Last week, Cameron Stewart ended his Eisner award-winning webcomic Sin Titulo, about Alex, a young man who starts to investigate the final months of his grandfather's life and is caught up in a bizarre conspiracy involving a mysterious femme fatale, a violent nursing home orderly, and a creepy tree that may exist only in Alex's dreams. Now that the story has reached its end, Sin Titulo is coming to print. We talked to Stewart about why he made the leap to webcomics, the autobiographical aspects of Sin Titulo, and the experience of reading a weekly webcomic in print.
Sin Titulo opens with with Alex, a fact-checker with a spiteful boss and a tense relationship with his girlfriend, learning that his grandfather has passed away. As he goes through his grandfather's things, Alex finds a photograph of his grandfather with a beautiful blond woman. As Alex becomes obsessed with learning more about this woman and his grandfather, he finds an underground world of murder, memory-collection devices, teleportation, and a strange beach that only certain people can travel to.
What's particularly striking about Sin Titulo is that, as the comic continues, Alex's personal history becomes more and more central to the story. What could have been a straight action-mystery becomes something much more introspective as Alex has to deal with his relationship with his father and grandfather and exorcise the demons of his past. Sin Titulo isn't just about solving the mystery of the beach and the creepy tree; it's about Alex transforming into a person who can move forward with his life. At the same time, though, Stewart evokes a very noir tone and a sense of perpetual urgency. Once Alex starts on his journey, he won't be safe until he completes it.
Now that the comic is finished, Stewart has announced that Dark Horse will publish a hardcover collection of Sin Titulo in 2013. In honor of that announcement, Stewart, whom many people might know from his artwork on print comics like Ed Brubaker's Catwoman and Grant Morrison's Batman and Robin and Seaguy, chatted with us a bit over email about the beginning and end of Sin Titulo, and why he decided to publish his comic online.
io9: Given that you've done so much work in print comics, what made you decide to do a webcomic?
Cameron Stewart: Back in 2007, a group of my illustrator friends and I used to meet regularly to talk shop and share work, and one of the frequent topics of discussion was how we all felt a bit burned out by doing commercial work-for-hire - some of us were drawing comics for Marvel or DC, some were working in advertising, others doing kids books - and how we all really wanted the freedom to work on personal comics projects. Initially we had discussed pitching a line of comics under an imprint, but we didn't feel confident that any publishers would be interested, especially since few of us had any real writing experience. Self-publishing was also considered but the expense and headache of managing stock wasn't appealing, so finally we decided upon launching a webcomics collective, following the example of existing collectives like Act-I-Vate and Topatoco. Transmission X (eventually just TX Comics) was the result.
I also feel that webcomics are able to find a much bigger and more diverse audience than print comics can - I'm constantly surprised by the number of people, completely unaware of my superhero comics work, who have found and enjoyed Sin Titulo.
You've mentioned that Sin Titulo was inspired by personal events from your childhood. Were you looking to tell a personal story, or were those experiences just a jumping off point?
I think that all the best stories are personal, even if they're wrapped up in genre trappings. I hadn't expected Sin Titulo to include quite so much autobiography when I began work on it, but it kept finding its way back into the story, most likely because I felt the most sincere when writing those scenes.
Sin Titulo is a very surreal comic, but it's grounded in very firm, if sometimes bizarre, visuals — the tree, the phones attached to screens, a very classic femme fatale. Where did those visuals come from?
I tried to allow my subconscious to drive the story, weaving in details that would spring to mind unexpectedly. Much of the first half was the result of allowing myself to draw whatever popped into my head, whatever felt right in my gut. The challenge was then to bring those details together and create a single satisfying narrative out of the disparate elements.
The comic has a very cathartic feeling to it, with Alex working through his demons, even ones he wasn't fully conscious of. Did you have a similarly cathartic experience writing and drawing it?
As mentioned, a great deal of the comic is autobiographical (though not necessarily the parts you'd think), and so many of Alex's revelations are very familiar to me also. I definitely understood a few things about myself with greater clarity by the end.
One aspect of webcomics is that you get almost immediate feedback. Did any aspect of your comic change as a result of feedback?
I didn't change anything I'd already determined in the story as a result of feedback, but one thing that is always fascinating is reading the comments and seeing how people interpret certain scenes - in some cases, readers perfectly identified my intent, which emboldened me and made me feel more confident that I was expressing the ideas clearly, and in some cases the interpretations were wildly different but completely fascinating, making me see the work in a new light, which helped inform some of the choices I made along the way.
What surprised you most about working on a webcomic?
That it would end up as popular and successful as it has, earning me a new audience and multiple awards and nominations.
Congrats on Sin Titulo coming to print! Do you anticipate that the reading experience will be much different as a single print volume as opposed to a weekly webcomic?
It will certainly be a less frustrating experience for those who didn't have to deal with my erratic update schedule! I definitely tried to make each page work on its own, conscious of the slow pace of reading it daily or weekly online, but I did anticipate it being in print eventually and so I was trying to maintain the flow from page to page so that it would work when read in its entirety in a single sitting. One thing that may or may not be noticeable is how drastically the art changes over the 5 years I worked on it - comparing the first pages to the last reveals a fairly stark difference. I evolved and improved a lot as an artist in that time, and in the latter half I was actually deliberately trying to draw more crudely, for consistency, but it still changed. I hope that the readers will be too involved in the story to notice.
Why did you decide to title your comic "Untitled"?
"Untitled" is the translation, but the proper title is "Sin Titulo." Originally, when I began the strip, I didn't have any real idea of what it would eventually be about, it was more an exercise for myself in improvisational writing. I wanted a title that was open and didn't necessarily define any elements of the story, but was still mysterious and intriguing. I'd seen "Sin Titulo" as the title of a painting in a book years ago, and the shape and sound of it always stuck in my head, and so it seemed right as a title. There is an eventual reason for it in the story, however, but I'll allow the readers to discover what it is.