The writer of Black Mask’s new, politically charged series CalExit tells all.
In Black Mask Studios’ CalExit, California secedes from the United States. Will Salmon finds out more...
Comic Heroes: What was your starting point for
CalExit? Was there a specific incident or news story that sparked the idea?
Matteo Pizzolo: The story in general is something I’ve been cooking up for a little while now – there’s nothing new about the fact that our government has a problem with the way it treats immigrants. Whoever won the election, it’d still be a problem. The election did shift the context pretty dramatically, but I wouldn’t say that’s what really pushed this project to the level of aggression we’re hitting.
The thing that really amped us up to turn this thing up to 11 was the Women’s March and airport protests. I grew up in NY, where there is a lot of activism, and I’ve been part of activist groups in DC, Detroit, Seattle, Portland, the Bay Area... Generally LA is not a city that’s perceived as being all that politically engaged, but over the 10plus years I’ve lived here I’ve really been struck by the increasing levels of engagement. I personally saw it when Occupy reached LA and then it raised to another level with the Black Lives Matter protests, and then being at the Women’s March with my family was just pretty incredible. And when the Women’s March turnout was reported and California had arguably the highest numbers of any state, it really made me rethink what’s possible. The following week the protests shut down both LAX and SFO airports... It’s a big deal what’s happening here. A lot of Californians feel frustrated that their votes don’t matter as much as other states’ because of the electoral college, and when you have an election like this one where California contributed so heavily to the popular vote, the level of anger is palpable. CH: What do your protagonists want, and what is against them?
MP: Without giving too much away, Zora is already very radicalised. She is an immigrant on the run from deportation forces and she’s a part of the resistance movement. Jamil is apolitical; he’s a survivor who’s a good person but basically looking out for himself. Their journey together will change them both. CH: It sounds like we’re rooting for California, but are there any downsides to it making its exit?
MP: Sure there are downsides. Secession isn’t a slamdunk in practice. The fact is, we’re all very interdependent. But there are also downsides to the US Government in the story escalating its authoritarian rule and trying to force people into doing things they find morally repugnant. War is generally pretty awful for both sides, but that doesn’t mean you appease fascists. Ultimately, this story isn’t about political intrigue between DC and Sacramento, though, it’s about the characters
who are trying to make their way and do the right thing the best they can in an insane world. CH: You’re working with Amancay Nahuelpan again. What do you enjoy about your collaborations?
MP: Amancay is an incredible collaborator and I’m really thrilled to be working with him again. We’ve developed a really nice shorthand and he always takes my ideas and makes them better and adds his own brilliant ideas. We met when he contributed to the Occupy Comics project I put together years back, and we publish his series Clandestino about a revolution against a military dictator, so we’re pretty like-minded politically and neither of us is scared to push the boundaries, so that’s really important in a collaboration. He’s really fearless and his work has grit and dynamism that I find really rare. So I’m really blessed to get to work with him. CH: Were you already working on the series before Trump won the presidency?
MP: Yes, but like I said it was recontextualised and has changed significantly based on current events. As the publisher at Black Mask, I can’t tell you how many pitches I received during the primaries that started with “This starts in a world where Trump actually becomes President.” Anyone who was working on political stories in 2016 really had to rethink those stories in the past few months. CH: How important is it for you that comics confront the political status quo?
MP: I think it’s one of the most important things comics can do. There’s a reason why books like Maus, V For Vendetta, March, Persepolis, DMZ, The Invisibles and so many more have become the modern classics. Comics, especially indie comics, are really unique because there’s so few gatekeepers between the creators and the readers. It enables creators to tell really personal stories in a very intimate setting without a megacorporation dictating what is and isn’t allowed, without a ratings board saying what is and isn’t acceptable, without advertisers softening everything so they can sell soap. It’s a real privilege that we have this artform and this marketplace that makes creators and readers and shop owners and collectors all so accessible to one another. There’s no rules other than not to mistreat one another. Other than that, you can do or say anything you want in comics, and that’s really special. Creators in most artforms don’t have that. So in a lot of ways I think it’s comics creators’ responsibility to confront the status quo because we can. CH: Is CalExit going to be a miniseries or ongoing book?
MP: We see this as an ongoing series of mini-series with breaks in between. That will help us catch our breath so we don’t run behind or have to rush the quality. CH: What’s it like working at Black Mask Studios?
MP: It’s amazing. I’m one of the co‑founders, so my point of view is different from everybody else’s, but it’s a really unique family of creators here. I feel so blessed to get to support and read their books and also to be able to contribute creatively. Everyone here looks out for one another and cares about one another. I think it’s just different than anyplace else and really special. And it’s just a great time to be making comics.
Left: Concept drawings of the protagonists.
Above: UK readers might be surprised to discover there really is a Californian secession movement, but CalExit “isn’t specifically about secession” per se.
Above: Pizzolo says CalExit is a “hopeful” book. “As depressing as the news can be, I’m really heartened by the millions of people coming together to try and make positive change and protect one another.”