The Disturbing, Ethereal Comics of C.S. Pego, a Mexican Artist in Exile

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I first met Cecilia “C.S.” Pego in Artists’ Alley at this year’s San Diego Comic-Con. A native of Mexico City, she was there to promote her new graphic novel, Exilia: The Invisible Path. I found it visually stunning, not to mention a welcome relief from all the soulless superhero stuff.

In the first half of our interview, last week, we discussed Pego’s aesthetic evolution from late-1960s underground comix to late-1970s punk graphics and, more recently, to late-19th-century Nouveau illustration. She’s since begun to explore a softer visual palette. She now overlays her sensuous, Aubrey Beardsley linework with delicate, ethereal colors. The narrative tone is more subdued and internal but just as disturbing as in those early comics, which dealt with serial killers and ecological destruction. Exilia is also more personal. “I’m an artist in exile,” she says, “and these are my field notes from the imaginal frontier.”

Here Pego talks about her book, the first to be published in English. She also explains some advantages of e-books over print, of attending comics conventions, and of working with watercolors.

What inspired Exilia?

Creating Exilia was my means to explore fantasy worlds, realms which I could create and through which I could experience the wonder of creating them. I needed an accomplice, a fictional character that could help me explore these worlds, so I created Exilia. She is an explorer of these forgotten and forbidden mystical landscapes. With Exilia I travel in journeys of discovery, and self-discovery.

And who do you see as its audience?

When I was making the book I didn’t think of the audience. I was writing the book I wanted to read, and one in which everything I needed to express could be said and seen, regardless of the consequences. I think the audience for Exilia is people who love fantasy, spiritual thrillers, inner-journey adventures, and traditional illustration techniques.

It’s a radical departure for you.

My early illustration style consisted of the use of negative space, and managing it through clean lines and solid blacks to make my concepts strong and clear. Then I learned to paint with oils and watercolors. With textures and color I was able to explore emotions and feelings that would otherwise be impossible to express through black-and-white drawings. These new concepts are ambiguous, fluid-like, just like the materials they are expressed with. I love going in this new direction because I can explore paradoxical concepts.

Also, I was able to get rid of the physical headaches I always get when I draw in black-and-white. Oil and watercolor painting have liberated me of not only of headaches but of limiting concepts.

Exilia feels like a storybook as well as a graphic novel.

I consider Exilia a graphic novel with a storybook look, because I designed the layout primarily using one-page illustrations instead of the classic panel layout of a comic.

The second book of the saga, Exilia: The Dark Abyss, is going to be an illustrated story, formally. I want the image to be independent of the story since I want to write more without having to specifically illustrate what I write. I also want to make more extravagant illustrations, with maybe some cinematic sequences where they’re needed.

I am creating the upcoming books of the Exilia saga in this manner not only because I need the freedom to write and illustrate as separate but parallel elements, but also because in the e-readers it is very difficult to read comics layouts of the print versions. So I am thinking about creating a fluid content of text and illustrations that would be a better reading experience in, for instance, the Kindle and iPad. Maybe in the future I will do Exilia as a scroll, because that is the natural way to read with e-readers.

How would you compare the print Exilia to the e-book version?

The experience is completely different. While I designed a specific layout and reading experience for the printed book, the adaptation and coding I did for the digital version lead the reader to a very different experience.

Personally, I think my Exilia originals look better in the e-book version. The light shines through the watercolor and the translucent oil layers of the original art. It is like an illuminated manuscript with real light.

How do you benefit from going to Comic-Con, the Alternative Press Expo, and comics conventions in Mexico?

A table at a comic convention combines the best of two cultural events. It is both a book-signing event and a mini art exhibit. These conventions are the best place to show people my work, because they can see the originals that appear in the printed book and I can talk to them about my vision. And I make connections, which I cultivate through social networks. They also allow me to reconnect with these people later on and show them my latest work.

Attending these conventions lets me discover who my audience is. It lets me know if my creative risks have been successful. And it allows me to promote the use of traditional illustration techniques in comic art. All of which are very gratifying as an artist.

Photo: M. Dooley.