By Salva Rubio (original article in ZENDA BOOKS)
Max Costa, the mundane dancer of Arturo Pérez-Reverte's novel The Tango de la Guardia Vieja, dances again, this time in the pages of a series of comics written by Salva Rubio and drawn by Rubén del Rincón. In this article they review the genesis of the graphic novel, of which an exclusive adventure will soon be published on XL Weekly.
In many fictions, an unexpected call changes a character's future forever. And sometimes, in life that happens the same way.
In my case, the mobile rang one afternoon shortly before the summer of 2014. He was Rubén del Rincón, a great guy, a man who says things clearly, an ideal companion for a party, an experienced artist with a unique and elastic line, and with a resonant name in the difficult Franco-Belgian market, which called me to propose something.
It must be said that Rubén and I had been wanting to work together for some time, but the commitments of each one, the distant cities in which we lived and the influence of that liant called Fortuna were making it difficult for us.
However, Rubén's call was promising: he began by telling me that a writer friend was amused by the idea of expanding the universe of one of his novels through the comic (what many now call a “spin-off”, anyway, ask one Avellaneda) and he wanted him as a cartoonist. And Rubén to me as a screenwriter, in the absence of the approval of his friend the writer.
An hour of conversation went between ideas, details, comadreos and irreproducible jokes, you understand, in the times of the damn political correctness, and only at the end, when we were going to hang up, I said: “Rubén, you have not told me how His name is your friend … tell me and I look for him on the internet. "Ah," he said, in the most distracted and casual way – his name is Arturo Pérez-Reverte. And at that moment, he hung up without saying more. The bastard.
Can the reader imagine my stupor expression and the insistent blink with which I tried to assimilate his proposal. At that time, I had published a couple of books, some essay, I was co-writing a movie … but having a material like The Tango de la Guardia Vieja to develop (because that was the novel in question) were major words.
The matter was discussed a few weeks later in the Plaza Mayor in Madrid. There we met Arturo and we talked with length of the novel, its conception and its long genesis, of films of the 20s, of forgotten songs and lost dances, of rogue Argentina, of the Côte d'Azur in autumn, what does it do to a man deserve that name and of course, from Max.
The mundane dancer
Max, as you know, is one of the most adorable gulfs that Arturo's pen has created. Max, dancer, spy, thief, gallant. Max, that unbearable that sells to the highest bidder. That traveler whose road map is the convulsive twentieth century. The one who manages to sneak into any party of high society, of any country, of any family, only to realize that he has been late again. That stealthy cat capable of slipping in tuxedo from the top of a building as if he didn't mind dancing a waltz with death. And that when entering through the window and finding a sleeper and a safe, he smiles when he considers that tonight he will have two treasures to open. That one that threw the love of his life three times to want to seduce life itself instead, and to see each one of those times in the end faced with those irresistible honey-colored eyes. Max, well, that guy who has a rare, unheard of and valuable talent: that of liking men and liking women.
The good of Max had had many adventures in his life, as many as azares shook the fascinating twentieth century, and was, to his happiness or misfortune, in almost all the conflicts that left burned earth, bodies in gutters, fallen governments and women, as always, taking the worst part. Many of these adventures can be read in the original novel, with detail and substance; others are narrated more briefly and some simply Max mentions them in passing, as if he didn't want to remember, and we don't blame him for it.
But Max had lived much more than all that, and what Arturo wanted was for someone to discover those adventures he had suffered during a long and random existence and for someone to narrate them too, this time in images, in words, in vignettes, in The noble art of comic. The mission was clear: it could not be a simple adaptation of the novel: the narrated adventures must be entirely new, different and differentiated from those told in the three stages of the aforementioned novel.
To do this, Max asked little in return; just a negroni and a nice terrace where you can sit and talk. Arturo, on the other hand, gave us his blessing, total freedom to adapt to the character and an extremely generous agreement, and only asked for one thing in return: "that Max was Max". That is to say, that the character, of whom we already spoke (and we would never stop doing it) as someone alive, in fact already as an old friend, retained his essence, elegance and personality in any brete in which we wanted to imagine him.
We shook hands, because among gentlemen that is more than enough. Rubén and I set out to work with no little responsibility and no less illusion.
Hands-on work: preparing the assault on France
My scriptwriter work began, obviously, with an in-depth rereading of El tango de la Guardia Vieja. Max, from whom I had learned so much the first time, seemed to whisper his secrets better now that the reading was calmer and more attentive. Obsessive as I am (to the suffering of those around me), my already used copy soon ended up crushed, underlined, marked and annotated with ideas, possibilities, winks and phrases.
However, obviously and as much as we had a treasure in our hands, the comic (or the comic, or the graphic novel, we will not get exquisite) had to have an industrial destiny, that is, be publishable, and how we wanted to give it to the project the brightest possible future, Max's adventures and ours would have to pass through France.
To understand this export will, we must clarify to the reader at this point that if the book industry in Spain is lean, famished and occasionally gives us nothing honorable classifications within the countries of Europe where it is least read, certainly the comic book world is much worse. Let's summarize the situation by saying that many people who enjoyed the best of Bruguera in his childhood did not bother later to discover more adult work as he grew up, and for many of those people (perhaps yourself) the comic is something "for children." Yes, there is a children's comic, of course; and graphic novels for teenagers, and comics for adults, the same goes for the rest of the (let me dare) literature.
Spain, know, is next to Italy and France, one of the European powers in comics. But as in many other things that we do better than the others, the talent here has to look for international outings, where sales are more promising and the advances allow one, at least, to pay the rent the months in which they are working. I will not enter (it is not the moment nor the place) in the individuals, but it is understood, in short, that to be able to do the work with the due calm and care it was important that the work was published first abroad.
And the French are an expert, knowledgeable, difficult audience, and they know what they want, in faith. And as much as one comes represented by a name like Pérez-Reverte, that only increases their demand, and they need that cartoonist, screenwriter, story and characters fall short as an independent work of their own personality. So we didn't have it easy at all. Which meant that you had to roll up your sleeves and work.
How to clean a loaded four-handed rifle, or the work of the screenwriter and cartoonist
To sell the Acullá project of the Pyrenees you had to understand what the Gauls wanted, not a bit difficult as guys like old Bonaparte knew, but as for the format of the comic (first decision to make), it was clear that we needed to raise a series, not a simple adventure. Bad times, however, are those present for the open series, with an indefinite end, and risk of abandonment of readers, a limitation that we skip to the bullfighter posing (at the moment) three sagas of two volumes, what they call «autoconclusive arcs ».
Our work as a team was twofold. For Rubén, a good challenge began: know find the image of Max, something that went far beyond just drawing him. His pencils and inks, his restless hand, had to know how to design a slight dancer, an agile thief, a seductive content, a guy, in short, who knows perfectly how to conduct and move in every moment.
Now that Rubén does not listen to us, let me tell you that Arturo had an eye: I know many good professionals, but forgive me if I say that Rubén is simply the artist who has more talent for movement, fluidity, elasticity; and almost effortlessly, which is always a brand of talent, its line becomes mobile, long, controlled and liquid. Believe it or not, it does these wonders with a vulgar pen, and that tip dances on paper like Max does on marble. »Enjoy vignette to vignette, detail to detail and line to line of Rubén. They will thank me later for the privilege »
His work is also difficult because he has to put literally face and eyes to a character that thousands of you know, and somehow, he found what we all saw in the Max of our imagination: a powerful chin, advanced chin, hard nose with character, bushy eyebrows, wild, Mediterranean and indomitable hair. And that look of security, challenge and carefree that every man wants for us.
More challenges: as we will explain below, in our story Max is young, a young man, a gallop that has a lot to learn, and in which those characteristics must be barely sketched out, and Ruben had to dose them and hand them over to the character, gradually credible way, turning the pages. Let's add to this the ambience of the period, the need for a dramatic chiaroscuro, dozens of popular types that populate the backgrounds, secondary characters with character (alas, the Sevillana), urban and desert landscapes, static and dynamic planes, film montages and vignettes to full page … almost nothing.
One tip: a frequent temptation of the comic book reader is to run your eyes quickly through bullets and text and finish the story as soon as possible. Don't get that bitch. Enjoy vignette to vignette, detail to detail and line to line of Rubén. They will thank me later for the privilege. »My personal goal was to be as faithful as possible to the novel and extract from it the basic material, no matter how slight or subtle it was»
As for my work, the argument, what places, what adventures, what countries would Max know in each of those adventures? Don't make us crack the whole story, or pronounce the damn word spoiler We will only say that we propose three decades, three key events of the last century for those of us who wanted to see our mundane dancer dance, give spectacular blows (after all, he has to live for something), seduce the most beautiful ladies and train as a human being, with the best and the worst he can give himself someone like Max.
Where to get these contexts and places in a faithful and weighted way? My personal objective, despite the fact that we were not making an adaptation at all, was to be as faithful as possible to the novel and extract the basic material from it, however slight or subtle it might be. And our first arc could only occur in one of the most dangerous places in Europe, where growing up as a young man could only mean being surrounded by crime, social conflict, dirty war, vice, drugs, prostitution, golferio, unleashed aliens and political insecurity. : Barcelona. That of the 20s, do not think.
Between the backstones of The tango of the old guard
In the novel it is briefly mentioned that after being born in Argentina, the ill-fated father of Max, an Asturian "one of those born with the mark of defeat" came back downcast from the Americas, and died leaving several orphans in the Chinatown of Barcelona. Max, hustled as he was, in addition to learning to dance, he resigned himself to working as bellboys. At least, it was the Ritz. And there begins his learning.
"No humble beginning is noble," says the novel, and it was logical for us to start at the beginning and play with that young, inexperienced Max, who peers through the mists of his future destinations beyond any alley in the city, who intuits that crossing that border, like all, will require you to pay a price: lose, perhaps for the first time in life, everything you have . The first of many.
Another phrase from the novel, spoken by Max in passing, as if he did not want to explain that matter too much, gave us the key to what he took from Barcelona: “He thought he killed a man (…). Then I learned that he had not died, but he had no choice. We named this individual: Abelard Fontana, at the time one of the biggest gangsters in the city, owner of the Chinatown, and ash that tempts the "kitten" Max to work for his band. Fontana is a bit trustworthy, if you know what we mean, and the naive Max was not so clear, but obviously speaking from the barrier would be too easy to blame.
Fontana opened the doors for us, and we hope that you: to that fascinating Barcelona of Chino, the Fifth District, of the Creole, the Arc of the Theater, the Carrer del Cid and the worst fight that people who know what they are talking about, like Douglas Fairbanks Jr. considered the worst environment they had ever seen. And what those eyes would have seen. Anyway, imagine the pleasure it was for us to live for months, among documentation, books, photographs, postcards, police cards and press releases of that dangerous time in which the people of the 21st century would be little less than an easy target for those rateros. »The good of Max seems to have an Egyptian curse on him, because although he manages to flee from Barcelona, the flag he enlists is destined to fight in a place known with the bad name of the Rif»
The fact is that the deal with Fontana goes wrong, that is no surprise at this point, and Max has to flee from Barcelona through the only place where they did not ask questions and anyone “to whom existence has disappointed, who lives without honor no hope ”was welcome.
The newly formed Legion.
The good of Max seems to have an Egyptian curse on him, because although he manages to flee from Barcelona, the flag he enlists is destined to fight in a place known with the bad name of the Rif. At least, as if life wanted to give the boy a break, or prepare him for what is coming, Max meets there another of the characters mentioned in the novel, a second Russian corporal named Boris, his true mentor, guide in the question of the masculine and much-needed weapons master in that hell of flies, heat, dysentery, escapees and criminals. As Max tells us, if he survived, if he became a gentleman, if certain doors and skirts began to open for him, it was thanks to the unfortunate Boris.
We cannot tell everything Max lives and suffers in Africa, but the readers of the novel and the connoisseurs of the story will sound of something called the Annual Disaster, the road to Monte Arruit and the courage of men like those who integrated the Alcantara Regiment. Max, it would be absurd to deny it, he survives, but now he is a fugitive harassed, hurt, ill and has lost – again – what little he had on him, including hope.
Max walks alone: the future
He is not the only man, nor will he be, that in the worst of his existence he finds salvation, and perhaps something else, in the arms of such a woman, bless them, that they pick up broken men as if they were abandoned black cats, only to discover, oh surprise, that they have brought bad luck. One of those women is called Boske, is Hungarian and will mark Max's way of living, loving and dancing as few of many were able to do.
We have to warn the reader, yes, that we are already entering volume two, in which we are currently working, and for that of superstition we will remain silent. Although we do not resist telling them that among other scenarios, Max will walk through the Paris of the 20s, will move among some of the most famous inhabitants of the left bank, he will know for the first time his beloved Côte d'Azur (which brings him so much luck) and will star in one of the most spectacular (and secret) blows in the history of France and the world theft. There is our bet.
We arrive, then, at the moment in which past and present are connected. Volume one of Max was finally published a few weeks ago in France and the first readers there seem to like it; Hopefully Max seduces many more. Of course, for the second volume we will still have to wait, the French and us, even half a year, for Rubén to finish doing his necessarily slow magic.
And the Spanish readers, perhaps – hopefully – wonder? Can they read Max's adventures in his native language? We are glad to say that in recent weeks we have reached an editorial agreement to make this possible, and if everything goes well (you know, the imponderables) next year you will discover your adventures in Spanish; We'll tell you, if Zenda's generous bosses want, over here.
And if you really want to, a trifle in scoop: on July 29, the Weekly XL magazine will publish an unpublished comic, exclusive and created for the occasion, 10 pages, as said before, in full color.
I hope that by then you recognize, as our intention has always been, to that adorable gulf that Rubén and me have taught us so much: Max Costa.
Thanks, of course, to Arturo.