Interview with Alphonse Creator Matthew Lickona

I posted a while back about the publication of Alphonse, a graphic novel written by Matthew Lickona and drawn by Chris Gugliotti. I’ve since had a chance to read Alphonse, Issue One and enjoyed it. It’s an off-beat and dark story, but a very evocative one. Alphonse’s mother is a serious druggie — long in denial about the fact she is pregnant. When she shows up at a women’s health clinic, 34 weeks pregnant, she insists that she can’t go through with the pregnancy, and a doctor agrees to provide an abortion and hysterectomy. However, Alphonse is not your ordinary, helpless child of 34 weeks gestation. He is, through fate or the harsh mix of chemicals his mother’s habits have exposed him to, aware of her thoughts and his danger, and also unusually coordinated for his size and age.

In the first issue we see his escape from the abortion clinic, and his rescue by a pro-life protester who takes him home and begins to nurse him through the withdrawal which removal from his mother’s chemical habits causes. A man of action despite standing under twenty inches tall, Alphonse seems poised to bring about changes in the intersecting lives of a number of characters.

Alphonse is not a political cartoon or simple message book. It is a gritty fantasy told in a macabrely inventive visual style — using a fantastic situation to explore a topic which is often considered radioactive in our society. Abortion is a topic which many seek to pigeonhole quietly by declaring a “tragedy”. Alphonse seeks to be the Macbeth to this tragedy — bloody, bold and resolute.

Author Matthew Lickona agreed to answer a set of questions for me in order to provide you with this interview.


Q: How did the idea for Alphonse come to you, and what can you tell us about where the story is going?

A: My inspiration for Alphonse actually came from another comic character: Gary Cangemi’s Umbert the Unborn. I think I first encountered him in The National Catholic Register. Cangemi had created Umbert to manifest the personhood of the fetus, and to that end, he had endowed the little guy with reason, will, and a pretty thorough understanding of the outside world. In particular, Umbert knew about legalized abortion.

Umbert was (and remains) a cheerful fellow. But he got me to thinking: what if it were true? What if there really was a sentient fetus, suspended upside down in the dark, barely able to move, completely dependent on its mother for sustenance and care, and constantly aware of the fact that, at any moment, it could be killed? That if Mom made the fateful choice, there was nothing – not even the law – standing between it and violent death? Month after month in the dark, wondering when the axe might fall. What would that experience be like? What would it do to a person? >Alphonse was born out of that question.

Where is the story going? Well, by the end of issue one, Alphonse has survived the attempt on his life, and the fallout from his escaping the abortion clinic is just beginning to ensue. Issue two is largely about that fallout, and the ways that the various characters deal with it. We get a little more insight into the cause and nature of Alphonse‘s character and condition, and the wheels are set in motion that will eventually bring about the climax in issue five.

Q: Did the comic book genre seem to come naturally from the subject matter? I’ve got to admit, I’m not normally a comic book reader (nor a comic strip reader since Calvin & Hobbes and The Far Side left the funny pages) but as I read the first issue of Alphonse I couldn’t really picture it as just prose.

A: Yes. Comic books land on the storytelling continuum somewhere between prose and movies, and I think that in Alphonse’s case, that’s a good thing.

I mean, you could make a movie out of the story, but it would have to be animated – I think a CGI preemie scurrying around the screen amid live actors would be just too darned creepy. It would overwhelm the story, and just freaking people out is not my goal. Animation provides a level of abstraction from reality that would render Alphonse a little more tolerable, I think.

But comic books, which abstract the images from motion, provide an even further remove, and my hope is that such abstraction serves to dampen the horror to the point where the story can come through clearly.

As for prose, I suppose I could have written things out, but it would have been a lot harder to keep from getting too heavy-handed. (I’m sure some people think the comic is heavy-handed as it is.) Take, for example, the montage on page four. I think that by the time I finished describing Mom’s doodle of the monster sperm attacking the fleeing egg, the nightmare image of the abortion machine, the ominous and demanding abortion protestors, and the way they serve to chain Mom to this baby that terrifies her, the reader’s eyes would be glazing over, and the hope for an engaged conversation between author and reader would be lost. In comic form, the whole thing can be taken in pretty quickly – Alphonse’s connection to his mother’s drug-fueled dreams is established, and we can move along without belaboring the point.

HOWEVER, these reasons are, to some extent, justifications after the fact. The truth is, my older brother collected comics when he was a teenager, and I read every issue he bought, many of them more than once. I found some of the stories – Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli’s BATMAN: YEAR ONE, for example – deeply affecting and memorable, and that may be part of the reason why I never placed comics among the things of childhood that one ought to put away. Suffice it to say that when Alphonse first came to me, he came to me as an illustration. Maybe that’s because he was inspired by Umbert. Maybe it’s because I have been privy to so much back-and-forth about the use of graphic images in the abortion debate. Or maybe it’s just because I like comics.

Q: Given the subject matter, I’m curious whether your illustrator is someone with a Catholic or pro-life background. What did he think of the project when you introduced it to him?

A: You know, I’m hesitant to speak for my artist on this one. But I will say that he wasn’t interested in doing a piece of propaganda – which was good, because I wasn’t, either. I’m pretty sure he signed on because he read the script and thought it was a good story.

Q: Any particular illustration stylistic influences? Two things really struck me, though they may be totally my own thinking: The cover looks like a horror-show version of the cover of Angel in the Waters (which I read to my kids a bunch of times when we were expecting our youngest) and Alphonse’s hat, overalls and scalpel look in some of the pictures you’ve posted reminds me Boondocks.

A: Angel in the Waters – ha! That’s awesome, in a sort of scary way. I actually approached Ben Hatke, who illustrated Angel in the Waters, about this project way back before I found Chris (needless to say, it didn’t work out). But no – Hatke’s book was not a source. Chris sent me a lineup of six cover possibilities, and we went with this one for a number of reasons, some of them having to do with the starkness of the image, and the way it presented Alphonse as an isolated figure (even as he is connected to Mom via the umbilical cord). Ultimately, I think it came down to drama and simplicity.

As for the overalls and hat image – that was just my first rendering of Alphonse, for better or for worse. I don’t think Chris ever saw it. I get what you’re saying about Boondocks, but it wasn’t a direct inspiration. I first fell in love with Chris’s work because some of the stuff on his website reminded me of Bill Sienkiewicz, one of my very favorite comic book artists – though Chris’s style is obviously very much his own. I gave Chris descriptions and characteristics, and he took it from there.

Q: What’s the reaction to the book been? Has it been covered at all by secular comics sites?

A: Reaction has been varied, and it’s come mostly from other Catholics. Some have understood the project right off and thought it worthwhile, others have expressed concern that the central premise will prove too radioactive, that it will prevent the story from getting through. Some, I think, have simply found it puzzling. Plenty of folks have simply kept silent, and I won’t venture to guess at why.

I am just now beginning the push to secular comics sites. The comics market is extremely crowded, and I think for a project like this – self published, and dealing with a difficult subject – to attract any notice, it’s going to have to have something of an established fanbase. Most of the media people I know are involved with the Catholic press, so I’ve started there in my effort to build support and find an audience. Also, it seemed to me that a story like this might be dear to the Catholic heart – particularly if that Catholic heart was fond of the grotesque scenarios found in Flannery O’Connor. I don’t want to preach to the choir here – I don’t want to preach, period – but I thought maybe the choir would find it worth singing about.

Q: Though I don’t want to overplay the evangelization aspect of this (who was it who said, “If you want to send a message, use Western Union”?) but what do you want people to come away from Alphonse with — but as a Catholic and as an author more generally?

A: My fondest hope is that this is a story that will linger in the reader’s mind after he or she has finished it and walked away.

I could say that I’d like it to give readers an enlarged sense of the world, but that’s awfully hifalutin.

I could say that I’d like it to give readers on both sides a better sense of the opposition – and if the characters are actually characters, as opposed to cardboard cutouts; if the story really is a story, as opposed to propaganda, then it’s certainly possible it will have that effect. But that’s more of a byproduct. It’s not why I’m doing this.

So I’ll stick with the lingering.

Q: This is partly a charitably funded project. How is it going so far and what do you still need to make Alphonse happen?

A: Well, issue one was funded mostly by donations from friends, family, and a couple of surprising sources, so that much has been a success. Issue two is, as of now, about $1300 away from being funded. Overall, I need about $17,000 to finish the project. The story really works best if you can take it in from start to finish all at once, so I keep hoping for a rich patron to come along and help me turn it into a single graphic novel. But barring that, I’ll keep begging and scraping to get the issues out one at a time. I’m not picky. With any luck, the issues will start to catch on, and I can use the proceeds to help fund what remains.

As of now, 39 backers have pledged $3,283 towards the $4,600 cost of getting Alphonse Issue Two produced. There is just over a week left to the fund drive. To contribute and track progress visit the Kickstarter page for Alphonse here. You can purchase copies of Alphonse for $2.99/ea plus shipping from IndyPlanet.

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