It sounds like a well known joke: an American and an Argentinian walk into the Greek War of Independence. How did this happen?
CJ: I’m still asking myself that 10 years later. Since birth I seem to find myself caught within these sort of— obsessive surges, where I get locked into something and then obsess about it at the expense of my mental stability. Months will pass unnoticed and the structure of time diminishes. Until at some point, I surface with some kind of result, and then typically a new one begins and repeat the cycle. That said, none of them have lasted this long. For whatever reason, this one held on for nearly a decade. Initially it was a conversation with a Greek friend of mine that led to the reading of every English language book I could find about the Revolution and inevitably to the writing of Sons of Chaos.
Do you have any personal connection to Greece?
CJ: Far more than I ever meant to, as you can see from this undertaking. I know more about this war than any war my country has been involved in, which says a lot seeing how unfortunately active our military tends to be.
My initial connection was my best friend Nick, who introduced me to the subject matter. Knowing that I had directed movies and wrote scripts, he kept pushing 1821 on me, trying to convince me it would make a good movie. Since that time, I have been blessed to acquire a plethora of Greek friends and families that have become a part of my life along the way.
Have you visited when researching? What was your impression of today’s Greece?
CJ: During the initial research stages, I spent about five weeks driving from one side of the country to the other. The only time I could break away from LA for that long was over the holiday break, during December and January so I spent Christmas and New Years in random places while getting an overview of the feeling and geography of Greece. There was one day I swam out around Monemvassia to get a visual sense of the space. The winter water on that joyous December morning was not inviting by any means, but after an immense amount of whining, somehow I forced myself to do it thankfully. After which, I drove up through the Peloponnesus and worked my way up to Ioannina where massive balls of ice filled the mountain roads. In many ways, Greece resembles Southern California where I’m from. A lot of the terrain is very similar. Climbing the hills leading up to the cave of Odysseas Androutsos felt exactly the same as the mountain ranges outside of Los Angeles.
My impression of Greece was very different from what is typically associated with Greece, as I was there in the cold and often alone. I was stranded on Siros for days due to winds and it was like a ghost town. I was the only human on Kamari Beach in Santorini and had the majority of the island to myself. Hydra was desolate aside from a dog I befriended who accompanied me up into the hills where I wandered for hours. There were no parties or clubs or chaos. It was quite the opposite and a type of beauty that probably doesn’t exist in the warmer months. The isolation presented a silence that allowed my mind the space to fill in the images surrounding the events I had been reading about. It played out in my head continuously, filling in a meaning quite different from my typical travels. Seeing the spaces that would typically be satiated with tourists, filled with imaginary bloodshed— and individuals lacking the capacity to focus on luxury problems, living in moment to moment uncertainty. This is a very different way to look at a space or a country. My impression is honestly waiting to be formed, as I have not yet had the chance to actually experience Greece and discern what it is now. I’m looking forward to that actually.
How many years have you devoted on this monumental work? where there times that you just wanted to quit?
The initial conversations began about 10 years ago and there were many stages in the process, as well as other projects I stopped to make along the way, and yes— quitting was sounding appealing many many times, but somehow I had enough support and people I didn’t want to disappoint that managed to keep me going. That said, there were months along the way I needed to stop and let my mind breathe and rebalance. Many sleepless nights for weeks at a time as I tried to dissect what the hell I was doing, ongoing migraines, and even a few hospital visits, but at a point you are too far in to stop. Thankfully, I kept going and am getting to talk to you now because of it.
Why Souli? or, Botsaris? Why did you choose him as your hero?
In my mind, when I initially started reading about the Souliotes the images were so intense and cinematic. My brain seemed to commercialize their reality and imagining a very false version of a Disney cartoon, almost like a tribal Robin Hood type of existence of superhuman heroes fighting off the enemy. That fantasy grew until at some point I slowed down enough to realize— these aren’t cartoons and they were not superheroes, and I imagined being a child born into this reality. A world of extreme chaos that has nothing to do with you aside from being attached to the parents that conceived you. A result based on absolute random chance has placed you amidst a reality of instability and overwhelming violence— a life of absolute uncertainty. For whatever reason, my mind pulled itself inside the perspective of a child standing in the middle of Souli during the attacks ordered by Ali Pasha. And it started coming to life enough for me want to use this as a launching point for the story.
Markos Botsaris and his family were connected to these events and had ongoing tension with Ali Pasha that carried on throughout the death of his father Kitsos and through the eventual death of Ali. These events seemed like a good way to introduce the subject to a non-Greek audience and throughout my research in many ways my conclusions led me to believe that the uprising gained significant momentum due to Ali’s lack of interest in being led by the Sultan and his lack of concern for the Ottoman Empire as a whole. Had there been different leadership in Ioannina driving the Sultan’s agenda forward the uprising may have had significantly different results. This led to the decision to follow the story of Ali and expose the agenda that drove him to make the decisions he made, which in my hypothesis, empowered Greece in a back-handed way that led to a momentum that might not have existed otherwise. Of course these are theories and I’m sure plenty of arguments will be posed to diminish this concept, however I believe in it and that’s a part of the story I tell.
Most of those elements are told metaphorically through Ali’s relationship with Markos who is more of a symbol for Greece than the actual man. The character Markos portrays could have been named anyone to be honest and for the Greek audience that may have been a better decision, because after Markos’s character is introduced, the rest of the story uses him as a host to introduce the reader to highlights and key moments throughout the Revolution, while engaging in a fictionalized psychologically-fueled story line with Ali Pasha that represents the internal prison that he, and many Greeks were placed in by Ali’s actions and the uncertainty of the circumstances imposed upon them. The idea of using Markos Botsaris as opposed to an unarmed fictional Greek was questionable, however throughout my life watching movies stimulated my desire to learn. Watching Braveheart made me want to learn about William Wallace. Even though the truth of William Wallace was very different from how it was portrayed in Braveheart, it didn’t matter. Braveheart made me reach to learn more. I was afraid that if the main character of the story was completely fictional, the non-Greek audience would be less inclined to see this as an actual war and a part of history. That said, there are many factual elements and qualities of Markos Botsaris’s life that are weaved throughout his story and into his character, though many times it is more symbolic than direct. Without spoiling the ending of the book, obviously the death of Markos’s father Kitsos happened differently than it is portrayed. However, the actual death was ordered by Ali and Markos was not directly involved. What I did added more layers of Ali’s manipulation and the psychological entrapment Markos suffered from not being able to save him, blaming himself. At the end of the day, the interpretation is left for the reader to look into it as thoroughly or thoughtlessly as they choose and my strategy was to use these elements to bring this event further to life to the rest of the world.
Argentina has a huge tradition in graphic novels and arts as well a lot of common struggles with Greece. Was that a reason for the collaboration?
That makes it sound far more meaningful than it actually was, so probably I should just agree with you. Those dynamics may have played a role in the harsh, visceral sense that resonates within the telling of the story and the artwork, as Ale has a vicious emotional intensity that comes across in every panel. He works in ink and is unforgiving. There is nothing digital— it is raw and intentional and you can feel it in his work.
A friend suggested that in some way your work is original as well as a tribute to “300” at the same time.
It was never intended as a tribute, but the comparison is impossible to avoid. The cover art resembles a helmet from that period and is typically interpreted as something out of 300. It’s also very rare to work in a wide panoramic format and tell historically-driven stories within the graphic novel or comic book medium. That said, I’m thrilled an honored to have the book associated with 300 in any manner. But the audience should realize, the helmet on the cover of the book is not a mistake. It would be amazing if after years of work, we didn’t realize we were using armor from an entirely different era. That said, I am an American, so who knows? Haha
Where does fiction and history meet? how literal can an artist be, when his subject is that grand? how free can you be, while respecting History?
There’s no real solid answer to that question I think. No matter what direction you go, you will never make everyone happy. I can explain each and every moment and why I fictionalized this or that and some people will love it and others will want to punch me. And that’s perfect. That means we are talking about something people care about, as opposed to nobody talking about it at all. Just like the helmet example. The artistic choice to have Muhktar, Ali Pasha’s son wearing a helmet that represents something more commonly worn in Ancient Hellas is obviously a choice. In the world outside of Greece, they just see an interesting looking helmet, however the simple act of presenting a helmet like this and the number 1821 is enough to set off a psychological riot in the right crowd. I can’t define the parameters of what is okay or not okay when you retell stories from history. I think most history books are fictional. Most stories have a bias. That’s true whether it’s a move, a documentary, a history book, or a news story. I don’t know much about the Greek press, but I can’t say that all of the US-based outlets aren’t fictionalizing the stories they tell. You just do what feels best for what you are trying to achieve. My goal wasn’t to fight about Greek history. It was to honor an unknown piece of history that defined the world we are currently living in and make it know the world outside of Greece. Not to tell you your history, but to get others talking about it— knowing about it— looking further to understand more about the world we live in, and about those the made sacrifices for the luxuries we are currently embracing. And that’s not to say, we don’t suffer and struggle, but we aren’t typically spending our days worried about being slaughtered. At least not throughout most of the world.
Have any greek publishing houses contacted you? Are we any closer to a greek edition?
Not sure how close we are. The book is massive and expensive to produce which poses a challenge for publishers. On top of the fact that I think because of my liberties and symbolic use of Markos Botsaris introduces a concern, which is ironic as I’ve sent the book to a few of the living Botsaris’s who have seemingly loved it and we’ve become friends. Probably changing the names for a Greek version would eradicate that fear, however that doesn’t change what the book is— the book stands as an introduction and a representation of an epic undertaking that has gone somewhat unnoticed in the world outside of Greece and the symbolic telling of a human placed within this inconceivable reality trying to find his way. It makes sense that the book would inevitably find a home in Greece and I assume at some point it will find the right one.
Were other countries interested?
It currently exists in all English language countries. Have had inquiries beginning from Japan and Germany. Haha
Have you had any moving or funny moments with the Greek American community while presenting the novel?
There have been a few moments that stand out— one woman found me at San Diego Comicon after reading the book and she was shaking and quivering and couldn’t get her words out as she was so affected by the story. Those are by far the most meaningful. The funny ones are typically when people think I put Spartan helmets on the 1821 Greeks after seeing the cover. But the most surprising thing and most common thing said by far is— I’ve never heard of this war.
You will visit Athens for AthensCon, end of November. What do you expect?
Hahah. Hmmm. I have had communication with so many supportive Greeks and the crew from AthensCon is so overwhelmingly wonderful that I think it’s going to be a pretty epic event. That said, I’m sure there will be unexpected surprises, I’m just hopeful they are good ones. I’ve never been in a position like this so it’s hard to ascertain what’s ahead, but I can say it means a lot to me to get to celebrate this massive undertaking with the people from the place that has become such an important part of my life. I’m looking forward to all of it.