Interview with Colleen Doran – Part 2: Vertigo’s “Gone to Amerikay” and Comics Online
Here is part 2 to ScifiPulse’s interview with Colleen Doran. You can find Part 1 here
Yanes: Your most recent work is Gone to Amerikay. It’s well known that you did a lot of research for the artwork. How did you go about finding the right source material for this project?
Doran: Well, it was a lot of fun, but also very laborious. When I first got info about the book, I just had the outline and no script. Based on the outline, I thought most of the story would take place in Ireland, so I concentrated my research on that. I already have a lot of books and reference on the subject, and spent a couple of months reading and taking notes. Then the script came in, and it was apparent virtually none of the story took place in Ireland: it was all about old New York. So I had to start all over!
I am sure getting a good sense of the Irish immigration situation was very important for establishing the feel of the book, so it’s not a bad thing I’d done all the prior research, but in terms of reference, it took weeks and weeks longer to get everything I needed to make as authentic a book as possible. There are so many little things that you can screw up doing a book like this, from the type of forks one used, to which side of a dress buttons go on. I remember having a fit trying to find out what kind of glass might be used in a bar, and whether or not a particular chair I wanted to draw would be appropriate for a scene. I spent four hours researching just one chair. I was determined to get everything right.
And it was especially difficult because a lot of the reference was in black and white, and the book was in color. I spent two weeks trying to find the right reference for a costume that appears in two panels, and had to buy a book that’s been out of print since 1972 to make sure we had the right colors on the costume, because the reference available online was black and white. Months after Gone to Amerikay was published, I sauntered into a museum not two hours from my home, and there was what I needed all along, right in the foyer. I almost fainted.
I finished Gone to Amerikay while on a ship off the coast of Tasmania, and I had lousy internet, so any reference I had to get was murder. I was at sea for about two weeks, stopping in ports and running off to get scans of my art to upload them back to America and to DC Comics. I started Amerikay off an island off the coast of Morocco and finished it in New Zealand.
Yanes: Given the amount of time you invested in Gone to Amerikay, was there something about the story that compelled you to invest so much into it?
Doran: Well, I care about all my books, but this is a historical work, and I don’t skimp. Research is essential to this sort of work. Not only is the story absolutely wonderful, and I owed it my very best, but it is also an important work, and I owe it to everyone involved, including the reader to provide as authentic an experience as possible. We’ve all seen comics where people simply don’t bother to do basic research. I don’t know if that’s due to ignorance or deadlines, but I would rather not do a job at all than have to crank it out. My clients get the best I can do. My readers get the best I can do.
Yanes: You’ve recently put a lot of your work online. What were some of the reasons for this decision?
Doran: Well I haven’t put a lot of my work online, just A Distant Soil and a couple of short stories. A Distant Soil went up because shortly after my fourth graphic novel collection was published, we found out our printer had lost our negatives. Now, what does this mean? It means, essentially, your project is gutted. There is no way to keep a book in print without having negatives or digital files. Since A Distant Soil predates digital, there were no scans of the work, and both Volume I and Volume IV of A Distant Soil are completely out of print. I mean, there’s nothing left in the coffers. We’ve scraped the walls trying to get more copies of these books.
A Distant Soil is an Image Comic, which means I am not paid a page rate, I make my money on my trade editions. That’s how I fund the series. The trades sell very well, and have been in continuous print since 1997. But now I was in a situation where I not only didn’t have archives of my work, I had no way to fund new work. You can’t magically make money appear out of nowhere, and you can’t fund a book without more books. That’s all there is to it.
I’m not the only person this happened to. Pretty much everyone who predates digital had to go through something similar. And in some cases, found out that even if you had your negatives, they’d deteriorated over the years and were unusable.
At the same time this happened, I got seriously ill, and that was a huge money drain. I didn’t work for about two years, except for minor projects off and on. Sometimes I was producing as little as three or four pages a month. So, that was quite a challenge.
I decided the way to keep up my audience was to try putting the work online and see what would happen. I mean, if you ask people not to illegally download your work sometimes people are nice about it, and sometimes they are mean and go download some more. So I told people, come to my website and see my work, and hit my tip jar. We need to finance new work. And folks just don’t get that you’re not whining over low sales, you may have, say $20,000 worth of lost production work you now have to pay for, and tens of thousands of dollars remaining in labor, and $12,000 in computer equipment to acquire, and software, and skills, and assistants to pay. They don’t get that, they just want what they want.
I remember explaining this to one guy, who, obviously, is not a professional artist, and when I told him the equipment costs we needed to restore the books, he started barking about privilege, like the tools you actually need to produce work makes you the Duchess of Cambridge or something. Like, if we aren’t making art with mud daubs on rock, we’re rolling in dough. The reality is, almost any professional artist these days has to have computer skills and the money to acquire equipment, and some of that equipment is pretty expensive. If you can’t get it, you can’t compete. I have one client who requires you use these 3-D graphics in your work, and the software costs $3000. But they don’t provide the software! You have to buy it, or you don’t work there.
It costs considerably more to hire out to get art archived, and I tried it. Seriously, the first guy I hired who swore he could do the gig flaked out completely and took off with the art. It took us two years to get it back. It was nerve wracking. I don’t think he really meant to rip me off, it’s just he saw it as his big chance to break into comics as a designer and all, and the enormity of the task hit him when he actually had to do it. 1000 pages of work, I’m sure he just vapor locked. It’s one thing to dream about working as a pro, it’s another thing to do it. And he just flaked and couldn’t admit he didn’t have the chops. I was just so damned relieved to get my art back, I never pursued the money he owed.
I lived in an area where there were not only few graphic resources, but every single time I hired out I got terrible results. All of my art that was digitally archived by outsourcing to professional graphics companies is completely unusable. They simply did not know what they were doing. This may sound hard to believe now, but we’re talking ten years ago, when most artists didn’t have their own scanners, you know, before almost all comic art was uploaded to FTP sites! I’ve spent thousands of dollars chasing my original art from around the world and borrowing it back to get it properly archived.
All this happened even before Kickstarter or any of those crowdfunding sites were up. There was just no fundraising alternative except to suck it up and raise some cash on your own.
J. Michael Straczynski provided a new computer so I could enter the digital age, since I was still on a Mac G3 when all this started. This really turned things around. And I bought a scanner which could handle negatives. And that’s when I found out my negatives were gone. We went to the printer to request them, and they were just gone. It was demoralizing, I almost chucked the whole thing.
But I finally rallied and started putting my work on the web, and slowly digging out. And for the last two years, I’ve been quietly restoring the book. I hired an assistant, Allan Harvey, who is not only a graphics professional, but a long time fan of my work. I already mentioned that, I know, but there’d be no restoration without Allan.
So, almost all 1000 pages of the series have been restored from the original art, and those we could not get are restored by Allan. His work is amazing, and you cannot tell which came from the originals and which from the book.
Putting my series online has helped fund all this. People still ask me why I didn’t do Kickstarter or something, but as I said, it didn’t exist when all this started. And I’ve seen a lot of KS projects bomb, or their goals were too low, or it just takes too long to put the finished work out there. We just weren’t sure how long it would take to restore the book. It’s just not wise to take a lot of money up front and then ask people to wait a year or more for results. If other people have success that way, then fine, but I think most people don’t do very well with it. If you can’t meet your goals when Neil Gaiman is tweeting about you, you have a problem.
I decided to slow fund my work with periodic art sales. This has been very interesting. My original art was not very valuable ten years ago, and I did not expect to get good results from selling old sketches and prelims. But over the years, my original art values have gone up a lot. My old sketches are worth so much more money, I can hardly believe it. So are my commissions. My covers used to sell for a couple hundred, if I was lucky, now they sell for thousands. That’s huge. I’ve been able to raise a considerable sum of money. This would not have been possible even 3-5 years ago, my prices just weren’t there. Now they are. I sincerely doubt I’d have been able to raise half as much money with a 30-60 day Kickstarter. I’m not at all sorry I didn’t run one now.
Yanes: Given your experience working for both Disney and Lucasfilm, could you take a moment to comment on Disney’s recent purchase of Lucasfilm?
Doran: Well, it’s not really any of my concern. Seriously, these are big corporations, and they are doing big corporate stuff. I’ve had good experiences working at both companies, but I don’t need to work at either of them. If we’re going to get more Star Wars movies, I just hope they’re good ones. I honestly don’t care very much about clients I’m not working for. It’s all work for hire. Either sign up or don’t. No one’s forcing anyone to work there. You can learn a lot, you can get great experience, but I’m just not stressing over something I’m not directly involved in like that.
Will they ever hire me again? I don’t know. I don’t think I really need to work there. I liked working there, and I realize the contract or pay was not great. But I’m not desperate for work. I have options. To Lucasfilm or not to Lucasfilm? Whatever. I can’t say as I have any serious complaints about either company from my own experience. I feel like I learned a lot from my assignments. I don’t really know what the contract situation is like up there these days.
Yanes: I’d love to ask you questions forever, but I know you’re busy. Before you go, could you talk about some of the projects that you are currently working on that we can all look out for?
Doran: I’m doing a fully painted graphic novel for Dark Horse written by Neil Gaiman. I’m also doing a mini-series for Top Cow, written by Matt Hawkins. I just did a cover for the new Red Sonja comic, of course I am continuing A Distant Soil at Image. I have a short story that I wrote in a new anthology coming from Image/Shadowline next summer. I am also way behind on a short story I am writing and drawing for Davis Lloyd‘s Aces. I’m doing a series of book covers for a small press romance by Carol Strickland. I am pretty busy, which is the way I like it.