A little over a week ago I attended MoCCA Arts Fest, an annual comics convention put on by the Society of Illustrators/ Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art in Manhattan. Located in the wonderful space of the 69th Regiment Armory, MoCCA continues to stand out as one of the shows that I look forward to most in the con circuit. It is smaller, friendlier, better run, and has (I think) a firmer grasp on the comic reading populous and what they want out of a show. A diverse range of creators, panels geared to the making and process of comics, decent and affordable food in the dining area, cheaper tickets, and attendees feeling welcome and safe are all things MoCCA provides in spades. Sure, you might think it’s “easier” for a smaller show to supply these things, but I hear that the force behind planning the fest is a staff of two or three, so think again. They had 7,000 attendees over two short days.
This year the list of honored guests comprised of a bevy of wonderful cartoonists, most notably Alison Bechdel (Fun Home, Are You My Mother?), Howard Cruse (Wendel, Stuck Rubber Baby), Robert Williams (ZAP Comix), and G3 favorite Fiona Staples (Saga). International guests included the likes of acclaimed cartoonist Joost Swarte, Marion Fayolle, and Brecht Vandenbroucke. There were many other brilliant creators tabling over the weekend selling a multitude of great books, a few of which I have listed below for your reading pleasure.
A short list of MoCCA must-haves (aka things I bought):
* Operation Margarine by Katie Skelly
* Ant Colony by Michael DeForge
* Copra #13 by Michel Fiffe
* Commuter by Kris Mukai
* New Comics #2 by Patrick Kyle
So, on to the reason you’re reading this. I was lucky enough to find a MoCCA staffer willing to keep watch over my phone while it recorded this Q&A with Fiona Staples led by Nathan Fox (FBP, Pigeons from Hell). I could not be there myself as I was taking notes for another panel, intrepid journalist that I am. The sound quality was rather terrible, but I have transcribed it to the best of my ability for you, dear readers. Please enjoy.
Introduction: So we’re all here out of respect, love, and passion for the work this woman has done. But I think today we want to talk about process and craft, especially storytelling and character. Before the panel earlier I got ahold of your parents, and you are from Canada. And there’s this thing with wilderness and they kind of let it slip that you really are from another world and came here on a wee train. The one thing I did find out is that you love goblins, which is really interesting because the characters you’ve created and the development there is really fascinating.
Q: So [to start off] I would love to know more about this goblin fiction.
A: Well I guess it started when I was pretty young. I got all these books about goblins. My favorite book when I was little was called The Rainbow Goblins. So there’s that one, and then The Princess and the Goblin by George MacDonald. Uh, and obviously the movie Labyrinth. Every girl born in the 80’s loves that.
Q: I was very curious about where you got your start, and in terms of what goblins are… you really kind of lost yourself in nature on purpose.
A: Yeah I was always interested in wandering off, exploring with my parents. I was interested in mythical creatures and fantasy stuff. Daydreaming. I guess that ties into what I love about creating fantasy worlds.
Q: Did that spark your love of creating horror and suspense?
A: I guess the seed was always there. Always interested in darker fiction and spooky stuff. I didn’t really get into horror until I drew horror comics. One of the first comics I did in 2006 was sort of a black comedy, and I didn’t really enjoy horror movies or anything like that until I started doing horror comics. I forced myself to watch scary movies until I developed a taste for it.
Q: Do you have stuffed dolls and figurines?
A: I don’t really collect stuff like that. Mostly just books.
Q: So was it the fantasy that sort of launched your interest in storytelling and world creation?
A: I think so. I had a real interest in visual story telling. When you read a book, you create images in your mind. I just thought when I was reading stories, what I imagined was so cool. I just thought that the things I was seeing deserved to be recorded somehow. So I always enjoy doing drawings and creating representations of the things that I read, which is basically what I do when I read a comic script.
Q: So in terms of the work that proceeded Done to Death, how did that evolve for you in terms of process. What were some of the mistakes you learned from, or happy accidents?
A: Well there were a lot of mistakes in the beginning. I started doing comics when I was in art school, and one of our projects was to do a comic. At the time I just wanted to experiment and play with different mediums and do a comic that didn’t look like a typical comic. So I was playing with a lot of paint and inking with crow quill and stuff. I think my mistake was trying too hard to make it look different – forcing a style. As I continued, I started to look at storytelling first, and created less stylized work. Focusing more on realistic figures.
Q: How was the shift going from that horror genre to something like Mystery Society and then Northlanders?
A: It was actually a lot of fun. Historical stuff like Northlanders, historical costumes… very exciting.
Q: How do you find your hook in the narrative? How can you find your place in something that’s completely brand new?
A: I think it’s particularly difficult. I just try to work closely with the writer and study the script until we agree on the tone and a take on the subject that would be appropriate.
Q: In terms of fashion, you’ve got some really great character designs, and really amazing kind of costumes that really feel new and fresh. As a designer, how is that relative to what you want to do?
A: I just try to make sure that the costuming works with the character and their setting, that it feels natural. It’s not something I do just because I like that way it looks. I consider the practical side. I’m kind of interested in fashion, I like looking at it. It’s easy inspiration.
Q: Can you take us through your process?
A: Yeah, so I start with the script, print it up. I read through it and make notes in the margins of the script. When I first start with a new writer the thumbnails are maybe tidier and a little more detailed, but they’re generally pretty minimal. I always like the include the dialogue balloons to make sure the staging works with the dialogue. I think it’s important to the storytelling to be able to easily read the dialogue and that it’s in the right order, so I arrange the page that way. So I scan in my thumbnails and blow them up to page size, and then I take them into Mangastudio and I shoot photo reference of myself.
Q: You really get into character, though!
A: Yeah, I actually find it really helpful to sort of act out all the motions that the characters are doing. I find that when I do that, I end up pulling poses or facial expressions that I wouldn’t necessarily be able to think of just at my desk with a piece of paper. Then I ink over my thumbnails – I use them as pencils – in Mangastudio. Then I take the line work and import it into Photoshop where I do all my colors. I do a sort of cell-shaded look for Saga, where the characters just have bold, flat colors on them and the backgrounds are painted. So to separate the characters I just select them and pull them in with this placeholder gray, and then I do the backgrounds.
Q: So in terms of page rate, how would you schedule your day to day?
A: I get dressed, but I get dressed in my “home” clothes. I end up doing about a page a day, and issue a month. I don’t always do a page a day, sometimes I’ll ink for three days.
Q: Your output is extremely prolific, how do you stay fresh with that kind of workload? How do you stay sane?
A: I’ve just settled into a routine now, I guess. I get up in the morning, make breakfast, etc. I try to stick to a 9 to 5 schedule. It keeps me on the same schedule as my boyfriend and my friends so I can keep some sort of social life. Saga has six issue arcs, and after each arc is finished we take two or three months off while we relax and get a headstart on the next arc, so that’s definitely helped me stay sane. It was very difficult in the beginning, and it gets harder towards the end of the arc.
Q: You guys are on equal footing with your collaboration?
A: Yeah, we’re pretty equal. Our process is really streamlined now. We don’t take a lot of time to figure out what to do, because we don’t have a lot of time. He just sends me the scripts and I send him my thumbnails. He’s never had any notes on the finished artwork.
Q: Is there something really unique about this collaboration?
A: I started getting the feeling that Saga was something special when I was offered the job. I had to decide if I was ready to do an ongoing series. I had never done anything this long before. I had only ever done six issues at the most of any other book. So it was a really big commitment. I have a lot of respect for Brian as a writer, and he turned out to be a super decent person. So I felt like if I was ever going to do a long-term series, this was the time and this was the situation.
Q: How many cintiqs and styluses have you burned through?
A: Only like one and a half. I started out with a smaller cintiq and sort of graduated up to a 21-inch and I’m still paying for it. Never broken a stylus, I don’t press too hard.
Q: I guess in terms of building this dynasty, how do you prepare for something like this, as a creator? How is tackling something like this?
A: I didn’t really know what I was getting into before it started. I’m still kind of learning. Because I was going to be doing this for a long time, I knew I had to figure out a way to grow as an artist while working on the book. I didn’t want to use a style or method that I would hate to use two years down the line. I wanted to develop my drawing and painting skills simultaneously. So I guess I just tried to stay open and stay flexible in the beginning.
Q: Lastly, [before we open it up to questions] what is the best lie you’ve ever told, and did you get away with it?
A: Uhhhhh… I once told my boss I broke my tailbone when I didn’t want to go to work. I guess you could say I got away with it because I didn’t go to work that day.
Q: Did you see that problem coming, with issue #11?
A: No, I didn’t. Brian might have, he’s the one with the master plan. I sort of thought to myself when I was drawing, “is someone going to object to a penis?” And then I thought no, because we’ve shown this stuff before.
Q: What do you look for in a script and a writer to collaborate with? What feeds you creatively?
A: Well first of all, I like for them to be a trustworthy person. Before their story enters into the equation, they have to be someone that I’d love to work with. Someone that I trust to take me seriously, there has to be mutual respect there. It helps if they’re open to collaboration, but I just have to like their story, I guess.
Q: Is there a line you won’t cross?
A: There is, but we haven’t reached it. And that goes back to trusting your writer to not do something that you’re uncomfortable with, to be someone you can talk to about those things. We present sex as just another part of life. It’s kind of all-encompassing, we’ve got sort of a wide scope.
Q: Who is your favorite character to draw?
A: I really liked drawing the Stalk when she was around. Also Isabella and Marko’s mom Clara.
Q: Who is the most difficult character to draw?
A: The most difficult character? Hmmm… good question. It could be someone like the Will or the Brand who is very reserved. The Will, for example, is a very emotional person, but he has a different way of showing it. He’s not as explicit. So, I have to figure out different ways to show how he’s feeling.
Q: What would you say is one of the most important things you learned or had in your early career?
A: Done to Death was pretty important because it was the first series I did. That was a really important learning experience because it was the first time I realized how much time goes into creating a comic and how difficult it is and the sheer volume of pages required. It’s one thing to imagine them and it’s another to deliver them on a schedule.
Q: I was wondering about the imagery that shows up on the face of the robot. Is that scripted and will we learn more about what’s going on in there?
A: Yeah it is [scripted]. In the next arc we’re going to see a lot more of the robots, get a glimpse of the robot kingdom and find out more about their politics. We’re going to learn a lot more about their kind.
Q: In the past you’ve shared some text messages on Twitter between you and Brian, do you have any other fun stories about developing your story?
A: We don’t actually talk as much as we could. I’ll text him or call him if there’s any confusion over the script, like in issue 12 or 13, none of it made sense. There were some issues with the chronology. He’s always available to talk and field my stupid questions.
Q: Brian has talked a lot about how the Image Comics model is really great for him, how do you like working for Image?
A: It’s excellent. We have a really fair deal, Brian and I share Saga 50/50. Image is just there for us, they don’t interfere editorially at all. Basically, they just sign our paychecks. So they’re really cool to work with. Eric Stephenson has given a lot of attention to our book, the entire staff is great. Better than any other publisher I’ve worked for.
Q: What’s the dream world that you’d love to draw that you haven’t yet?
A: I guess I’d love to draw a pure fantasy series? I’m also interested in doing an all-ages book, which is something I’ve never done.
Q: The coloring in the books is just wonderful, could you describe your process at all for maybe the covers?
A: So the way that I do covers is similar to the way I paint a background. Typically I just do a loose wash of colors and then do another layer on top.
Q: You do an amazing amount of research and reference. In terms of building these worlds and these covers, are there images you can go to for inspiration?
A: Every cover is different, so I’ll use different references on each one. I really like Tommy Lee Edwards right now, he’s a person who draws and paints. He’s good at it all. Just classic golden age illustrators, I’ve always been interested in that sort of painting and book illustration.
Q: Is there anything outside of comics and illustration (like movies) that really informs or inspires your work?
A: Yeah, I like animation. Old Disney, and some anime like Studio Ghibli and Tekkon Kinkreet. Stuff like that really inspires backgrounds. It gives me something to strive for.
Q: Once you said that to design cities you would go to those cities housed in history to get that reference. Comments?
A: For Saga I tried to remain inspired by the real world; by real locations and real history rather than pulling from other sic-fi stories. I like to feel grounded in our reality. I just want Saga to feel like it’s based in reality, and not on Star Wars.
Q: Do you make your own brushes?
A: I don’t make my own, really. I usually just use defaults and tweak them slightly, like changing the opacity or texture. I also use Kyle Webster’s brushes, which I like a lot. I only use like two brushes.
Q: You said that you take pictures of yourself for reference, what do you do when you have creatures that aren’t based in the real world or monsters? Do you approximate?
A: If it’s not remotely humanoid then I won’t bother taking reference. I might look for an animal, but if it has two arms and two legs then I’ll go ahead.
Q: When Brian sends you a script, are you basically thumbnailing it without any panel instruction or is he sending you a manuscript?
A: His scripts aren’t especially lengthy. They’re pretty average – page of script per page of comic. He does break it into panels. Sometimes he’ll say “make this the biggest panel on the page” but I’ll have to disregard it because he has two panels marked that way on the page. So yeah, the layout is up to me and I just try to keep is simple and as readable as possible.
Q: What advice would you give to someone trying to improve their storytelling abilities?
A: I think the most important thing is to be a careful reader. Really analyze the script and really figure out what’s important in your story. What are the themes, who are the characters really? Can you empathize with them? What is the character saying in this particular panel and how does their entire aspect reflect that? Sometimes their face or body language can completely contradict the dialogue. It’s just something that you have to be aware of.
Shouts out to Fiona Staples for giving this interview, to MoCCA for an amazing show, to the other talented creators out there working for what they love, and to the comic fans that make it all possible.