Beautifully-drawn graphic novel about cynical 400-year-old putto comes out in Czech

Photo: archive of James Stafford

Author James Stafford is a big fan of Czech culture and history and recently settled in the Czech Republic with his family. For the past seven years or so, James worked on ‘The Sorrowful Putto of Prague’ an online comic about a somewhat cynical 400-year-old putto who has seen it all in the Czech capital. The graphic novel now been published in Czech by Argo Publishers – a beautiful edition which Czech readers can look forward to snapping up. A treat, is how it was described by Samuel L. Jackson.

James Stafford,  photo: Jan Velinger
I caught up with James on the eve of the book launch and began by asking about the long road from the dream to the actual book.

“I’ve wanted to have a book published since I was a kid. When it happened I immediately remembered that classic scene in ‘Back to the Future’ where George McFly gets his book published at last. Things weren’t always clear: I started with the comic six years ago and it was hard to see how things would move ahead at times. I lived in different countries, I was in Dublin when I spoke to you last and then I moved to London, and there was a period where between moving and jobs when things were tough. Then we had the website hacked which was a real nightmare.

“I just kind of fell behind on the project and it took me a while to get back on track so I think I lost focus for various reasons. Probably at one point I thought it was never going to get there: I mean, getting published is difficult anyway, there’s always luck so you never quite know how things will work out. Then, the last couple of years I really committed to the project again and it paid off.”

Your main character, Xavier from the House of Sorrowful Snows, has been with you for quite a while now…

“It’s funny, I found the original notebook the other day and it made it all come back to me. I think I started pen to paper in 2010 and I think the first comic went out in 2011. So it was seven years I’d say from first starting writing to final publication.”

Did you conceive of the character first or did you just have a general idea that you wanted to write something about Prague?

“The idea of the character came first: anyone who knows the comic or looks at the book cover or the website will see the character is based on a putto in the coat-of-arms on a church in central Prague. That was an immediate inspiration for him. But the original character was very different, he was a bit more dark; I think the comic was originally called ‘The Vengeful Putto’ and it was bit more dark and less humorous.

"I always wanted to have different artists because you can take a character and show him in a new light."

“It was going to be humorous but it was much more simplified and at first he was more of a vigilante type. Then I realized that’s been done a million times and it was much more fun to have him be a bit more cynical and sorrowful and I think I was in a Prague gallery and they often translate certain phrases from medieval times as sorrowful this or that and I just loved that word so I think that word changed the character and made him more fun.”

This is something that we discussed in our interview a while back: Xavier is your main character around which most of the story is built. He is essentially a 400-year-old angel… but he’s ‘no angel’.

“For me he was a witness who has seen what Prague has seen in 400 years: from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Holy Roman Empire, communism, democracy, fascism etc. I kind of wanted to have this character, there’s a slight origin story in there; he was born to protect the ruler of Prague at that time and he’s obviously been charged in some way with protecting the city… Yet Prague’s been a cruel city to him, he’s experienced it all, he’s become pretty cynical and there is probably an element of cynical Czech humour in there.

“So yes, he’s certainly not an ‘angel’. I think if you take any classic hero you’ve got to make tough choices and you combine that with cynicism and drinking, the things he’s seen I think he’s morally on the right track most of the time, and certainly some of the stories that I’m writing now explore that a bit more.”

Photo: archive of James Stafford
The image, the signature image of him, has him smoking a cigarette.

“Yes it’s a play on the Bohemian lifestyle and Prague, a place with drinking, wine and songs and celebration, with lots of artists and writers. It kind of had to be in there. If you look at the original sculpture, it looks like he could be easily holding a cigarette so it came to mind and we put beer bottles into the memento mori of skulls as well.”

You’ve been described as a ‘Czechophile’ – in some interviews… is it true? And if so, did your love, your interest of Czech culture knowledge come in handy? I guess it must have…

“Yes, completely. I said it a few times: the book is kind of my love letter to Prague. The city has been very good to me, I’m very interested in Czech culture, Czech history and I’ve read as much as I can about the country. I’m learning Czech but most of it has been in English but I very much absorbed as much as I could, a lot of literature, books and films out there that I could see.

“That’s all seeped through and a lot of elements in there if you kind of know your Czech history, there’s all sorts of little references and characters and points. So yes it’s kind of fueled it and I wanted to do something, it all fueled my imagination and I wanted to do something with that.”

Because of the time period that is covered, are the stories chronologically-told or is it sort of hopscotch style?

“It jumps around, there’s kind of a hidden structure to that as well. It jumps around in time but the first story is set in the present day with a very quick intro because one of the things that I wanted to avoid was it being a clichéd foreign person’s view of Prague. A lot of the famous literature about Prague, the reputation it gained over the centuries as a magical golden city, came from foreigners coming here. I wanted to kind of build it up as if it was going to be another one of these stories and then deflate it with Xavier getting his foot stuck in the drain: that is what the first story is about that.

“I wanted to set the story in the present at first and then then to jump back to communist Czechoslovakia for the second story to kind of show straight away that this isn’t just a book about an angel in beautiful old Prague with the Golem and moved onto second to immediately establish that.

"The quality of production is great and Argo really bought into the spirit of the character, Xavier."

“I’d like to think once I established the first few stories and it gave me a bit of play to go back to earlier classical periods. I jump around in the story but the aim is to reveal different parts of the character.”

Is he always at the forefront in the narrative or does he go in the background as well?

“He’s mainly in the forefront, there’s a couple of stories where he’s kind of observing people from a distance. There’s a golem story which is told through the golem’s eyes: he watches this beautiful woman play the violin every night. There are more stories I’m working on right now where other characters come to the forefront. One has Rudolf II in the present day and it turns out that he did find immortal life. The story is about what he’d actually be doing now, which, it turns out, isn’t particularly creative or useful!”

When we spoke last time I’m not sure how many different artists you had working with you, maybe even only one. Now there are four illustrators right?

“Yes there are four: two Filipinos, a Czech artist who’s fantastic and she’s very popular here I’m finding out and rightly so and a Romanian artist. Yes it’s been great and there have been two reasons for that. I did always want to have different artists because I do like the idea, especially in comic books growing up, that you have a legend and people have different views on the legend and stories are told differently.

Photo: archive of James Stafford
“I liked the idea of visiting different styles for different periods or different tones of the story and secondly the first one who came on board, AJ Bernardo, is an incredibly popular artist at home, so there were times where he wasn’t available so that kind of pushed me to go other artists earlier than I probably planned. But he still comes back and does things with me. I like the different styles for the different tones and now very much that’s in my writing process often now about who am I going to ask to draw a particular story.”

How would you describe the different styles? Is one sort of more realistic approach, another more cartoony?

“One of the artists has a very pop comic style and I really like that and it goes with some of the lighter stories and also sometimes that kind of really punchy style also makes a bigger contrast if the story is quite dark. The Czech illustrator is famous and most of her stories are in colour: she’s a fantastic and her images have a Victorian style ghost story kind of look. She’s really kind of inspired a few stories with her artwork as well. I give the artists very detailed scripts but I give them the freedom and they are very good at saying ‘let’s try this’ which is quite nice so some of the visuals are a lot more powerful than I could have imagined them.”

What you said about the classic or legendary characters is interesting as well because the classic example that comes to my mind now is Batman because he’s gone through so many different interpretations and different styles. In a way it’s kind of like having a guest artist come in and just reinvent something that’s so well-known and repackage it.

“It’s a perfect example I mean Batman is what I read the most and still do and recently I’ve been buying a lot of the old 1930s/40s stuff and exactly that it’s fascinating a good character can be rewritten and restructured and represented. It’s amazing how there are all the different moulds of that character but there’s always essentially the same one and I think that’s great and that’s a legend isn’t it?! I think that’s what’s great and that’s why I kind of wanted to have this fake legend feel to the book if you like and different artists really help with that.”

We have a preproduction copy of the book here its set for release now; it looks fantastic!

“I’m not the artist I can 100% agree with you! It looks great and Argo have been wonderful. They won a lot of awards for their designs and working with Argo editor, Petr Onufer was great. He bought into what I wanted to do with the book and how I wanted it to look and again they surpassed what I wanted. It’s hardback, which is a great thing, and the quality of production and they really bought into the spirit of the character and I think they invested in the book so it kind of feels like an older book.”

Photo: archive of James Stafford
It has all the makings and the feel of a big hit. The last time we spoke we talked about the involvement of the keyboardist from The Cure, who wrote some original material for the website, but I can’t get through this interview without asking you about Samuel L. Jackson. Jules Winnfield, mother, er, well you know, snakes on a plane, Mace Windu, Samuel L. Jackson!!

“And Nick Fury! Yes it’s quite a surprising story: a very good friend of mine runs a cancer awareness charity for men because men are terrible at taking care of themselves and I’ve helped over the years on and off when I lived in London. And Samuel L. Jackson is the chairman of that charity so I got to work with him a few times and it turns out that he’s a massive comic book fan.

“He’s not just Nick Fury the Avengers, he’s a huge comic book fan and occasionally we talked about comics and he was kind enough to take an English copy of the Putto in his hands. I was a bit nervous but he really liked it and was very kind to sort of do a tweet about it. What was quite amusing about that it was obviously a huge thing, I mean I used to have posters of this guy on my wall when I was growing up, I am a big Pulp Fiction fan and he wrote that it was ‘Dope Ass’ which is a very positive thing.”

Dope Ass!

“It was a nightmare for the translators because his tweet or recommendation is on the back of the book, but there’s no literal equivalent. So it was quite funny it was both a big blessing for me and a bit of a curse I think for the poor people that had to translate it.”

How did they translate it?

“I think the phrase they chose to describe the comic was ‘heavenly’ or ‘godly’ or something like that!”