Tanpopo: Camilla d’Errico Draws A Beautiful Line Between Pop Surrealism, Classic Literature and Sailor Moon [Interview]
My college dorm room was a dizzying collage of prints, posters, and postcards — but nothing drew as much attention as the Camilla d’Errico pieces I had pinned up over my bed. People would peer at them, asking who drew these strange portraits of girls entwined with pythons, wearing huge, complicated helmets, and melting into candy-colored puddles. Every time, I’d wish that I had something discrete to point them towards, something that gathered the style and themes of d’Errico’s work into a coherent package.
Enter Tanpopo. Originally self-published, d’Errico’s passion project tells the story of the titular Tanpopo, a brilliant, yet emotionless girl, and Kuro, the devil who persuades her into a journey of self-discovery. The text is taken entirely from the work of such luminaries as Goethe, Coleridge, and Pu Sungling: in the first volume, excerpts from Faust explore Tanpopo and Kuro’s meeting, while text from Rime of the Ancient Mariner chart the former’s growing distrust of the latter. Tanpopo’s 170-page second volume, on sale now from BOOM! Studios, uses Shakespeare, Poe, and the 1001 Arabian Nights to similar effect.
To explore this unique work more deeply, ComicsAlliance spoke with d’Errico about pop surrealism, teenage girls, and more.
ComicsAlliance: Camilla, I first came across your art as a teenager, and was struck by how different it was than anything else I’d ever seen. Nowadays, you’re firmly established as “pop surrealist,” and joined by artists like Audrey Kawasaki, Tara McPherson and Mark Ryden. Do you see yourself as part of a “movement” or art “scene”? Did you become an artist with a specific statement to make in mind?
Camilla d'Errico: I became an artist because I couldn’t stop drawing and my mind can’t focus on anything but being free and creative. I don’t intend to make a statement with my art, I paint because I love to express emotions and create these vivid paintings where a lot of my subconscious mind peers out and says hello. Being part of the pop surrealist movement is an amazing experience. I’m thrilled to be a part of it, because I believe it’s the first time in history that female artists are spearheading an art movement. I’m in the company of extremely talented people -- men and women -- but there is something very unique to pop surrealism; there are as many women in the movement as men. I consider myself an artist, and by no means do I want to play the gender card, it’s just an observation. There was a time when women didn’t paint, couldn’t, and much like in literature, the art form opened up and now encompasses everyone without excluding others and to be a part of that makes me really happy.
CA: Have you ever encountered resistance to your unique art and/or storytelling style? What was it like, getting something like Tanpopo off the ground?
CD: There are always obstacles when creating art and Tanpopo is such a unique book, it bridges literature with manga and an open sketchy layout so in a way that I’m in a category of my own. I knew the series wouldn’t be a mainstream title, and I didn’t create it initially to be a long running series.
I started the book as a personal exploration of death, and I had no expectations for it. I printed 100 copies myself and was so happy that I sold out in a couple of months. The people that picked it up were really excited at the art style and storytelling, but they wanted more, they wanted a full story about this little girl and this cute black stuffed toy thing!
Since I was self-publishing, I had to work on the book on my own time, unpaid. This is a huge challenge -- no page rate, no hourly wage -- and creating the pages took a long time because I had to do it in between jobs. Once BOOM! came on board to publish it as a collected edition I was able to work on it in a timely fashion and with structure. I’m thrilled with how the books are received by the public. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but for those who buy the book they truly love it and that to me is worth all the effort involved in Tanpopo’s creation.
CA: Japanese culture and aesthetics are a major influence upon your work. When and how did you first become interested in Japanese ideas?
CD: Back in the '90s there was a huge import of anime into North America: Astro Boy, Dragonball, Gundam and Sailor Moon were just a few of the first anime I started watching. I fell head over heels for Tuxedo Mask! Never had I seen a main character in any cartoon or anime that was so suave and well developed. I mean, I loved Eric from The Little Mermaid, but the depth of the emotional bond between Tuxedo Mask and Sailor Moon hooked me so completely I became an instant fangirl.
After watching the original Japanese version of Sailor Moon I realized that there was a huge difference in the content from what I’d seen on TV in Canada. This really interested me and I felt like it was a huge shame and waste that the networks would basically hack up the story to fit a more politically correct agenda. I knew from that point on that I wanted to tell stories like the Japanese did -- unadulterated, mature and with a singular story arc that progressed the characters and told their complete story.
So I have a set plan for Tanpopo. I’ve already written the ending, and I believe that to tell a compelling story that ultimately has a conclusion for your character’s arc you need to know where the story begins and where it will end. I may not always know where she’ll go in between that, but I know the kind of person she is and will ultimately become.
CA: What else influenced the creation of Tanpopo beyond the literature you directly referenced?
CD: Ashley Wood was a huge influence. He was the first artist I’d seen blend paintings and comics in an artistic layout. His story PopBot was my favorite. Even though half the time I had no idea what was happening, I was captivated by it and completely enthralled by the style and uniqueness. He inspired me to break the rules and color outside the lines.
It was several years ago that I saw a stunning performance of Goethe’s Faust at the Vancouver Opera, and I was blown away. It was the first time I’d seen the story performed and they did it in a very beautiful and groundbreaking way. The sets were modern and tilted on the screen, and they used the stage in bits and pieces and to this date I’ve never seen its equal. So this was the beginning of what would ultimately be the foundation for Tanpopo’s story and visuals.
CA: Tanpopo borrows from such literary heavyweights as Goethe, Poe, and Shakespeare. Why these works? Were there any others you had in mind that got left in the development stages?
CD: I chose Goethe, or rather it chose me. After watching the opera I ran home and started reading the play and immediately I saw my own story idea develop. This would eventually lead to the basis of the entire story.
There are a lot of poems, novels, short stories, operas and plays that I’ve read and even though I loved them, they didn’t fit into the story I wanted to tell. The most significant one was Edgar Allan Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher. It was a great story and I tried to fit Tanpopo into that story -- I mean, having her in a horror house would have been amazing, but ultimately it didn’t feel right. I don’t ever regret leaving failed stories behind because I end up finding literature that fits perfectly even though it may not have been my first choice.
CA: In some ways, Tanpopo feels like a strange, erudite shoujo manga: a sheltered girl meets a beautiful, dark-haired bishounen, experiences a world emotion and excitement, finds herself in the process, etc. Was this a conscious choice? Did you intend to “deconstruct” the classic teenage girl’s story?
CD: Wow, I’ve never been asked that and hadn’t ever seen Tanpopo this way. What an interesting observation! So the answer to your question is no, not at all. I knew I wanted to have a gorgeous male lead and make him a bad boy since I love that character type. The reason why Kuro appears as a beautiful boy is that if the Devil were to appear to you and his intentions were to persuade you to be his companion, he’ll have a better chance at luring an impressionable girl looking sexy rather than monstrous. And Tanpopo as well is seen as a beautiful and pure girl, the picture of innocence and much like Kuro, her beauty masks her tempestuous personality. She looks docile, but in truth she is quite arrogant and lacks compassion.
The idea behind the story was about an emotional journey, choices that lead us to places that challenge our ideas of right and wrong, good and evil, and also overcoming our inherit nature and what exactly our humanity is. I’m a hopeless romantic, but I didn’t want Tanpopo to be a typical manga girl or have a normal relationship. Tanpopo is only innocent when she’s isolated, and Kuro isn’t necessarily evil. Now that Tanpopo is in the world she’ll make choices that change her, challenge her sense of justice and independence and Kuro walks the edge of being her friend and enemy. So if this is deconstructing the classic girl meets boy then I’m very keen to do that and twist it around!
CA: Contrast is a major theme in your work: between sweetness and surrealism, between Tanpopo and Kuro, between a softly drawn girl’s coming-of-age story and classic, rather masculine literature. Tell us a little about your use of contrast.
CD: That’s an interesting observation, I never really saw the contrast in the story, and I saw literature that fit the story and characters. I was aware just a little while ago that I hadn’t used any female authors so I scoured the classics and library for stories written by Emily Dickinson, Emily Bronte, and Jane Austen, to see if could bring in a story written by a woman. I never want to force the literature to fit, so many of the stories I read didn’t fit, but I did find a few that were utterly perfect! I won’t give away anything though ;)
I will say this, I love the way the literature reads in Tanpopo. When Kuro speaks it just gives me the shivers. He’s such an eloquent yet terrifying character that when he speaks in old English it seems even more chilling. And when Tanpopo speaks, the literature really drives the point home that he is highly intelligent and very well spoken. She’s a bit brusque and arrogant right now and I think the masculine literature fits her personality really well.
CA: Your work has really run the gamut over the years, from toy design to celebrity work for Tokyopop to passion projects like Tanpopo. Any plans for the future? Is there a particular mark you’d like to leave on the art and comics world?
CD: I’ve been so fortunate to work in so many fields and really branch out creatively. If I could leave my mark it would be with my story Helmetgirls. This is a story that has been in the works for nearly a decade. It would be a black and white graphic novel series based on my paintings of girls with giant metallic headgear in a post apocalyptic world. There have been many setbacks and I’m hoping that one day I’ll be able to create this signature series and then I can really be satisfied as a creator.