The PCZ Interview With Colleen Doran

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Colleen Doran has been writing and drawing comics for over twenty years. A critically-acclaimed and award-winning artist, Colleen began with her own series, A Distant Soil, in the 1980′s and has done books for Marvel, DC and Image. If you have been reading comics for any length of time, chances are you have seen her art, whether it be a full issue, a cover or a pin-up. She long-ago earned “big name” status alongside some of her collaborators which include the likes of Warren Ellis and J. Michael Straczynski. You’ll do yourself a huge favor by heading on over to her website to either discover or catch up on A Distant Soil. Recently, Colleen was gracious enough to answer some questions from us via email.

PCZ: Hi Colleen, thank you for taking the time to answer our questions. Let’s start off with A Distant Soil. Is it true that you’re finishing the story in a graphic novel or are you still producing individual issues? What kind of time frame are you looking at for concluding the series?

CD: I’m still producing individual issues. I asked my readers how they wanted to go, and I even offered them the option of producing for web, but the vast majority preferred the comic with a later graphic novel. I’m not sure when I can finish this. It’s entirely a financial consideration at this point.

PCZ: Let’s go for the difficult question, namely, why has there been such a long gap between issues and why is it taking so long to finish the story?

CD: This is hard for fans to understand, but even though A Distant Soil has actually made quite a bit of money over the years, that income has been cumulative over a long period of time.

My sales on A Distant Soil would be the envy of many small press books. I can only imagine what kind of sales I might have with a major publisher. And I have personally seen hundreds of thousands of dollars of income on this series over the years.

But divided over those years, the income is fairly modest per year. I have the option of sitting down and trying to finish it on that modest yearly income and hoping the sales go up eventually, or doing other projects which pay the bills and provide me with some financial security now.

I was reading some of the complaints of the Tokyopop artists, and looking at what they get paid. I actually make more than they do on A Distant Soil. But I am also not a beginner, or someone with a spouse bringing in a second income, or some 30-year-old waitressing as my day job to enable me to draw comics at night. I am a full time professional artist, and I can’t work full time on A Distant Soil when it can’t pay for the essentials like health insurance.

I worked full time on A Distant Soil for quite some years, and it brought in a modest income. But it was still thousands of dollars per annum less than I needed to make to pay for things like health insurance. And after years of working on it full time, I ended up pulling brutal long hours doing extra assignments to pay the bills, and I wasn’t happy, and I couldn’t do my best work. And I went into debt, because every life has a black swan event: a major illness, a home repair bill, equipment that gives out and must be replaced.

You can’t always have everything you want: I wanted A Distant Soil to bring in enough personal income to pay my bills, cover the insurance and savings accounts I do not get as a non-employee, and to provide some financial security. I wanted to finish my book and to make a good living. And I can’t have them both at the same time. So, I had to change the paradigm.

Finish my book when I can fit it in between work that actually enables me to live with dignity and security. I do this book for myself, and that’s the way it’s always been. If people don’t want to wait for it, that’s fine. But if I am willing to work on it for considerably less than I make doing other work, that’s fine, too. I’m just not willing to risk my financial security for it.

I wanted A Distant Soil to … provide some financial security. So, I had to change the paradigm.

The sales remain very steady and if I were to work on it more frequently, doubtless the sales would go up. Jeff Smith has been cheerleading me all along, saying my sales will skyrocket when I am finished. I’m sure they will. But there’s only so much risk I am willing to take.

Not too long ago, I had some family and personal issues that ended up costing me a huge chunk of my savings in only one year. That was money I had been saving to finance six issues of A Distant Soil. If I had relied solely on A Distant Soil for my income, I would not have that financial cushion to deal with these problems.

Comics isn’t a welfare program. The world doesn’t owe me a living. If I can’t make the money I need to support me and my family on it, that’s all there is to say. Math is easy.

I’ve produced nearly 1000 pages of this book for a relatively modest yearly income. If I need to take a break and go and pay down some debt and shore up my savings account, people either understand that or they don’t. There’s only so much you can do to get people to buy your book. Comics aren’t a charitable institution. No one is obligated to buy your comic because you want to draw and write it. If people are not willing to wait for the next installment, they don’t have to. But then, I don’t have to work for less than minimum wage on other people’s schedule, either. I’ve done that already. I even posted my social security statements from the 1980′s so people could see what I have actually made for an entire decade as an artist on this book. I think I’ve sacrificed enough.

I am going to write and draw A Distant Soil because it pleases me, not for any other reason. There are plenty of people out there producing comics they don’t care about for a buck. Go read their stuff.

The irony is, A Distant Soil sells as a backlist book regardless of whether or not I work on it. It will probably make me a hell of a lot of money in future years, because when I am finished, it will still produce income year after year. But I have to weigh the cost of loss of income now and cumulative interest on that against potential future earnings.

There are a lot of very poor artists out there who end up broke when they are fifty because they can’t think ahead and make the tough decisions. I have no intention of having to ask for charity in future because I could not or would not behave responsibly with my resources now.

I have every hope A Distant Soil will have a big, happy, hugely successful send off when I am finished. But I am not banking on it. I am just going to do a comic I am proud of, and come what may.

Jeff is trying to get me to do a color version when all is done. My wallet hurts just thinking about it. I’d be able to finance that at a major publisher, but probably not at Image unless there’s some happy black swan event.

PCZ: Peter David has previously talked about an attempt to form something like a Union for Comic Book Professionals a few years ago. From what he said it sounded like an attempt to get basic things like health insurance and base pay rates for those not under an exclusive contract. Is that something you think would ever be possible?

CD: As a group, we are such a small constituency, we may not have much bargaining power. As far as unions go, the Graphic Artists Guild has 30,000 members, and people who are not specifically artists can still join as Associate Members.

You do not need to be a member of a union to qualify for low cost health insurance and other benefits, assuming you don’t have the bargaining power to get your publishers to give them to you, and I highly doubt we will get those benefits any time soon.

I wrote a comprehensive blog post about health insurance resources for artists here:

http://adistantsoil.com/blog/?p=1250

If there is ever a time when there is an effective union for creators in our industry, I would certainly be a part of it, but unfortunately, artists tend to be very lax about business matters, especially when it comes to supporting other creators and their rights. I’ve been working as an artists rights advocate for a long time. I’ve reviewed legislation that comes up before Congress for various organizations. It’s been a frustrating experience trying to motivate creators to be proactive about their rights.

Many creators are so ignorant of the law that it’s like talking to a turnip even trying to get them to understand what copyright means. Just because someone can draw a picture or write a nice story doesn’t reflect their ability to do anything outside of what they can doodle on a drawing board. Some artists are just lousy businesspeople, and see no reason why they should care about about that.

I am not waiting for the comic industry to move forward with what needs to be accomplished for artists rights, which is why I joined the Graphic Artists Guild a long time ago.

There are less than 2 million people in this country in the creative arts, according to the 2005 Census figures. This number includes everything from dancers to producers, and the number of creative people in the comics industry is only a few thousand, at most. You’d have to slash that figure by more than 50% if you actually wanted to limit that number to true professionals: people who actually make a living in the business. The rest are part timer semi-pros.

It’s such a small group. Some are more motivated when it comes to spending decades engaging in petty disputes than in pushing forward legislation that can help their rights, or in getting together to improve working conditions. I wish that weren’t true, but it is. I’ve been in this business since the 1980′s, and I haven’t seen any effective effort to create a union yet. I am not waiting for the comic industry to move forward with what needs to be accomplished for artists rights, which is why I joined the Graphic Artists Guild a long time ago.

And I have affordable health insurance, which I got on my own, and I spend a not inordinate amount of time on my blog writing posts like that health insurance post to help others help themselves.

PCZ: In what ways has the A Distant Soil story changed over the years or have you kept it much the way you originally envisioned it?

CD: Oh, that is too funny! The story started as a superhero fanfic comic. Really funny. It is too awful looking at my sketchbooks. I had more enthusiasm than any ten fangirls.

After a certain point, say about age 16, I didn’t make too many more major changes except for a few years back, after talking with Jeff Smith. I cut a huge section of the tale. The book was becoming very fanfic-like, with lots of ruminations and not enough forward momentum. So, I did a fat edit. It was for the best, but it still hurts. I love every moment of my character’s lives and they are very real to me, but it’s not important to the story that I tell every detail.

PCZ: A Distant Soil is very epic in scope. Once the main story is completed is there any possibilty of more stories with these characters or elsewhere in that universe?

CD: I sincerely doubt it. I am partially finished with a prequel, but I am not keen on comics that don’t know when to hang it up when the story is done. I think we’ve all seen the sad result of that kind of thinking more often than we would like.

PCZ: Has there been any interest in A Distant Soil from the film or television industries? Are there any conditions under which you would sign off on a film/TV version?

CD: Yes, there have been several inquiries lately. I don’t really know much about them. I just send people to my agent. I haven’t signed anything, that’s for sure.

PCZ: You did the artwork for the J. Michael Straczynski series Book of Lost Souls. How was that collaboration and will that series continue at some point?

CD: I love working with JMS. His scripts are very finished, clean, and of course, he is a brilliant writer. I am really sorry things didn’t work out, but JMS has now become so huge in Hollywood I doubt we’re going to see him writing a lot of comics in future. I have no idea if he’ll pick up the story again. I have completed an unpublished issue, but obviously, we’ve both moved on, professionally. If he crooks his little finger and says “Come back!” I’ll be there, but I’m not waiting.

PCZ: How did you get involved with working with Warren Ellis on Orbiter?

CD: Well, I had actually worked with Warren several times, on an un-aired animation project called Distance, and on a web comic called Super Idol. So, we had a history. And Warren knew I was a huge space buff. He also got a kick out of shoving me in people’s faces, because at the time I was still getting a lot of “girl comic” crap flung at me. It was a lot of fun turning in the first pages on the book, because Heidi MacDonald (who was the original editor) took them around to show people my work at the DC offices, and not a single person could identify the artist. Not one editor guessed the work was by a woman.

I think Orbiter pretty much ended the whole girl artist stigma for me.

Now I almost never get offered anything but dark, gritty cyberpunk stuff!

PCZ: What can you tell us about the new project you and Warren are working on?

CD: It’s gritty cyberpunk stuff! It’s called Stealth Tribes and it is dark and gritty! LOL! I love this book. It’s twisted.

I think Orbiter pretty much ended the whole girl artist stigma for me.

PCZ: What can you tell us about the children’s licensed book you are working on?

CD: LOL! I already quit! I was originally hired to do spot illos, and then the commitment went from that to highly detailed backgrounds, redesigning the backgrounds of others, designing costumes, designing new characters, etc. I am really glad the client liked my work, but the pay was not commensurate with my efforts. I did a calculation of how much I was getting paid versus the time I was putting into it. That is, my obligations kept going up, but my pay didn’t. And I realized I was spending several times as many hours on the job for the same pay as I had been originally offered. I figure I was making the same amount of money per hour on A Distant Soil! So, I quit the gig.

The same day, I got a new contract at Vertigo, so it was all for the best anyway! I have enough work to not have to worry about finances for awhile, and enough to devote weekends to work on A Distant Soil, which is exactly what I am doing. I have hired an editor, Julie Ditrich, to stay on top of the job and my schedule, and I am now meeting a weekly quota, and meeting my quota on my mainstream work. So, best of all worlds, just now.

PCZ: Who are your creative influences?

CD: I have an awful lot of them ,so we could be here all day. I love the Symbolists and the Pre-Raphaelites, and Howard Pyle, and Hal Foster, and Moebius, and Riyoko Ikeda, and Frank Kelly Freas, Frank Miller, Yasuko Aoike, Aubrey Beardsley, so many, too many to list properly.

PCZ: What comics are you currently reading?

CD: None. I am on a diet. Trying to clean out my brain and look at things with fresh eyes. I’ve got a list of GN’s I want to buy for Christmas, though.

OK, I peek at Rasl.

PCZ: What else can we look forward to from you in the future?

CD: I just signed a new Vertigo contract. The writer is Derek McCulloch, the writer I worked with on Tori Amos: Comic Book Tattoo. I don’t think I can tell you about it, but I know we are shooting for a March 2010 release.

PCZ: How was it working on such a massive project like Tori Amos: A Comic Book Tattoo?

CD: That was interesting, because I had never really met the people involved with the project. It was a little nerve wracking, wondering if it was all going to come together in that brutal time frame. I had never worked with the writer, but knew he was very talented. And I was determined to do something completely new with my work, and to do portions of the work digitally. There are so many people doing digital art, with cartoony styles and heavy Photoshop coloring, and I didn’t want to go in that direction. I don’t want to use the Photoshop look, which is, so often, plastic and metallic-looking. I wanted an organic feeling. It took me about two months to come up with the style and technique. When I combined the pencil drawings with my hand painted work, it really clicked for me. I was very happy with it. I want to take it further in new projects.

PCZ: Were you a Tori Amos fan prior to working on the book or have you become one since then?

CD: I was a huge Tori Amos fan, and had heard her on alternative radio stations when she first started producing work. I thought she was brilliant and collected her albums. There’s no one quite like her. I was delighted to get a chance to work on “Pretty Good Year” which is one of her best songs. Both Derek and I were terribly flattered that we got the anchor spot in the book. That was a real compliment. Initially, I was concerned that we would be outshone by all the high-flying fantasy work in the book. Our story was very human, very down to Earth. But, I think our story came off very well, and suited the song. We’ve gotten incredible reviews on our story. And since Derek and I did so well together, we’re doing a new book at Vertigo, so happy endings all around!

PCZ: Anything else you’d like to say to our readers?

CD: I love you, I love you all!

PCZ: Thank you again for your time!