Van Jensen And Jose Pimienta On ‘The Leg,’ Their Kickstarter Funded Graphic Novel About One Severed Limb’s Journey To Save Mexico [Interview]
In 1838, the Mexican general Santa Anna was hit by cannon fire, resulting in a shattered ankle and the amputation of his leg, which he then had buried with full honors. He then entered politics, but when the people of Mexico rebelled against him, the leg itself was exhumed and then lost to history. This is historical fact. Obviously, there was eventually going to be a comic book about this eventually.
Then again, I don't think anyone ever expected it to take the form that it has. In an original graphic novel being funded on Kickstarter, writer Van Jensen (Green Lantern Corps, The Flash) and artist Jose Pimienta are telling the story of The Leg, and how it gains sentience and returns to Mexico in the 1930s in what can only be described as a pretty offbeat journey. This was something we had to find out more about, so I spoke to Jensen and Pimienta about where their interest in historical dismemberment started, why they went to Kickstarter, and just how much emotion an artist can get out of a severed limb.
ComicsAlliance: I read about the Kickstarter, but I'd like you guys to describe The Leg and what it's about.
Jose Pimienta: [Laughs] Van, you want to start out?
Van Jensen: Yeah... I mean, I guess since I'm the one who originally came up with this idea, if anyone is called crazy, it should be me. It's a really weird book, admittedly, just this interesting historical anecdote of Santa Anna losing his leg, and then the leg being exhumed to protest him and then disappearing into history. I don't know, there's something about this half of Santa Anna's leg that always struck me as being fascinating, and comic books have a great tradition of really, really weird protagonists, so why not?
CA: I don't know that comics have a tradition of protagonists that are dismembered limbs, though.
JP: Well, I don't know about that part. They do have a history of being somewhat eccentric. When I first heard the story, when Van first told me about it, it just really resonated with me. It sounded like just an amazing story to draw, it sounded like it was going to be full of what I would recognize as this very whimsical sense of folklore that a lot of Mexican traditions have. Once I read the entire script, yeah, to my surprise, that's exactly what it was. It's full of all these very out of the ordinary elements, but nothing that was too crazy to be ridiculous. It was all very playful and enjoyable, and very sweet. I guess that's what The Leg was to me, this really sweet journey story, with all these unexpected elements.
CA: How did Van approach you and say "I have this story where the hero is a leg?" How did you get your head around that?
JP: How do you remember the story?
VJ: It was at Comic-Con when we first met, around 2011, and it was Dan Vado at Slave Labor Graphics who had worked with both of us independently, who was trying to get both of us to work on an SLG book. He knew we were a writer and an artist looking for a project to collaborate on, and I'd had one project that I thought Jose seemed like a good fit for, but then it ended up that a different artist wanted to work on that before I talked to Jose. We got set up to have this meeting, and when I went in, I had no project. Like, I had written this stupid book about Santa Anna's leg, and stuck it in a drawer where it belonged, and I meet Jose, who I really wanted to work with, and I was grasping at straws, thinking "what do I possibly have that this guy could work on?"
JP: It was also during that meeting that we had, I remember we started talking about something to collaborate on right outside of San Diego Comic-Con, and first you gave me an original idea that had something to do with a steampunk theme --
VJ: Oh, that was a terrible idea!
JP: Yeah. [Laughs] I think you were just trying to find something to work with me on, and you were really just throwing me a bone with that. I was interested, mostly because I'd seen what you were writing and thought "Oh, I gotta work with this guy, he's really cool," but as soon as you started talking about The Leg... Again, there were all these things that were just hitting the right note for me. I went from being like "I want to work on another book, I want to do a comic, I don't have a story of my own so I want to work with a writer and this guy's cool" to "Oh my God, this sounds like a really awesome story that I want to work on." I'm from the North of Mexico, and all that whimsical storytelling means a lot to me, and the way you were describing everything that happened and the symbolism you wanted to throw in there, I just got really excited. I just had to do this. Then you send me the script, I read it immediately, and just started working on it right away. I think you told me that you hadn't even edited it at that point, that you'd had it so put away that you had almost forgotten about parts.
VJ: It had been, at that point, that had been four years since I wrote the script.
CA: So it was written already. You mentioned on the Kickstarter page that it was the first script you ever wrote.
VJ: Yeah, exactly.
CA: Did you go back and punch it up at all? Or did you just let it ride the way it was?
VJ: It's kind of interesting, because I came into it and I had no idea what I was doing writing comic books. I didn't know how to format or anything, but I also was just a very different writer at that point. I hope, at least, that I've gotten better as a writer over the years, but I've also gotten safer as a writer. As I looked at it, I really wanted to fix all this stuff, because I'm a perfectionist, and there was a lot of formatting stuff that I did fix, but I was worried that once I got started, I wouldn't be able to stop. I really held back from changing it at all, because I might make a few things flow a little better, but I was worried that, as a much more experienced writer now, that I would accidentally cut out some of the more weird magic stuff that's in the book, and I'd run the risk of making it too standard. I could accidentally lose some of the energy that's captured in the original version.
CA: I would really like to see the version of the Severed Leg Journeying Across Mexico story that you think is "too standard."
VJ: I'm sure there's a way to do it, but that's a good point.
CA: I'm fascinated by the idea of just having this leg as a protagonist. Jose, I know that based on the art at the Kickstarter page, you do a little to give the Leg a kind of body. The boot has these tassels that look like arms, there's a decoration that serves as a kind of head. What was that challenge like of trying to capture emotion through a boot?
JP: Oh my gosh, where to even start? It was a lot of fun, and I don't hold back on saying that. It was a lot of fun trying to figure that out, because, yeah, it was challenging, and there were these moments when I was doing these pages that I did feel that because it kind of had a face and that the straps were arms that I was walking a tightrope of using that as a hinging point and thinking "well, I can always use those as arms." I tried as hard as I could to stay as much as possible on the acting of the leg itself.
I started by looking at a bunch of classic animation, and old animation exercises like the bag of flour or the bouncing ball, or even the lamp. Trying to look at what other people had done as far as motion goes and trying to convey any characteristic. I started looking at a lot of cat language. That was very helpful. The biggest challenge for me was to try to convey as much emotion as possible with just one moving stick, which is the Leg itself, and maybe tipping the boot a little bit, trying to think of it. If you have to make this thing talk, how would it act? Like an animal, I guess.
It was a lot of fun trying to figure that out, and there were a lot of wrong turns. There were a lot of times when I would look at him and go "he doesn't look that depressed. It doesn't look sad," or "It could be happier!" But yeah, I was watching a lot of classic animation to see how they did that.
CA: On pages where there were people, and you'd have to go back and forth, was it a relief to go back to someone who had a face?
JP: No, actually, quite the contrary. My favorite pages are the ones where there are no people, just scenery and trees and landscapes and animals and maybe a boot in there somewhere. But yeah, there were definitely times when I'd get back into characters, and it was easy to go back in there and draw faces and express emotion with hands. But I really, really enjoyed just trying to convey as much information and story as possible with just a moving boot. So yeah, when it came back to drawing characters, before I even started, it was like "Okay, what does this character look like? Does he have a moustache?" There's a couple of scenes that take place in a tavern, and I think I hit my head on the desk when I realized I had to draw all these people. That was definitely a really good experience altogether, but drawing the Leg was the favorite part.
CA: Since the story has its origins in a historical event, is there any other true history that comes up after the Leg gains sentience and comes back?
VJ: There's actually a lot. This isn't historical fiction, obviously, and it's not even just a zombie leg superimposed onto Mexican history. But throughout the book, it's very much set amid 1930s Mexico, so it's post-Porfiriato, it's a country that's in a depression, a country that's struggling for economic independence and to sieze control over its own assets and resources. I actually did a lot of research to get all those little details, which started with this Mexican history class in college, where I first heard about the Leg, and then I just kept reading and reading. I had a lot of the resources on hand, and then, of course, Jose brought a lot of firsthand knowledge and did a lot of research to make the visuals match. His work, especially, really comes across on the page.
JP: For me, part of the fun was just looking at where Mexico was in 1938. We have a series of flashbacks into where Mexico was in the mid-19th century, and I had to go digging to find out what a lot of these buildings looked like. One particular incident comes to mind. Not to give out spoilers, but once they're in Mexico City, and they're in the Zócalo, I have a friend who lives in Mexico City, and I asked her "Hey, can you do me a huge favor and go over there and take a bunch of pictures of the interior? If you can't, just ask anyone there if the building has changed at all in the last hundred years." So she sent me all this amazing information that was very helpful. It was a lot of reading, and a lot of stuff that I don't think I would've paid as much attention to, if it hadn't been so important to emphasize the stage of the story.
CA: You mentioned SLG a little earlier, which was Van's original publisher for Pinocchio: Vampire Slayer.
VJ: Yeah. The omnibus that's coming out is through Top Shelf.
CA: And obviously, you've done work at DC for Green Lantern Corps and The Flash. So why go for Kickstarter? Did you think about pitching it to Image, or any other publishers?
VJ: We didn't pitch it to Image. We did talk to a few publishers, and the feedback that I got was mostly that this is such a weird book. I initially talked to publishers before I'd done much with DC, and there were some opportunities, potentially, to work with a publisher, but it was going to be such a small effort and such a side effort that, at that point, it just seemed like it would be an afterthought and could easily get lost. Jose and I talked, and we'd started to see success with Kickstarter, and at the same time it was a really personal project. I worked on it for eight years now, Jose's worked on it for three. We wanted to get it 100% done before putting it out in the world, and we'd done so much by ourselves that it seemed natural to self-publish it. At this point, Kickstarter is probably the best venue for that, given the distribution connections that it has.
JP: When we first started, I don't know if the best word to use for myself is "naive," but when Van approached me with the idea of collaborating, I just jumped in and started working on pages as soon as I could. At that point, I was doing a bunch of other freelance work, I had a full-time day job, and other things. Even the idea of submitting to a publisher seemed like such a chore. It just seemed easier. Why don't I just get as much done as possible, and then think about where to publish it? Just like Van said, we put so much of our own into it, and I put so much of my own heart into it, that I felt like if we went to an editor or a publisher that, properly so, they would want to have their hand in there and put their knowledge into it, and I kinda didn't want that for this story. I didn't want anyone else jumping in. Van wrote it and left it there, then gave it to me and I ran with it and started interpreting it my own way. I thought "what if we just take it all the way?" Every single other Kickstarter project that I've been involved in has pretty positive results, so it seemed like a great option to start it ourselves and finish it ourselves.
CA: This is going to be my last question, because I knew if I asked this earlier, the interview would be over: Was there ever a time when you considered calling it The Leg of Extraordinary Gentleman?
VJ: [Laughs] Now I just wish I had thought of that.
CA: There's still time, Van.
JP: That's an amazing title.
VJ: Throughout this script, I tried to resist every urge to throw leg puns in there, and there might be some that unintentionally slipped in there, but now that the book's done and I'm talking about it, I just let the leg puns fly.
The Leg is being funded on Kickstarter until June 4, 2014.