A mix of modernism, realism, fantasy, and politics is presented in Filippo Fontana’s work. The Belgium-based illustrator does us the honour of speaking with us about his drawing style, career, and sources of inspiration. With the release of his newest graphic novel Magnum III this Autumn, Fontana retrospectively shares his unique approach to comic book illustration.
Thank you for taking the time to speak with me today. I am very fascinated by your illustrations. When did you start creating art, and what first got you interested in this field?
Like many illustrators, I began to be interested in drawing as a child. However, what gave me a true enthusiasm in the work of art was the hip-hop culture and graffiti. Although in a very naive way, through graffiti I was able to meet new people and make friends, which made drawing a true personal passion independent from school.
You’ve adopted the comic book style of artistry. Through this, you are able to make difficult information and topics more digestible for your audience. What is the message you hope to convey through depicting mature themes under a youthful tone?
It is essential for me to leave an open interpretation to the reader. Although it is quite clear that my work is a critique of power and totalitarianism, I also received recognition from the pro-Putin audience. Consequently, I believe that the message may be ambiguous. Even if my ideas are very distant from those of the political figures I represent, I somehow like the fact that I do not express a clear message.
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I’m guessing you were very interested in comic books as a kid. What did you read growing up? Were there any comic books or graphic novels that you feel had the most impact on you as a person and as an artist?
Surprisingly, I am not a big comic book reader. However, I always watched a lot of cartoons like The Simpsons and Family Guy. These shows had, and still have, an enormous influence on my work, both aesthetically and in terms of content.
Currently, a cartoon that is a huge reference for me is South Park. Since it makes fun of many controversial aspects of contemporary society it really pushes the political incorrectness to the limit.
The main themes you paint are related to topical subjects, to what’s happening around the world, and things that are relevant to the times. What happens if there isn’t news you feel like acknowledging through your art? How do you find inspiration?
I think that we live in a rather chaotic world and in a historical period where if you are interested in the news it is difficult to run out of inspiration. However, sometimes, if I do not want to produce any overly thoughtful work, I usually focus on projects where I concentrate on the form rather than on the content. I experiment with new techniques, or I look for different kinds of aesthetics to apply when I have something to say.
Also, as your work comments on actuality, how do you disconnect from all of it?
Apart from news and politics, I find a lot of inspiration in hip-hop music, gangster movies and popular culture. Consequently, if I do not feel like expressing an opinion about something, I usually take inspiration from there.
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Your pieces are very multicultural, incorporating American and Korean politics, Japanese characters and text, and obviously, your background as an Italian-Polish illustrator from Belgium. How do you think this multiculturalism reflects in your art, and how does it inform your approach to creating illustrations?
To be honest, I am not too conscious of how multiculturalism has influenced my work. I think that culturally, like I said before, a lot of my inspiration comes from the United States of America (hip-hop music and cartoons). However, undoubtedly, the fact that my comics are free of text makes what I do attractive to an international audience. It must be frustrating not to be able to share your work with everyone because of the language barrier. Especially jokes. I think that humour, when translated, often lacks effectiveness.
Your work covers a lot of political content and carries strong political sentiment. Is there a line that someone in your position shouldn’t cross? If so, what do you define as the line?
I would like to think that in humour and satire you should be able to laugh at everything, as they do in South Park or Charlie Hebdo for example. However, being a less known practitioner, and especially being a cis, heterosexual, white and privileged male person, I know that I have to be very careful in what I draw, and that respect comes above all. You should be able to laugh at everything, but you must never offend and or discriminate against anyone. Sometimes there is a very fine line between the two.
Furthermore, do you see your art as a tool or means to promote ideals and messages? Or do you see it as simply commentary?
It is crucial for me not to make any statements in my work. It is very important to leave a free interpretation to the reader. For example, in Magnum III there are no references to precise true events. It is very important that the contents of the different strips stay generic, in order to put an emphasis on the personality of the political character rather than on events. My ideas are very distant from those of the characters I represent, however, I prefer not to express what exactly I think through my work.
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Most of your illustrations do not include any dialogue from characters. Usually, the text complements the image, but in your work, the visuals stand alone. Is a picture really worth a thousand words?
No, absolutely not! Text is definitely a tool that allows you to express much more complex messages and in a much deeper way. The absence of text is undoubtedly a limitation, but it allows relatively simple messages to come across much more quickly, and, above all, to everybody. Anyone can read my work. This is the major strength of it, in my opinion.
As a curiosity, have you ever felt like writing something but then decided not to? Or even thought that a piece you had published already should’ve included text?
I am certainly very intrigued by the use of words. However, unfortunately, I am not very good at writing. It would be great to be able to collaborate with a writer. In that case, however, I would like to completely change the subject. I would like to deal with a much slower and more introspective type of narrative.
When handling political content and sharing it in a light-hearted fashion, do you ever fear making enemies along the way? For example, you use your illustration of Donald Trump as your profile picture on Instagram. Are you concerned about any backlash?
At the moment, the idea certainly does not scare me. Maybe also because I am not too well known. However, I have received several negative comments and insults on Instagram by pro-Trump and pro-Putin profiles.
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You are a professor at ESA Saint-Luc Institute in Brussels. What have been some of the best moments teaching at the university where you were also once a student at? And what are some of your favourite classes that you’ve taught?
I teach illustration, graphic design, and advertising. There is not really a course that I prefer. However, every year, in the illustration class, we develop a collective publication which explores political and social themes. As a result, I have the opportunity to teach something which is closely connected to my personal practice. Through that course I feel like I can truly express myself and give something personal and unique to the students. I also teach printing techniques in the print studio of the school. That course is pretty much hands-on and very fun to give.
What’s next for you? Are there projects and or exhibitions that you are currently working on?
Since I just published my latest comic book, I think that for the moment I will take a break from storytelling and focus on lighter, short-term projects without any specific purpose. However, a book-launch of Magnum III is scheduled in Brussels on September 14th!
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