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A Short Interview With Peter Bergting
posted January 1, 2007
 

imageI wanted to be the first interviewer not to ask Swedish illustrator Peter Bergting about Mike Mignola, an influence (although clearly not the only one) and a modern giant of the comic book horror fantasy genre in which Bergting has thus far worked, but the artist in good-natured fashion broached the subject on his own. Bergting's The Portent, a four-issue series recently collected through Image Comics, was one of the big mainstream comics surprises of 2006, a well-executed story that could be looked at and read. Bergting's brooding explorations of life and death, nature and other, spirit and identity, expectation and genre cohered into a first series to watch.

Bergting picked a fine avenue for his comic book debut; fantasy comics may be the last place in the medium's present moment where the visual still drives the car, counting on that ability art has to transport and fire the imagination, particularly along well-worn lines. Bergting also has a dry sense of humor, an ability to embrace the nastier and weirder elements of the established themes, a desire to say something of value about the issues with which he's dealing and most importantly a confidence in the evocative nature of his art to carry mood and communicate feeling that could eventually make him a cross-over star.

You know, like Mike Mignola.

Peter Bergting was polite to a fault during our brief interaction, and fairly assaulted the questions I gave him the moment they arrived. I wish him the best. Thanks to Mark Britt at Image for helping set this up.

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TOM SPURGEON: Can you talk about your comics influences? Looking at your work I see a lot of classic French comics album art, particularly Moebius and Jean-Claude Mezieres; using Google I see you acknowledge both as influences. What was it about the work of each man that inspired you?

PETER BERGTING: Absolutely. In the beginning, my main influences were the great classical painters and artists like Albrecht Durer who had a profound influence on me. As I became older I discovered comics where my first influences must have been John Romita, Sr. and Neal Adams. Not so much any more though, but they got me interested in comics. I guess I was around 5-6 or something. Got hooked on Kamandi, Spidey, JLA and all that. Eventually I segued into eurocomics with Enki Bilal and Moebius being the main two artists that inspired me. Being Swedish I obviously grew up with a lot of European comics like Tintin and Linda and Valerian, Lucky Luke, Asterix and all that. Jack Davis was an early influence.

Later Mignola (obviusly) and I'm relieved that we've actually begun talking over the net lately. I was afraid he'd hate my stuff but Mike is a great guy. He actually contributed a wonderful quote for the trade which was more than I could have hoped for. Speaking of that, I've had tremendous help from my friends in the business critiquing my work from time to time and ultimately, Brom and Michael Kaluta have provided a foreword and introduction respectively. Going back to Mezieres, though. In his heyday I think he was the ultimate storyteller. A few of the Linda and Valerian albums are up there with the best comics of all time. In my opinion, at least.

SPURGEON: Where in your work do you see the influence of Will Eisner taking shape?

BERGTING: That's a question with multiple answers, actually. Early on I was very influenced by The Spirit and how Eisner constructed pages using architecture and other elements to frame the story. I loved his inking style and then many years later, I attended a book fair where he was a guest and held a wonderful lecture. I got to exchange a few words with him afterwards and he was just such a wonderful, great, great man. So humble and warm. I wanted to be like that. So much talent and zero attitude. If anything he inspired me to become a better person.

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SPURGEON: How did The Portent develop as a creative project, and how did you end up at Image? That seems pretty incredible to me, and I'm generally not aware of their doing a whole lot with award-winning illustrators outside of North America. What about the Image set-up appealed to you with this project?

BERGTING: That was just me being totally ignorant of how this whole business works. I had no clue whatsoever. I just sent samples to them with an outline and a script and nothing happened. I thought that was it until almost a year later my agent walks in and mentions my name. It turns out they liked Portent from what they had seen but lost my contact info. I never submitted Portent to anyone else since I was sure I didn't stand a chance of getting it published. But it's been a long time in the running. I started to toy around with the elements of the story almost 10 years ago but it's evolved so much since then that there are nary a thread left from the early inklings.

SPURGEON: Why publish this in North America and not Europe? Is the European market still receptive to work like this? Was there a European version? Will there be?

BERGTING: Interestingly enough, it started out as a four pages, bimonthly comic in the pages of a gaming magazine. They were kind to take care of my book and I got a deadline to work from (I'm wasted without deadlines). When Image picked it up I redrew everything from scratch and even now before the trade I redrew about 7-8 pages. There will be European versions, though. Germany already has it in the catalogue for next year and there are several others but no new "when" exactly yet. Fantasy comics is still big in Europe but it's harder in Sweden where comics is a fledgling business with people buying The Phantom and Donald Duck, basically.

You know, the Europeans have reacted more favorably to it. I think anyone who comes from that background will be more susceptible to it. But as much as I'm influenced by euro-comics, I'm also very influenced by movies and the way that a big summer blockbuster can move you both with action and drama.

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There have been some great US reviews, and I feel, when reading them, that they really "got it." Some less favorable reviews have focused on the writing in the first issue being haphazard and the language disjointed. This was my first book, ever, so I really listened to the critique no matter how wrong I felt it to be at that time. There is always something that can be improved and as long as the reviewer focused on the technical bits and flaws in storytelling I was more than happy to listen to it. If they didn't care for the story, it was a completely different matter. If you're reading only X-Men comics and then head straight into this, you're not going to like it. I hope you do, but my main focus was never to write anything that appealed to a mass audience. Alex Ness at Pop Thought was one of those reviewers who really understood the whole deal, that this was more lyrical, and almost poetical than just a straightforward story.

Sure, this is my first book and I'm perplexed to being reviewed and have people telling me it's not as good as [Neil] Gaiman or [Alan] Moore. Well, duh... I've only been doing this for a year. I certainly hope to improve. I have to find my own voice and if certain pages or sections feel rushed or disjointed, that's just me learning the trade. I went back and tried to fix some of the most jarring aspects that I didn't like and I think it came out the better for it. There's this whole idea of not going back and revisiting your old stuff. But there's a large audience out there who will be reading this for the first time, and I owe it to them to give it my best. And if that means going back and rewriting dialogue or redrawing panels, I will certainly do it.

SPURGEON: I'm interested in the mythological background you're dipping into, which seems to draw on a variety of cultures that have spirit/nature/ dead/undead elements to their folklore. Have you studied mythology? Is that a longstanding interest of yours or related to this project only? How did you combine elements for the backbone of The Portent?

BERGTING: Oh yes, for sure. I take what I like from both Asian and northern European mythology to construct something new. It's interesting that some reviews in the beginning pointed out stuff in the book that I didn't even think consciously about and was able to emphasize later on. The basic premise is that the world is dying. The sense of twilight permeating everything. That all living things have fled or died and that you are alone in this serene but terrifying world where spirits live and interact with the few humans that are left. So much in mythology is the same or similar across the globe that it was interesting to draw on those aspects that are unique for China for instance. There will be more of that later. Especially with Tama and Nigi, the two spirits from the first four issues.

SPURGEON: Before I forget, I'm asking everyone this month -- what are your plans for the holiday?

BERGTING: Oh, probably have one full day of rest before I start inking Strange Girl #16.

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SPURGEON: Can you talk a bit about your approach to page design? I find it fascinating that for someone coming from an illustration background that you seemed immediately comfortable with relatively complex page and panel construction. Is important to you that each page have a unique design in addition to conveying the story?

BERGTING: Somewhat yes, I'm definitely interested in the "pretty" aspects of it. I want it to look good and read good.

SPURGEON: To follow up, you make great use of panels that run the breadth of the page. I find that interesting in that looking at your illustration you use very strong figure work to draw the eye and anchor your art. How conscious are you of the effect that figure placement and panel construction have on the eye while reading comics? Or is your use of such element more intuitive?

BERGTING: Yeah, it's a different beast. But definitely intuitive. I have a background in film and know all the tricks of character placement and framing, but after a while that sort of drifts into the back of your mind and works on an intuitive level. Going back and analyzing and redrawing stuff I definitely think more about it. Small things as well

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SPURGEON: A lot of The Portent functions as horror-fantasy, really, in several scarier moments right up to the end where a respite is one at the cost of someone's sacrifice -- not the return to Eden that most straightforward stories provide. What appeals to you about that darker look at how the world works?

BERGTING: I think it goes back to what makes horror films work. That you can really bring home a message if you manage to scare a little. Once you've breached that threshold you have gotten a bit more closer to your reader, they have opened up and it's easier to draw them into your story. It's about trying to make you care for the character, even dislike them. Horror and love are the two themes that lend themselves easiest to this. There's a love story in there between Milo and Lin, but they never arrive at the point where it's said out loud or explored. Which makes the parting at the end all the more poignant since he has to give up the very notion that they could ever share something -- before he can even tell her about it. She's psychic, she's seen him as the hero all along, and knows parts of the path he must take. But the magnitude of their quest has certainly made it impossible for her to see him as anything but the "hero figure." For her, the quest is all about saving the world, and whenever he strays from the path she becomes all the more frustrated. Up until the end when she learns of his sacrifice.

SPURGEON: I find the character path taken by Lin to be a bit more complex than that enjoyed by Milo. They share an exploration of identity and purpose, but hers is more about laying claim to what she knows about herself than discovery. Can you talk about the themes or the ideas that you wanted to communicate in her development from story's beginning to end?

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BERGTING: I'm glad you picked up on that. That was one of my main caveats in writing this. That the story is actually really complex and at the core, it's about what it takes to be a hero. That selflessness is the key. If you're Superman, flying into a burning building, saving people, are you really a hero, when you're not really risking anything, except maybe ruffled hair? Milo gives up everything to save Lin, and in doing so, finally becomes a hero. But not the way he would have wanted it in the beginning. He certainly wants to be the gung-ho hero with clashing swords and bravura but has to give up all that.

For one hero to rise another must fall, and in the end, Lin has to become the hero. Well, she's not a hero yet, but that is the role that she must accept. Where that path will take her, we will find out later and it's certainly something she will have to explore further. Some readers picked up on Milo being a complete bastard in the beginning. That was basically Milo coming to terms with having no place in the world, embracing the idea that if he became a hero, he could find some sort of redemption. But he's doing it for all the wrong reasons. You can't just pick up a sword and decide to become a hero, it takes more than that.

SPURGEON: Why is "Fireball" the greatest rock song of all time? I'm not disagreeing with you, but I'd love to hear your reasons.

BERGTING: Well, it certainly was when I did that list. The whole top 10 is probably a tie anyway, but "Fireball" is just a great way to start the day. Jon Lord's energetic Hammond just hammering away. One of the greatest drum beats of all time. And even though I kinda prefer then Glenn Hughes era (yeah I know, *gasp*) I think Gillan nails this song. But speaking of music and that list, I think -- or I know that the one group to influence my career profoundly was Uriah Heep. Guilty.

SPURGEON: On your site you hint about a project with Dark Horse. Is that something that's upcoming? Can you talk about what's next?

BERGTING: There was talk of several things but it never got further than that since I was to occupied with drawing and redrawing Portent. There's more stuff going on but I can't talk about it now since there are multiple companies interested in the next project. Whoever signs it is gonna have a blast. It's a fantasy book, sort of like The Good, the Bad and the Ugly meets Lord of the Rings. Sebastian Jones is writing it and I'm going to do it fully painted which will be quite a treat since that's how I started out (as a painter I mean). He's currently writing a comic book with the Polish brothers who wrote, produced and directed The Astronaut Farmer that opens next year. Sebastian is going to be huge, I have such faith in this project.

Next up, though, is another Image book since I'm doing the art for Strange Girl #s 16-19. Pencils and inks only. That will be incredibly funny. I liked the book before I got to know Rick [Remender]. He's so funny, and he's probably one of the best writers in the business.

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SPURGEON: A bonus question if you'll allow it -- you have a fascinating second style that you display on your web site, that's a little cleaner, cartoony, and maybe more classically stylized like a children's book illustrator's work. Can you talk about developing multiple styles that way?

BERGTING: That's just me being a working artist. One of the reasons I've been able to make a living here in Sweden is the ability to adopt a style that suits the client, hence the disparate selection of styles on my site. It's fun though since it never gets stale working but it also pollutes the other styles a bit.

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* cover art to comic book issue #1, featuring Milo
* cover art to comic book issue #4; I like this one
* some character design work nicked from Bergting's site
* a typical page layout, with copious use of the page-wide panel
* cover art to comic book issue #2, featuring the Lin character
* a more typical horror image
* a piece of art from Bergting's site in his other style

*****

The Portent, Peter Bergting, Image Comics, $12.99, December 2006, 1582407215 (ISBN)

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