James Stafford – Author of The Sorrowful Putto of Prague

Photo: The Putto website

In this week’s Arts, my guest is Welsh writer James Stafford, the author of a wonderfully irreverent webcomic The Sorrowful Putto of Prague. The comic tells the story of a 400-year-old putto (or cherub) named Xavier living in the city and it has captured the attention of both Czech and English-language readers. After looking up the site myself, I was curious to learn more about Xavier and his world. James Stafford – who is not usually based in Prague – came to the studio to discuss the project.

Photo: The Putto website
“Basically I had always wanted to do a comic and I’ve been coming to Prague for 10 years now and I’m very interested in the architecture and the arts and I love Baroque art especially. If you go around... anyone who has been in Prague knows that it is full of putti or cherubs and I have always liked the contrast between these little baby-faced angels, you know kitschy or tacky things, and you find them in picture where some saint is being burnt alive or dragged to hell! You have these strange contrasts and I was looking for something to base my comic on and I thought it would be a good symbol. I thought that visually it would be interesting to have a cherub or putto doing something you wouldn’t expect it to be doing and after seeing them all over the place I just settled on that.”

You’ve described some of the characteristics of the putto... is yours ‘cast’ against type?

“To put it into context, the reason why I opted for this character was because he covers 400 years of history and I thought, you know, if you’ve been around for that long you’ll have seen everything. From empires, wars, communism fascism and so on; and once I settled on the character I wanted to do something you wouldn’t expect. It looks like this angelic thing but after 400 years my thought was that he’d probably be pretty cynical, that he’d probably be a drunk, that he might be a bit romantic too. I basically liked the idea that you had this cynical character that looks like an innocent baby. It wouldn’t necessarily work in a novel, for example, but it does as a comic.”

Photo: The Putto website
The Baroque is a period that is very much associated with Prague: do you think that the imagery is overused at times?

“Definitely and that was one of the things that I wanted to play with. When I first came to Prague 10 years ago it was natural to think this must be a very religious Catholic country; but you forget that the Baroque, basically after the Battle of White Mountain, it was basically propaganda. It is overused imagery but I think the character will do the unexpected in some of the stories. Also I made a point of setting some of the stories in different places: issue 2 is set in Žižkov in a communist-era housing block. So it’s not just Gothic or Baroque Prague but the Art Nouveau or socialist realism. Anyone who has read the comic will have noticed it opens very much as you’d expect but then you get more unexpected developments or something that is even mundane, such as the putto getting his foot stuck in a drain.”

We will discuss the imagery of the comic shortly but before we do, how many names did you go through before you hit upon the final one?

“Xavier. I actually forgot he was a major character in X-Men which I never really read but I have always liked the name: I got it from St. Xavier. There is a statue on Charles Bridge and I always liked the ‘X’. His full name is Xavier of the Sorrowful Snows and it comes from theses Catholic churches that you get like The Lady of our Snows or the Church of Our Lady of Victory. These kind of poetically Baroque names. I kind of crossed the names of the churches together and it is purposely overly-poetic. So it didn’t take long to come up with.”

Photo: The Putto website
What are some of the kind of situations he finds himself in?

“The first issues are set in modern-day Prague. There’s one in the ‘70s where the Communists find some kind of miraculous vision and they don’t quite know what to do with it, so they destroy it. There is, in the long term, also going to be an issue that goes back to White Mountain and his role in that. There all sorts of things: I also want to get in Rudolf II in there somewhere. I think there is a whole characters and mythology but of course I don’t want it to be just clichés of ‘Golden Prague’.”

Many of these things will be very familiar to most Czechs...

“That’s certainly true. Some of the things are more obvious, legends such as the Golem, and then there are anecdotes and stories I’ve come across over the years that I would also like to use. There are a lot of possibilities. There are even more obscure references that only someone who really knows Czech history will get. Luckily drawing comics is a slow process so I have time to work on it and prepare it all in advance.”

You don’t do the drawing but that’s not unusual at all in comics, is it, for the different fields to be divided?

“No, in fact it’s common. I joke when I say I’d like to draw it, but I am very happy with the way it turned out. The artist is A.J. Bernardo and he has done comics for a few years and what is great that he thinks visually. I like to think that I think visually but it’s a real difference. He comes forward with things that I would never have thought of. It’s amazing how a slight change in the positioning or of presentation in a panel makes a real difference.”

That leads into what I was going to ask about: the collaborative effort. I was wondering if you were ever surprised by some of the results and if you could give an example...

Photo: The Putto website
“Yeah, well the latest issue is one. It focuses on the myth of a hanged man at Malá strana who will hang there for eternity but is invisible to most. I sent A.J. some examples of what some of the panels could look like, suggestions. But the image itself was very static so he changed the angles he made it much more atmospheric, eerie and dynamic. One great example is on page 2: Xavier has wings but in one frame he shows just a falling feather announcing the putto’s arrival. And that’s something I wouldn’t have thought of.

Is he based in Prague?

“No, he lives in the Philippines where he is form. I got in touch with him over the internet after two false starts over a year-and-a-half with other artists and he’s great. When I opened his portfolio my only hope was that he knew how to draw because you know... But he’s very talented and understood the idea of the project straight away. The internet made that possible. As it is, we’ve never met in person, but I hope that we do in Prague someday.”

One of the advantages of having a comic on the web is that you can add unconventional elements, such as music.

“I’ve always been into all kinds of music, ambient music and whatever and I listen to music when I write. And I used to be in a band and have friends who are musicians so I enlisted them to make tracks which you could click on if you wanted to go with the comic at the website. The site is my tribute to Prague. The fourth story was a reference to a cure album Disintegration, which is not just my favourite piece of music but favourite work of art. And I thought, I knew the keyboardist for the Cure, Roger O'Donnell, also did ambient music, so I actually sent him snail mail – a real letter – explaining my project and what it was about to ask if he would be interested in contributing anything.

“And he got back to me within a few days and had some suggestions and eventually sent me a few samples. So it’s there and it’s really nice music and it just gives the comic that extra thing. So even some people who don’t like comics have commented they like the music. So that’s great. It’s been a dream come true to have someone from a band like that take the project seriously.”

You can read about Xavier yourself at www.theputto.com

The episode featured today was first broadcast on August 19, 2011.