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Drawing on his own experience

Comic illustrator Sergio Cariello speaks to Linda McTurk about comic conventions, superheroes and how he pictures Jesus  

I never felt the same drawing Spider-Man as I did drawing Jesus

KAPOW! Having travelled from all over the world, fans are gathering at London’s Excel centre for a show of mighty proportions: the MCM London Comic Con, which opened yesterday (Friday 25 May). Over the course of three days, some 130,000 people will have the opportunity to check out exhibits and stalls, meet the creators of their favourite characters and even dress up as superheroes. Guests at the event include comic book illustrators and cast members from the new Marvel film Deadpool 2.

One man who knows all about comic conventions is Marvel and DC comics illustrator Sergio Cariello, who has drawn Batman, Spider-Man, Superman, Iron Man, the Fantastic Four and other comic book characters. He’s not surprised that comics are still popular.

‘People enjoy comics and having a means of escaping from their stressful lives,’ he says. ‘Specifically, during the war era in America, comics were created to give relief to folks who were stressed out from the bad guys. Captain America and other superheroes would entertain people and give them hope of a super-powerful being rescuing them from villains.’

Comic conventions have been popular for decades. But whereas 50 years ago they may have focused on the buying, trading and selling of comic books, today’s events often revolve around much more than publications. Sergio believes that this is in line with popular culture.

‘A lot of creators in the comic book business complain that today’s conventions are not just for comics any more,’ Sergio says. ‘They are a lot to do with movies, video games and other entertainment-type businesses. But the majority of people will buy a movie ticket before they buy two or three comics, so conventions reflect that.’

Sergio, who lives in America, receives numerous invitations to attend comic conventions every year. Although he is not able to accept all the invitations, he enjoys the opportunities they give him to meet fans of his Sergio became a fan of comic books himself when he was growing up in Brazil.

‘I knew at five years old that I wanted to become a professional comic book artist,’ he recalls. ‘My parents saw that my brother and I loved drawing and had the ability to decorate the house and furniture with drawings. So they gave us sketchbooks and told us to please draw in those instead.’

In 1975, when Sergio was only 11 years old, he created his own comic strip called Frederico, which was published in a local newspaper. In his twenties, he moved to the US to attend the Joe Kubert School of Cartoon and Graphic Art. While at school, he undertook projects for American comic and graphic novel publisher Caliber Press. He joined the creative team of Marvel in his third year.

Any comic page is normally the work of at least six people. A writer composes a script. Upon receiving instructions from the writer, a penciller draws out the script on panels.

An inker turns the pencil sketches into ink drawings. A colourist adds colours to the scenes. A letterer adds any necessary text or dialogue to the page. And an assistant editor carries out a final review before any pages are sent to be printed.

‘There are two ways of working from a script,’ Sergio explains. ‘You may get a plot script, which means that the writer gives a plot idea – for example ‘on page 1 Superman punches Lex Luthor and they go out fighting each other’ – then the artist comes up with their own idea of how the page should look based on that plot idea.

‘Or you may get a full script, which means that every panel on a page is delineated and explained by the writer for the artist to fulfil. You may also receive more description of the backgrounds, the characters and the elements within a page.

‘The artist has more creativity on the plot idea script, whereas on the full script set-up they are bound by restrictions. When illustrating for Marvel and DC, I mainly worked with full scripts.’

Sergio made the transition from ghost letterer for Marvel to full-time freelance illustrator for Marvel and DC comics and took on roles as a penciller, inker and colourist. Sometimes he fulfilled more than one role at once.

Since he was first hired by Marvel in the 1990s, Sergio has made a name for himself as an artist. But he has long believed that there is a higher purpose for his talent than just drawing superheroes.

In 2007, Sergio embarked on an ambitious three-year project creating The Action Bible, a 750-page book that tells more than 200 stories from the Bible in comic book form. It is based on The Picture Bible, illustrated by Andre Le Blanc, which was published in the 1970s.

‘It was a lot of work,’ Sergio reveals. ‘I would produce seven pages a week while simultaneously doing work for other companies. Usually on a comic book it takes a month to produce about 22 pages and that is normally with a penciller and an inker. But for this project, I did the pencils and inks myself. My wife quit her job to help me produce the book.’

With constant deadlines to meet and hundreds of pages to fill, it was a big project for Sergio to undertake – but it was his Christian faith that attracted him to the concept.

‘I illustrated The Action Bible because I was called by God to do it,’ he explains. ‘I mean that God had thought of what I would do before I even came to be. He has given me the right doors, the right opportunities and the right conditions for me to fulfil my purpose.

‘When I was a teenager in Brazil in the 1970s, I had read The Picture Bible and loved it. The version I had was black and white, very small and translated into Portuguese. Back then I thought to myself: It would be great if I could do that when I grow up.’

Sergio says that since The Action Bible was published in 2010, it has been translated and distributed to more than 50 million children all over the world. He has received responses from people who have had their lives completely changed by it.

But turning biblical stories into a comic book format was not always a straightforward process. As an illustrator, Sergio often had to interpret Scripture based on his own understanding of what it was saying.

‘Whenever I am drawing something, I become the characters in order to act the part and to draw it with feeling so that it is convincing,’ he reveals. ‘As a creator, I need to ignite my own creativity and sensitivity to a story to make it my own. I do that with a gut feeling of what is happening and how it should be depicted.

‘So, for example, whenever I drew Jesus, I never depicted him with an angelic look and graceful poses. I pictured Jesus as a tough guy, a manly man with tough hands and developed muscles. Jesus worked and walked on foot. He was a carpenter. I’ve never seen somebody working in carpentry with smooth hands. They are tough with rough hands.’

It was quite a different experience for Sergio to illustrate biblical characters rather than the heroes and villains he was used to drawing for Marvel and DC.

‘Because of my faith and my relationship with Christ, it was way more rewarding to draw The Action Bible than to draw fictional characters,’ he says. ‘I never felt the same drawing Spider-Man as I did drawing Jesus, because superheroes are fictional characters whereas Jesus is real. Moses is real. Paul is real.’

Crucial themes in superhero comics, such as the fight between good and evil, also appear in the Bible, and Sergio feels there are some other similarities in his two areas of work – as well as one significant difference.

‘Superman is very much like the Jesus story: a foreigner from another planet, who has superpowers like no one else, is sent by his father to come to Earth to walk among us. But the superhero comics that I’ve done for Marvel and DC and other comic book publishers are part of escapism. The Bible is not escapism at all. It has power to do something that not only entertains but also changes lives. It can impact you in a way that can transform your life for ever.’ 

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