At this year's Thought Bubble Comic Art Festival in Leeds, creators Cecil Castellucci ("Shade the Changing Girl"), Becky Cloonan ("Southern Cross, "Killjoys"), Jeff Lemire ("Sweet Tooth," "Descender"), Simon Roy ("Habitat," "Island") and Cameron Stewart ("Batgirl," "Motor Crush") discussed the process of world building. They spoke about collaboration, research and the challenge of writing in a shared universe. CBR's own Steve Morris hosted the panel.
Morris kicked off the panel by asking about inspiration: "Where do you start?"
"It usually always starts with character," Lemire answered. "The stories are about the people in the world, not the worlds themselves, but you need to make the world feel like it's a real place that has a history and a backstory.
"For 'Descender,' it was a bit broader," Lemire continued, "I had done 'Trillium' at Vertigo before that, and I had a lot of fun building that one small, alien planet…With 'Descender,' I expanded to a whole cosmos of planets and locations." Artist Dustin Nguyen also had a large influence on the shape of the world. "A lot of it was just driven by giving Dustin interesting things to draw. He didn't want just one environment; his only request was to give him something where he could draw a lot of different environments."
Simon Roy spoke about the inspiration for "Habitat," his science fiction series that has been serialized in Image Comics' "Island" anthology. "Basically, I got hooked by the idea of doing a barbarian adventure in space… From there, [it was] just getting into lots of obsessive research on space habitats and utopian '70s architecture and Mesoamerican architecture."
As an artist, Roy also wanted to use comics visuals to highlight what he discovered in his research. Speaking about the O'Neill cylinder that's portrayed in "Habitat," he said, "It's not my idea, but it's a really great one, and one that I hadn't really seen done obsessively enough. And I was like, 'I could really spend a few days just drawing one page here.' So I try to do lots of those views that really illustrate that horizon."
Like Roy, Cecil Castellucci also does a fair amount of research for her projects. "I also write science fiction novels," she said, "So I have a lot of different working things that I do; I like to take a lot of history classes with massive online college classes and pull those elements in from history to put into my science fiction world building."
For her "Young Animals" series, "Shade The Changing Girl," she and the rest of the creative team use Pinterest to share inspiration. "Me and Marley [Zarcone] and Kelly [Fitzpatrick] have a secret Pinterest page where, any time any of us sees an image on the internet that we think looks crazy or has the vibe or feeling of madness, [we add it]… we're trying to build a vocabulary for each other." '
Cameron Stewart also mentioned Pinterest. "Babs [Tarr], particularly on 'Batgirl' and 'Motor Crush', she obsessively catalogues stuff on Pinterest pages. She has a separate board for each character, with style and so on - just imagery she likes that seems to be reflective of the story."
"It just gives you a shorthand," Cecil added.
Asked about the starting point for his upcoming Image series with Babs Tarr, "Motor Crush," Stewart said, "Last year, Babs and I did not come to Thought Bubble. (Sorry.) We went to a festival in Brazil. It wasn't in Rio, but afterwards we went to Rio for a few days, just to see it… and this was when we were still trying to piece together what 'Motor Crush' was going to be, and we just said, 'Instead of setting this in just another generic North American city, why don't we try and do something unusual with it?' And so we decided to set it in – it's not set in Brazil, but it's set in a place that's very much drawn from Rio de Janeiro… It's just coming from a different starting point that gives it a different flavor than usual."
Asked about the origins of her and Andy Belanger's Image series, "Southern Cross," Cloonan said, "It was [Andy's] proposal to me; as the artist, he was like, 'I want to do something that's set in outer space, and that's a horror. Can you write that for me?' So then it was just a matter of us bouncing ideas back and forth. He's the one who really pushes the world-building stuff; he comes up with these crazy ideas, and then it's up to me to funnel those down and bring them back to a place that actually makes sense."
To build the science fiction setting, Cloonan said she follows science news and then puts pieces of it into her work. "I call it fake-real science," said Cloonan, "In our book, we make reference to… the methane rigs on Titan. Like, yeah, there are methane lakes on Titan. But who knows if you could just stick a rig on there? But that's what we did in our book!
"There's a little kernel of truth in there," she continued, "and then if you surround the kernel of truth with a crunchy shell of make-believe, it kind of makes it easier. If I believe it, then my readers will believe it."
Morris then asked the panelists about "how much world-building stays off the comics page," given all the research and preparation they do.
Roy said, "I'll probably research and develop for like a year or more, to let [an idea] take shape and come to fruition properly. Also, I just love research. Like 'Tiger Lung'…That's a book about cavemen that took me a couple years to kind of cook up, and as I learn more stuff now, it almost makes me want to approach further stories in that world less, because I want to wait for certain breakthroughs…Like, there's a DNA shadow of an unknown other human species. So, I'm like, let's find some teeth! I just… I love research."
Lemire had an entirely different approach. "Zero research," he said, "I'm so lazy; I hate research; I just want to get to it, so I just kind of make shit up."
"If anything," Lemire followed up, "I'm probably more inspired by other science fiction than scientific research."
Seeming to echo the continuing discussion around #artcred, Lemire added, "Comics is a visual medium. So much of the world building that we're talking about is done by our partners. The plausibility of the robotics and stuff in 'Descender' is [because] Dustin comes from a background of designing toys before he got into comics. So the robots look like they could actually be built in real life, and that was all him."
In addition to collaborating with artists, colorists and letterers, many of the panelists have also worked with co-writers. Morris asked how that process works.
Speaking about his "Batgirl" collaboration, Stewart said, "Straight-up, Brenden [Fletcher] and I argue all the time – not, you know, viciously…It's funny, because we'll clash on stuff, and we kind of have to treat it like a courtroom… But it's good. We have different strengths, and I think we play off each other, and we pick up the slack for each other. Ultimately, it works."
Cloonan, who also co-writes with Fletcher on "Gotham Academy, added, "When you collaborate with someone like that, your ego has to take a backseat to the story…It's not that they didn't like your idea; it's just that the story needed something else."
Castellucci doesn't collaborate directly with "Young Animals" curator Gerard Way, but she said, "The nice thing about Gerard is that I'll go have coffee with him every couple weeks…And then we just kind of jam, we just sort of talk story, and that's before I write a script or anything, so that I have I feel like a swim buddy. That's always valuable when you're writing."
Morris then moved the discussion to shared universe work, particularly for Cloonan and Stewart, who had both worked on series set in iconic, hyper-connected Gotham.
Cloonan said, "There's so many different incarnations of Gotham. With 'Gotham Academy,' we all decided that the animated series was going to be our main touchstone. That's the Gotham that we wanted to portray – but through the lens of Harry Potter."
She emphasized consistency rather than conformity. "Because it is an established world, there's many different versions of it – but you just want to stay tonally consistent within the book. Because it is owned by DC, we knew Karl [Kerschl] wasn't going to be the artist on it forever, so we had to have a consistent thing…no matter who's drawing it."
Stewart also talked about his run on "Batgirl" and the wider DC universe. "The only connections that were there still were almost like a DC mandate…We wanted to just start fresh completely; we wanted it to pretty much be separate from the rest of the Bat line, but they would rather that it all kind of ties together somehow."
Cloonan had a slightly different experience. "With 'Gotham Academy,' it was really separate," she said, "but still, in 'Batman Eternal,' they kept on killing our teachers. (We had all these D-List villains as our science teachers.)…It became a joke; we wanted it to be like 'Harry Potter,' and now our science teacher is like the Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher."
Lemire said, "I was on a panel with Kieron [Gillen] earlier, and he articulated something that I'm always feeling about DC or Marvel stuff – which is that a lot of the time it's not about world building; it's more about trying to find a way to subvert what's there."
Moving away from big picture, Morris asked about the "small details" and "individual moments" that help to complete world building.
For Cloonan, that detail was a particular scene in "The Mire," where a knight rides up to a tower, sees a beautiful maiden, and falls in love with her in a single panel. "If I don't feel it, the reader's not going to feel it," she said, "So I drew those characters; I had whole sketchbooks just full of these characters. I started figuring out who they were, and why they fell in love, their personalities – even though you don't know that at all in the book. It's just this one panel. But it was so important…They have to feel like they belong together, and so I had to feel that, too, in order to convey that to my audience."
For Castellucci, the key detail was figuring out Shade's alien form. "When I said I thought Shade should be a bird…then that kind of clicked everything into place. So that when she's in this human body, she's a bird; she's a bird in a human body. That helped me to navigate not only the idea that as a teenager, we feel like aliens (our bodies are changing, everything's new, we're having all these new feelings for the first time) – but also, she's like, 'I don't even know how to really walk. What's happening?' So that sort of clicked everything into place for me."
Cloonan said that the key to believability was her "emotional investment" in a project. "I try to keep an earnest quality about the work. I try to stay excited about them...even before I start them. I have stories that I thought about five years ago that I'm still excited about. I'm like, 'One day!'"