Elena Casagrande currently holds an enviable position for many comic artists: penciller on a high-profile Big Two title — in this case, Marvel’s Black Widow. As you’ll see, the path to get there took her from a childhood of Italian comics to formal university study to finally catching her break in the U.S. market.
First, the particulars…
Your specialties (artist/writer/letterer/inker/etc.): Artist
Your home base: Italy
Deviant Art: @laraw
Fanbase Press Contributor Kevin Sharp: I like to start with the big question first: Why comics? What attracts you to working in comic art specifically?
Elena Casagrande: Well, basically, because I read a lot of them since I was a child. I started with Disney comics and other Italian comic books. Then, when I was a teenager, I [discovered] manga. Only when I attended the International School of Comics [in Rome], I started to read American comics for real. But what I really liked in every moment of my reading life were the stories and what I felt following them: I love to grow close to the characters, I love the extraordinariness of some of them or the everyday life of others, the costumes, the worlds, the powers. And every time I read them I… have the chance to stop some pages and decide the time I want to spend on them, because images and text can do this. When you stop a movie, you stop the enchantment and come back to reality; this doesn’t happen with a comic book. You can stay on a page 10 minutes or 30 seconds, but until you close the entire book you’re inside the story — and with a good one you can even hear the sounds. This is why I love comics, reading them and now doing them.
KS: Around what age did reading comics first become a part of your life?
EC: When I was about five, I “read” comics with my father; he read his favorite comic — Tex by Bonelli Editore — and read me mine. I just looked at the images and imagined what was happening… I couldn’t read yet, but I liked to see the drawings. As soon as I was able to do it, I started to read what I had at home, so Disney comics or other Italian publications.
KS: Did you have any particular favorite books or characters at first?
EC: My favorite character of that age was Pinky, an Italian humor comic by Massimo Mattioli published into a magazine for kids. I loved the stories, the styles, the lines. I loved everything so much that soon I started to copy it, drawing Pinky everywhere!
Then, Sailor Moon arrived in my life on TV when I was nine, and I started to copy the sailor warriors for me and my school friends, until we discovered the first comic books shop in my town. I was 12 and I started to know about manga and reading more and more. We didn’t have enough money, so we used to exchange books.
KS: Looking back, what was it about Sailor Moon that really spoke to you?
EC: I have a special place in my heart for [it], not only because it was my first one, but because I loved the fact that they were a group of good-but-so-different friends who fight together, having a normal life and making big sacrifices to save the world. I think that I loved to see strong and funny female characters fight together for love, friendship, and to save other human lives. I was in the right target age for that story and it was my first awareness of Japanese culture.
Another one that will always be in my mind is City Hunter by Tsukasa Hojo. I was bigger and my reading was expanding to the shonen manga and this one captured me so much because despite it being full of humor and gags, it has a lot of background stories so sad, deep, or super strong.
The authors of these two manga — Takeuchi and Hojo — were also my first influences as an artist.
KS: Making the leap from you as a reader to you as a creator, how did your first paid comics gig come about? Was this for IDW or did you do any European comics before that?
EC: I started to work as assistant to one of my teachers from the School of Comics, David Messina, and after several months helping him on layout pencils and backgrounds inks, I had the chance to do a fill-in issue on the series Angel for IDW. At the same time, I had my first comics job for a little Italian publisher — so, in one month, I [had] to do 40 pages, sleeping four hours per night. These were my first paid comics gigs: a double-shot.
KS: Had the arts been a long-term career goal for you?
EC: Honestly no. After high school, I had no idea about my future, or not a clear one. I started at university most of all to please my father, choosing a department that had something interesting (Chinese and English languages), but at the same time I didn’t want to leave my passion for drawing. I attended the School of Comics just to improve my abilities and increase my knowledge about comics industry. After six months, I understood what I really cared about and I left university despite my father’s disapproval. But I still had no idea or any goal to reach, I was just following the wind… that eventually brought me to the US comics industry.
KS: If you hadn’t been a professional artist, was there another path you considered?
EC: Often I ask to myself my career Plan B, but only now. Luckily, I had no time before, because I’ve always been able to work as a cartoonist. Lately, I find myself thinking “What I could do beyond comics?" Surely something about art: I love FX makeup, even if I have no experience [in that area]; I love to create and build objects for the house, so I could start a personal business; sometimes, instead I think that I could mix my pleasure in “organizing” with my creativity, in some weird new business. Honestly, the answer is “I don’t know.”
KS: What does your current work routine look like? Is it steady, or does it change a lot based on what you have going on?
EC: Well, actually it changed and continues to change a lot, following two main parameters: my son’s needs and my resistance. Before I became a mom, I used to work like 18 hours per day — often I did more than one project at time — with no holidays, no weekends, nothing organized, only deadlines. Now, after some health problems and maternity, I had to change and I became more clement with myself and my family. I work about eight hours per day, and when I’m able also some hours in the night, but I’m avoiding losing sleep or lowering the quality of time I spend with my kid. Therefore, in order to keep the high quality of my work, I’m on one project at a time.
KS: Where does most of your comics work get done nowadays?
EC: I work alone in my studio, a room in my house, near the living room and the kitchen. I love my studio; it’s the most chaotic and full-of-stuff room of the house. There’re a lot of books, action figures, original art on the walls, and memories. There are two desks, one for me and one usually for my husband or occasionally for friends who came to work with me. There’s a nice window over my desk, from which I can see the big trees of the house in front of mine. It’s a sweet view. Every room of my house has a wall with a different color; in my studio it's red.
KS: Do you like listening to music or other background noise while you draw, or do you prefer quiet?
EC: [That] depends on the period and on what kind of work I’m doing. Most of the time, I like to have TV series or movies, especially when I ink; when I can’t be distracted so much I listen to radio, podcast, YouTube, or atmospheric sounds. Music distracts me more than other people, so I listen it only when I can lose focus.
KS: From sitting down with a blank page (or screen) to having a completed comic story, what’s one of your favorite parts of the actual art process?
EC: The first step and the last one. I like doing thumbnails of the whole issue, reading the script the second time. It’s like doing a puzzle, so really satisfying in finding the best and funniest visual solutions. The other part that I love is inking, because it's sooooooo relaxing! I really let my hand work alone while my head has fun in something else!
KS: You’ve done a good amount of work for IDW, a publisher with a big catalog of licensed material. As an artist, is your approach different when capturing character likenesses vs. working on “regular” superheroes at Marvel or DC?
EC: Well, I think it’s easy to understand why the answer is yes to this question, but I can add this: When I work on a character where I have to maintain a likeness, the first thing I have to be sure is which level of likeness I have to use and I talk about this with my editor. Depending on this, I can decide how much of me I can put on the character. When I work on a regular character at Marvel or DC, I have a billion references from the [prior creators] but no obligation to repeat them. The thing that both kinds of work have in common is to be respectful of the characters — them before me.
KS: Hypothetical question: You can spend a day in the studio of ANY artist from the history of comics, looking over their shoulder, watching them work, asking questions, etc… Who do you pick for this?
EC: My gosh, there are so many. But to be fast in the answer, right now I would say Tommy Lee Edwards. I’d really pay to know how he composes and produces his pages, his whole working process. I’m really curious about it because it’s like magic for me!
KS: What are aspects that appeal to you as a reader when looking at the art of others?
EC: As a reader, sometimes, my attention is captured in a glance by the art. Other times, I fall in love with it after several issues reading the story. Sometimes, it’s a kind of art that I want to learn, to capture and do mine. Other times, I like it so much but I know it’s not for me [so] I love it only to watch.
The kind of art that captures my attention is something that is fresh, coherent, dynamic, “catchy”… I can’t put my concept in words, but it’s like I have a square in my mind, and when I see something that really interests me, it’s like that thing is squared: perfect. Not a circle because it’s too uniform or an isosceles triangle because it’s too bare, but a square is more interesting and stable. If I see something that gives me back those feelings — a comic, an picture, an illustration, a movie — I like it very much.
KS: Rather than the art isolated on its own, what about as it’s paired with storytelling?
EC: Sometimes, you can have a gorgeous art, but you read the comic with some difficulties and this is really annoying, almost sad. When I read, I don’t want to worry about anything, I just want to be inside the story with the characters. The storytelling is a responsibility of the whole team who work on a comic, from the editor to the letterer, but often the biggest slice of this cake is for the visual artist. Indeed, one of the most beautiful compliments I can receive is that the story I’ve drawn is readable without balloons. When I find good art but not so much good storytelling, I keep two lessons to improve myself: what works in the art (that I can “steal”) and what doesn’t work in the storytelling (that I have to not repeat).
KS: Please tell us about a passion of yours totally unrelated to art. It can be something you study, collect, practice, whatever…
EC: I like to read about science: astronomy, nature, physics. [In the past] I collected ice cream papers, coins, and rocks. I like to cook, so when I have time I try new recipes. I love board games and escape rooms, and I especially love to travel with my family and our camper!
KS: What’s a comic book/graphic novel you didn’t work on that you look at as an example of the craft at its best?
EC: Blade of the Immortal, 100 Bullets, Hawkeye by Fraction/Aja… surely others too, but these are the first that came to my mind. Because when I read them, I forgot everything else. I was inside the books, thanks to the story, thanks to the drawings, they’re “squared.”
KS: Finally, talk a little about what we’ll see from you in 2021.
EC: For now, I’m working on the new series of Black Widow for Marvel by Kelly Thompson and with Jordie Bellaire’s colors. I love to work with this team and [because] I can’t work on more than one project at a time, like I said before, for now 2021 is just this.