Fans of Image Comics' hit space opera "Saga" had a whole two-hour block carved out for them on Friday at Comic-Con International. Spotlights on both writer Brian K. Vaughan and artist Fiona Staples took place back-to-back in the same panel room, giving the book's passionate—and large—fanbase a feature-length dose of "Saga"-related content. Nearly everyone in attendance for Vaughan's spotlight stayed glued to their seats when the second hour-long panel, this time focusing on Fiona Staples, kicked off.
Jennifer de Guzman, Director of Trade Book Sales at Image Comics, sat down with the artist and kicked off a slideshow that started with Staples' first-ever published work: 2005's "Amphibious Nightmare." Staples completed her first short story as part of that year's 24-hour comic challenge.
"It's sort of an international event where people all over attempt to do a 24 page comic book in 24 hours," Staples said. "In 2005, I was working in a comic book store in the mall, and the store put on one of these events. About 40 people gathered together in the mall food court and were sequestered there for 24 hours trying to churn out these comic books. It was a really fun, weird, intense experience."
From there, Staples did work on "Done to Death" for Markosia and then "Trick 'r Treat" for WildStorm. Getting a job at a major imprint like WildStorm marked a new beginning for Staples' career, just as it also heralded a big change.
"['Trick 'r Treat'] was actually the last comic that I did using actual pen and paper, rather than 100 percent digital artwork," Staples said. She then explained some of her influences from around that time. "I was looking at a lot of '70s horror comics, like 'Vampirella.' I was really into the old Conan style. I've always loved the old EC Comics, like 'Creepy' and 'Weird Science.' When I first started out, I was getting a lot of horror work, and those were my main influences."
Staples entered the world of super heroes with WildStorm's "Secret History of the Authority: Hawksmoor" limited series.
"This is the point where I started doing my work digitally, because I was actually hired onto this book at the last minute," Staples said. "I was like, the third artist that they tried to bring on after the other two quit, or disappeared, or flaked out. When I joined the project, it was a very, very tight schedule. I think I had three or four weeks to complete each full-color issue. I thought there was no way I could do this traditionally."
Staples revealed that she switched to working fully digital at the suggestion of fellow artist Frazer Irving. "He sort of showed me what's possible with programs like Photoshop." Her WildStorm work increased her profile, leading to more cover work for DC Comics. "I started getting more calls from DC editors and creators."
Creator Steve Niles changed the course of Staples' career when he recommended her to Brian K. Vaughan.
"Brian was sort of looking around for an artist," said Staples. "He had this concept for an epic space story that he wanted to do and he was asking his writer friends if they knew any available artists. Steve mentioned my name. At the time, I was mostly just playing video games and doing covers. So…I was available. Brian just sort of emailed me out of the blue one day. It was like, I open my inbox and, 'Hi, I'm Brian K. Vaughan. You may know me from series such as 'Y: The Last Man' and 'Ex Machina.'"
"I was a little wary because it was going to be an ongoing series, which is something I'd never attempted before," Staples said. "I've never done anything longer than six issues in my life. So, this was a big scary commitment. He couldn’t tell me how long it was going to be. He said, 'I want to do it forever.' I was like, okay, well, let me check my schedule. I guess I'll just cross out everything from now until the end of my life!"
Even though Staples works closely with Vaughan on the series, she still tries to keep her distance when it comes to spoilers.
"I'm surprised basically every issue, because I don't read ahead and I told Brian not to tell me where the plot's going to go. One of my favorite parts of the month is when I get a new script, and I don't allow myself to read it until I've finished the last issue. Then I get to read the next script."
Staples discussed a bit of her character design process, specifically with a new character coming up called the Brand. "[Brian] described her as Caucasian brunette who wears a trench coat. She should resemble the Will for reasons we find out in our next arc. I kind of based her on Tilda Swinton. I thought it would be cool to give her an androgynous look."
When it came time to design another character, Staples inadvertently redefined "business casual." "I think [Brian] just said [Gwen] should be a beautiful, black woman, tall and thin with white curved horns that go into her hair," said Staples. "He said she should be wearing all white, because she works for Wreath High Command, and so I thought I would give her sort of a business casual look. Space business casual." Staples and the audience laughed at the creation of the term "space business casual" to describe Gwen's scantily clad—yet put together—look.
The Stalk, with her secret spider body, proved to be the craziest character Staples had to come up with for the book.
"She's the only character that's had multiple reveals," Staples said. "When we first see her, she's this beautiful sort of Venus de Milo lady with no arms, and her second reveal is when she flips up her skirt and she's got this horrifying spider body. When I read the description, I was like, 'I don't know what you're going for with this.' He described her in a lot of detail, actually, from the white skin to the eight arms with hands on the end to all the weapons she had to the black skirt. He had a very clear idea of who the Stalk was going to be. She ended up being one of my favorite characters to draw."
Staples also explained that her use of photo reference has resulted in some interesting uses of her MacBook's camera. "[I've posed for] a lot of the gruesome death scenes. There's been some like, embarrassing sex scenes that I've had to pose for, so those will never see the light of day!"
An aspiring artist asked what Staples considers to be her weak spot, and then how she develops a plan of attack when drawing those things.
"The most challenging thing for me to draw is probably technology," said Staples. "My plan of attack is to substitute tech for trees…Actually, Brian's really good at writing to my strengths. But I do sometimes ask him to put in more tech stuff and vehicles and weapons, things that I generally kind of suck at, so that I can try to get better at them. This is sort of a learning experience for me. I'm going to be doing it for a long time, hopefully, so I want to be able to get better as an artist as I go along."
Staples expanded upon her working relationship with Brian in an answer to one fan's question about their shared creator status.
"I don't want any input on the plot. He's had a plan for this book for a long time, and he knows how it's gonna end and everything. But in between arcs, we do sit down and have a talk about what we're going to do for the next six issues. He'll ask me stuff like, 'What do I want to draw? Do I have any creatures that I want to include in the book? Have I designed any monsters? What sorts of worlds do you wanna see,? Should there be more jokes?' We'll talk it out, and he's very considerate."
Staples closed out the panel by giving attendees as much of a hint about upcoming "Saga" issues as she could. "A lot of tears and heartbreak, unfortunately…but some jokes!"