Colleen Doran - The Multi-Talented Multi-Hyphenate

Tue, March 28th, 2006 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
George A. Tramountanas, Staff Writer

Name a talented writer-artist who got their start as a teen in the '80s, has a large, almost cult-like following, and looks great in a pair of Levi's.

Those of you who said Colleen Doran, you are correct. (Those who said Rob Liefeld, well, you'd be wrong for the purposes of this article.)

Recently, CBR News had the opportunity to chat with Doran. The topics covered were varied and numerous. The writer is involved in so many projects at the moment, it makes this reporter's head spin just thinking about them. Still, Doran managers to juggle all the projects on her plate with the grace and poise of a seasoned professional, which, of course, is what she is. So sit back and prepare to amazed…

A DISTANT SOIL

We began by discussing "A Distant Soil," the first series Doran ever created. Well, as the saying goes, "You never forget your first." And considering she is still writing and drawing the book (which is currently published through Image Comics), it appears Doran never has and never will.

"Oh boy, I have been at Image now for ten years, as of last February. Hard to believe it! I've been working on it for almost as long as I can remember, since I was a kid. I began writing it when I was twelve. I don't like to admit how long ago that was!"

"The new trade is coming out this week, 'A Distant Soil: Coda.' And I hope the latest issue will be out in April. I have to admit that my schedule is pretty brutal these days."

Brutal is an understatement (which you will see as you continue to read the article). For those who aren't familiar with the book, but are curious about it, Doran was happy to provide a brief description.

"It's the story of a young girl who is born the heir to an alien religious dynasty. She has the power of an Avatar. Her world believes that makes her a conduit to their god. In reality, she is able to draw on the Collective psychic force of her people. This makes her an awesome weapon. However, only one Avatar can exist at a time.

"If there are two Avatars, their connections to the Collective interfere with one another and they become almost useless. And without their Avatar, their homeworld is without its weapon of mass destruction. So, these aliens must find this little girl and get rid of her to save themselves. But, things don't go exactly as planned, and lots of political machinations, backstabbing, romantic intrigue, and all around badness abounds. It is definitely the kind of story you will like to read if you enjoy literary science fiction and fantasy."

Considering the length of time she has worked on this series, Doran has naturally experienced several highs and lows over the book's lifetime. CBR News asked her about the best and most difficult parts of working on a creator-owned book for such an extended period, and she had plenty to say in response.

"Oh boy, I could spend all day answering this question. It is deeply satisfying to have something that I enjoy so much, and at the same time, it has been grueling. And to have spent so many years working on one story, people expect the ending to be good. I am now working on the final storyline, and I am a nervous wreck. The best part is the pure satisfaction of writing and drawing something that is completely your own and outside of any consideration of commercial constraint. Of course, having a cult book also means being somewhat marginalized and not doing as well financially as one might like! But if you choose to do a purely personal work, you choose the hard road.

"When I first started out, people thought this was just the oddest, quirkiest book and it didn't get a lot of respect. Now, it gets cited by the American Library Association and is listed in the '101 Best Graphic Novels.' It took a long time, but in the end, to have a book that is respected and well received is very satisfying. If it made more money, then I would have no complaints at all! I am sure there are things I could have done to make the book an easier sell, but I am glad I did the book the way it should have been done."

With a story so long in the making, readers might wonder if and how it will end. While she wouldn't reveal the how portion of this question, Doran did indicate an ending. And it just so happens, the end is near…

"I have about eight more issues of the comic to go. The latest graphic novel, the one that came out last week, 'A Distant Soil: Coda,' is volume IV. Volume V is the end. The real end. When the story is over, it is over.

"I have also been working on Volume 0, which is the prequel, but it is a standalone. I actually started working on that storyline years ago, and published some of it, but it has been out of print for almost fifteen years, so if I resurrect it now, most people will not be familiar with it. The story is called 'A Distant Soil: Seasons of Spring.'"

THE BOOK OF LOST SOULS

Another book Doran is currently drawing is "The Book of Lost Souls," which is published under Marvel's Icon imprint. The book is written by Joe M. Straczynski ("Amazing Spider-Man," "Fantastic Four") and explores the kind of fantasy dreamland that Doran excels in bringing to life. And speaking of dreams, the artist indicated that getting this job was a dream come true in and of itself.

"I got a note from Joe Straczynski out of the blue. We had exchanged a few emails and I was a big fan of his. He had done me a very kind favor, offered me some support when I was going through a professional crisis. I was very grateful and was amazed when he asked me to audition for the book. I honestly thought he was just shining me on because I couldn't believe he really liked my stuff. I was blown away by both his personal support and his professional interest.

"I was a major 'Babylon 5' fan. In fact, when I got my first 'Lost Souls' check, I ran out and bought the boxed DVD set! I was such a fangirl! I even had him sign my name badge at a convention and took pictures of us! Look at me! I'm standing here with the Great Maker! I just loved that show. My parents are fans of his because he worked on 'Murder She Wrote' and they loved that show, too. Every time one of his books would come out with another artist, I would just droop. I wanted to work with him so bad! I just couldn't believe I got a chance to do this book."

As you can see, Doran's enthusiasm for the book is immeasurable. When asked what appealed to her about the story, she responded, "Oh, I love every aspect of it! I love the variety of the storylines, the dark, gothic feel, the hopefulness and sorrow, and the strong characters. I love the talking cat! It's one of the few times I have worked on a comic and literally cried while working on the story. It is so moving and beautiful. I genuinely love this book."

Many artists have difficulty just completing one book a month; Doran, however, is juggling two books in addition to other projects. In discussing her schedule, it quickly became clear that she could use a few more days in the week (either that, or a clone of herself).

"('The Book of Lost Souls') is actually running about every six weeks just now. JMS (Straczynski) writes all the cool books in North America, so I don't know how he does it! There's a little hiatus between issues #6 and 7. But it will probably go back to monthly again after that. I don't mind the little break. I get extra time to finish off other stuff!

"As for me, I work seven days a week just now, but I don't recommend it! It is grueling. In about two months, several major extra projects of mine will be finished and I will have more time, but for now, I am a machine. I have the advantage of having a very supportive family, and when I am on deadline, I just work. I don't have to cook or clean, I just draw. To be honest, being able to cook or work in the garden feels like a vacation to me, so I am happy to do it when I can. But just now, I work. I am grateful to have so much to do! If I didn't have such a supportive family I could never get things done."

MANGA GRRRL

In talking with Doran, CBR News discovered that she will be giving a lecture on manga at the Smithsonian this spring and also has a manga art book coming out later in the year. For those who are familiar with her art, this may be a bit of a surprise as Doran's name might not be the first that pops in your head when you hear the word "manga."

"My style isn't really manga, so you are right to think it isn't!" she explained.

"Manga is simply the Japanese word that has come to mean 'comics.' That is all. The literal meaning is 'whimsical' or 'irresponsible pictures.'

"The name comes from the famous woodblock artist Hokusai who published sketchbooks of his work between the years 1814 and 1878. He called them manga because he meant to say that the drawings were spontaneous and unplanned, that they just came unbidden from his pen without consideration, hence they were 'irresponsible.' They were not necessarily comics as we know them today, but they had snippets of work that were clearly possessed of a sense of continuity and theme.

"The original meaning of manga is very different from what we know of as comics today.

"Manga is simply comics, most correctly, Japanese comics. Japanese comics are generally characterized by a decompressed storytelling sensibility, but there is no single art style to manga. The artists are as diverse as Western artists. What we generally think of as manga is what gets imported, and it is usually the most popular kind of work; often with a 'house' art style, big eyes and that sort of thing. But big eyes don't make manga."

In discussing the draws of manga for her, she stated, "I am most interested in classic manga because the Tezuka influence in storytelling style was still at its height in the 1970's and 1980's, and it is the strong storytelling sensibility that I admire most in manga. Classic manga is more compressed than modern manga, but more decompressed than most American comics. I love this balance and it is the kind of storytelling sense that I like to use in 'A Distant Soil' sometimes, though my own work is far more story-dense than any manga.

"I've also always admired the Asian sense of line and negative space. I was very fond of many of the late 19th to early 20th century graphic artists and illustrators, and I realized that much of what I enjoyed about their work was the direct influence of the woodblock prints being imported from Asia in the 19th century. They were a huge influence on Toulouse Lautrec, Alphonese Mucha, Vincent Van Gogh and others. Van Gogh's famous painting of iris is very similar to a Hokusai print of iris, and the graphic line of art nouveau is the direct descendant of the fusion of Western form and Asian line.

"I am actually quite picky about my manga now because I can afford to be! Like many fans, when it first started getting imported, I bought everything in sight. Now I just buy a few favorite titles."

While the American comic industry is doing well at the moment, it isn't thriving to the degree that manga is. We asked Doran what factors enable manga to succeed where American comics fall short; however, she didn't quite agree with this assessment.

"I don't think one succeeds and the other falls short, I think they both have interesting qualities. I like and read both Asian and Western comics and admire them both."

As for her upcoming book and the lecture mentioned earlier, Doran said, "My book is called 'Girl to Grrrl Manga,' and it will be out this fall from North Light Books. It is a How To book that concentrates almost entirely on drawing in several different shoujo styles.

"It won't teach you how to draw a building or how to draw dragons, it will only teach you how to parse stylistic sensibilities, duplicate them, and then it will encourage you to come up with your own looks in the manga idiom. I tend to be pretty analytical, so this comes naturally to me!

"My lecture at the Smithsonian will be in May. The Freer Gallery is the famous Asian art wing of the Smithsonian Institute and it will feature a major exhibit on the work of Hokusai. Since Hokusai came up with the term 'manga,' the Smithsonian has asked me to come in and be the artist-in-residence for a week and talk to people about manga and its evolution from wood block prints, as well as manga today. Fred Schodt, author of 'Manga! Manga!' gave them my number, so I was very honored. It is taking a lot of work and study to prepare for this lecture! I will lecture the final week of the Hokusai exhibit."

TOLKIEN, OSCAR PARTIES, AND "RINGERS"

This image of Legolas was painted for a "Lord of the Rings" convention in Germany.
A recurring theme among Doran's passions is fantasy, so an interest in Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings" (LOTR to its fanbase) is to be expected. Actually, to say it is just an "interest" understates her feelings for Tolkien's books. Fanatic would probably be a fair assessment.

"Some of my earliest fan art is of Tolkien's work. In fact, recently, I found my first accounting book from when I was a fan going to conventions and selling my art. The art had titles like 'Off to Rivendell' and 'Gandalf.' My sketchbooks are full of Tolkien art. I have been a major Tolkien fan and collector for years. I had such a ridiculous collection of stuff that a book about Tolkien was published with pictures of collectibles, and most of the collectibles were mine! I have multiple editions of the books and all of them on tape or CD as well. It really is ridiculous, but I just love this stuff."

Of her more recent LOTR works, Doran said, "I did some illustrations for an unofficial book about Tolkien's work. I also did illustrations for several New Line-sponsored events and had a lot of my work at the New Line/www.theonering.net Oscar night parties that were auctioned off for charity."

When asked if she prefers sketching the characters as they appeared in the movie versus drawing them from scratch, she replied, "I only do movie-based art if it is required by the client. I prefer to do book-based work, and to stay away from movie images. There is so much unseen work in Tolkien's world that it is not needed to repeat what the Peter Jackson film imagined."

Doran secured herself a small bit of immortality in the Tolkien fan-world with an appearance in the documentary "Ringers: Lord of the Fans," a film that explores how LOTR has influenced Western popular culture over the past fifty years. The creator filled us in on how this occurred, and talked about some fun times in Tinseltown.

"Well, years ago at the San Diego ComiCon, I was wandering around the booths before the show started, which is one of the swell things you get to do when you have an exhibitor pass. I ran into Cathy Uvdotch, a woman that is heavily involved with www.theonering.net and Tolkien fandom in general. I was drooling at all the cool stuff at the WETA booth (the effects company behind LOTR), and Cathy saw my name and recognized me.

"She then introduced me to some of the cast and the WETA crowd who were hanging about. Sala Baker, the stuntman who played Sauron, and Lawrence Makaore, the actor who was Lurtz (and has been in lots of other films) were just lounging around and we all hit it off. I got to meet Roger Taylor and some of the other WETA guys later. Some of us are still friends and stay in touch.

"When Cathy found out what a big LOTR fan I was, she just took me under her wing and we've been pals since. I went on to meet lots of other guys, and even put Sala and Craig Parker (the actor who played Haldir) into some of my comics. Sala was the King of Scorpio in 'Reign of the Zodiac,' and Craig loves comics. He begged to be a villain, so he ended up in both 'Reign of the Zodiac' and he is a very creepy villain in 'The Book of Lost Souls.'

The Hobbit Feet, signed by actors Elijah Wood, Sean Astin and Billy Boyd.
"It really has been a lot of fun hanging out with some of the cast. Of course, I don't really know the major actors well at all. They are the kind of people you have dinner and cocktails with, and then you see them six months later and they can't remember you at all! But some of the other actors and stuntmen…we have become friends. A couple of them have become some of my favorite models. Jarl Benzon (who was Orlando Bloom's body-double) has stood for a lot of photos for me, and so has Sandro Kopp. I turned Sandro into one of the Lords of Chaos in 'The Book of Lost Souls.' He's stunning and wicked. He's also a wonderful artist.

"Anyway, Cathy and Cliff Broadway and Carlene Cordova (the producer of 'Ringers') decided to have me along for some of the Oscar night parties, so they gave me the VIP treatment, which was incredible. Later they asked to interview me for the film. I think they shot me for hours and used about two minutes! But it was fun! I understand some of the material will be used in later books and whatnot. We'll see…"

STEALTH TRIBES

On top of everything else we've discussed, Doran has one more project up her sleeve: she is the artist of "Stealth Tribes," an upcoming Vertigo OGN written by Warren Ellis. The two previously collaborated on the excellent "Orbiter," and this book promises to be a great read as well. So, how does a fantasy-loving gal end up working with a dark and twisted mind like Ellis' not just once, but twice?

"He contacts me every couple of years or so, and says he has an idea," Doran responded. "They are all incredible ideas, and I would walk a mile across glass to work with Warren. Sometimes it is just an idea, and sometimes it is with pages of copy."

Colleen Doran holds up the Danish flag at February's New York Comic-Con. The flag was signed by industry professionals and later auctioned off to benefit the CBLDF.
Regarding their process, Doran made it sound fairly straightforward. "I get a script and I draw it. Warren is very flexible. I email him sketches or finished pages, and he almost never says 'Yuck!' That is much appreciated."

In describing the book, the artist indicated that it delves into some…interesting areas. "Oh, it is very dark, very cyberpunk, and very 'pervy.' It addresses the vast changes being made to our society, as well as ourselves - our very bodies - by these new technologies. It is quite clever and very naughty."

Considering all the adjectives she just used to describe this tale, we asked Doran what interested her most about this story. She replied, "Drawing it. It's a kick. It is totally twisted and demented. I cannot show this to my mother. And, of course, the never-ending fount that is Warren's brain. That is glorious. I love people of ideas and being around them. Warren's brain never stops."

AND DURING THE DAY'S 25TH HOUR….

As if she needed any more work on her plate, Doran also was pleased to share one more project she is working on.

"I am illustrating a children's book by Louise Simonson called 'Children of Olympus' [from Komikwerks]. I should be finishing it off next week. Yay!"

Wrapping up this interview, I'm left speechless by this writer's schedule and work ethic. Unlike Doran though, this reporter does get tired. I'm taking a nap…

 
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