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A Discussion With Colleen Doran By Derek Handley
According to Neil Gaiman, Colleen Doran has the looks of an angel and the laugh of a devil. Warren Ellis has total faith in her work, and Keith Giffen asked the acclaimed artist to work on Legion of Super-Heroes based on her fanzine. She doesn't get half the credit that's due her, and as someone who did her first professional artwork at the age of 15, she's due a lot of credit. And this year is one of her best ever, with projects ranging from Vertigo's Orbiter (with Ellis), to Reign of the Zodiac (with Giffen), to The Complete Tolkien Sourcebook, to her own A Distant Soil (published by Image). Surprisingly, she even finds the time to write columns for Slushfactory.com.
She generously took a break from her overloaded schedule to answer a range of questions on her current work and her career in general. Read on to discover her current, past, and future projects, Lord of the Rings, and what it would take for Doran to sacrifice a small yak.
Slush Factory: Hello there. Thanks again for taking the time to do this interview.
Colleen Doran: Hello yourself. My pleasure.
SF: Is Orbiter your first collaboration with Warren Ellis?
CD: No, this is actually the third project on which we have worked together. The first was Distance, an animated series that was optioned by Sony but is in development limbo. I was hired to be conceptual artist and designer. Warren really liked the work I did on that so he decided to scarf me up and have me do Super Idol, an online web strip for www.artbomb.net. It is available for free to anyone who wants to see it. It is fully painted.
SF: Was Warren one of the writers you'd thought about working with back around the time you started the Aria project?
CD: Ah AriaÖ I didnít really get it off the ground unfortunately: it was intended to be a series of books with my illustrations and the prose of other writers. My company was named Aria Press and when that other Image comic came along and used my name that was a problem. I decided not to be hardball about it and just shelved it and put the Aria stories into the back of A Distant Soil. I had works by Neil Gaiman, Ellen Kushner, Delia Sherman and other writers I really liked. If I had ever gotten around to it, I would have jumped on Warren Ellis to do a story in a minute.
SF: So Warren was the initiator of Orbiter?
CD: Yes, he pegged me to do Orbiter, and was actually met with a lot of skepticism. I was pretty much being ignored by a lot of people in comics and then one day Warren Ellis piped up and said, ďLook at this woman. Her work is really good.Ē So people started looking and suddenly everything changed for me.
Some people in comics can be really fake: they have attitudes and opinions about other creators' work, but when it gets right down to it, they often know little or nothing about the work. That was a problem I was dealing with. Everyone had an opinion about my stuff but no one really knew what my stuff was. Somebody may have seen something I did in a particular style about ten years before when I was starting out in the mainstream, but they had no idea what I can really do.
Itís funny, really, because every year the pros all talk about what they are going to vote for at the Eisners or whatever, and often, they admit that we havenít read most of the material on the ballot, but they vote anyway! Itís kind of funny. The zeitgeist decides what is good and what is not over a beer and a fun meal, whether the folks have read the books or not.
I actually had one very well respected professional look at the art I was doing on Orbiter and ask me who had done it because he couldnít believe it was by me. He said I couldnít draw backgrounds. I am not only quite capable of using a ruler and drawing a building in perspective, but some of the backgrounds on A Distant Soil are pretty elaborate. Iíve been drawing ginchy backgrounds for many a year and have been hired to design sets for film, television and stage work. But this pro said he had been reading A Distant Soil and just couldnít see any way that I could have drawn the detailed, high-tech work in Orbiter.
At that moment, I pinned the guy down and told him flatly that I knew he not only didnít read my work, but that he was in no way familiar with it. He claimed he read every issue, but when I asked him what was in the book, what was going on, he couldnít answer a single question. Instead of just saying, ďNice style! Glad to see youíre versatile!Ē when he looked at Orbiter, he tried to put me down, claiming I wasnít capable of such work, even though he clearly didnít know my work at all. He was so pretentious.
SF: I'm surprised you didn't punch his lights out.
CD: He was lucky. I couldnít care less if someone reads everything I do and studies every panel, but donít pretend you know me when you donít.
So as I said, a lot of folks were skeptical when Warren pegged me to do Orbiter, but when I started turning in pages, everything turned around. No one had believed I could do this kind of work and no one could identify the artist when the pages began coming in. Warren had total faith in me and pushed for me and I am very grateful to him. He really has been solely responsible for bringing me back to comics, which I had pretty much left, with the exception of a few small gigs here and there and A Distant Soil, which I have been faithfully writing and drawing for years. He never had any of those dopey stereotypes about women artists in his head and knew I had the technical chops, as well as the knowledge of the space program to tackle a project like Orbiter.
My mainstream career had been very demoralizing until Warren came along. I got bad ink jobs, one after another, and it was depressing. I would do these elaborate pencils and after the inker was finished with them, the work looked awful. Sometimes I got beautiful results with an inker, such as Malcolm Jones III on Sandman, but many times, I was left in tears over the results. Finally, I just gave up and walked away from the mainstream because my work got butchered over and over again. On Orbiter, Warren made sure I got to ink myself, so now everyone is seeing what my work is supposed to look like. DC is a great deal more confident in my abilities now, so they give me inker approval and my work looks so much better. On Reign of the Zodiac, Bob Wiacek is coming as close as an inker ever has to my pencils, and the results are really solid.
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SF: Orbiter was a fairly long project. What consumed the most time? How do you feel seeing the product of that year-and-a-half's work?
CD: Well, I took about fourteen months to draw it, but I spent about two months on research. Naturally, Warren took time before that to write it. All in all, the total time was a year-and a half at least. During that period I was also doing other work: illustration, A Distant Soil and portrait commissions. I am a member of the Society of Portrait Artists, so I do that sort of work from time to time. I must confess that although portraiture is far more lucrative, I prefer comics.
It is isolating to work for long periods alone, but I am quite used to it. When I am illustrating, I often work in a virtual vacuum. Much of my conceptual work has never made it to the screen. And A Distant Soil has long lapses between issues.
Anyway, it is extremely gratifying to have Orbiter finally coming out. Reign of the Zodiac will be monthly and I am sure I wonít know what to do with myself having a new book out every month!
SF: The Space Shuttle Columbia tragedy occurred right after you had finished the book. Was there any talk of delaying its release or changing anything due to this?
CD: Actually, I had about five pages left to complete and all were in varying stages when the shuttle tragedy occurred. I often do the art out of order and was probably within two to three days of finishing then.
I made a small change myself, without any prompting from anyone else. I had drawn a splash page of the shuttle flying over the Earth that showed a big sunburst over one wing. It looked rather like an explosion over the left wing, which was speculated to be the source of the trouble on the ship. I was inking this page while on the plane home, and when I realized what I had drawn, I began to cry. So, here I am on this plane drawing a shuttle and crying and people started to stare at me. When I got home, I also realized that, in my distress, I had drawn the entire picture badly skewed out of whack and had to scrap it and start over.
Both Warren and I exchanged phone calls and a flurry of nervous e-mails, but since there were several months between the shuttle tragedy and the release of the book, everyone agreed that the nature of the content and the passing of time would enable us to proceed with good taste and decorum.
SF: Reign of the Zodiac is another DC project you've got coming up, this time working with Keith Giffen. Again, who approached whom?
CD: Keith Giffen approached me. We have known each other for years. When I was in high school, I was a big Legion of Super-Heroes fan and I participated in an apazine, one of those fan publications that were the gathering place for enthusiasts before the Internet. Keith saw my work in the 'zine and called me up out of the blue, asking if I might be interested in working on Legion. You can imagine how excited I was! I was in no way qualified at the time to draw an important mainstream book, and I was committed to doing several small press projects and had a letter of agreement with one of those small-fry publishers to do A Distant Soil, so the Legion gig didnít work out. Years later, we got to do a few small Legion bits together, but nothing major. We have always wanted to work on something really challenging with one another and Zodiac was the perfect project. We are both a couple of obsessive-compulsive whackos and we complement each other nicely!
SF: So Reign of the Zodiac will be a monthly series. How far ahead have the two of you planned out the storyline? Do you have the final chapter already written, or do you see this as a far more long-term project?
CD: Zodiac is long-term. Keith has already written 13 issues. I have completed issue two and most of issue 1 and part of 3. Donít ask me how it worked out that way. Depending on how the book is received, we can either take it all the way through a six-year story with twelve story arcs, one for each sign of the zodiac, or we can end it after a year. I hope we get to do the whole thing, naturally! I swore I would never take on another major epic after A Distant Soil, but I am suited for this kind of work, so there you go.
SF: The art is beautiful Ė the detail is incredible. Did Reign of the Zodiac give you the opportunity to work into comics some elements from your other loves, archeology and history (similarly to Wonder Woman: The Once and Future Story)? I mean, the Zodiac and astrology have had their influences on many cultures. Or did you decide to steer away from such 'borrowing', in order to create a more alien atmosphere for the world?
CD: Well, we did both. For those houses of the Zodiac for which we determined it to be most appropriate to do so, I did research into different cultures to help develop the Houses. For example, Pisces is based, in part, on Tsarist Russia and Scorpio is based on Pre-Columbian art and architecture. Other houses like Gemini are very high tech and the clothes just came out of nowhere. Cancer is high fashion. They are all related to humans and the Houses will have familiar elements from our world in them, but some of them are more human than others. The first issue shows major Greco-Roman influences through a fantasy lens.
When I did decide to use ancient cultures as a model, I steered clear of the usual comic industry clichťs. For example, I decided to avoid Japan completely because Japan is being mined for ideas by everyone and their brother Fred, and it has become so blasť to me. It is more interesting to go to Mongolia for our vision of Sagittarius, the home of the ultimate horsemen, than it is to go back to the same old sources so many people reference all the time. Itís a big world with many different cultures and ideas that get completely ignored, and I am interested in many things and am excited to get a chance to use them. We could have done the same old pop culture references and overloaded the book with stuff that people like and recognize, but I really wanted to challenge myself and the readers to experience and accept different looks and ideas for a change.
SF: You have another project coming up in the Fall that has a lot of fans excited Ė illustrations for The Complete Tolkien Sourcebook. How's that coming along?
CD: It is extremely difficult because the deadline is so tight, but since most of the illustrations are small spot illos, it is not too bad. I wish I had more time to develop the project, but I just donít, so I am doing as many large pencil pieces as I can squeeze in!
SF: Is this the first Tolkien illustration work you've done since the movies came out?
CD: Now that I think of it, I have never done any official Tolkien work before, but the stack of old Lord of the Rings fan art in my coffers is probably knee high!
SF: Maybe you could open up that little treasure trove sometime? Seriously, has the existence of the movies changed the way the illustration 'system' works? Is there pressure to conform to the visions of the characters and places as they are in the films, or is the interpretation still based on more personal feeling about the original text?
CD: Not in this case. I am very fond of all of Tolkienís works and have read them repeatedly, and when people tell me that, as a Silvan Elf, Legolas should have black hair, I remind them that his father, Thranduil, may have been king of the Wood Elves, but he was, in fact, Sindarin, and is explicitly described as being blonde in The Hobbit! So, that is the level of geek I am about this sort of thing.
But I am given a free reign on the work, really. I am careful to stick to canon, but if it doesnít say something isnít, then that doesnít mean it canít be, so if I change my mind and draw a balrog, he may have wings. It doesnít matter on this book, really, since I am not doing any illustrations of Legolas, I think!
I am not going anywhere near the movies. In fact, I am judiciously avoiding most of the movie visuals. Tolkienís works are full of characters and ideas that arenít in the films. I have hundreds of characters to draw without touching the films. The Hobbit is full of great visuals, not to mention The Silmarillion! Thereís also Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Leaf by Niggle and a handful of other short pieces. I can dig around in the Tolkien universe for ages without having to make Legolas look like Orlando Bloom, which is no hardship, I assure you, but Iím just not going there. In Lord of the Rings alone, there are probably a dozen characters I can name off the top of my head that arenít in the film like Radagast the Brown, Elrohir, Elladan, Glorfindel and Goldberry, so if I want to draw some of those, I can, without competing with the films.
SF: What did you think of the movies themselves?
CD: I absolutely adore them. I am crazy about them. I want to marry them.
SF: A 'what if?' for you now. If you had been offered the job of artistic consultant on the making of The Lord of the Rings, would you have taken it? Bearing in mind that it would have meant you going to New Zealand to Weta Workshop, and not being able to work on A Distant Soil, Orbiter, etc., for that whole period.
CD: Without hesitation, I would have packed up, taken a year off from all my other work, and scooted on down to New Zealand. As a matter of fact, at the time the conceptual work on Lord of the Rings was beginning, my comic career was totally in the toilet and I couldnít have gotten arrested in this business. I was doing other illustration work and appearing at Renaissance fairs and not doing much in comics at all. This would have been about four or five years ago. I wouldnít have had to give up a thing, really. Now it would be tough, because I have so much work I donít even get one day off a week. Every few months or so, I take a few days off in a row, but these days, I am at seven day work weeks. But back then, no problem. Itís strange how your career can go in these cycles, but it is something you get used to. After Warren Ellis placed his hand on my brow and announced to the world ďThis is my chosen artistĒ, people decided I was the beeís knees, but before he gave me the chance to take a walk around his universe, no-one else in comics would have imagined me drawing books like Orbiter. Since then, I have had at least six offers to do science fiction based projects, but before that, not a single one. Itís pretty funny, really.
SF: Getting back to A Distant Soil, I've often wondered just how much has changed from your initial concept. It's been with you as a world and a story since you were twelve, so what evolution has it gone through?
CD: The basic plot hasnít changed one single bit. This may be stubborn or single-minded of me, but I am secure in my belief that the concept itself is solid enough to stand, even though I cam up with it when I was twelve! However, the level of depth in the storytelling itself and in the characterization is a great deal more complex than originally conceived.
The initial plot was for a superhero tale, but I dumped all the superhero trappings fairly early on, even though the story itself remained. I drew on a lot of my experiences as a young girl working as a professional artist from the age of fifteen and put a good deal of those anxieties and exploitative experiences into the story and characterization too. I have had many good reviews that remark on the psychological complexity of the work, and I would say that the writing I do now, as an adult, has a certain insight that I could not possibly have possessed as a twelve-year old.
SF: Ask anyone, and they'll tell you that Colleen Doran is an artist with an amazingly wide range Ė from the clear lines and open spaces of your work on, for example Power Pack or Valor, to the dark, almost muddy tones of your Barker work or Dream Country: Facade, to the subtle painter's hand that crafted work for A Distant Soil and Orbiter. What style do you feel most comfortable with? Do you prefer total control, or do you like working with inkers and colorists? Do you have a favorite artistic collaborator?
CD: Well, I never want to work in only one style because my boredom threshold is pretty low. There are different reasons I use different styles and each one has its own benefits. The Reign of the Zodiac style is extremely laborious, and not really a lot of fun to do while youíre doing it because it is so difficult, but when you are finished with a page, you just sort of sigh and look at it with happiness, so it is a very satisfying experience. My pencils are incredibly tight and donít leave a lot of wiggle room for the inker who is ready to murder me by now because the pages are so hard to ink.
The Orbiter style is much easier because I donít really do much by way of penciling. I run my perspective lines and make a grid on the page, or use a pre-made grid that I place on a lightbox. Then I lightly sketch in my layouts and immediately begin inking. Because I am inking, I can suggest large areas of a page with a wash of ink, without having to go in and do meticulous drawing, except for on some of those complex backgrounds, which are very difficult. One of the things that makes Orbiter easier on me as well is that Vertigo let me do the original art at my preferred size, which is original art at 8Ēx12Ē. This saves a lot of time and effort.
I always prefer to do everything myself, but when you get a truly great inker like Malcolm Jones III, you donít complain. He did a great job on my work on Sandman. You rarely get an inker who makes your work look better. On the whole, my distaste for inkers is well known. I am notoriously difficult to ink because I donít do shtick. My style is eclectic and most inkers canít handle it. I have had inkers call editors and beg them to let them take out details and streamline the work because they canít ink my pencils at the pace they prefer. Many inkers are page rate people, interested in being able to produce work at a set rate to make a living or a quota. I donít have that concern. I will work a 14-hour day and on weekends to get the look I want for a book, but when some inker has a wife and kids and a team of assistants and they want to do four pages a day to make their money quota, I am the last artist in the world they want to work with. In future, I have discussed cutting out inkers entirely and I suspect that much of my mainstream comic work will either be inked by me or printed from my pencils.
My favorite collaborators are always the writers. I have rarely worked with a writer I didnít like. When I have, they have driven me to tears. Otherwise, I am happy to play in someone elseís toybox. However, I love a good colorist, too and the colors that Dave Stewart has done on Orbiter are gorgeous. Lovern Kindzierski is doing a remarkable job on Reign of the Zodiac.
Neither Valor nor Power Pack could be counted among my best work! I tried using a different style on Power Pack that I just couldnít warm to, and Valor is over ten-year-old work, so it is pretty primal. I gave them my best shot, but they werenít stellar work. I change so quickly, my style changes, my tastes change, that six-month-old work has no relevance to me now. I am always looking to the next thing.
SF: You've worked on Wonder Woman, Spider-Man, the Legion, Captain America, and more Ė do you have a favorite? Why? Is there any character you haven't worked on yet that you'd jump at the chance to do?
CD: Oh, definitely the Legion. No question. It was one of the first comics I got into when I was a kid. I havenít read it in some time, but itís a sentimental favorite.
Iíd love to take a crack at Batman or Aquaman.
SF: A Legion fan, eh? Me too. I'm also into Clive Barker, and I know you're a Clive Barker fan, and I know you said: "I decided that I really wanted to work with authors. That is, not people who are necessarily big names in the comic book industry, but people who are known for their abilities with prose." Have you ever thought about a collaboration with the man himself, beyond the work you did on Hellraiser and Nightbreed?
CD: I would sacrifice a small yak to get a chance to work with Clive again. I adore Clive Barker. Not only is he immensely talented with a completely unique, limitless imagination, but he is also one of the nicest guys I have ever met. Youíd think the fellow who has these horrific visions would be dripping with blood and sacrificing babies, but Clive is a sweetheart. I really adore him. I have to remind him who I am whenever we meet again, because I see him so seldom, but he is just tremendous. I really want another chance to illustrate his work. The jobs I did for him years ago were some of my earliest comics work and they just donít compare to what I can do now. I would love another opportunity to give Clive my best.
SF: Another quote: "Con sketches usually suck." Why?
CD: Because they do. You are in a tense environment surrounded by people who are lining up to see you, but they donít want to spend all day in line. Iíd like to give fans something nice to remember the show, but there is no time to give them my best work. Usually, I donít do sketches at all because when my head is down doodling, my art is being shoplifted off the table! So I tend to restrict the sketches to cons where the attendance is low. This also makes people angry because at one show you are doing sketches and at the next you are not and some people get really snippy about it. It is a source of anxiety for me. Sometimes I am just too tired to do them, or my hand hurts and I need a little rest, but if you say ďnoĒ, some peopleís feelings get hurt.
Once I was trying to make a joke with somebody: I had given him a sketch at a con weíd attended weeks before, but at the next con, I just wasnít doing any and I sort of winked at him and said, ďNow, you know I donít do sketches at cons!Ē like, ďHey buddy, I just gave you one a while back, but I am not doing any at this one, so letís not say anything about it, okay?Ē But this guy thought I was insulting him somehow and he went on the internet and flamed me. He even sold the free sketch I gave him and had the gall to complain I wouldnít give him another one. I just throw up my hands and wonder about people sometimes. Ninety-nine out of one hundred fans are terrific people and I have to keep that in mind when I meet the trolls. I canít let them ruin my day and I donít want to take out a bad experience on others. The good fans shouldnít have to see me in a bad mood because some creep gave me a hard time five minutes ago. It takes nerves of steel to get through some of these shows with a smile on your face.
SF: So, what are your convention circuit plans for the season? Are you doing any? After that story, I wouldn't blame you if you said noÖ
CD: I am doing very few appearances this year. This is a major work year for me. I have so much to do it is not funny. The only comic cons I am doing are a show at Madison Square Garden in New York City the last weekend of June and San Diego Comic Con. I will be doing a signing at the Book Expo in Los Angeles in late May, but that is an industry trade show; no fans allowed. I am doing a signing at Barnes and Noble in Virginia Beach, VA on June 22. It is an Orbiter signing and we will be raffling off a signed limited edition glicee print of the cover to anyone who buys a copy of Orbiter at the store. Those are my only plans for appearances this year. I just want to stick to the work and concentrate and shows are very disrupting. I am not doing any other appearances at all, that I know of.
SF: Getting back to other writers and artists; who else would you like to work with, and what attracts you to their work? And how many of the planned collaborations with people like Somtow Sucharitkul, Ellen Kushner and Delia Sherman did you manage to realize?
CD: Well, I am not going to be doing the Somtow piece because I had no time to get to it, but I have already worked with Ellen and Delia and it was great. They both provided two wonderful stories that ran in the back of A Distant Soil and they inspired some of my best illustration work ever. It went over so well that the writer of The Complete Tolkien Sourcebook wanted me to do the illustrations in that style for his book. Also, the short story by Delia Sherman entitled The Tragedy of King Alexander the Stag ended up being a prequel to their (Ellen and Deliaís) new novel, The Fall of the Kings. I really love my pencil illustration style and am very excited to be getting more work in that venue.
I ended up running about a half dozen of those stories, including a two-parter with Jan Strand that I especially liked.
SF: Final one, because I'm starting to feel guilty about keeping you away from your piling-up workload! (although I have about ten more things I'd like to ask). What's coming up? Any beans you'd like to spill on upcoming projects? Any news or hints on Reign of the Zodiac? And when do you rest??
CD: Actually, you know everything definite that is on my plate right now. I am continuing A Distant Soil in my (ha-ha) spare time, as you may imagine, and plan a new trade at the end of the year.
Reign of the Zodiac premieres in July.
I am discussing mucho movie work with this studio and that, but you know Hollywood. Nothing is definite. There is interest in me as conceptual artist for various fantasy films. Frankly, they would have to be able to pay me a lot, not only to tempt me to give up the work I am now doing, but to induce me to move to California. Iíd move to New Zealand for Lord of the Rings, but not just for any project.
I do not rest at all. My big blowout vacation was a trip to the Oscar party for The Lord of the Rings, sponsored by WETA and www.theonering.net, but aside from that, forget it. I show seven day work weeks until July. I am desperate to finish everything before San Diego, because if I go without a few days rest, I am going to look like death eating a cracker.
SF: Thank you Colleen Doran, for your patience and time and for a great interview.