‘It’s My Love Letter to Superheroes’: An Interview with Villal Pando

The Montréal cartoonist on his debut book The Pursuer, the evolution and influence of comic books, and how a lifelong passion for drawing became a career.

Vikram Nijhawan is a recent college graduate and freelance journalist based in Toronto. His main coverage interests are in literary trends, and arts...

Villal Pando leads a double life similar to many of the costumed heroes he’s read about in the pages of comic books. By day, he is an elementary school art teacher; by night, a freelance illustrator and emerging comic book writer. The Montréal cartoonist’s penchant for shifting identities likely came from his late father, who was a stage actor. As with many masked heroes, losing his dad motivated Pando to follow in his father’s artistic footsteps.

His debut book, The Pursuer (New Friday) opens in Crayton City, a fictional American metropolis, in the year 1929, with the abrupt murder of Warren Blake, a wealthy socialite who moonlights as the eponymous masked vigilante. Pando’s story feels at once traditional and also new, reminding readers of the creation of characters like Batman during the Golden Age of comic books in the 1930s, while also feeling reminiscent of the Dark Knight’s more recent turn to gritty realism, a hallmark of Frank Miller’s work from the 1980s and onward. Many of the iconic works from this time broke precedent by portraying morally ambiguous superheroes who weren’t pure or star-spangled.

As a young reader, these works shaped Pando’s creative sensibilities. Frank Miller’s two most famous Batman stories—perhaps the most famous Batman stories—provided modern bookends for the classic character: a new grounded origin story in 1988’s Year One, and an endpoint in 1986’s The Dark Knight Returns. Just as these two seminal works bookended the Caped Crusader’s canonical journey, so too did they for Pando’s creative journey. When he was gifted Year One as a child, it kickstarted his journey as a comic book storyteller, while The Dark Knight Returns inspired the fulfilment of his vision years later through The Pursuer.

As in Miller’s iconic story, Pando’s protagonist faces off against a super-powered government lackey, in many ways, a stand-in for the Batman vs. Superman confrontation cemented in popular culture for generations. The powerless and gun-toting Pursuer takes on the bulletproof Noble. It’s not just an homage to one of the comic book’s most iconic hero-on-hero fights, but also the perfect metaphor for an indie cartoonist trying to make his break in the comic book publishing world. Pando published The Pursuer through New Friday, an imprint of Lev Gleason Publications, which prides itself on releasing “100% creator-owned and controlled indie comics and graphic novels from exciting new voices.”

I first met Pando at the Montreal Comic Arts Festival in May of this year. In our interview, we discussed his journey as a comic book writer, his creative influences, his experience navigating the current independent publishing landscape, and the lessons he’s already learned which he hopes to bring with him throughout his career. Tim Sale, the illustrator of the iconic story Batman: The Long Halloween, passed away on June 16th this year. As one of his most important creative influences, it’s fitting that Pando’s debut title came out just weeks after Sale’s untimely death.

Vikram Nijhawan: What initially inspired you to work in comics and illustration?

Villa Pando: I’ve always loved drawing as a kid, but I never saw myself as an “artist” or doing this as a career. My father was a stage actor and was very artistically inclined, but I saw his professional struggles and it was scary to imagine myself going that way. It took a long time for me to make the jump. It’s still hard for me to consider myself a true cartoonist or illustrator, because it doesn’t pay all the bills, but I’m happy to be published and to have gigs. There’s nothing more satisfying for me than thinking of an idea and making it real, tangible, and palpable. Drawing has always been a passion of mine, and I just couldn’t quit it. I tried to stop myself. I tried to be reasonable and go in other directions, but I always got pulled back.

I know you do a lot of commission-based artwork for comedians and podcast ad designs. Where does your main professional revenue come from?

I’m a primary school art teacher. Right now, I’m a substitute teacher, which means I jump around from school to school, but the flexibility allows me to work on my own independent projects.

I guess that also means you have some interest in education, in addition to your general artistic interest. Is that fair to say?

There’s a lot of intersection between my artistic career and my teaching, but I do try to share my love of comics and drawing with the kids. It’s enriching to find a kid who’s really passionate about art and connecting with them about that. I can take the time to give them tips, and imagine that kid possibly going into the field someday like me. 

Did you have any formal artistic education yourself, or were you mostly self-taught?

I studied arts education at the Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM), but it wasn’t specifically in comic books or illustration. In those fields, I’m mostly self-taught. I still have a lot to learn, but I think learning to draw is a lifelong process—the older you get, the better you get.

So, what inspired you to write The Pursuer?

The idea for the story came to me in a flash years ago. The concept continued to grow and stayed with me. I think the death of my father pushed me. I lost him about ten years ago after he had a long battle with cancer. He died fairly young, and that made me realize that you only have so much time to pursue your artistic dreams.

That’s very touching and inspiring to hear. I’d love to get into the details of the story world you’ve created. Your book is set during the Great Depression in America, in the early 1930s. There are a lot of familiar genre elements, in terms of neo-noir detective stories, as well as classic vigilante superhero stories. Why did you choose this particular milieu? 

I’ve always loved that historical era—the stories, the architecture, the clothing. It was also a time of struggle. We had gone through the 2008 recession around the time I started my script, so that time period resonated with me personally as well. Superheroes also came from that era. Superman was created in 1938, Batman in 1939. Those characters were pure representations of escapism from that difficult time, so setting a superhero story within that era felt right at home.

You seem like someone who’s quite knowledgeable about the history of superheroes and comics. Are there any characters that you’ve found particularly inspiring for your own creations?

I do love pulp heroes from that time period, classic personas like the Phantom or the Shadow. Basically, I’ve always loved the “dark brooding vigilante” type. Maybe they’re a little less colourful than Superman or Iron Man, but they speak to me.

That’s clear to see from the protagonist of your book.

Yes, he’s kind of an archetype, and he’s a pretext to the story itself. His colours are toned down, the superpowers are toned down, and he’s overall more grounded. I’m not saying he’s super realistic, but when creating him, I tried to tone down the superheroics, and concentrate more on the human side of the character.

The Pursuer inhabits a gritty and realistic world, but as you mention this is also a story with superpowers, namely through the character of Noble, who’s a more Superman-like character. Why did you choose to incorporate the more traditionally fantastical aspects of the superhero genre alongside your story’s gritty realism?

I think this story could’ve been done without the superhero context, but I chose it because I love that tradition, and this book was aimed at readers of superhero comics. That’s how I felt when I started this project at least, but honestly I’m not sure if I would have made that same decision today. After working on this book for so long, I might take a break from the superhero genre for my next project. But when I was writing The Pursuer, I absolutely knew that I wanted to pay homage to Frank Miller’s work by adding in my own little Batman vs. Superman confrontation scene, but portrayed in a more realistic way.

“Realistic” may not be the right word to describe my approach, but ultimately, I didn’t want to see two gods fighting each other; I wanted to see two human beings with all of their flaws. The flaws were certainly present in Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, and that’s what makes the story so interesting. “Vulnerable” is the word I’m looking for. I tried to create vulnerable heroes.

The dynamic between The Pursuer and Noble is very reminiscent of Miller, and I’m sure your readers who are comic book fans appreciated that. Aside from Miller, are there other writers or artists that have been influential on your work?

Yes, but I’m not sure if any of my other influences were as conscious as The Pursuer and Noble’s confrontation was meant to hearken back to Frank Miller. In terms of artists (who I’m not comparing myself to in any way), I love Tim Sale, Mike Mignola, the late Canadian artist Darwyn Cook, and—since I’m a kid of the ’90s, and grew up on the show Batman: The Animated SeriesBruce Timm, who probably considers himself more of an illustrator and animator than a comic book artist. As for writers, Alan Moore and Frank Miller are of course huge names and have influenced me. If their works set the standard for modern comics, then it’s on any emerging creator in the medium to read their catalogues and soak up the quality. But I see myself more as an illustrator than a writer. I had the story idea for The Pursuer in my head, but as I kept drawing, the idea kept changing and evolving.  That’s what happens when you’re both a writer and an illustrator.

As you grow as an artist, your tastes change. They don’t necessarily improve, but they change. At the moment, I’m going back and reading the comic classics, the established names like Will Eisner, Wally Wood, and John Buscema. I go through phases—right now, I can’t get enough of black-and-white comics. They really are the best way to enjoy an artist’s line work.

I want to go back to something you touched on earlier, about how the idea for your story changed throughout your creative process. In what ways did it change?

I might go on a tangent here. In Québec, most Francophone readers grow up reading the catalogue of great French-language and European comics (or “bandes-dessinée”), like Tintin, Asterix, Spirou, and others. When I was eight years old, my grandmother bought me two iconic American books, translated from English into French: Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One, and J.M. DeMatteis’s Spider-Man: Kraven’s Last Hunt. Those two titles were meant for slightly more mature readers, and they were vastly different from what I was reading at the time, but I fell in love with those stories, and with the superhero genre in general.

My standards began at a pretty high point, because after all, Frank Miller was my baseline. I continued to read the popular and acclaimed American comic titles as I grew older, but I never imagined writing one myself until years later. When I was nineteen, my girlfriend gave me a copy of the DC Comics second issue of Identity Crisis, which reignited my interest in superhero comics. It’s an imperfect story, and I know some fans have trouble with how it changes DC’s continuity, but I still think it stands out well as a contained story, with some great artwork, storylines, and human interactions. 

I read Batman: The Long Halloween after that, which I loved. Tim Sale’s artwork fascinated me, with his mastery of panel composition, and how he handled flow on the page. It was something I felt I could approach in my own work. I grew up in the ’90s, when everyone seemed to be emulating the style of artists like Jim Lee, Scott McFarlane, and Rob Liefeld. As much as I respected these guys, this style just didn’t appeal to me. Sale, on the other hand, resonated with me. There was something about his style: slightly more cartoonish, bolder lines, less clustered. It gave me the itch to try something of my own.

My story began as an experiment with no specific goal in mind, and it ended up being two hundred pages. I abandoned the project for years as I pursued higher education and other opportunities in my life. My father’s battle with cancer lasted five years, and after his death I returned to the story. I’d grown as a person since I last left the book, and through the process of completing it, I shifted the focus more toward themes of grief and loss, which by then I could properly grasp. The most interesting characters for me are the side characters rather than the protagonist, which is what I wanted to emphasis as I rewrote the story.

What’s your favourite panel or sequence of panels from the book, and why?

It’s difficult for me to say, because I’m hyper-critical of my own work—keep in mind I still have a lot to learn. But I found two pages where I think the visual storytelling kind of works. This is the scene where Deputy Police Chief Robert Luntz returns to his home, and checks in on his wife Theresa who’s asleep. On the right page, there’s a clipping from an old newspaper on the hallway wall, showing a photo of The Pursuer receiving the key to the city in a big ceremony from years before. There’s nothing too special about this scene, it just depicts a daily occurrence, checking up on a loved one. But it’s a very human moment, and I think it says a lot about the character of Luntz. It visualizes his dissatisfaction with his work, and his inner struggle to do his job and leave his wife behind every day.

I notice there’s also very little dialogue in this scene.

Yes, ideally you want a page to work without the dialogue. When you can take out the dialogue and understand the story, that’s the goal for comic book artists. The newspaper clipping also tells you a little more about The Pursuer’s exploits before he returned to the city, how he was celebrated as a local hero after saving Theresa’s life. The vibe is a lot brighter and happier, in contrast to the situation of the present day storyline, so it also reveals a certain moral decline in Crayton City. The one thing I intended to do was to let the readers play detective with the story, looking for details in the background, and putting together the backstory for themselves.

What I find interesting is how The Pursuer appears before his alleged death and after. In the article photo, he resembles the classical perception of a “Golden Age” hero, like portrayals of Batman from his 1930s comics, whereas the version of the character that returns is more like Frank Miller’s darker interpretation of Batman from the 1980s. His transformation almost seemed like a metatextual acknowledgment of the evolution of vigilante characters that The Pursuer takes inspiration from within the real world history of comics. Was that a conscious decision you made, or something you had in mind?

I think so, because in general the story’s full of homages to popular aspects of the superhero genre. I’m not pretending that I’m bringing any new ideas to the table in terms of content, but I felt like if I could tell a story that was done well, it would work. This book is kind of my love letter to superheroes, or to what I love about superheroes, anyway.

How would you describe the publishing process for this book?

This might not have been the smartest move, but I wanted to complete the book before approaching potential publishers. Especially since I wasn’t an established creator, I felt that I needed to have a finished product. It was a good decision in the end, because I realized it was easier for companies to take a chance on you if you have something to show them. I felt an immediate connection with the publishing house New Friday. It helped that they were a Canadian company.

It seems a lot of independent comic creators are opting to self-publish, and that the landscape has changed to become more author-centric as opposed to creators relying on name recognition from major publishing companies. Have you noticed this trend?

Definitely, and I think there are a lot of reasons for that. Firstly, because of the internet and social media, it’s possible to gain notoriety without these big companies, whereas the traditional route for most aspiring creators in the past was to land a gig at one of the “Big Two” (Marvel or DC Comics). These days, people’s interests have become so wide-ranging, and there’s a lot of content out there to satisfy those interests. Creators now want to tell their own stories, and there are more niche audiences for those stories. New technologies have also helped independent creators, like the ability to mass publish on demand, or funding sources for independent creators like the website Kickstarter. 

Although it is a double-edged sword. There’s a lot more stuff out there, but it’s also a lot more difficult to get noticed as a creator if you don’t go through the traditional publishing channels, which is where social media comes in, I guess. It’s easier to create now, but it might not be easier to get to the reader. You’ve got to have a great product, and be prepared to work your ass off to get your product out there—along with a little bit of luck. I’m fairly new to the process, so it’s hard to tell you, but at the moment I’m hopeful. 

Speaking of social media, you describe yourself in your Instagram bio as a “reluctant social media user.” Could you describe your relationship with social media, and how that affects your promotion and perception of your work? 

I’m a fairly private person. I’m not exactly introverted, but I prefer to put my work out there and allow it to speak for itself. I realize it would be a smart thing to sell myself, because it’s a useful tool for promoting your work, to have consumers get attached to the person behind the work. It’s tough for me, though, because I work at a slower rhythm that isn’t the best for social media, which requires constant posting, content creation, and reaching out. I’m not criticizing this approach, because I see the value in it. I’m just having difficulty getting myself to follow suit. I’ll be putting aside my freelance illustrations for a while to start my second book, or at least completing the script. I’m also looking into hiring an artist to collaborate with, because I work a little too slowly on my own. I’m aiming for a smaller book this time, as well.

You draw for “comics” in two senses of the word, with your side gig doing commissioned artwork for comedians. How did this come about?

I’ve been doing illustrations for clients for several years. I had a few constant gigs with chemical plants, theatre groups, and other service-based industries. During the pandemic, I began listening to the podcast Bad Friends, co-hosted by the comedians Andrew Santino and Bobby Lee. I’m always looking for content to have playing in my ears while I draw, and I enjoyed listening to them. I knew the podcast was going to blow up, because these guys were funny and renowned. I figured if I did some work for them, some of their followers would check out my work. I did a few illustrations for them for fun, and eventually they contacted me to do some paid work: t-shirt designs and promotional graphics. After that, other emerging comedian podcasters saw my work and contacted me—it’s mostly word-of-mouth in that scene. I don’t have a lot of social media followers, but making that conscious decision to reach out to them and promote myself was worth it. Going from nearly zero Instagram followers to a thousand made a big difference for me.

For someone who’s looking to get into comics, given the aforementioned overwhelming amount of content out there right now, how would you suggest a newcomer navigate this abundance of choice to find content they will enjoy?

First of all, if you’re lucky enough to have a neighbourhood comic book store, that’s a great place to start. The guys and gals who work there are probably passionate about comics, and they’d be happy to provide recommendations, so they’re a great resource. Comics can be expensive, especially since the pandemic, with the higher cost of paper. People only have so much money to spend on (I’m not going to say “frivolous”, because I don’t see comics that way) that type of product, so they want to make sure they’re getting good content. Comic book store employees will gladly steer you in the right direction based on what you like.

If you have a local library, take a little trip there, because they should have a decent selection. If you’re looking for more niche or independent titles, I’d also suggest following comic book artists on social media and taking a chance on their work. It’s easy to go online and search up “what’s good”, and you’ll end up with popular works like Maus, Watchmen, and V for Vendetta. But if you want to step out of that narrow selection, social media’s a great route. 

In some way, I think readers should see comics as pieces of art. Maybe not in the sense that they should all be hung in museums, but still, they are medium for artistic expression and I’d have difficulty thinking that reading a comic would ever be a waste of time. You’re never going to regret reading a book. Even if it’s not great, you’ll never regret it. You might regret spending $20,000 on a mint condition Spider-Man title, but you don’t need to do that to get into comics. You just need a comfy seat and a little time.

Vikram Nijhawan is a recent college graduate and freelance journalist based in Toronto. His main coverage interests are in literary trends, and arts and culture stories more broadly, with a focus on profiling emerging local artists across different mediums, from music to nonfiction to comic books.