Crema is a haunted romance based partially in a New York’s coffee shop and partially in a coffee plantation from Brazil. It stars Esme, a barista that, when she drinks too much coffee, sees ghosts. That’s how she started seeing her ghost best friend, Gerry, when she was a child. She meets Yara, the owner of the coffee shop and the coffee pharm that brings that coffee, and they fall in love. That coffee shop is haunted by the ghost of an old-world nobleman, who gives Esme a love letter that she must bring to Brazil.
This mesmerizing fictional world is brought to the page by the words of Johnnie Christmas (Tartarus, Angel Catbird, Firebug) and the art of Dante Luiz (Filthy Figments, MAÑANA, Gothic Tales of Haunted Love), and our own reporter Duna had the pleasure of sitting with Johnnie for a talk on his characters and the world he created in Crema. Here’s a summary transcription of the result, and, at the end of it, a 25+ mins audio cut of this conversation if you want to get more dive deep into it.
Comic Watch: So, a friend and I decided to do a review together for Crema after talking about it, and I think that is fitting to how much this book is very about relationships and people relating to each other. How was this process of getting these relationships to work on the page?
Johnnie Christmas: It was just kind of thinking back to relationships I’ve had or I’ve witnessed. And then trying to really get to the heart of who the characters were, and where they were in life, and what was going on with them, and what they really wanted. Just like, the basic day-to-day wants and needs. Coming up with two different people on paper, you put them together and you see what happens, the friction there.
Esme feels invisible, so she feels like no one sees her, and Yara is dazzling, so everybody sees her. And you get those two people in a room, and something very interesting is gonna happen. And working with Dante, Dante brought wonderful dimension to the acting, and the physically of the characters around each other. A lot of it was just him showcasing the love between the characters, and the fears, and the anxieties, and the hopes and all that wonderful stuff.
CW: I’m also mesmerized by the surroundings. Things happen to characters but they also happen to coffee, and to places; and I wonder how much you explore about the practical part of how the coffee is made and how much about your emotions with coffee.
JC: I did so much coffee research on production, on how it’s served, type of machinery… Like copious amounts of research on coffee beans… And in the end that informed the book, but that book was more about the characters emotionally. All of that was like learning how to do math so I could do this one math problem.
So, all that research came in handy in the characters. When Esme talks about the art of making coffee, it feels like love. When Yara talks about the production of coffee, it sounds like being trapped. So I loved having all of that research inform where they felt in their lives, what the coffee shop or the coffee pharm meant to them. Tons of research and hanging out in coffee shops and trying to really understand the world of coffee and put it subtly and inform the entire world.
CW: Another interest of this book is it is a ghost story, how does the metaphor of ghosts works for you in this comic?
JC: Yeah, I thought of the ghost, again, like the coffee, as a metaphor for our characters. Esme feels unseen, so much so that I thought it was interesting to have her see the unseen world. This unseen presence is how she feels in the world. And with Yara, the ghosts represent secrecies, family histories and spooky things from the past, that she might want not to have part of it, and now she has to confort.
Having the ghost metaphor was really helpful, cause when things get ahead in the story, without giving too much away, they’re no longer a hidden element, like everything is out in the open.
CW: Talking about how things unfold in this story, and about the decisions of how you show love in this comic. As a queer woman, I feel like in our stories the conflict usually revolves around homophobia, and it’s not about these complex histories, mental health, secrets, history. In Crema, I like the decisions of showcasing relationships that are nurturing (both romantic and platonic). What is behind these decisions?
JC: I know, as a black person, that a lot of stories that are told about black people are about racism. It’s not about what you want, your hopes and your dreams and your fears and all that other stuff. All the stuff that the world tries to throws on top of you, is what the world is storing in top of you. You’re still dealing with your own stuff, and that’s something you have to confront. But what drives you, what gets you through the day, is the stuff that’s inside, y’know, dealing with your family, your neighborhood.
So I think about my characters, and this being a queer relationship, that the things that are pushing and motivating them, aren’t what other people think about them. It’s about them trying to reconcile their feelings and wants, and what they’re gonna do about it. I want to look from inside out instead of what the world is thinking from the outside in. And as for other relationships, how would for example Gerry feel about like, she’s been a movie star and now she’s a ghost, but, suddenly this child sees her. So she cares about her deeply, she’s being with this kid for like 10 years. And for Esme, she feels like the world doesn’t see her, but she has this one friend, a fame TV star.
I think once you get to the heart of who your characters are, and you sit and empathise with them, and try to go through the steps of their day, you can see a little bit better, as best as you can. Cause it’s hard to see from anyone’s perspective if you haven’t walked the mile in their shoes, but it especially helps talking to other people who might have that experience, if they’re generous with their time and experiences, and there’s a lot that can be learned there.
CW: Focusing on the evil of this book, without giving too much away, this character is described as an “insatiable appetite”, and I guess I just wanna ask if you have something that lets you to decide this is the evil that they’re gonna face.
JC: Again going to the heart of who these characters are, once you get there and you start looking out, you start seeing larger themes. So we have a character who’s been writing a love letter for a hundred years, not being able to let things go or move on. And you start wondering what would that person be like in life, they’re probably trying to collect and control things. After that, you start adding to what this person would be doing in that point in that point in time with certain amount of resources, who would that person probably be in society.
So after I started to think about that character in particular, so much other stuff became so much easier. It’s almost like the coffee research, you have to throw a lot of things out, cause this whole incredible backstory started to unfold, and I took a part of it.
I thought it was interesting to have within a love story, having a character that, from their perspective is very much in love, but, it might not be read as love because it probably isn’t, it’s probably something else.
CW: I like that Esme feels conflicted, sometimes even positive, emotions throughout the story towards this character and the conflict.
JC: Y’know, there Esme is falling in love, and she sees someone that she can connect with someone that is appearing to be in love. And yeah…Now my mind is spinning on the different ways in which they get on. And why Esme felt obliged to honor a request by this person in the name of love.
CW: I think that highlights how the story is about the complexity and credibility of these characters, and relationships like the one between Esme and Gerry, where they feel really like human beings, like kind of “weird” and complicated people relating to each other.
JC: Yeah, with Esme and Gerry, I think a lot of us in geek or nerd culture, you’re more reserved in the outer world, but when you’re around people who you really feel comfortable with then you can be more yourself. So Esme is never mean to anybody but she can be mean to Gerry. And that complexity of her being a sympathetic character, but like also a real person, cause she can have moments when she might have an outburst… I guess I just don’t like when characters are too spark and shiny.
Everyone has lots of areas of grey. And a lot of this book is how Esme deals with the world, and how she feels in that moment, and that might not be perfect. Whether with other characters, the thing they represent is just the seeds of bad stuff. They come from a bad place, from terrible intentions.
CW: What other books or other creative stuff would you recommend to people who might want to get into Crema, or that connects with your vision of the book?
JC: I’m gonna cheat on this question and recommend a movie instead of a book. Cause I always go back to Brokeback Mountain, especially for the emotional complexity of the characters, and cause it’s so quiet that you have to lean in, cause everything is so quiet. So I thought about that movie a lot, in terms of some things we talked like character design, character wants and needs, and dealing with the world.
CW: Lastly, thank you so much for having this talk with us, and if you want to say something more at the end to people who read Crema and are touched by it or interested by it.
JC: Well, it just came out, so I’m very happy to hear that is resonating in people, cause it’s something that’s been on my head and Dante’s for more than a year now, and you can’t imagine how much it means to me that is connecting, thank you. Thanks to everyone who’s given the book a chance and spend some time with it.
It’s a hard time right now, there’s a lot going on, and I think a book like Crema is nice cause it’s sweet love story, nice beautiful novela type-framework. I just hope it’s able to bring a little bit of light, coffee, and a little bit of jolt, in a good way, to anyone who reads it. And sharing our fun wacky little world.
The Unseen World Behind Crema: An Interview With Johnnie Christmas
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