Luigi Formisano is a Neapolitan comic book artist, living in Glasgow. He’s worked in webcomics as well as traditional publishing, recently debuting with Bugs Comics as the artist for their monthly horror series — Samuel Stern.
[A man and a woman sit opposite one another in the corner of a coffee-shop. Their table is by the window, but the view is partly obscured by the chain’s logo slapped across the glass — a large coffee bean, with thick white lettering running along the curve of the bean in a Clarendon font. The man’s hair is a slash running from his forehead to the base of his skull, while the woman’s silhouette is smooth, long, straight hair, a fringe…] I wonder if this is what passes through Luigi’s mind as he approaches our table. He is a comic book artist which, as he later explains, is much like being a film director — each scene is scripted, set constructed and shot framed, but all of this is confined to a still page, rather than a streaming reel of film.
However as natural as creating and drawing a story has become for him after years of studying the human form and the complex interplay of light and shadows — I doubt he considers an interview inside a COSTA as a worthy subject for a comic book. The scenario lacks everything that the pages he usually draws contain — a brooding sense of drama, wrapped in noir tones, with a texture and vividness that whip the characters and backdrops from the page and into motion, in the mind’s eye. His latest work concerns the fate of a professional wrestler; however it is not the tale of hard work in the gym leading to a shining career in the ring that you might expect. Luigi’s story is a much more gritty take, exploring the reality of life as an aspiring wrestler trying and failing to get a “big break” and suffering many injuries, both physically and psychologically, along the way.
The completed panels and proposed cover art he shows me are highly stylised — foreboding silhouettes flecked with light which creeps through the chink in a blind or under a door — and while he enjoys drawing in this style, Luigi stresses, it is not his only style. The style must suit the story, he tells me. Therefore as an artist he thinks it is his job to be flexible, to be able to adapt his palette and technique to tell any story that’s worthy of a place on a page. This is not to say that he believes artists who stick to one style are less talented — one of his favourite commercial artists is Alfons Mucha who specialised in a highly detailed art nouveau style — but he personally finds the challenge of constantly evolving and adapting, far more interesting.
On the topic of pens, most if not all of his drawing is on a screen, rather than paper. When he first developed a love of drawing, as a child, this was obviously not the case, but the industry has gone through all manner of transformations, in the intervening twenty years — not only technological, but also in terms of the quality of story-telling, and the people who are telling the stories. In the comic book culture, women and minorities have typically been poorly drawn adhering to stereotypes, or not even included, but this has changed in line with the growing popularity of comic books with demographics other than nerdy, white men and with general societal shifts towards greater inclusion.
Much like any other form of art, there are great comics which have aged poorly –e.g. the racist stereotypes which creep into a number of Tintin’s adventures — but rather than cancelling these artists/authors, he believes, we should be able to separate their undoubted gift for storytelling from the prejudicial views which were not atypical for the time at which they were written. Furthermore we should be wary of comic books, he warns me, which preach a supposedly woke narrative, since this is quite often not the case despite so-called empowering new takes on old characters.
As an example of this Luigi cites the recent transformation of Lara Croft in the Tomb Raider games. They gave her smaller breasts as a token gesture towards feminism, he says, but when you really analyse the new “empowered” Lara Croft, her storylines are far less empowering than the old character’s — with new Lara taking on a more passive role, in line with the damsel-in-distress stereotype, than her more sexualised predecessor. Implementing token visual updates to old characters is a lazy fix, he tells me, which fails to address the root of the problem: the majority of artists employed by the mainstream publishing houses/production studios are Caucasian men. “It’s all very well hiring a female director for the Wonder Woman franchise, but how many of the writers were woman? In many ways the script has become the last refuge for prejudice.”
Another modern industry short-cut which Luigi disapproves of is the multi-artist comic book factory line. He is so opposed to this style of drawing — which is heavily employed in mainstream Manga, and, in his opinion, completely rids a story of any sense of originality — that he will only read comics written by one primary artist. This is also how he works, and while it is much more time consuming than a thirty-artist-effort, he believes that comics should be a labour of love for the artist and then, by extension, the reader will appreciate it more. Typically comic books run to about 95 pages and, working in this manner, it usually takes Luigi around 10 months to finish a book. Covid has removed many of the distractions which would normally interrupt this process and, as a result, he’s found the last few months fairly productive; however it has also led to a sharp downturn in publishing houses commissioning work and accepting proposals, which makes it more difficult to sell his comics and make a living.
Covid has also forced an increasing number of publishers to transition away from real books with pages to the online sphere, where a page turning effect is now sometimes added to internet comics in order to simulate the “reading a book” experience. Unlike books which do not include pictures, he thinks comics can readily adapt to this medium and rather than killing the industry it may actually result in a boom as artists are able to find more easily, new and bigger markets for their work. Indeed, he believes comics may be making a comeback, after the initial boom years of Marvel and DC, with more exposure in mainstream media as directors and producers increasingly lift storylines, characters — sometimes entire worlds — from their pages. There is still a certain snobbery around his profession, he admits, but never from fellow artists. More often than not it’s people who’ve never even read a comic book who look down on the art form; Scots are marginally less judgemental than Italians, in his view, which is strange considering the significant comic book legacy in Italy- more Italians read Bonelli than Americans read DC or Marvel.
Bonelli revolutionised the Italian comic book format by publishing long, novel-like comics at a time when most of their competitors were still focused on short-form (striscia) content. This quickly made them a household name in Italy and they continue to dominate the Italian comic book market, 70 years after their intial success with the highly popular Tex Willer and Dylan Dog series. Luigi would regularly visit their stall at the Italian comic-cons when he was growing up, and a few years ago he was able to show his portfolio to one of their editors, who was so impressed they signed him up to collaborate on designs for the tenth issue of Orfani: Sam — “that was the moment I thought ‘maybe I could make a career out of this’; it convinced me that I had the necessary talent; I just needed to keep drawing and submitting proposals.”
When the interview concludes he stays on for another half an hour or so sketching the photographer as she takes snaps for this article. I stay long enough to see him draw an outline; then a few hours later, she sends me the finished product — an avatar that perfectly captures her poise behind the camera. He’d told me that his dream is to help elevate the position that comic books hold in the “Western canon”, to make them an essential part of every bookshelf — at least one in every home — and reflecting on this small, hurried portrait, I’m tempted to believe he can.