When you illustrate, you continue evolving till the day you die


Kanellos Cob

Comics are cinema shot on paper

Text: Chryssa Nanou
Kanellos Cob

Kanellos Cob is a director. Only, instead of directing the camera, he shoots scenes with his pens. “I view comics like the cinema. They are for people who want to become directors. The narration is entirely cinematic, minus the sound. Comic books are films shot on paper, and the shots I choose are cinematic,” says the multifaceted illustrator and comics creator.

Born in Athens in 1985, he studied conservation of works of art and antiquities in the same city before leaving for France to learn illustration and comics. “At 22, it hit me: What was I doing with my life? Well, I’d been sketching since I remember myself, and that’s why I was drawn to illustration,” Kanellos explains. “I didn’t want to attend the school of fine arts. I was interested in hands-on, technical matters rather than theoretical pursuits.”

It wasn’t just his studies in France but the decade he spent there that strongly influenced his work. “I lived in France for ten years. I feel at home there, more than in Greece. The French have a huge culture of illustration and comics, a lot to give you, and this nurtures, educates, shapes you anew. Because I arrived when I was 25 years old, I already had a culture, including from art conservation: I had internalized aesthetics and movements. In France, I managed to add more to these. I managed to find my lines, which is the alpha and the omega. In drawing, each artist’s lines are like their fingerprint. We all have influences, artists we admire, and your hand tends to mimic those you admire. But through the years, it becomes your own entirely. This, to me, is important; both in comics and in illustration, the moment you find your style is important. It is a constant, ongoing project. Finding your lines takes patience and work.”

From his time at Lyon’s École Émile Cohl, from which he graduated with distinction, the Greek artist learned to work with discipline, to tight deadlines. “It was like being in the army. The main approach was what I’d call ‘shut up and draw!’ and it gave me great discipline. We students would arrange to go to our tutors’ office to explain that we don’t have enough time for the coursework – but they would retort, ‘So how are you going to manage when you’re working on a big project?’ In essence, they prepare you for the job market. The job doesn’t pay well so you have to always take on new projects. And this has created a routine from which I don’t escape. When I start working on a graphic novel, I know I have to draw up the entire year’s timeline – know when I’ll have received the inks, when the storyboard will be ready, and so on.”

Kanellos thinks that his chosen profession of drawing and illustration comes with great risk. “I knew it’s a difficult profession. Nobody is going to sort out your licenses and you keep dealing with uncertainty. The first few years I sent out so many CVs… I now count eight years of professional experience and it’s the projects that find me, fortunately – from collaborations with magazines and publishers to record companies and mural commissions. When you’re in illustration, you never stop evolving. You can never say ‘that’s how far my hand can go’; you continue evolving till the day you die.”

Among his career milestones is his graphic novel of Andreas Karkavitsas’s The Beggar, originally written in 1897, which he published on Polaris. “I was in Canada when they sent me The Beggar to read on PDF. I somewhat remembered part of the story, but I was blown away when I read the novella. It is a distinctly social, political and psychographic text from 120 years ago. Reading it, I thought that it is the definition of a classic. I did it with all my heart, read the text several times. I did not find it grim. What I loved is that the author departed from the typical hero story, the idea that good always wins. In essence, The Beggar deals with naturalism, realism – not fairy tales.”

This year, Kanellos Cob is the artist behind the official poster of the 24th Thessaloniki Documentary Festival, which brought him closer to his love for cinema. “When I illustrate, I choose to speak in surreal and poetic terms. These represent my style, my vision and my ideas. Using these elements of the surreal and poetic, I pitched two ideas when I heard that the theme was ‘post-reality’. We agreed on a human form with no facial characteristics. I left an emptiness, like those cutout boards at the fairground you put your head through and become Superman. You and me, we are the people on the poster, as we climb high up to see the post-reality that’s hiding in the mist, behind the obstacles. We’ve had the pandemic and the war, and you end up looking without knowing what you’re looking at. There is also a bird on the poster, to convey the exotic – the unknown.”

He would like to work on ancient Greek tragedies – not their classical versions but some sort of adaptation: “In a futuristic world, I think. For instance, Aeschylus and a story about symbols. Symbols are the most direct way to express the meaning you want to convey. In this sense, caricatures are not just those sketches you see of politicians with huge ears. A caricature is an exaggeration. I’ll give you a message through exaggerating so you won’t have to think it twice.”

Among his personal projects is Random Urbanisme: illustrations of cities he has lived in or visited. The series starts with his birthplace, Athens. “I spent two years on this project. I didn’t want to depict Athens as an attraction but as a city full of political, social and psychological contrasts. This is why I chose a long, narrow canvas, like I’ve taken you by the hand on a city walk, where I’ll notice something and you’ll notice something else.”

And if he wanted to do the same for Thessaloniki? “I’ve only visited a few times but when I close my eyes and think about it, it’s the sunset that comes to mind, with the light changing everything, even textures. I think about this bright scene at the port. You think you’ve landed in the middle of Lord of the Rings or a sci-fi film. I see Thessaloniki like it’s a filter on my eyes, I think of rock bands such as Ksilina Spathia and Trypes, as well as the unique architecture that you don’t find anywhere else in Greece. When I visit again, I will certainly walk the entire city.”