Friday, February 18, 2011

FYC replay: Parade (with Fireworks)

The 411:
Parade (with Fireworks)
Story & Art by Michael Cavallaro
72 pages,
full color, $12.99

What It Is (with apologies to Dave the Thune):

The setting: Maropati, Italy. January 6, 1923. The occasion: the Feast of the Epiphany, a day of celebration and prayer. Revelers parade down the main street in their costumes while others attend services at the local chapel. It is a good day, one in which people can shrug off their cares for a time and enjoy the festive atmosphere floating over the land.

Of course, there will always be those few who are determined to blight any celebration. Gato and his minions – though goons might be a better description – disregard the celebration and glare at the masses from one street corner. Promoting fascism, they are a vocal minority in this tiny hamlet, which, despite the rise of this new ideology in Rome, is made up more of socialists than fascists. As the parade ends and worshippers exit the chapel, the band makes its way from the town square. Gato and his crew fall in beside them.

Meanwhile, on the opposite side of the street – both literally and philosophically – Vincenzo, Francone, and Cordiano also fall in behind the band. Heading in the same direction to meet with Vincenzo’s brother Paolo, and having been the ones to hire the band in the first place, they’d rather not see them harassed by Gato’s group of fascists. Despite rising tensions, the walk back to where Paolo and his friend the Professor await them elicits little more than raised voices and verbal barbs. It isn’t until they reach this destination that things go terribly wrong, with guns brandished, bullets flying, and Cordiano and Vincenzo in the dirt, blood spreading across their clothes.

This bloody turn of events sends Paolo into a rage. Pulling out the gun he brought back from Chicago, he fires wildly in the direction of Gato and his goons. For a long minute, all is chaos and very few people escape unharmed. As Gato flees and things calm down, the doctor is called. But before the Captain can arrive, Paolo too must flee. The Professor suggests he lay low while things blow over. Paolo runs down a side alley, his brother miraculously still breathing, though that reality may change by the time night descends on the small town.

Parade (with Fireworks) is a beautiful piece of historical fiction. After a short prologue delving into Paolo’s childhood and subsequent maturity, Cavallaro drops his readers right into the middle of this tale. With fully realized backgrounds and precise prose, he immerses his audience in small town Italy, 1923. Gazing back at the early 1920s from our position here in the infancy of the twenty-first century, it is easy for one to wax sentimental about a more innocent time, and Cavallaro evokes that beauty and simplicity masterfully. But Cavallaro is also cognizant of this “rose-tinged” view of bygone eras and refuses to sugarcoat anything because, despite the romanticizing of this time, this is as painful and harsh a place as one might encounter today. It is this balance that helps make Parade such an interesting read.

Although some might consider the storytelling in a 2-issue series to be rushed, those doubters would be sorely mistaken as Cavallaro’s pacing of Parade is superb. He allows the story to tell itself, raising the tension by small degrees through the pages of the book. With sharp dialogue, he manages to fill in the histories of these characters and their feud, which is not only ideological but also personal, in a manner that does not come across as overbearing. It would be easy to fall into the trap of forcing dialogue into a character’s mouth to relate this back story, but Cavallaro’s words all flow effortlessly, allowing his characters to breathe in a manner not often seen in comics.

Cavallaro also provides the art for this series, and his pared down style works well with the serious tone of his narrative. By simplifying his art, he is not only able to draw readers in more easily, but he also allows the characters to live this story in a way that makes it feel more genuine. And when I talk of his style being simplified, that should not be construed to mean that it is a simple achievement. The biggest hurdle cartoonists have in utilizing a style such as Cavallaro does on Parade is that if they falter in their execution, they are unable to hide behind the myriad crosshatchings that can mask poor anatomy or perspective. And luckily for readers, Cavallaro has nothing to hide. His work in Parade reminds me very much of the best of Gilbert Hernandez’s work on Love & Rockets.

Cavallaro is another alumnus of the Act-i-Vate web collective. His work is of a quality and individuality that demands readers of great stories to take notice. Cavallaro has spoken of this initial two-issue series being only the first of many tales he would like to create based upon his family history. One can only hope that Cavallaro will have the opportunity to continue his stories of 1920s Italy with Act-i-Vate as well as with Image, because as nice as it is to be able to view this great story online, I still enjoy having an actual physical copy in my hands that I can leaf through at my leisure.

An Interview with Michael Cavallaro

THE PULSE: Why comics? What was it that attracted you to this storytelling medium?

That's a great question. I'm not really sure what the answer is. Once I discovered comics, I couldn't get enough of them. They really captured my imagination. As a kid, I spent hours lying around on the floor drawing. I think if you're like that, comics are a natural, obvious thing to latch on to. Comics seemed, at the time, to combine some of my favorite things; imaginative, fantastic stories and rich, dynamic artwork. For 35 cents, I could get lost for hours in a single book. There's nothing else like them. The prices have gone up since then, but there doesn't seem to be an end to the steady stream of great books from all over the world.

THE PULSE: Your art style is very clean and almost cartoony, which is meant as a compliment. How do you feel your art style meshes with a serious narrative such as Parade (with Fireworks)?

It's funny you should ask that, because the Parade "style" was something I worked at developing specifically to tell this story. I redrew some of the first pages 5 or 6 times each, struggling to simplify my line work and exclude everything that was not essential. That's what the story itself does. I could have gone off for another hundred pages on the surrounding politics or family relations, but I wanted it to retain that oral-tradition feel. When telling a story like this, it's easy to let your research take over and run away with the narrative. But I wanted to stick to just what you needed to know to make the story work in a form as close to how it was first told to me as possible. The artwork had to reflect that. What I was working towards was something that was more of a visual handwriting, so that it's not "part story, part drawing.” It's all one cohesive thing. More realistic artwork may have worked just as well, but I kind of feel that it would have drawn attention to itself. I didn't want the readers to be conscious of the drawing. I wanted them to just absorb the whole thing, unified.

THE PULSE: Being the writer and artist, how do you break down an issue? Do you think in terms of the visuals and tailor the dialogue to the story at that point, do you work from a script, or is it some combination of these processes?

I guess I think very visually. I don't write scripts. For Parade, I sat down with my dad and just took notes as he retold the story. I worked the notes into an outline. It was maybe two typed pages long. From that outline, I did little, two-inch high roughs of each page, with stick figures and simple shapes inside the actual panel layouts. I worked out and wrote the dialogue right on these. They're a mess. Only I can read them. From those, I went straight to the board and drew the final pages.

THE PULSE: When I spoke with you at the MoCCA Arts Festival in June, you talked about how Parade is actually a story from your own family’s history. Have you found the need to rework the actual facts in order to better dramatize this tale, and how do you reconcile your role as a creator with that as a family historian (for lack of a better term)?

I'll answer the last part first. I saw my role as that of a storyteller, and my goal was to tell a good story that would be interesting and entertaining.

As far as working or reworking the story, you have to recognize that even a good story needs to be composed in a way that dramatizes the events to their fullest effect. Think of a joke as kind of an extremely short story. Two people can tell the same joke, but only one makes it funny. Why? One teller understands composition and timing, and the other doesn't. Although the story was dropped in my lap, it was up to me to compose it in a compelling way. It was necessary to create scenes and dialogue that are essentially fictional in order to better convey the factual story in this format. That's just the nature of storytelling.

THE PULSE: What other projects are you working on that you would like to tell readers about?

Well, always on my drawing board is my self-published series, 66 Thousand Miles Per Hour. 66kmph takes place in a fictional New Jersey town called Squareville, and chronicles the story of Evie Pryce, a hapless teenager who becomes stranded in her home town when the entire area is scooped-up and abducted by an alien on a secret mission. It was my way of taking a town like the one I grew up in, putting it under a microscope, and looking at what made it tick. I've published 4 individual issues that are available for mail order from, and I've sketched-out a 200-page graphic novel continuation.

I'm also well into a 154-page graphic novel for a major publisher, on which I'm working with another writer, but I can't say anything more about that right now. Hopefully, we can do another interview about that when the time is right!

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