With the critical acclaim surrounding Image Comics' "Saga" #1, many readers are familiar with Eisner-nominated artist Fiona Staples. Taking the stage in front of an engaged WonderCon audience, Staples discussed her career in comics and her process illustrating "Saga" as editor Scott Peterson moderated.
Staples began the panel by showing her first comic, "Done to Death," a dark comedy horror story. "Back then, I was doing mixed media experiments," she said. "I was in art college." The artist went on to show some of her work on the "Trick 'r Treat" adaptation of the movie of the same name. "The moment ['Trick 'r Treat' creator Michael Dougherty] saw Fiona's work, he just went insane and insisted she had to do one of the chapters," said Peterson.
"I had to do the robot pages to prove myself," Staples recalled of her work on "Authority" spinoff "Jack Hawksmoor," noting she had only drawn horror up to that point. "This is the moment when I went full digital," she said, showing art from the series. "All the lines are colored, but they're all done in Photoshop."
Staples' next major break came in the form of a gig illustrating a story for Brian Wood's "Northlanders." "That was an interesting new challenge. Generally, my linework is pretty flimsy," she said. "There are a lot of blank spaces where I felt like I could draw it in when I colored it. With 'Northlanders,' I tried to do more close shaves, I tried to do more finished linework."
Peterson took the helm and asked Staples about her transition to all-digital artwork, who clarified she only does her profession comic book work in all digital. "I keep tons of sketchbooks and I draw in them all the time," she said. "It's just professional comics work. It streamlines the process for me."
An artist from an early age, Staples briefly ran down her formal training. "I was always [drawing.] I came into comics a little late," she said. "I got into them in high school, but I didn't start drawing them until I got to art college. … I guess I've always liked the idea of digital narratives. I didn't consider doing comic books until I was in grade 10." Staples attributed her interest in comics to a girl named Tiffany who passed her Image titals, including "Fathom" and "Rising Stars." "I went on a Top Cow buying spree."
While in high school, Staples was discouraged from doing comic book art by her professors -- something that changed once she got to art school. "It turned out that at my art school, all the instructors were actually really supportive of comics," she said. "I had a class on narrative illustration and character design. Comics were definitely seen as legitimate when I was in college."
After sharing samples of work by other artists she turned to for inspiration on "Saga," Staples dove into the history of how she and writer Brian K. Vaughan designed the controversial debut-issue's cover. "Brian sent me the 'Saga' mini-bible so I could get started on the character designs," she said, displaying early looks for Alana and the series' first cover. "Brian had a pretty specific idea for this cover. He wanted it to be the two heroes standing there with their baby. Alana would be breast-feeding their infant. He knew all along we were going to do a breastfeeding cover. He probably knew what was going to happen."
"I wanted to do solid color backgrounds in all the colors to have a unifying design theme," she continued, noting one of the thumbnails ended up being used for an issue #2 cover. "Brian didn't really give me much direction for the two characters other than Alana would have wings and Marko would have Ram Horns," Staples said of the main characters. "I knew they were going to be on the run and I knew they would be in hiding, so they would have to be covered up."
While Staples went through many different designs for Alana's wings, including beetle's wings and insect wings, she had a very solid vision of Marko from the start. "I had a pretty good idea of what I wanted him to look like," she said. "So I didn't deviate from that too much."
Peterson noted the depth of Staples' environmental designs for "Saga," asking about her enjoyment in illustrating the architectural aspects of the book. "I do love doing it. I wish it didn't take me as long as it does. I love digging into that stuff, environment designs, researching it," she said, noting she only uses about a third of all her reference material. "It was a little harder. I wasn't sure where to go at first because the way Brian's written it, there are a lot of fantastic elements, but there are a lot of things that are really mundane. They talk about school buses and eating cereal."
"Since I'm doing all the art myself, no one else really has to look at these," Staples shared as she continued to share her artistic process with the audience. "This stage takes me longer than it looks because these go through many iterations where I play with many camera angles and panel sizes before I found out the best way to lay out the page. I do this at the coffee shop."
From there, Staples scans the thumbnails into Photoshop and goes directly from thumbnails to inks, drawing directly over the scanned thumbs. Her next step is to insert painted backgrounds. "I wanted to do this to give a richness to the world by having painted backgrounds. At the same time I didn't want to pain the characters themselves. Sometimes it slows down the action a lot. I really wanted the characters to have an immediacy to them, keep them simple, fairly flat."
The final result is an almost cel-shaded coloring effect. "Some of the pages will have narration from Baby Hazel, which I will integrate into the art work."
Staples has been working on "Saga" since July 2011, so the book's release last week has been a long time coming. "I've been working on it so long, I wasn't sure how it would be received," she said, mentioning how nervous she was when the book finally hit stores -- and readers' hands.
The artist also showed more "Saga" covers, noting especially the finished cover for "Saga" #2. "I can't wait for people to see the character this hand belongs to. One of my favorite characters to draw." According to Staples, a ghostly disemboweled ghost girl will apparently play an important role in the story.
At this point, Staples showed a video of her drawing the cover for issue #5, sped up many times. "I started out by picking a background color and doing my underpainting. I have my line art on a separate layer and then paint over it." The entire process took nearly an hour. "I really loosely put down the colors and sometimes I'll use a filter or an adjustment to get the temperature or contrast that I'm looking for." Staples then adds the shadows to the cover, adding highlights in the underpainting. After the colors, Staples paints over the linework, bringing more depth to the design.
"Their design has to be something flexible, it can't be too rigid," said Staples of the main characters' costumes. "Alana cant be wearing a ballgown -- she has to be trekking across the planet and doing all sorts of things."
After the video, the panel opened to audience questions, many of which had to do with Staples' process, where she revealed she used photo reference of herself, using her Mac's PhotoBooth program. "I'd act it all out for you, but it's embarrassing." For baby Hazel, Staples actually uses a Final Fantasy Moogle plush toy wrapped in a blanket. "I delete [the reference photos] immediately."
In terms of influence, Staples says Manga and Japanese comics play a large role in her art style due to their presence in her life as a teenager. "I was into anime and JRPGs in high school," she said. "I definitely started out doing anime fan art for my friends before I got serious doing comics. It's definitely an influence -- I don't know if it shows up at this point because I have so many influence. … I read a lot of fantasy books when I was little, I was really into Star Wars."
A fan asked Staples about how in-depth her design work went, to which she replied there were a number of designs she didn't even show Brian K. Vaughan. "I spent a long time, maybe longer than necessary, because I was nervous. I felt a lot of pressure to do it because I knew this was going to be the highest profile job I've had," she said. "I did a lot of secret designs and I just sent him the things that I really loved."
One of Staples' most intriguing answers came when an audience member asked she regretted working digitally because she couldn't sell the original pages. "I don't really care about selling the original art," she said. "I guess my first concern is doing the comic as well as I can and as fast as I can. Working digitally is the best way I can do that…I don't want to change my process and go out of my way to [sell pages.] To me, the printed comic is the finished product. I'm lucky enough to be able to make a living just by selling 'Saga' for now. I sometimes have prints to sell. I do little sketchbooks sometimes, but no pages."