In Eighty Days by A.C. Esguerra, readers will be introduced to a world where AVO reigns supreme… but in spite of the reality of their situation, certain characters will nevertheless find romance!
The Beat caught up with Esguerra over Zoom to find out more about what their creative process looks like, discover what goes into depicting the perfect sound effect, and to learn how the graphic novel was inspired by real-life pilot autobiographies from the 1920s and 30s!
AVERY KAPLAN: Can you tell us about the origins of this story? What was the path that led to Eighty Days becoming a graphic novel?
A.C. ESGUERRA: I’ve always had a love of history and flight, and around the time I was coming up with this story, I was reading a lot of pilot autobiographies from pilots of the 1920s/1930s – the “golden age of flight,” so-called.
They had this way of writing about their travels and about being in the air that really inspired me, because it was both practical but also very romantic and lyrical sometimes. So that really got to me, and I had this desire to tell that kind of story in that kind of place, but I wanted to do that but also center a different kind of hero. The sorts of people who are usually overlooked or sidelined, historically, in those kinds of stories.
I was getting images in my head of a pilot standing at the edge of a shoreline, or a thief in a pile of orange peels, and those images kind of meshed with these ideas into this story.
KAPLAN: Were there any particular pilots who inspired you?
I really love Beryl Markham’s writing. She was a British pilot who grew up in Africa – West with the Night was a big inspiration. Also, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, he was French pilot – he also wrote the children’s book The Little Prince. They were both civil aircraft pilots in that time period.
KAPLAN: Can you tell us about the practical aspects of the work? When did you begin, and what does your process look like?
ESGUERRA: I began with concepts, coming up with that stuff, in 2014. Just the bits of imagery and snippets of writing. It always starts for me with writing, comics. Almost like bits of bad poetry that I develop into scripts.
Then from there, I take a red pencil and section off the script into how much space I need it to take. And then I turn that into thumbnails, go from thumbnails into full-sized pencils on Bristol board. Then I ink those traditionally with a brush and ink.
Then after that, I will letter, do all the clean-up and production stuff.
The first part of the book, the part that was self-published previously, I worked on that in the later half of 2014. Then there was a long span of time when I was developing the story.
Once I did start picking up the actual art production part of it in 2018 or so, the process was pretty insane!
KAPLAN: What was the character creation process like? Did any character pose a particular challenge? Where did you turn for inspiration for the names?
ESGUERRA: The character designs for Jay and Fix – they were actually based on these very old character designs for a short comic I did with like a literal fox thief and a blue jay pilot.
And then around the time I decided to expand the story and make them human, some of those character design traits carried over… Like the color theme, the shape of their hair, things like that.
But yeah, the further I developed the world they were in the more that informed the character design – like the kind of hero I wanted them to be, the kind of way that they would move through the world. And just like, personal preference – things like androgynous people, women in suits – just all these things that I always wanted to see in character design.
And as far as challenges… It challenging to develop Sable. She has this impossible task of carrying the second act of the story, sort of the dark and maybe unsympathetic part of the story… So she took a long time for me to really nail down, but once I walked with her along her emotional journey, it came together – it was worth it.
And as far as the names go, Corvidae and Vulpes – Jay and Fix’s last names – are the species names for “crow” and “fox,” right? Back to the animal design. But they’re also a part of this idea of this society that has a classification system for people, and when they accept an immigrant into their society, they’ll have them change the name to sound more Latin – to make them acceptable to this society.
So that’s my little Asian immigrant experience sneaking in there!
KAPLAN: What went into building the alternate history of Eighty Days? How did the world building come together?
ESGUERRA: A lot of it goes back to the historical pilot autobiographies I was reading. A lot of the settings are based on real-life places that those pilots traversed, especially in Europe, Italy, North Africa/Morocco. I wanted to research those places and dig into the architecture and the history of the regions, the culture, and have that come through in the travels of my characters.
And I did that but I also wanted to give myself the freedom of not being perfectly historically accurate, of letting myself have the freedom to put characters in places you wouldn’t expect to find people like them, or have their background to be.
So yeah, it was a bending of reality to suit my will!
KAPLAN: Eighty Days is presented through journal entries that are paired with panels, with different characters’ voices differentiated by different fonts. When did you arrive at this interesting narrative frame?
ESGUERRA: It emerged really naturally! Jay’s voice especially in the first part of the book in particular was very much based on the writings of pilots that I read. This duality of these really clipped and to-the-point sentences but that would sometimes bursts into romanticism and lyricism, right?
And I wanted to give the other two a way to interact with that voice with their own writings, and I pretty much just found excuses for them to have to write to each other. Whether it was because they were trying to communicate in secret, or because the plane’s engine was too damn loud…
And it doesn’t help that I also just really like journaling and handwriting, so that made its way in there.
KAPLAN: You have great sound effects! What goes into the perfect sound effect? How do you select font and placement?
ESGUERRA: Thank you!
I don’t know – I won’t claim to know what makes the perfect sound effect! But I do know it should be immediate, both visually and as a sound, like when you read it out loud or in your head.
Like, a crunchy should have like a crumpled look, or a wind in the desert that’s really dry will probably mean that my brush will have less water in it – it’ll be more brittle.
And as far as placement goes, it’s really just instinct! I try to put it where it would make sense before or after the dialogue or the facial expression, whatever you’re supposed to perceive, but you only have so much control over reading order in comics anyway. So really it’s just “make it look good, make it make sense with the rest of the composition.”
KAPLAN: Was there any comic (or any other kind of story) that was especially important for you (at any point) while you were working on Eighty Days?
ESGUERRA: The big three inspirations for this story are probably Studio Ghibli’s movie Porco Rosso, which is about a pilot in the 1930s also, animated, it’s a great movie. Cloud Atlas by The Wachowskis – that was a huge, huge inspiration, especially for the narrators…
And Casablanca. Straight-up, old Hollywood black-and-white noir wartime romance. It’s got it all, right?
So those three are the big inspirations!
KAPLAN: Is there anything else you’d like me to include?
ESGUERRA: I just hope that a lot of people can enjoy the flight, and maybe see themselves in a story that maybe they didn’t think they would before!
Eighty Days is available at your local comic shop, bookstore, or public library.