing and an institution of higher learning in and of themselves.

What advice would you give aspiring writers?

If you love to write, fill notebooks, or wear the keys off your computer keyboard; in other words – write! Writing is an exercise just like jogging – the more you do it, the better you get. Then, find a way to share your writing with others – maybe family and friends for starters or writing groups and organizations.

As you see yourself, so will you become.


This interview also appears in the March 2010 version of the Houston Banner.

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