Interview: Zé Nuno Fraga

Illustrating Verissimus: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius

Illustrating Verissimus: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius

Zé is the illustrator of Verissimus: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius. He won best newcomer (“Revelation Award”) at the 30th annual National Comics Awards, in Portugal, organized by Festival Amadora BD in 2020. You can follow him on Instagram or Patreon.

How does this project compare to ones you’ve worked on before?

My previous comic was about an ancient Greek play, the Assemblywomen of Aristophanes. So although that one was a comedy, I didn’t have to change style very much. The main difference from Assemblywomen is that the facial expressions were exaggerated whereas now I have Stoic and philosophical characters doing deep sage expressions all the time.

What medium and methods are you using while illustrating?

I do the sketch and ‘inks’ in pencil and then I scan it and paint it digitally.

Can you tell us a little about your art influences?

My work strays from all of the mainstream superhero comic genre and even sword-and-sorcery. It’s actually the toga-and-sandals genre! As to influences, the names I’ll say are too good to be so, their quality is outside of my grasp, so to be more precise I admire them — Juan Gimenez, Sergio Toppi. Then outside of comic Pieter Brueghel and Hieronymus Bosch.

I drew very Manga-ish at the beginning because I’d copy Anime/Manga that I liked. But eventually my Manga absolutist phase ended and my style evolved to being more personal and more European but there can be Japanese traces too.

How did you get into illustrating comics?

I was studying computer engineering but I’d spend the classes drawing instead of paying attention to the professor. In time I became somewhat decent at it and decided I should study art. (That was silly, I was actually still terrible.) My father somehow let me do this instead of sending me to work on construction sites. If a son of mine does this to me, I’ll totally send him to construction or maybe to the mines.

I couldn’t go to fine arts as I didn’t have the required high school subjects, but I found that in Spain there were art studies I could attend so I went there as an artistic refugee and was granted asylum — actually, it was just 150 miles away! 🙂 I studied illustration and comics there. While I was there, I got to go on a student exchange program to Japan. So I became a refugee from my refuge and I had some Manga classes with a teacher who used an electronic translator to talk with me. But we mostly communicated through grunts, howls and facial expressions. The Portuguese were the first Europeans to reach Japan five centuries ago, their communication was probably similar.

Were you influenced by film as well?

Maybe subconsciously but I didn’t watch any movies to prepare for this. I did however watch many Roman movies/series throughout my life like Ben-Hur or the more recent HBO Rome. Donald did send me some Roman documentaries, I watched those.

How were you approached for this piece?

Donald and I were already doing small Stoic comic strips after we E-met and he liked my art. Then a senior editor for a big US publishing house saw the strips and suggested making a graphic novel.

What’s your favourite scene in Verissimus and why?

As an illustrator, the dream and prophetic sequences are the best. I can flee from the monotony of realism and draw rabid lion-headed men, women birthing monstrous snakes and other lovely things…

Who is your favourite character and why?

The unnamed slave tutor of young Marcus. He corrects Hadrian’s mistake while the noble court fawns. He was the first Verissimus who then passed the torch of truthfulness and Stoicism to Marcus. Also he farms and I like farming. This year, although the frost ruined all my pumpkin plants and mice ate all the beet roots, I thought to myself: be like the mighty slave tutor. So I let my beard grow and found strength!

What’s the most interesting thing that you learned about Marcus Aurelius?

As I had only read The Meditations, but nothing biographical on Marcus, it was good getting to know about his personal side and his struggles. For example, not cutting the heads of those who bad-mouthed his family. How many rulers with the power to do so didn’t cut off heads? How many heads would I have cut off by now if I was emperor?! None, I hope; many I suspect!

What is your favourite quote from Marcus Aurelius and what does it mean to you?

“Choose not to be harmed — and you won’t feel harmed. Don’t feel harmed — and you haven’t been.”

When I first read that, I found it funny how our current society functions opposite to it — “Choose to feel harmed when you haven’t been. Feel harmed and you have been.” — Antimarcus.

And also these:

“The things you think about determine the quality of your mind. Your soul takes on the color of your thoughts.”

“I can control my thoughts as necessary; then how can I be troubled? What is outside my mind means nothing to it. Absorb that lesson and your feet stand firm.” I decided to absorb that lesson!

Before reading the Stoics, I was always gloomy, depressed, and lamenting my circumstances; a hostage to my thoughts. Then I started arbitrating over those thoughts, purging every useless thought as soon as it popped into my head. Shortly after applying this mind discipline, those thoughts started diminishing until they ceased. This should be basic knowledge. Just as we learn to use our legs to walk, we should learn to use our brain.

It follows some biological workings, I’ve learned. The more we use certain neurological synapses, the more they grow and we get recurrently stuck in those thought patterns. Cease to use them and they wither away. So without any change to my circumstances, I was now a happy man and the quality of my life improved exponentially.

Also interesting to note how we have an arbiter over thoughts…and that we are the arbiter, not the thoughts. Is the artiber just another brain process or…the soul? Neurosurgeons have found that the process of choosing not to go forward with an action shows no brain activity. There’s the activity of the action, but no new activity in its canceling. It’s the mysterious arbiter!

What do you hope people will take away from this book?

How to manage barbarian hordes at the border of the empire! Not just literally, but philosophically as well! The empire is our mind. The barbarian hordes, the thoughts.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *