Becky Cloonan Talks Art, Inspiration & Process for MondoCon

The following interview was conducted prior to the passing of Steve Dillon, Becky Cloonan's collaborator on Marvel Comics' "Punisher" series.

Austin, Texas-based art company Mondo celebrates pop culture by enlisting artists to produce limited edition screen print posters for comics, movies, television and music. Because these posters are high quality and often capture the spirit of a project while looking at them in new and exciting ways they've attracted a devoted fanbase. Once a year, that fanbase flocks to Austin for MondoCon, a weekend gathering dedicated to art, artists and the other pop culture collectibles that Mondo produces such as vinyl soundtracks, and T-Shirts.

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One of Mondo's frequent contributors is Becky Cloonan, an artist who these days is probably best known to comic fans as the writer of the creator owned Image Comics series “Southern Cross” and Marvel's current “Punisher” title. For the past several years, Cloonan has created original images for Mondo as well as a number of musicians and music festivals.

Ahead of her Mondocon appearance, CBR spoke with Cloonan about her artwork, it's inspirations, and her process. We also present a special collection of her work, curated by Cloonan herself.

CBR News: Let's start at the beginning, Becky -- what led to your interest in art? When did you know this is what you wanted to do with your life?

Becky Cloonan: I've pretty much always been keen on drawing, probably more than my parents or teachers thought was healthy. As a kid, I wanted to be an archeologist or a paleontologist (what kid doesn't dream of digging up skeletons?), but as I got into my teens, I made up my mind that I had to draw. My poor parents.

[Laughs] Your art frequently features images of horror or dark fantasy. Why do you think that is? What is it about those types of images that makes them so appealing to you as an artist?

I have no idea where that shit comes from. It's like, I'm a pretty positive person for the most part. As I've gotten a little older, I've been able to exorcise a lot of the demons leftover from my youth, and worked hard to kick depression to the curb. I love laughing and generally try and enjoy every day. I know my weaknesses, so I'm always working on those, and trying to be better. I have no idea what draws me to the macabre or ultra melodramatic, which is kind of funny in and of itself.

It sounds kind of silly, but I feel like I have this hidden well of dark water deep inside me, and if I dive down to the bottom to see what's there, I might never come back up. So I try not to think too hard about where these ideas come from; just hurry to the well, take what inspiration I need, and go back to the light and safety of the village.

I've noticed that wooded areas and wilderness often appear as settings in your work. Is that coincidence? Or is there something about that type of setting that captures and fires your imagination?

I grew up in a pretty wooded area in New Hampshire, fishing, catching snakes, running around the woods and turning over rocks to see what kind of bugs were under them. We have deer and bear and wild turkeys -- my mom still lives there and I love visiting more and more as I get older.

I also loved fantasy novels. I was a voracious reader as a kid, but as I got older I kind of left all the high fantasy behind. I moved to New York City in 1998 and soaked up all this new inspiration, which helped me grow, but after several years I decided to jump back into what had captured my imagination so much as a kid. In 2011 I made a mini-comic called "Wolves," and that was that. I was home.

Music especially punk and heavy metal are also a big influence on your work. Do you listen to music when you work? If so, do you have any common go to albums or genres that you listen to while working?

I've always been keen on music. I almost always have something on while I work, I love record shopping and going to shows, and I often pick what I'm going to listen to based on what I'll be writing or drawing that day. I'll make playlists for my books, or for characters to help get into their headspace. Lately, I've been listening to a lot of doom metal and a bit of psych rock, but I like to think I've got pretty eclectic taste in music. [Laughs] But it's true -- most of all I enjoy metal! [Cloonan throws up a metal horns salute]

[Returns the metal horn salute] You've also done a lot of art for bands and music festivals. What's it like working on musically inspired projects instead of say film and comic ones where there are already established images associated with the project?

Gig posters and album art has been picking up for me. The last few years have been crazy. I did the art for Roadburn this past year, and also did a poster for Black Sabbath's “The End” tour, I did art for a Clutch album and the Deathwaltz Records release of the “Castlevania” soundtrack on vinyl!

I've also turned down a couple of amazing jobs this year because I had a feeling I wasn't right for the project -- this can be really hard, but you always gotta go with your gut on these things.

I guess I don't really approach projects differently based on who or what they are for, it's more like what format it will be, what am I going to bring to it, and what kind of story needs to be told. I guess with music there is a little more freedom when it comes to subject matter and imagery, but it's still the same approval process, people need to sign off on it- even if I'm working for a smaller band, I want to make sure everyone is happy. A lot of times the musicians will have an idea of what they want to see anyway! And if they don't, I always ask them what they don't want me to draw.

I'm curious about your artistic process. Do you have a set way that you approach assignments like prints, posters and covers? If so, can you break it down for us?

I am very predictable in my approach and process. First, I'll sketch out a bunch of rough thumbnails, try and get some juices flowing. A lot of times I will think of a story for the characters in the illustration I'm working on, and I throw in some symbolism that might not be completely obvious, but gives a hidden layer behind the illustration that you can kind of glimpse, and adds some emotional depth. If I feel it, and the characters are real to me, maybe they are real for the audience too.

Anyway, then I'll sketch more, and tighten up the lines. Often times I'll scan my cleaner sketch and bring it into photoshop to refine it, then print it out larger and lightbox and ink it. Or I'll just finish the project on my Cintiq, which is a lifesaver when I am on the road! It took me a few years to really get used to working digitally, but now that I've gotten the hang of it. I feel like it's a powerful and indispensable tool.

Occasionally, I will experiment outside this process and surprise myself, but I'm comfortable working in stages. This way, I can show my clients what I'm doing and everyone is happy at the end.

People who are discovering your work for the first time via your art might be curious about some of the comic projects you've got going, like your creator-owned book for Image with Andy Belanger, "Southern Cross," and the "Punisher" series for Marvel that you're writing and Steve Dillon is drawing. What do you want curious fans to know about these projects?

Sometimes I feel like my comic projects and illustration are a little too separate, maybe because I wrote them and I'm not as involved visually. I'd love it for more people to read “Southern Cross” -- Andy is killing the art and I am so proud of this book! It's like “Murder She Wrote” meets “Aliens.”

Writing “Punisher” is at the same time the hardest and easiest book to write. I don't want to reinvent the wheel here, so if you are a Frank Castle fan, I think you will get exactly what you want from the book. Steve Dillon is going all-out “Punisher MAX” here! We are having a lot of fun.

If you are curious to read some books I've written and drawn, might I suggest my three short stories "Wolves," "The Mire" and "Demeter." They are all pretty personal and close to my heart, and if you are a fan of my illustration work these might be the stories for you. Oh, and they're all on comiXology for 99 cents.

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