Interview with Colleen Doran – Part 1: Getting started in comics, labor, and “A Distant Soil”

Colleen Doran has been professionally drawing since the age of 15.  Before she turned 20, she had published her story, A Distant Soil; which has published by Image Comics since 1996.  Doran has also worked on comics from DC Comics (Valor, Star Trek, The Legion of Superheroes), Vertigo (The Death Gallery, Shade, The Sandman: Dream Country, Orbiter), Image Comics (Comic Book Tattoo), and Marvel Comics (Captain America, Silver Surfer, Amazing Spider-Man).  Working with writer, J. Michael Straczynski, Doran pencilled one of my favorite mini-series, The Book of Lost Souls. 

She has also worked for companies like Walt Disney, Lucasfilm, Scholastic, Sony, Harper Collins, and Time/Warner.  Doran’s most recent work is the critically acclaimed graphic novel, Gone to Amerikay.  Published by Vertigo and written by Derek McCulloch, it is a powerful tale of Irish immigration to the United States that spans over a century.

When she is not creating comic book masterpieces, Doran is an independent farmer.  You can (and should) learn more about her, by visiting her homepage here and A Distant Soil’s homepage here.

Nicholas Yanes:  People go their entire lives dreaming of working in the comic book industry, and you got started at the age of 15.  What is your career’s origin story?

Colleen Doran:  Well, I was interested in comics from the time I first saw them, but my family moved from the city to a fairly rural area when I was a kid, and we had no access to them. I loved TV shows like Super Friends and would draw the characters and make up stories. I thought I might work in animation for Disney or something, if I didn’t become a doctor first. I didn’t really get the notion I might be a comic book artist until I was 12 and got sick. A family friend gave my dad a big box of comic books, and I ate those things up with a spoon. I was crazy about them! I drew and drew and made up stories.

When I was about 15, I found out about some science fiction convention in the area, and convinced my mom to let me go with some friends of mine. The convention had an art show, not like we see at comic book conventions now, but with panels where artists could hang their work and sell it at auction. I went home that night, took a bunch of my art, and my mom cut some mats for the pieces. We put them in the art show and sold all my art! There was a lady at the show named Linda Wesley who had an ad agency, and she gave me my first commercial work doing illustrations for her. So, that was my first job. Shortly after, Steve Miller and Sharon Lee, the novelists, scouted me for their art agency and began taking my work around to shows. And then a man named Tom Long, who discovered Mike Kaluta, Bernie Wrightson, and Steve Hickman, scouted me for his zine, Graphic Showcase. He wanted me to do a revival of the character Miss Fury. It all went from there.

Yanes:  When you started working for comic book companies, what were some of the lessons you learned about being a professional artist?

Doran:  What don’t you learn? Industry practices and standards, mostly. Who to avoid. Lots of people early on will tell you all kinds of goofy stuff, small press types who want you to work cheap, and never want you to leave.  Eventually you figure out they’re shining you on, you get some chops, you leave them in the dust!

Yanes:  In your experience in the comic book industry, what are some of the biggest changes you think the industry has gone through?

Doran:  I got into the comic book business at the same time the creator rights movement was starting. Before, creators got little recognition and no royalties or benefits of any kind, and almost no one except publishers owned anything. It was a watershed moment for comics. I think we’re still working it out.

In the 1980′s, sales on mainstream comics were huge, in the hundreds of thousands per issue. At Marvel, your book got canceled for only selling 100,000 copies. Ah, those were the days! I worked on some very popular titles that moved over 300,000 copies. But creators didn’t have much say over the work, and the so-called creator owned contracts some publishers began to offer were really crappy. Copyright reserved for the creators, but contracts written in such a way as to be almost meaningless in terms of rights. I was doing bestselling titles and making less than minimum wage on creator owned works. It was nuts. In most cases, I found I was better off doing work for hire.

So, there came the self publishing movement and the Image revolution. Creators like me decided we’d had enough of being published badly, and went our own way. Image did crazy, scary business; the sales were out the roof. It was comics artist as rock star time. Good and bad for comics, because while the self publishing movement started off with a handful of people like me, everyone who could use a photocopy machine was rushing to the trough; not because they had a burning desire to make comics, but because they were hoping to get rich. Jeff Smith used to call them “random acts of self publishing.”

The rise of the internet is a sea change for comics. You’ve got an entire comics world that has probably never seen or heard of most print comics, and could not care less. Gag strips with snarky stick figures rule the day. They have huge audiences. It’s been interesting to watch. A lot of the stuff on the web seems to owe more to strip comics than to long form comic book narratives.  For years, newspaper strips ruled comics. Then for a few decades there, they sank in popularity, while comic book creators, who had often been considered as second raters by comic strip people, moved into the spotlight. Now, web strips are getting the attention. Since I’m not really into gag strips, it’s not changing my reading habits much. I still prefer comic book storytelling. There’s nothing wrong with cartoony art and strips, but I always pick Prince Valiant over Garfield.  It’s just my personal preference.

In a major way, it’s the culmination of the above three decades of industry shake-ups: more variety in comics stories, and creators actually owning and controlling their work. I mean, anyone who wants to, can publish on the web for far less money than you can publish in print, so some great, new interesting stuff is getting out there.

Alas, there are more random acts of self publishing than ever, but it’s up to the public to decide what they will read or not. Unfortunately, there is so much stuff to pick through, getting any kind of attention for new, quality work is tough.  It’s difficult for someone to finance the time and effort to produce enough material to make a go of it on the web, and the emphasis for many is on producing high volume. Quality control is not an issue for some. Most can’t tough it out. At least, with a publisher, you’ve got some financing. Then again, the publisher can throw your project under a bus if they decide you’ve underperformed, and there goes your project. If you weren’t careful with the wording in your contract, it can take forever to get that project returned to you. That’ll never happen with your webcomic, as long as you renew your domain!

Yanes:  You were a member of the Graphic Artists Guild for over 20 years.  From this experience, why do you think it has been so difficult comic book creators to develop an organization as powerful as the Writers Guild of America, East and West?

Doran:  First off, we can’t unionize. Also, organizing cartoonists it’s like trying to herd cats. Not only are there not very many of us, but you can’t get us to agree on what color the sky is most of the time. The Graphic Artist Guild has 30,000 members because it encompasses many disciplines, not just comics. There are a lot of semi-pros in comics, but when it comes to the hard core chops you need to really run an effective organization, it’s not a very big group of people.

Also, it’s one thing to tweet about something in some article you skimmed somewhere, it’s quite another thing to read 200 pages of legislation, understand it, and haul your ass to Washington to get face time with a senator about it. It’s just not something a lot of people are willing to do. It’s very hard work, it’s not fun, and most people are just trying to make a living. I can tell you that most of the activists I know who are actually active beyond tweeting have their entire lives sucked down an activism black hole. It’s brutal. Few want to do this. I’m not saying it can’t be done, we’ve had professional cartoonist associations before. I’m just saying it’s going to be a great burden for whoever takes that up and runs with it.

Yanes:  Despite the number of women in the comic book industry and in fandom increasing every year, there is still seems to be a sense that comic books are predominantly by guys and for guys.  What do you think will have to happen for this to change?

Doran:  Well, DC and Marvel comics tend to appeal more to guys, but there are a number of graphic novels and manga that sell as well or better than many of the DC/Marvel books, and the primary audience is girls. I think the predominance of male fans is simply no longer a reality, it’s just a reality to a certain segment of the market. How long that perception is going to take to change, I don’t know. I don’t really care so much, as long as there are places where everyone who wants them can go to get comics they like. If it’s a Marvel comic, fine, if not, fine. I just want variety and an open, welcoming market. It’s not a contest of one over the other to me. I’m a cartoonist, I want people who like my work to be able to find it, and to not be bullied for their tastes.

As silly as it seems, there were many segments of the comic market that were openly hostile to female customers. I meet a lot of young girls who have no perception or understanding of this. And that makes me very happy. If they don’t experience it, that means things have changed. That is what we want. The odd thing is when you run into young girls who make comments about how they don’t know why women complain about sexism in comics, because they never experienced it! Other people already took the bullet for them. They don’t have any perception of prior hostilities.

Also, for the record, I have always loved superhero comics. I think a lot of girls do, actually. They may not be buying them in comics shops, but the concept of superheroes appeals to girls. If comics companies could bottle the movie Avengers and get that dynamic in the comic book Avengers, you have more girls reading them. Also, Chris Hemsworth’s abs helped.

Yanes:  A Distant Soil is quite possibly, your greatest contribution to comic books and American literature.  Given that it has been almost two three full decades since it was first published, how have your feelings towards this story changed?  Additionally, are there any plans to republish the entire story?

Doran:  Well, that’s pretty lofty, I don’t know if it’s a major contribution, I don’t think of my work in that way. I don’t really think of it as anything I enjoy doing because I love it. I put it out there, and if other people love it too, then that’s dandy. I started doing it before comics and cartoons were in museums and libraries. That wasn’t even on my radar.

I still love doing it. I think I appreciate it more now than I did ten years ago, especially since the end is near. I only have eleven issues left. I can look at it with a clear eye and appreciate where it works and where it doesn’t. On the whole, I’m really proud of it, because I didn’t compromise. I didn’t start hiring a bunch of other people to work on it, cranking it out for a buck, while deluding myself that my audience would take anything related to my work.

Creating a franchise work for some people, you get someone like Mark Silvestri who has really high standards and has a line of books with sharp artists and quality production. And other people, not so much.

I’m pretty controlling, I haven’t even thought of using an art assistant on it since the 1980′s. I’ve never let anyone touch it beyond tech work, and I never will. It’s just not how I roll.

Image is doing all new digitally remastered editions of the entire series. We’re working on them now, as well as working on the new issues of the book. The printer lost all of our negatives shortly after my last graphic novel was published, and that was kind of a disaster. All my work predates digital, and we were just gearing up to archiving and switching to digital when we found out that the printer could not find out negatives. It’s a really long story, but a lot of fans don’t seem to understand that we can’t just magically produce the book, you know, just get the scans off torrent sites or something. They are not professional quality. My entire body of work on one of those sites would fit into the number of megs we have to use to properly archive just one full color cover. Those scans are useless. We’ve had to track down as much original art as we could and scan every single page.

In addition, I hired a gentleman named Allan Harvey, who has been a devoted fan of my work for many years, to restore all the pages we could not get originals for. He’s literally redoing the books panel by panel. The end result is the new editions will be far cleaner and more beautiful than anything we did before. It’s a very long expensive process. Every page, and there are 1000 of them, takes about 2 hours of work. We’ve been doing this part time for a couple of years.

After all this is done, we’ll finally have digital books, which Image will produce through Comixology. Almost all of my backlist is completely out of print since losing those negatives, so we have to do all of this to bring the series back, as well as producing all the new stories.

Yanes:  On the topic of A Distant Soil, would you ever want to see it adapted it into a film or videogame?

Doran:  Well, I’ve had several film deals, but I honestly don’t give it a lot of thought, or push for it. It’s just not that big a deal to me. Live with it, live without it. I’m very flattered when people come to me to inquire about the rights, but there are a lot of small fry producers out there hoping to scoop up film rights for nothing, or to just get their name on a project. Not really interested in bailing wire and duct tape operations.

A videogame would be pretty cool. I’m not into them though, but I love the way they look! I think I never got past Tetris and Pacman.

Part 2 can be found here

Again, you can learn more about Doran by visiting her homepage here and A Distant Soil’s homepage here.

Remember to follow me on twitter @NicholasYanes and feel free learn about me at Klout here

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