A major benefit of sharing a town with Savannah College of Art and Design Atlanta is that when one of the school’s professors has a new book, if I am lucky they want to do an interview. That’s the case this week, with sequential art/foundation studies Prof. Doug Dabbs, who recently celebrated the release of Holliday (Oni Press), his collaboration with writer Nate Bowden. The creative team’s project is a modern-day noir-ish reworking of the town of Tombstone and the distinctive life of Doc Holliday. Thrown into the mix is Wyatt Earp, Curly Bill and, of course, a standoff. Once you’ve enjoyed the interview, please be sure to check out Oni’s 16-page preview of the book.
In setting a classic Western tale in the modern era, I was struck wondering if you used certain cities for reference?
Obviously, the main issue for reference is that a Tombstone metropolis does not exist. In fact, the current population is around 1,500, less than half from where it was around the 1880s. So, any particular architecture or constructions that a major city would have, Tombstone currently lacks. That did mean I had a bit of wiggle room in terms of the design. One thing Nate Bowden, the writer of Holliday, and I wanted to push in the story was the overall idea that the story in historic Tombstone is current and could still happen. A hodgepodge design of vintage and modern would be fun, but wouldn’t fit the intended mood of the story. So, I looked at a lot of photos from Phoenix to get a sense of its unique architectural qualities and how it relates to the topography. Also, the Tombstone in Holliday has seen better days. The city is dangerous, grittyand dark. I am a big fan of HBO’s The Wire. The representation of the hardship of the city was amazing. The way they shot Baltimore was a big influence on me as well.
In terms of your art, I enjoy the speckled texture you apply to some of the scenes. What prompted you to take that approach?
Thanks a lot! I really enjoy using a variety of tools that are not brush. It really helps enforce a different mood than the preceding scene, which is the main reason I do use various types of textures and marks — to complement a particular mood of a scene. There were times when it was appropriate to render Doc’s face with thumbprints, ink splatter or dry brush, like a really intense fight scene or a part of the story that has heavy shadows. However, even if he was wearing similar style clothing, I’d render Doc a bit more cleanly if it was a quiet intimate scene, or had a comedic tone. I just think it is important to know how to draw for a particular scene. I use a lot of blacks, which I feel is a strength of mine, but I don’t want it to be my weakness as well. I don’t want every scene to have heavy black components. If that does become the case, the use of black loses its emotional punch and becomes white noise. So, the way I would render bright light hitting figures on a beach should be different than bright light hitting a character in a dark room. I think I get much more successful with this the further the story of Holliday moves along. It’s all about telling a story with visuals.
With designing the myriad characters in this large cast, did you consult with writer Nate Bowden about them, or did he give you free rein on that?
Nate supplied a brief description for all of the major characters in the book. Following that, I pretty much had free reign to the design of the characters. However, it’s still a collaboration to tell a story, which I love, so I wanted his feedback on the designs. For me, the character designs are one of the stages of creating comics that benefits a lot from feedback and obtaining a different interpretation. Once the design is complete, you have to stick with it.
True to the original Holliday, his health plays a role in the story also. How did you decide the best way to convey the deterioration of his health?
It’s a tough thing to do in comics, but I wanted his face throughout the story to slowly change for the worst. I think this is more evident when you compare portions of the beginning and end of the story. Other things that were added to show his deteriorating health were his cane and the act of coughing up blood, which were great decisions by Nate. These visuals, combined with his actions, should give good impression on the status of Doc physically and mentally.
You worked on this book while juggling your full-time job as a professor at SCAD-Atlanta. After a full day of teaching, how did you shift gears to get behind the table and start drawing? On the flip side, were there times you brought your pages into SCAD to get some feedback/help with an aspect of a scene from one of your fellow professors?
It can be tough. I think you really need to have a healthy balance of all the important things in your life, whether family, freelance, work, etc. That way you don’t get burned out or bitter about not being able to put in enough time into one of your important parts of life. I know it’s a lame explanation, but sometimes you just have to get your art done. You may not be in the mood or tired, but you have to work on it. That is what makes you a professional, and it actually improves your technical ability. A great measuring stick is to see how well you can draw when you are totally out of the mood. Your weaknesses really become much more apparent at that point. Once I can see that in myself, I know what I need to concentrate on a bit more. It’s also about being a bit stubborn. I refuse to let outside elements affect my attitude to work. It’s kind of like I don’t want the man to keep me down. I’m just not sure who the man is.
It also helps working in the Sequential Art department at SCAD-Atlanta. I’m surrounded by sequential art professors who are insanely talented and are all currently working in the industry. Shawn Crystal, Nolan Woodard, Chris Schweizer, Chris Starros and June Brigman all come from different backgrounds and naturally have various concentrations and styles. So, getting feedback from them is a huge asset. The students benefit from it as well. The get to learn from veterans, Eisner nominees, Marvel-exclusive artists, editor-in-chiefs and amazing colorists. I really feel like if you’re an artist wanting learn how to create comics, there isn’t a better place to go. Trust me, not only am I a professor, but I was a client as well.
When Oni first contacted you with this opportunity, did you bristle at tackling something as large as a 192-page graphic novel?
Honestly, I was just so excited about working with Oni Press on such an amazing concept, I didn’t even think about the length of the book. Although my excitement about the project increased the more I worked on the book, I realized there would be no way that I could finish a book of this length in the amount of time that I wanted. Okay, it definitely could happen, but by increasing my production rate, I would have to sacrifice my approach of rendering. I didn’t want to look back on Holliday and think, “Man, this could have looked so much better if I had just spent a bit more time on it.” When it’s done, it’s done. There’s no going back. So, I wanted to make this a good as I could and hope readers feel the same way.
Not to spoil the ending, but did your epilogue portion of the story shift in terms of art tone? It seemed to capitalize upon use of white space/starkness much more. I was wondering if your art style or tone shifted in the final part of the book.
Yes! Actually, there is a significant shift in the art from the beginning to the end. Part of it is because of the length of the book — a natural progression will take place in a story of that length. The other reason is that I wanted the beginning of the book to a bit simpler in regards to detail. As the story progresses and characters become more complex, the artwork becomes a bit more complex and detailed as well. Because the artwork gets more detailed, I had to take advantage of the use of mass white and black areas. It gives the opportunity for the image to breathe and establish a clear hierarchy within the panel. I didn’t want there to be a big difference from beginning to end, but instead, something that complements the overall story.
What appealed to you most about Bowden’s script?
There were several things about Nate’s script that appealed to me. I really enjoyed the concept. I also really enjoy westerns and love stories about crime. When you combine them into a modern retelling of historical events … I’m in! I also appreciated the fact that he trusted me to tell the story with my visuals. There are several pages where there is no dialogue and he relied on me to tell the story with my acting, camera shots, lighting, etc. The script was a lot of fun to work from.
How did your art benefit from editor Jill Beaton’s feedback?
Jill was great! She really gave me a lot of freedom. One of the great things I’ve experienced with Oni is that when they hire you, they trust you. They are not going to try to mold you into a particular style or clone. So, I do feel that Holliday let me improve and let me tell the story of Nate’s script. I couldn’t have done it without Jill.
Anything we should discuss that I neglected to ask you about?
I just hope that this is a book people will enjoy and that it gets them interested in the actual historical events Holliday was based on. Some pretty amazing events happened in historic Tombstone, and when it’s modernized, I think it makes the viewer realize how incredible those events were and how the characters, actions, and personalities are still current.