HERoes is one of the columns I am most proud of when I look at the breadth of work that has been produced by Comicosity writers in these past five years, and it isn’t hard to see why when you read this column and look through the archives. Colleen Doran is a titan in the comic book industry, having worked on some of the most memorable comics ever published, including The Sandman, Wonder Woman and her own series, A Distant Soil. Jessica Boyd recently spoke to Colleen about her time in comics, her creative process and so much more. – EiC Aaron
Jessica Boyd: What is your favorite aspect of comics?
Colleen Doran: Drawing them. Figuring out how to convey the information I want to convey. Figuring out how to manipulate the flow of time and the reader’s involvement. I love reading them, but making them is pure heaven. I absolutely love it.
JB: What issue or series has had the biggest influence on your work? Who is your favorite protagonist/antagonist?
CD: Boy, that’s a hard question to answer, because so many books have been sea change events for my brain. Some of my earliest comics, of course, one of the first being the early adaptation of Harlan Ellison’s “Delusion for a Dragonslayer” in a Marvel comic book I found under the bleachers. I was in elementary school. That story haunted me for years. It was adapted by Gerry Conway, I can’t believe I later got to spend time talking to Gerry and Harlan when I grew up. What a small world.
The Prince Valiant newspaper strip was it for me. It was classic, beautifully drawn, grand and epic. I was addicted to it. I would clip out every installment from the Sunday newspaper and save it in a box. I would buy the hardcover storybooks from the Scholastic book sales at my school. That was my first exposure to the idea that comic story lines could be grand, take years to tell, and be collected into books, years before people were calling them graphic novels. Scholastic was selling these volumes in the 1970’s, when i was a little kid, so graphic novels sales in schools are nothing new.
Riyoko Ikeda’s “The Rose of Versailles” which I first learned about in Fred Schodts “Manga! Manga!” and “From Eroica With Love” another manga that I was introduced to by underground cartoonist Leslie Sternbergh after I’d gotten into comics. I was visiting DC Comics in New York for the first time and she said to me “This stuff reminds me of your work,” and that’s where I learned about Japanese comics. Much of what I was trying to achieve with the aesthetic in my series “A Distant Soil” was on the same wavelength, and I was getting a lot of shit from clients for it back then, even from clients who made the claim they were totes into manga and all that at a later time. No one was bragging about the love of shoujo manga back then, and that was what interested me. Everyone hated it, but I loved it. Now it’s all over the place, so I get the last laugh!
JB: What is a typical creative working day for you?
CD: I haven’t had a typical day for awhile, but I try hard. I have health issues that make production erratic and that make concentration difficult, so everything I do is built around reducing stress, staying organized, engineering backup plans and staying out of trouble. When I am on, I try to stick to a careful routine, record my hours, make good lists of things I need to do each day, restrict internet use (which is a helluva stressor,) keep my tools and assignments in order where I can get to everything without having to dig, and just sit my ass in that chair and produce. I try to get at least a little exercise every day, and I have an elliptical machine and weight bench in my office. I also try to get out into my garden and get some air. I have to have maximum productivity on the days I can work, and I try to put in about ten hours each time, because there will always be days every month I simply can’t work. And I have to schedule around that.
JB: Musical inspirations? Or do you need quiet to create?
CD: I listen to a lot of Enya, a lot of ambient New Age music. Most of the time it sounds like a spa in here. If I could, I’d have a little waterfall as well, but the sound makes me want to pee. I also listen to a lot of audiobooks and radio plays. I love my audible account, I devour books while working. I often have the TV on while working, too, watching movies or TV shows I like. I sometimes have the same movie and play it over and over, the ones that have great scripts, like “All About Eve” or “Rebecca”. I like a wide variety of music, but I tend to avoid things that make me too emotional while working, it affects my mindset too much.
As goofy as it sounds, I listened to all the Diana Gabaldon “Outlander” novels while working on “Amazing Fantastic Incredible Stan Lee”. I really love the Lord John novels in the series, so there I am drawing Stan’s early adventures in comics, and Lord John is on my iPod moaning and groaning and bonking some dude. I howled with laughter.
JB: What is one of your favorite stories you have ever been part of creating?
CD: Oh, we could be here all night, there are so many that I love, I get tears in my eyes thinking how happy I was drawing Stan Lee’s life story in “Amazing Fantastic Incredible Stan Lee”, and not just because of the soundtrack from Lord John. But my best art was definitely in Neil Gaiman’s “Troll Bridge”. As for writing, I giggled with glee the whole time I worked on “The Vampire Diaries”, that job was crack.
JB: What role do you think creator owned comics plays in this industry? How has that changed since you began?
CD: Oh, boy, another big subject in a small question! First off, the very definition of “Creator Owned” has changed over the decades; originally all some activists cared about was copyright, but that is easy enough to get while losing every other meaningful right with the stroke of a pen. “Creator Owned” is nothing but a marketing term for some of these publishers, always has been. Having your copyright on the book while the publisher tries to steal your copyright and trademark, doesn’t file your copyright, claims trademark for themselves even though you never signed it over, knowing full well their creators are too broke to afford a lawyer to sue! Wish I could say that’s changed, but it hasn’t. Many avaricious contracts that fool young people into believing that their name on the book and copyright will solve all their problems, but it doesn’t. You have companies like Image that walk the walk, but many don’t. Fact is, we are still struggling with the bottom line problem, and that is that there will always be publishers willing to take advantage of people, and there will always be people who are unable to understand either the implications of what they are signing, or they are not in a position to enforce what they’ve signed in. Nothing’s changed since I got in, it’s just gotten bigger and more complicated. But the same abusive behaviors remain.
The fact that you can self publish any time you want on the internet is a big difference, that used to be a pipe dream for many. Self publishing meant up front cash. Noe all you need is a computer, and you don’t have to sign anything over. If you can build an audience that way, so cool.
There are publishers that treat creators with respect, and some that just don’t. But “creator rights” is meaningless when used by someone who hands an inexperienced kid a contract Stated values and acted values are two different things. A contract is just a piece of paper if you can’t enforce it, and that’s the truth.
JB: What is some advice you wish someone had given you before you began working in the comic medium?
CD: Avoid a list of about five people, because I have not had many problems outside of that subset of goons. Seriously, after I’d signed an agreement with an early client, my mentor Kelly Freas comes to me and says, “Oh, I wish I’d warned you about those people,” and I’m like, “NOW a warning?” It was ridiculous. I actually did all the right things, got lawyers, checked people out. But checking people out pre-internet and in a business where everyone is afraid to speak (and some of the people who do speak out are crackpots, and the rest define virtue as “anyone who hasn’t screwed me personally”) it’s kinda hard to negotiate the territory.
And frankly, some people just lie about who you should be around because they don’t want you trading up. I experienced a lot of that in the small press. “Oh, don’t work for then they will rip you off,” while the person warning you is ripping you off.
I wish I’d gotten better advice early on re money management, because a little of that goes a long way. Investing, that sort of thing. Creators tend to be pretty bad at it. I had one creator yell at me on the phone when I bought my first house, he was all, “How dare you put that money into a house and not into your work?” and I’m like, dude, years later I sold that condo for twice what I paid for it, and today I have no mortgage and am in another nice house. And because I have no mortgage, I can afford to do other things, other art, maybe art that doesn’t pay as much.
I am a big believer in financially empowering creators, teaching them about money. I hate how so much of comics is built on romanticizing poverty. If you have money, you can afford to create art. It’s that simple. I had none starting out, my family was once homeless. I had to learn the hard way. There’s nothing romantic about poverty, it sucks. It doesn’t make you a good artist, it just means you’re poor. And it means you are less likely to get to make the art you want to make.
JB: What message(s) do you hope people get when experiencing your work?
CD: I really, really hope that when reading a book like “A Distant Soil” they learn to experience different people, many with virulently opposing beliefs and values, as individual beings who are worthy of respect and consideration. Not all of my characters are very nice, they don’t get along. They are not perfect. But they are people.
JB: When it comes to comics, “all I want or dream is …”
CD: I swear to God, all I want is to be able to finish all the books I want to do, but I keep coming up with new projects I want to do, so maybe I’ll just have to live forever. I just want to make more comics. Good comics. Comics that make me happy as an artist. I could do this forever.