Interview: Mexicali artist Jose Pimienta’s Suncatcher weathers the storm of loss, creativity and friendship

Suncatcher by Jose Pimienta. Pic Credit: Random House Graphic

Capturing the energy of making music is not an easy thing to do, but artist Jose Pimienta makes it look easy. The Mexicali-born illustrator is increasing his profile in the comics scene with his selective color palette and expressive lines. His art can be described as transportive, emotional, and full of life. He is about to step into the limelight with his new original Random House Graphic novel, Suncatcher, out today, May 19th.

Pimienta emerged as many do, with short stories, before getting the itch to write and draw his own graphic novel about music in 2008. But, because he had never drawn or written anything of that length or depth, he didn’t think he was ready yet.

In 2010, the Los Angeles based artist got a gig drawing for Van Jensen’s Mexican western tale The Leg.

In 2016, Pimienta was hired again for the Depression-era coming-of-age story Soupy Leaves Home, written by YA novelist and comics scribe Cecil Castellucci (Shade the Changing Girl). Together they made a deeply moving book about two restless souls in search of identity and a place to call home. Soupy soon landed on the Amelia Bloomer List, which awards well-written and well-illustrated stories with significant feminist content for young readers.

Pimienta was finally ready.

He threw out what was previously done and started from scratch. Years would pass until Suncatcher was complete. The story centers around  a young Baja guitar player named Beatriz who is just beginning to develop as an artist while attempting to fulfill her grandfather’s life dreams of writing one great song–a difficult task to bear, especially during her formative years. Young readers will find themes of family and loss relatable.

Will Beatriz and her band burn and fizzle out as so many musicians and bands often do, or will she push herself to a place of solitude and despair?

Monsters and Critics had the pleasure of speaking with Jose Pimienta about his early work, the thought  and craft in making Suncatcher with exclusive looks at some of the interior pages.

Soupy Leaves Home
Soupy Leaves Home by Cecil Castellucci and Jose Pimienta. Credit: Dark Horse Comics

M&C: What did you learn out of that collaboration (with Cecil) and what was it like working on the Soupy material and themes?

Jose Pimienta: I learned a lot from Cecil (Thank you, Cecil! You’re amazing!) The first thing that comes to mind is how re-writing keeps happening, even at the lettering stage. Working on Soupy was nothing short of a delightful experience. Cecil’s story captured a type of wonder and friendship amongst characters that I was happy to meet. So, I took notes on how could I apply some of those traits into my own story.

I think of it as good fortune and a privilege that Cecil’s story, as well as Van’s and Suncatcher have some overlapping tones. I also learned a lot from Cecil, Van, and other writers. It helped me improve. 

M&C: Was there a creative transition for you, given the weight of Soupy, and then came to doing everything in a looser, sort of free-spirit kind of tale in Suncatcher?

JP: The biggest transition I had to learn to do was on the writing stage, which is also the first, yet most ongoing stage. I had to learn how to read, re-read, re-read again and ask myself if the story was working on a big-picture sense, instead of just vignettes. Sometimes I had to re-write or adjust some elements, while keeping the over-all arc the same. 

But the rest of the process was similar to my previous works. I took what I thought was a solid structure for a story and developed thumbnails. I made adjustments to things that made more sense visually, rather than textual. Then I penciled the whole book. 

M&C: This is a youthful experience out of Mexicali; it’s full of spirit, creativity and is not tainted by the reality of working in corporate media. There’s something very pure and idealistic about Suncatcher. Were those feelings ones you were trying to convey the culture of living young and care free in Baja?

JP: The short answer is yes, but it also aligns with the feelings that some music evokes: That raw, unpolished, and, dare I say, amateur angle to making music, which is more common during teenage-hood. I can’t speak for all of Baja, but Mexicali’s music scene definitely had that feeling.

Suncatcher Page 14
Suncatcher Page 14 by Jose Pimienta. Credit: Random House Graphic

M&C: Beatriz and her grandfather’s bond is so strong, even after his passing. However, her relationship with her parents is nonexistent. Why is that? Or is that just out of our reach as a reader? 

JP: Yeah! Beatriz’ parents never speak in the book. They make appearances, but they’re not very active. In the initial stages of writing, I was only focusing on Beatriz’s relationship with her band and with her grandfather because those were the characters she was interacting with about music.

So, any other appearances such as teachers or parents, were not on my radar. Eventually the question rose of “Where are her parents during all this?” and I figured, well, “What can they add to the story without making it longer than it already is?” And then I took it as challenge to include her parents in scenes, but what if they don’t talk?

M&C: Halfway in we start getting different “voices” besides the members in the band, and Beatriz begins internalizing. Is there Mexican lore you’re drawing from at this stage of the book? 

JP: In short, yes, but not specifically. It may be part of my Mexican ancestry, or personal taste, but I love magical realism. I love the question of “What if there’s more to it?”

That element of the story, without giving much away, was the most difficult one to write, because the initial idea came from the (bluesman) Robert Johnson myth, but I was making my setting Mexicali, and I wanted to talk about some of my family’s background, but also keeping in mind that I’m not an expert on folklore, so I had to be careful and mindful of what I was going to portray and how.

I asked some of my relatives for advice on how to tackle that part of the story and I’m happy with the result, but I make no secret that it was an amalgam of various elements.  

M&C: Beatriz is almost burdened by carrying this torch given to her.  Those who experience tragic loss at a young age carry, tend to age quick. As a result, she appears to be missing some joy outside of music. Is this a quality you wanted to explore in Beatriz?

JP: For sure. I think that Beatriz, as a child had such a strong connection to her grandfather over music that, once she lost him, that’s all she was interested in acquiring–a bond that strong.

One of her biggest weaknesses is that she makes little to no effort of connecting with people if it’s not music related. That’s also part of her journey. She is seeking to connect with people the way she did with her grandfather when she was young. She’s not great at it, but she has great friends to help her.

Suncatcher Page 16
Suncatcher Page 16 by Jose Pimienta. Credit: Random House Graphic

M&C: A lovely outside voice that I enjoyed seeing get added into the mix was the producer, Laura, because she finally gave some validation to Beatriz’s work, something creative people need for sustenance.

JP: Yes, I wanted Laura to be the mentor a lot of us creatives would like to have in our lives. Someone who gets us, but also has critical input on how to improve and what we need to let go. If Beatriz’ passion for music is what helps her connect with others, then she also has to learn to listen to others. Laura helped her with that. 

This isn’t a spoiler, but yes, from their introduction, I made it clear that this band transcends themselves when they make music together. They listen to each other, play off back and forth, and, well, they really want to do music. Reciprocal communication is essential for growth.   

M&C: Laura cuts through a lot of the noise that’s suffocating Beatriz as a creative, but then again, I found myself really rooting for her, almost urging her with my eyes to breakout on her own, but this little band doesn’t give up on each other, no?

JP: That is a great point, but important for anyone who has already read the book: If I’d taken the story in the direction of Beatriz breaking off on her own, I feel that would have also validated her obsessive behavior and deliberate isolation. I didn’t want to do that because it seems like an unhealthy message. A success, I believe, has to be somewhere between pushing yourself to improve without creating trauma. Also, I love seeing Mexicali bands be successful, so I definitely wanted them to come on top, haha. 

Suncatcher Page 7
Suncatcher Page 7 by Jose Pimienta. Pic Credit: Random House Graphic

M&C: You’re heavily influenced by music; even though it is about a guitar player, I feel like the story is relatable to any artist struggling to get their art finished and out there; how much of yourself is in this?

JP: Well, the story is one-hundred percent personal, but not autobiographic. All the characters are based on a mix-&-match of real people in my life. Even though I made this book, specifically about music, yes, I do agree that it can be applied to any creative medium.

It’s about how an art form can make us feel and walking that tightrope between dedication and obsession. It’s also about communicating with others who share your passion and making sure that communication is a two-way road.

M&C: A few times I really wished I had a soundtrack to listen to was that I really wanted to hear the song that Beatriz plays when she goes over Fausto’s home as he and his significant other were catching a vibe, but something unravels between that recording session and when the band records, right? 

JP: Yeah, that’s a big turning point in the story. She’s basically playing what she has crafted on her own, saying that that’s the direction she wants everyone to follow. By that point, she’s creating the wedge between her and her bandmates. The song may be really good, but she’s doing it without her bandmates’ input. She has great ideas and talent, but what’s the point of collaborating if you’re not going to be considerate? 

Suncatcher Cover
Cover to Suncatcher, an original graphic novel by Jose Pimienta. Pic Credit: Random House Graphic

M&C: I feel like I needed some good Mexicali sounds to listen to, what albums would you recommend someone to start with? 

JP: And here’s where we can spend all day (sharing). I think it’d be cool if while reading it, the reader can listen to their favorite album or their favorite musicians to make the experience more personal. But if I may recommend Mexicali musicians, then here’s a few: Letters from Readers (Dot Dash is my favorite album of his), Los Martes, Chelsea’s 6 Mexicanos y 1 Chino, Carolina en Llamas, Los Garcia, Activistas Del Amor, Todo Mal, Panama Papers, Silent, Los Chapulines. Some of them you can find on Spotify or Youtube.

M&C: What else do you want people to walk away from Suncatcher?

JP: Hmm… I hope Suncatcher can offer another perspective on how to pursue creativity and that the creative process only improves with people you share a bond with. I hope that as soon as someone finishes reading it, they’ll want to talk about their favorite musicians and songs and what makes them so special to them. I want readers to come away with a positive and uplifting feeling. 

Check out Monsters and Critics’ exclusive 13 page preview below. Suncatcher is out May 19th, wherever books and comics are sold and is published by Random House Graphic. It is recommended for kids 12 and up and is available in hardcover for $24.99, paperback for $16.99 and also digitally through Comixology.

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