How do you grieve in a land where art is forbidden? That’s the fascinating question at the heart of Tales From the Umbrella Academy artist I.N.J. Culbard’s new graphic novel, the latest release from Karen Berger’s comics imprint at Dark Horse—and io9 has a sumptuous look inside.
Salamandre follows Kasper, its titular hero, a young artist in the wake of a tragic loss. Choosing to go and live with his grandfather, Kasper ventures to the land behind the Iron Veil—a kingdom ruled with an iron fist that outlaws flowers, music, and the act of art itself. As Kasper turns his artistic talents inwards to process his loss, he finds himself entering a world of revolution and spycraft, an underground resistance where artists fight back against the Emperor’s sinister secret police to liberate their creative work.
“This has been a story that I have been wanting to find a way to tap into, but had, for a long time, never really found a way to do that, until now,” Culbard said in an email to io9. “I wanted to take elements of my own childhood and write what I know, but my memories, like a lot of people’s memories, are fragmented and unreliable. Couple that with coming from a family where there were so many secrets, I could only ever be my own unreliable narrator. So I leaned into the way a story changes with each telling, the way we embellish, the way we confabulate because at the heart of all that is a true story. This is a story about a young boy who loses his father and in turn loses himself in his grief and is sent to stay with his grandfather in a country which has lost its freedom of expression to a totalitarian regime. It draws on my experiences growing up on both sides of the Iron Curtain during the Cold War.”
“I spent all my summers as a child, right up into my late teens, travelling to Poland. Sometimes I’d fly, sometimes I’d travel by coach, and sometimes I’d travel by train. Often I would travel alone,” Culbard continued. “There were times I’d be stood on the platform of a ghost station in Berlin at midnight surrounded by border officials with guns and barking dogs while our couchette was searched before we were allowed back on the train and on our way. And there were times when I would attend Solidarity rallies in Poland with family who were members of that movement.”
“There were a lot of experiences I could draw from but what I didn’t want to do was make it a story specifically about that time and place. Recollection is an act of imagination, whether something we are recounting happened or not. I didn’t really want to talk about how things were in a matter of fact manner because when we create art it’s not how something is, it’s how it feels, just as a memory is not how something was, it’s how something felt.”
Salamandre arrives on bookstore shelves December 20. Click through to see a preview from the early parts of the graphic novel—alongside exclusive commentary on each page courtesy of I.N.J. Culbard!