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SYFY WIRE Interviews

Polar: How an indie webcomic made the leap to Netflix Original

By Alex Dueben
Polar – The Kaiser Falls cover

Victor Santos has worked as a comics creator in the U.S. and Europe for DC, Soleil, Image, and more on a number of different titles. These days, however, most people might know his name from Netflix, as the streaming service recently adapted his 2012 comic series Polar into a movie starring Mads Mikkelsen as Black Kaiser, a spy who's pulled out of retirement after an attempt on his life.

Polar, now directed by Jonas Åkerlund, began life as a webcomic before Dark Horse Comics eventually collected the series into five volumes. SYFY WIRE spoke with Santos about Polar's origins, working with Netflix, and Mads Mikkelsen.

You were making this as a webcomic you posted online for years. Why did you go that route?

Initially, the webcomic was born as an exercise in style for myself. I had been doing a lot of franchise jobs. The editors were cool and let me do my thing, but the deadlines were tight. I needed to connect again with the joy of drawing something for fun. I began to upload it to the internet as a promotion tool, simply thinking "maybe an editor will see and give me a job in a similar book."

You're mostly known as an artist. When you sat down to write Polar, what kind of story were you interested in telling?

I had written a lot of stuff in Spain, for myself and for other artists too. But this time I wanted to focus on storytelling and composition. That was the reason for the minimalistic style, the limited colors, and originally the lack of dialogue. Stark and crude action was the best vehicle for this. I love Will Eisner's The Spirit and I wanted an iconic main character, somebody you could recognize even in the most strange angles or drawings.

Initially, it was an exercise so I hadn't thought beyond the first scene, the cabin shoot-out. But when I was finishing that scene, I decided I wanted to continue. I was enjoying it so much! When I finished that first "season" and I decided to continue, and the first book appeared, I tried to keep the series fresh. I wanted every season/book to be different, even with common elements and Black Kaiser in them, but trying to challenge myself and the reader with different approaches, storytelling, styles in every chapter.

So how did Polar go from a comic you were posting for free online and doing between paid gigs to being a movie?

It could sound cliché, but sometimes you need to be in the right place at the right time.

Obviously, if you don't have any work to offer, you cannot create the chance. Polar had something special, the book was the sum of a lot of previous works I had been drawing and sometimes writing. When I finished the first season of the webcomic I put together the pages and showed them to Jim Gibbons, an editor I met briefly doing a short story for the Dark Horse Presents magazine.

Polar, Dark Horse

He really believed in the potential of the series and got the approval, and we worked together on the final version. I had made a list of publishers and Dark Horse was my first option. During the print proofs, Chris Tongue from Dark Horse Entertainment saw the first book and offered to represent the rights. DHE did the first steps, produced a first script, and later Constantin Films joined with an option.

It was in development hell for almost three years. Luckily Mikkelsen and Åkerlund signed and Netflix came and the filming began almost immediately.

What was your involvement in the film's production?

I helped mainly in the first steps. I made suggestions for the first drafts. I thought they were being kind but I saw some of these suggestions in the final draft. I remember they asked me about the casting. I drew some poster purposes for the American Films Market when the movie was searching for funds and I have been collaborating with Netflix USA and Netflix Spain in the promotion.

In a recent interview, Mads Mikkelsen mentioned his love of the comic and its visual imagination as one reason he signed onto the film.

Oh, that was so nice! I can't thank Mads Mikkelsen enough. He really understood the character. You could say, "Well, this is an action story, there is nothing to understand, just kill those guys!"

But he's not an action hero. Black Kaiser is a professional, pragmatic guy, but twisted at the same time. We really don't know what he's thinking. We only can see his actions and reactions. You must build the character in a very subtle way and Mads added background and depth to him. He's kick-ass and tough and scary, but sometimes almost naïve, when he tries to adapt to the normal world. It's wonderful to see how he took those elements and made them his own.

Have you seen the movie?

Norma Editorial, the publisher of Polar in Spain, and Netflix Spain arranged a premiere in Barcelona at the Phenomena, a wonderful big theatre in the old fashioned style. You can feel the love for cinema entering the hall of that place. Watching it was wonderful. The place was crowded: fans of Mads or the books, press, friends, my wife, and my parents. We really had a great time.

And people really enjoyed the movie. They laughed in the dark humor moments and they applauded in the most violent scenes. [laughs]

I really loved the final result. My worst fear was the movie would be too generic or soft. My purpose with Polar the book was always to expand the tools and resources to make comics, and I wanted the same for the movie. Jonas Åkerlund surpassed my expectations. It's a daring and very brave movie.