Conversing on Comics with Colleen Doran

Colleen Doran loves comics. Although she's best known for her creator-owned series A Distant Soil, she has no qualms about working on someone else's projects, from The Sandman to Spider-Man to licensed properties. To Doran, it's all part of a balanced diet.

On June 4, DC Comics will release The Vampire Diaries #6, a standalone story written and drawn by Doran, who has previously penned issues of the series, based on The CW's hit supernatural drama. She completed the work months ago, and has a busy schedule ahead of her that includes a graphic novel with Neil Gaiman, a new series with Top Cow's Matt Hawkins and a resumption of The Book of Lost Souls with J. Michael Straczynski.

In a previous interview, Doran told me she enjoys being busy, defining herself as a "work reveler" as opposed to a workaholic, but I managed to catch up with her to talk about these projects, her process and discussing the business of comics.

Chris Arrant: What are you working on today?

Colleen Doran: Well, right now I am working full-time on finishing up a graphic novel with Neil Gaiman at Dark Horse. It is painted, and it is something I've been working on a fairly long time. It takes about three days per page, as I'm using a really laborious technique for the art, the same technique I used for the cover of Orbiter. As you may imagine, I am determined to do the best work I can on this book, because it's a Gaiman, and it's a wonderful story, and you know many people will see it. Gaiman stories always deserve the best you can do.

I also finished up a run on The Vampire Diaries, which was incredibly fun. I was a big fan of the show when editor Kristy Quinn contacted me to ask if I might be interested in submitting some stories. I jumped at it. I wrote three issues and I drew the latest one, which I really enjoyed. I used a simpler art style than I normally would. It was a fun challenge drawing likenesses with simple line work.

I am also on the final story arc for A Distant Soil, which got put on the back burner again for a few months, not just for other projects, but because the restoration work on the graphic novels is quite time consuming and meticulous. I had no idea what I was taking on when I started, but I knew it would be rough.

The short of it is, our printer discarded the negatives and I had no way to go back to press or make the work available digitally, unless I was willing to go forward with an inferior product. Remember all those muddy, grubby-looking early manga imports? That's what you get when someone is reproducing art from cheap scans or by scanning the printed work. It's a disaster, the books look terrible. I used to keep copies of my Japanese editions just so I could have a decent reproduction of the art.

We had a couple of foreign editions of A Distant Soil where clients did the same thing with poor-quality scans, and I had fans telling me how disappointed they were with the books. You don't want to do that to your readers. They pay good money, they should get something better than whatever they can download as a low resolution off some illegal website.

One of my longtime fans, Allan Harvey, is a photo-restoration specialist of 20 years, and I asked if he might be interested in taking on the job. He sent in samples and I was blown away. The restoration is not so difficult when we have original art, but Allan is able to restore hundreds of pages of art from printed pages and do such a good job that even I can't tell which was the original and which was the restoration.

Anyway, Allan is doing all the heavy lifting and spent 16 months on the first two volumes. I scan all the original art, do corrections and minor restoration work myself, which takes weeks of full time work per volume. The good news is, most of the restoration is complete. Allan only has about 30 pages left to do. Restoration on a single page can take as much as 10 hours.

After that, we have all the original art, and those usually take about 15 to 30 minutes, though a few take up to two hours. But the bulk of that work is done. I knew it would be hard, but it is taking years longer than I thought it would. All worth it in the end, but good grief, if fans wonder why older books go out of print and disappear, you have some idea now. When archives get lost or damaged, either you restore, or you print crap editions. One is expensive, and the other disappoints your readers.

I am also starting up a miniseries with Matt Hawkins at Top Cow in a matter of weeks, and doing some high-end commissions.

I keep bugging Marvel to give me a job with Agent Coulson or Loki in it, but I'm only half-joking. I really don't have time now, but I like to tweet dirty jokes on Twitter about it.

Also, The Book of Lost Souls with J. Michael Straczynski, which got moved back quite a bit so Joe could work with the Wachowskis on a television show.

That's a lot! When we last spoke, in June 2013, you told me “I'm not a workaholic, I'm a work reveler.” Is that just how you run things? Has there ever been a time where you just have that one project, that all-consuming one thing? Or would that prospect be difficult for you?

I can be very focused when I am working on one thing, but I like to have a break. I call it my "vacation." When I am working on something at 10-plus hour days, I have something on the side that lets me have a mental rest. I tend to work on at least two to three things at a time.

It's tricky. There is a sweet spot of work for me that is a heavy workload, but I have to watch it. I reach a tipping point. I go over the side and get overwhelm. If I hit overwhelm. I can lock up. Even doing housework seems like too much at that point, and I can start avoiding responsibilities. It's stupid, and I hate it when I hit that point. But if I swing the other way and don't have enough work, I get lethargic. I need to carefully time and plan and then be very organized to stay in the peak zone that keeps me mentally and physically alert without going too far one way or the other.

It's like having an effective exercise program: you can overwork your muscles or you can just sit there and do two sit ups, call it a workout, and not get any benefit.

Your mind works the same way. Find your peak zone and stick to it.

What’s a typical day like for you?

I usually get up around 9 a.m. and go to bed at midnight. Ten-hour days for five days a week and then half days two days a week. Maybe one day off, but I don't usually bother. If I take a day off, that just means I'm packing and shipping books or cleaning the office.

I keep a time sheet, and that is very important for me, because if I don't, I get lost in my head space and lose awareness of what I am doing. Keeping a time sheet makes me far more productive. I have kept one most of this year and it showed I routinely work about 55 hours per week. That is actual drawing time, with breaks removed from the equation.

I usually do my gardening in the morning; I may not even start working until 1 p.m.. I have a lot of energy, and I find getting physical activity first thing helps me relax enough to sit down and draw. I take tea in the afternoon. China, little sandwiches, the whole thing. Even if I can't leave the drawing board, I try to do something pleasant like that every day so I don't feel hemmed in. If you work for months and months without break and don't do something nice for yourself, you may start to resent it. So I make sure I set up the day so I can do pleasant things. When I was poor and starting out, working on comics became drudgery. Poor pay and 14-hour days. I don't have to do that anymore, and I am very happy about it!

I have to be really careful about my time management: I went a solid month without using my time sheet just to see what would happen, and my work output dropped by half. Self-awareness is key. There are so many things that can fritter your time away without moving you forward on your art. I do things like this interview, and that is part of my job, but I'm not making Diana Schutz from Dark Horse happy when I'm not drawing. So having an awareness of where my time goes is paramount. There is so much administrative work that can eat up a drawing day.

Since I have you, my curiosity and my editors’ can’t help me but ask: Can you tell us anything about this mystery graphic novel you’re doing with Neil Gaiman for Dark Horse?

Nope. Except it's not finished and Dark Horse has been very indulgent of my foot-dragging.

'Nuff said. Jumping to another project, let's talk The Vampire Diaries. It was surprising (in a good way) when I learned of it. How did that come about, and is that something you want to do more of?

Well, this was fun, I often live-tweet about my favorite TV shows, and I was tweeting about Supernatural. Then editor Kristy Quinn contacted me to ask if I was also a fan of The Vampire Diaries, and I made some squee noises. She asked me to submit a story and that is how it went.

I really, really enjoyed it. That job was candy! I tweet a lot about Hannibal, too. But that show creeps me out. In a good way. I just love getting a chance to work on my favorite pop-culture stuff. It's crack.

I’ve been a fan of your comics works for years now, but in covering comics I’ve gained even more respect for you for the way you carry yourself and talk about the business part of comics. You really treat creator-owned comics as a small business of its own separate from the publishers, and don’t have any compunction about sharing that aspect. The comics industry doesn’t do that as a whole, but I wanted to ask you how it impacts you to show yourself to your readership as more than just a name on a comic but as a person and professional working in the industry?

Well, there are benefits and drawbacks. The most obvious drawback is I put a lot of time and effort into blogging about these things, and we all know blogging is not something that pays off in any way except … you blogged. If it is of benefit to others, that's its own reward. It's quite time-consuming, and as my schedule has been so heavy lately, I am not blogging nearly as much. I just can't spare the time.

But it's always bugged me how for so many years this industry has such an ambivalent attitude toward money and business. We act like we're landed gentry and shouldn't discuss the tawdry subject of coin. It's nuts.

We're business-people. Every creator is an individual businessman. We use Schedule C when we file our taxes. But there is a lot of pressure to not discuss these subjects and act like we're better than other people, above normal concerns. The public sometimes puts pressure on creators to behave as if we're somehow a different class of person who should just throw our work out into the public and be grateful for whatever pennies are thrown our way. Naturally, every creator should be very grateful to have an audience: Some people never manage that feat. Most people never manage that feat.

But you achieve an audience through work, strategizing, and through understanding the mechanics of business. I've never known a creator who didn't put on a public face of being above ugly business matters who wasn't an absolute barracuda behind the scenes, who didn't carefully hire the right people to manage their contracts and money, who wasn't brilliant at business. You don't get to be successful or stay successful for long if you don't handle your creative life like a business the minute you step away from the drawing board or keyboard.

Have there been any ill effects from being so open for you?

Well, yes, going back to the drawbacks thing. Having a blog or doing an interview means people skim, make snap judgments without context or broader knowledge of the subject at hand, and then you're stuck dealing with their wacky interpretation of what you just said. I call it snapshot thinking. There is no depth of analysis or attempt to go beyond the surface of a subject. You have to be willing to walk away from these discussions because there are more of them than there are of you, and your time will be eaten alive.

There are a lot of people out there who think that because they read comics, or because they published one comic in their whole lives, that somehow translates into expertise. If you have expertise in one area, that does not translate into expertise in another area. Just because I work in comics and understand a lot of things about my job, that doesn't mean I'm going to be particularly adept at, say, plumbing. I can think of a few people who had brief brushes with comics careers and have been dining out on it ever since. People think comics are silly and must be easy to do. And they're just not.

Comics are time-consuming to produce compared to the return on the investment. If you're not doing stick-figure comics, that is. Commercial art is much higher-paying. If you're in comics, you're in comics because you really love them, or you usually don't stay for very long.

Candor about money or business for artists can be rough. In the same 24-hour period, I get weird jabs from people about how I must be poor and a total loser because I have to beg for sales since I put announcements about new books I have for sale on my Facebook page. And right after that, I get bizarre stuff from some angry, struggling creators who claim rich celebrities like me have everything and blah, blah, blah. You have to brush it off.

It's also really tricky to talk about health issues in public. Some years back I started blogging about health insurance for creators. I kept it quiet, but for several years there I had some debilitating medical problems that made it almost impossible to work. You can believe health insurance was major concern for me. But it was financially and professionally rough to pretty much stop working for several years.

When I started producing again, there were articles about my "comeback." I never went anywhere, I just didn't produce very much or run a fundraiser for my health expenses. I thought it was a private matter and I handled it.

Anyway, when I did publicly comment that health insurance was hard to afford, I got hammered by some weirdos for being a loser. And it was hilarious, because these people make the assumption that a creator like me must be rolling in dough and simultaneously whining about being loser, the exact same argument made in the same paragraph, illustrating perfectly what a schizophrenic attitude people have about the creative class.

My doctor finally figured out what was wrong and I got treatment. I'm fine and I blogged about what happened this year. But if you blog about health issues, then you also have to be concerned about people deciding they won't hire you because you may keel over in the middle of a job.

You may think you're blogging because you want to help people or give them perspective, and my entire value from blogging is to give aspiring creators a realistic view of how this industry works: feast or famine -- for most people famine all the time. That's the truth.

But you have to be aware that anything you say will be used against you in the court of public opinion. Truth or fact is not an issue.

For most of your career you've been solidly in the "creator-owned" column, but like many you did a tour of duty in work-for-hire superheroes, from Teen Titans to some X-books, Legion of Super-Heroes and a great stint on Wonder Woman. Some artists in your position might have stayed in that playground and never left. Why do you think that wasn’t a place you stayed at exclusively?

I've never wanted to do one thing. I've also never wanted to be at the mercy of a client. If you don't own your work, you may have a very hard time being self supporting in the long run. We've all seen many top creators get shown the door because clients were looking for the next hot artist, and the hot artist they have isn't hot enough that week.

Look, a book like A Distant Soil; I sometimes get comments from bloggers about how "marginal" it is commercially, and there are times when that is true. And times when that is not. This is a book that has earned hundreds of thousands of dollars in profits. Amortized over the course of the series, that's a solid mainstream page rate. It means a very iffy initial investment without page rates or other benefits, and that is very difficult to handle financially, at first. You work months at a time with no guarantee of income in future. But there is a tipping point on a successful creator-owned project when it becomes an evergreen (that is, it has long-term sales legs), and after that point, it does nothing but make money for you. You get your investment back, year after year. And you get to invest that in your next project.

I was talking to one blogger at a show a couple of months ago, saying it was a real challenge to come up with the dough to restore the book. It's a big chunk of change, tens of thousands of dollars. And she was like, why don't you just let it go? And I said (quite apart from wanting to finish the story), because that would be stupid! Why would I be stingy with the investment to keep this book in print in a quality package, when the ultimate payoff in the long run is more than I could ever hope to make in royalties from my work-for-hire assignments? I'm having to put 10 percent of what I earned over the lifetime of A Distant Soil into bringing it back into the marketplace. If I didn't do it, that would be moronic.

If you do nothing but work-for-hire, you are always at the mercy of the client. It may be a very nice client, it may be a very nice job. But it doesn't belong to you. Ultimately, you have no say. I love working on things like Wonder Woman and Spider-Man. I hope to do so in future.

But there are many times over the course of my career when if I had to depend on mainstream work, I'd be working at McDonald's. You have to be your own master. When you work on things you don't own, you're not. And who wants to spend their whole lives never doing the stories and art they want to do? When you do creator-owned work, it's your work! Your story! Your art! That's irresistible. If money were never an issue, I'd still do personal work.

Carrying that further, what are your goals – what are the challenges you still have for yourself as a working artist and comic creator?

This may sound funny after all my talk about time management and productivity, but I hope to do better this year. When I got sick, I developed cognitive issues that badly affected my memory and ability to process info. My short-term memory was shot. My work output dropped like a stone, and I'd forget simple things, like my middle name.

Over the last two years, my ability to function at high speed has returned, but I've had to relearn a lot of my old habits, which is one of the reasons I write about it on my blog all the time. I think I draw much better now than I did before. But going from zero to 100 miles per hour is what work feels like these days. It feels great to be producing again. I feel so good and usually have no trouble, but it is disorienting sometimes. I used to have work habits that would strike most people as draconian. But I like living that way, and I'd like to ratchet it up to that level again. I think I'm operating at about 80 percent of peak. I have to be very careful about my habits and focus, to not get distracted by inconsequentials, and to balance non-productive things like blogging and time on social media, with art making. I don't think any creator can afford not to do be online these days, but you have got to keep it balanced and not let online drama affect you.

I'm really working hard on my drawing and digital painting. Very hard. You'll see what I mean when the Gaiman book comes out.

I need to up my game digitally. There are so many clients who require digital skills I still don't have yet, so that's next. I was talking with Brian Haberlin about tutorials I think he should market, because there are so many people like me who routinely use digital art in our work, and yet have gaps in our education. I want to work in new styles with new tools.

I'm also looking forward to working with a couple of writers I haven't had the chance to so far. I have a list of dream collaborators, and I just found out I'll be working with the top man on the list. But I can't announce that yet.

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