Digging Into "A Distant Soil" with Colleen Doran

April will see the return of a legendary comic book series from Image Comics/Shadowline. Writer/artist Colleen Doran's "A Distant Soil," a frontrunner of the '80s indie comics scene, will finally continue after a six-year hiatus. The sci-fi/adventure series broke several barriers both in creation and subject matter. Doran was one of the first women in the indie comics scene to write and draw creator-owned comics. At the same time, "A Distant Soil" broke ground by featuring openly gay characters as series stars.

Doran began developing the characters and world when she was just 12 years-old. She started doodling superhero versions of her characters and eventually moved into sequential storytelling, moving her operation to Image Comics in 1996. The book follows siblings Jason and Liana who discover that their father was a powerful member of an alien race. After breaking Liana out of a mental institution, the pair get dragged into interstellar alien drama and meet a huge host of characters.

Despite its stature, plenty of newer comic book readers fans might not be familiar with "A Distant Soil" because new issues haven't hit stands since 2006. That delay came from a printer screw-up that led to the loss of the book's negatives. Before the days of easy access to quality scanners, comic art was actually photographed and the negatives used for printing and reprinting purposes. With the negatives gone, Doran was unable to replenish her back catalog. Instead of throwing in the towel, she began a long, arduous process of creating new files based on original art, original copies and other sources.

Now that most of the series has been restored and Doran has gotten over an illness that sidetracked her for a while, she's ready to bring "A Distant Soil" back to readers. April 24 will see the release of "A Distant Soil" #39, an issue that finds Liana as one of the most powerful beings in the universe. With the return of such an important comic looming a few months away, CBR News spoke with Doran about the restoration process, the supportive comic and fan communities and why she wanted to get into comics in the first place.

CBR News: Let's start at the beginning. You began developing "A Distant Soil" when you were just 12 years-old. What aspects of the story did you start developing at that early age?

Colleen Doran: I came up with the idea of the avatar and the collective from reading some of my dad's psych books when I was a kid.

My dad is a wonderful man. Even though he came from an impoverished background and didn't graduate high school, he eventually got his GED and went to college. So, when I was a little girl, he was in college and he would tell me what he was studying and share with me his books. He gave me a book on great philosophers, and of course, he was studying a lot of psychology, because he was involved in police work. I don't pretend to have a deep understanding of the material, particularly at that age, but I gleaned a lot of nifty things from it. You know the collective unconscious, it's all Carl Jung.

I also got my first big taste of comic books then. I'd loved comics as a very little girl, but when we moved away from the city, you couldn't get them anymore. So for years, I didn't see any comic books.

Then I got sick when I was 12, and a friend of my dad's gave me this huge box of comic books. There was a lot of classic stuff in there, and I just loved it. "A Distant Soil" actually started out as superhero fanfic. All the characters had costumes! I put some of the art on my Facebook page, stuff I did as young as age 10. The character Liana grew out of that fanfic -- though I didn't come up with a story, just some character designs, for a couple of years after. The "Super Friends" TV show was a favorite of mine, even before I was able to get comic books, and I created her to be Aquaman's girlfriend! It's all very daffy.

Anyway, the early superhero stuff got dumped as I grew up. But almost every character is still there, and the initial story idea really hasn't changed very much. I put the development sketches on my FB page, so people could see how, year after year, the characters morphed. It's quite a lot of fun to watch, I think.

A lot of my early drawings are on the back of my dad's test papers. You can turn the drawing over and there is a multiple choice question for something or other on the back.

Going the self-published comic route wasn't something nearly as well known when you started "A Distant Soil" as it is today. What made you want to go that route with the story?

I'd had some pretty bad experiences in the small press. I don't want to belabor it, but I think most people from back in the day remember what a free-for-all it was, and how anyone could put a sign on their garage and announce they were a publisher, and boom. They're a pro! Back in the day, these publications would usually have been considered fanzines or semi-pro zones. But in the 1980's they all just became pros, even if they weren't very professional. 

Ironically, the small press experience gave me a greater appreciation for the mainstream comics business. I have almost always been treated far better in the mainstream than I was in the small press. No one likes a work-for-hire deal, but it's clear cut, you get your pay, and you go. I rarely ran into these bizarre contract problems, completely inappropriate behaviors, and personality clash issues I continually experienced in the small press. Other peoples' mileage may vary, but this is true for me with only a couple of exceptions.

Anyway, after getting battered around by the small press for awhile, I just didn't see why I should sign a contract with another one of these companies. They had no more qualifications than I did, so why should I bother to work with them? I doubted I could screw things up half as much. I spent some time asking around about how to self publish, and Dave Sim was particularly helpful with that. I took the plunge one day, ironically with funds from a legal settlement from one of the small publishers which ripped me off.

Self publishing was a great learning experience. I made very good money for awhile, too. When the distributor system collapsed in the mid-1990s, I took a serious hit, but then I went to Image, thanks to Erik Larsen.

I'm really glad I self published: I learned so much about the business end that I use to this day. I understand discount structures, the importance of getting books done far in advance, trade publishing, a great deal. Real nuts and bolts stuff. I actually learned to appreciate some of my publishing clients more, because I came to understand some of the rules they imposed: they didn't seem so arbitrary.

Self publishing isn't for everybody. It's very labor intensive in ways I don't think anyone who does it really likes. You put a lot of time and effort into packing and shipping product, for example. I'd rather be writing and drawing.

Of course, self publishing on the web is an option that did not exist at the time. You don't have to sink a huge amount of money into printing until you are sure you've actually got an audience to sell it to, which is a huge advantage.

But for print, when I started self publishing, it was a wide open market. There wasn't much competition, certainly not like there is now. It's ridiculous how deluded some people are about their success in the 1980s/1990s. It was a license to print money for awhile. A self published book like mine could sell tens of thousands of copies, more than many mainstream comics do now: it was no big deal.

It got to be a big deal if you held on to your audience after that initial rush. Me, Jeff Smith, Dave Sim, Terry Moore, few people survived. One day, there were a half dozen of us, then there were hundreds. And creators whose books sold tens of thousands saw their sales drop to a few thousand within a decade. It was harsh. I don't think some folks ever quite got over it, or understood what happened.

Anyway, the real test is not how well you do when there's no competition, it's how well you do when there is. No big deal to sell your fantasy comic when there's no alternative. Now there are so many fantasy comics, I can't count them all. 

I consider myself lucky, not only to have new readers today, but to have so many readers who stuck with me. I'm very grateful.

How would you describe "A Distant Soil" to people who might not be familiar with the book?

Big, expansive, dramatic space opera. Psychic powers and crystal tech, and all that stuff, long before it was the norm. 

A teen brother and sister, Jason and Liana, are confined to a mental hospital where they are the subject of secret government experiments. They escape their prison only to be pursued by supernatural forces, strange alien people, and creatures with seemingly magical abilities. Combining the sci-fi space opera, grand romance and visual opulence, the "A Distant Soil" saga finds Liana forced to ascend to the throne of the alien world. Her unique power makes her a living weapon of mass destruction, the first line of defense for the corrupt alien government. 

The easiest thing for new readers to do is go read it at the advertiser-supported website, where almost all of it is online right now.

What can you tell us about what's coming up in #39 and beyond?

I almost don't want to tell you anything, because it will be more fun to read than for me to give you spoilers. I can tell you that this is the end. The final storyline of the series. The last issue is #50.

It's been six years since the last issue of "A Distant Soil" was published. Was it difficult keeping the story alive in your mind in that time?

I was sick for awhile there, and wasn't able to work. I was worried that I'd lost my mojo. I mean, you expect not to be robust when you're sick, but it really takes a toll on your head. But over time, I started to get my mojo back, and now the ideas and energy flow like mad. I'm writing and drawing with more enthusiasm than I have in years. I wrote more last month than I wrote in the last three years combined. And I worked out a lot of kinks in the story that were plaguing me. They just fell away.

I'm working on a number of different projects right now, both as writer and/or artist. I feel great these days.

Are the new issues based more on outlines and ideas from six years ago or ones that have developed in that time span?

Yes, it's always been the same story, but over time, I've edited it down quite a bit. I had a long talk with Jeff Smith about it, and he convinced me to cut it. It was very good of him to take the time with me. I learned a lot from him.

Has your approach to writing or art changed or evolved between issues #38 and 39?

I've used the same working methods on almost all my work for a long time. I did make a slight change in the art size, just to better fit the standard aspect ratio. I'd also forgotten how hard the drawing style is. Quite laborious, very delicately rendered, very detailed. I decided to keep the hand-created aspect of the story pages consistent to the end: the lettering and tone sheets are still by hand.

I made the switch from hand painted cover art to digital, though. I hate to admit it, but I think my digital paintings are better than all my early hand painted cover art. I really enjoy digital painting.

What is it about digital painting that you prefer over the traditional method?

Well, it's just faster, easier to correct mistakes. I figured out a merged digital/hand painted method for the Tori Amos book I like a lot and I use that sometimes, too. It's crazy how easy it is to do full-color art digitally. It's easier than doing a page in pen and ink by hand, that's for sure. I can do a full-color page in about 2/3 the time I can do a black and white page. But I still have a lot of gaps in my knowledge, I still can't do standard comic book art as most people prefer to do it. My painting technique is eccentric, but looks and prints just fine. It's just not comics industry standard. I have a lot to learn, and I learn quickly, but my workload is awesome, and there isn't time to do a lot of tinkering about with new stuff when I need to meet deadlines. I had to bow out [of] coloring something for Alex DeCampi's "Ashes" because I just didn't have the know-how to do standard comics color. I can't use the freaking pen tool for crap. But I can paint you a cover, though.

The industry has changed so much in the last decade, I've actually got clients who won't accept anything but digital art. They don't even know how to process originals.

I was at one of the publisher's offices awhile back, and an editor was raving about this artist who'd turned in these hand-painted colored pages. The guy was dazzled by this new process the artist had invented! And I'm like, "Dude, that's just blue line color. We were doing that at the Marvel Epic division in 1980- something. You just hand paint on a non-photo blue line copy of the art, and the black line plate is processed as a separate piece." And these guys had never seen that, they were so used to digital color, they thought this was some sort of amazing achievement!

I have one editor who begs me to turn in original art, because he never gets to work with it anymore. And since I still do most of my art by hand, I am happy to accommodate him.

I can't imagine how devastating it was to find out the printer lost the negatives for the books. How has the restoration process been?

Well, this is a problem that goes back years, and a lot of artists are in the same boat. The book predates digital, and I knew a decade ago I'd face the challenge of having to deal with converting all my work to digital files.

I didn't have the equipment or skills for it. I tried outsourcing, but the only local guy who said he could do it flaked out on the job, botched the gig badly. Professional digital services around New York were asking mid-five figures, and that wasn't do-able.

Some of the original art is not only unusually large, but had hand applied tone sheets. To get clean reproduction you scan at 1200 dpi greyscale and do clean up on the computer. Since the art is larger than most scanners, that meant it had to be scanned in pieces and stitched together in Photoshop, and my Mac G3 could not handle any of this.

I was working on "Book of Lost Souls" with J. Michael Straczynski at the time. I had to jump through hoops to get my originals scanned and sent to Marvel on that book. It was kind of comedic. Anyway, Joe just up and bought me a new computer one day. I'd gotten very sick at the end of working on "Book of Lost Souls" and was pretty much unable to work for a couple of years. Joe stood by me, and helped whenever he could. He really saved my butt. He's a super-nice guy. He walks on water, as far as I'm concerned. I did my first professional digital art on that computer, too. The art for "Tori Amos: Comic Book Tattoo."

To go with the new computer, I bought a top of the line high-end scanner, one which could handle all kinds of photographic negatives, as well as transparencies, and large scale original art. So, I figured, I'm cool, I have entered the digital age!

Finally, I went to the printer and said "Send me my negatives! I am ready to make with the negative scanning!" They admitted they could not find them. I about fainted. It's almost unheard of for printers to just toss or lose negatives, and we'd recently gone to press with a book there. There was a bankruptcy at the company, and this was not personal in any way. This happened to a lot of other people.

Af first I thought, "No way, this is a mistake, they're just misfiled." And I came back and asked later, and later once again. It didn't look good. Our print inventory on "A Distant Soil" was running out, and I realized that for the first time, my books were going out of print, and I'd have no way to hang onto my audience or finance future work on the book. It was frustrating, people were asking why I wasn't producing more, when was the next issue coming out, why don't we have copies for sale digitally, why the last GN looked kind of rushed, and all this stuff is going on behind the scenes. The sausage making: not pretty.

That's when I decided to put the book online on my website. I hoped that would help me maintain contact with my readers, bring in new readers, and help finance new work.

I spent months of work scanning the original art, and I hired one of my most devoted fans, Allan Harvey, who is also a graphics professional, to restore art that had to be scanned from copies of the book. He's a fan of the book, but a working pro, so he's getting paid fair rates for this. And I don't think people realize how difficult this is. They think you ought to be able to just go to a pirate website and download your files! And we're like, no dude, online scans are crap. My entire archive of online digital files would fit into the scan of just one of my cover paintings. We're doing our very, very best to get top quality scans and reproduction on this.

Allan goes through every page, and removes every single tone sheet in Photoshop, cleans up the art, and then digitally replaces the tones. Some of the art printed in the books looked very muddy. It was the best reproduction we could get 20 years ago, but it's not acceptable now. On digital books, these scans are going to be blown up by the reader. The art will be scrutinized. They don't want dirt and scratches and blobs in the art. [Colorist] Jose Villarrubia was a great help here. He explained to me how to properly archive my art. What little we did have archived was completely wrong, and every bit of it had to be done all over again, which was a nightmare. It's so normal to scan and save art now, but if you can remember what it was like trying to get scans 10-15 years ago, man. What a mess. Every copy shop was offering this new service, and not a one of them knew what the heck they were doing with it.

It's gratifying to have a longtime devoted fan like Allan working on this book. He has been there since the beginning, he knows everything about the series. He really knows how to clean the art and make it shine again. I just wasn't able to do it myself, and he's so honest and hard-working. I am recommending him to everybody!

We've even had to go back and stitch art together from multiple sources: I save everything, and found a stash of photostats from 1987 that Allan was able to use to partially reconstruct some pages that were too degraded to shoot from the books.

My readers have been incredibly supportive. I've had a number of fans who've bought art over the years loan me art back. I pay them their shipping expenses and give them a page of original art in exchange for the loan. Some collectors are really hard core: one lady had two entire issue's worth of art. About a third of the issues are 100% intact and scanned from the originals. About 1/3 are largely scanned from the originals. And about 1/3 have had to go under major restoration. It's 1000 pages of production work.

I'd held back announcing the loss of the negatives until it became painfully obvious that they were gone for good, and we were screwed, looking at a five figure loss on this thing. And about a week later, the printer found some of the negatives. Not a one was from the graphic novels, but we did get some interiors from individual issues of the comics. There were a lot of changes made from comic to GN finals, so there's work that needs to be done on these, and everyone needs to be carefully compared to make sure we don't miss details. Everything from the first 15 issues was a complete loss, and so were any special issues we produced. All gone.

Thanks to fans, we were able to restore the entire first issue of the comic, minus only three pages, from the originals.

It's been a great learning experience, while being very frustrating as well. I learned what a disconnect a lot of people have about how the comics they read are actually produced. People cannot understand why you can't print books from pirated scans, and others don't know what original art is. I got more people volunteering to loan me copies of my books than original art, because when I put the word out that I was looking for original art, they didn't understand this does not mean books. There are a lot of people that don't even know art is drawn by hand. It's been interesting.

Another funny wrinkle: until a few months ago, I did not have modern internet service. I live in a very rural area, and we had speeds as low as 4 Kbps during the day. There was no alternative. I hate even mentioning it, because when I do, a bunch of people living in a city somewhere start trying to explain to me what I should do to get internet that simply isn't available on this mountain. We just got decent internet in October, yet still have a 10 GB monthly limit. We have unlimited internet after midnight. So after midnight, every night, I'm uploading and downloading stuff back and forth to Allan and to my clients. It was very frustrating trying to get these files back and forth until we got the high speed internet service!

What are the plans right now for rolling out the restored issues in trade format?

We're going to space them out a bit, with the first restored GN coming out later this summer. July, as I recall. The first volume will also be re-lettered. I'd hired a letterer for a good portion of the early run back in the 1980s, but it was just too expensive and time-consuming to continue to hire out. I started lettering my own work with issue 12 of the series. My early lettering is pretty clunky, an embarrassment, really. So the whole thing, in addition to being digitally remastered, is being re-lettered as well. It will make some of the stylistic bumps along the road a little less obvious, as the art was done over a long period of time, and it morphed somewhat.

You've self-published and gone through smaller companies, what has your experience been like at Image Comics in general and Shadowline specifically?

I'm not keen on the small press, not because I believe they're bad people, but for the most part, amateurs and, as Mark Evanier calls them, under-financed entrepreneurs. They are not malicious, they just don't have the resources or knowledge to be effective. Anyone can start a publishing company in their basement. And they can pay some kid $20 a page, and call themselves pro. There's a lot more to being a pro than having a business card and printing a book. I firmly believe the web is the best thing that happened to aspiring creators, because they can skip the whole prices of going from one bad small press to another, and just put their work out for the world to see on their own terms. Then they can go look for a professional client, if they are so inclined.

I've been with Image for years now, and they are one of the best publishing experiences of my entire career. They have bent over backwards to accommodate me.

But this mess with what happened with "A Distant Soil" really put everyone at the limit. Eric Stephenson was a complete saint about it. I felt overwhelmed, and was so demoralized. I had trouble moving forward.

I've been very close friends with Jim Valentino since the 1980s. We both worked for a bad small press back in the day, and Jim called me out of the blue to offer advice and support. We've been solid ever since. Jim's one of the best people I know.

I needed structure and solid backing to move forward with "A Distant Soil," and Jim was right there. I needed a hands-on, tough boss. So I asked Eric if he'd be OK with my moving from Image Central to Shadowline, and he was for it.

It's pretty cool that one of my oldest, best friends in publishing, Jim Valentino, and one of my most devoted fans, Allan Harvey, are helping me finish this project. It would not be getting done without them.

Between Jeff Smith, JMS, Jose Villarrubia and Jim Valentino it sounds like the comics community has really proved helpful during this process. Has that been your experience throughout your career?

Well, when you're first starting out, you don't really know anyone, and predatory people are attracted to young kids. They're looking for people to take advantage of, and I was only 15 when I got my first commercial art gig. I felt pretty isolated in my early years, which weren't very pleasant. I met lots of good people and a few very bad people. Fortunately, mostly good people in the end. People were kind, and very patient, and very supportive, like Jim Valentino, Mark Wheatley, Walt and Weezie Simonson. Super-nice people.

Since the early 1990s, I've only had a couple of serious problems in publishing, only peripherally related to comics. I don't meet very many bad folks, really. I have strong boundaries though, and some pros are nice to meet at conventions, but I keep others at a distance. On the whole, people in comics are pretty generous with advice and support. I remember it was Erik Larsen who just, out of the blue, asked me one day if I'd like to come to Image Comics, since he knew the self publishing movement was withering, and a lot of us were having problems. I mean, how cool was that? He didn't have to do that.

If you're having a serious problem, comics people tend to look out for each other. You actually have to hold yourself back sometimes, because you don't want to take advantage of their largesse, go running for help every time you stub your toe. You don't want to be a parasite. I try to stand on my feet as much as possible, but boy, when I've needed a hand, the right people have been there for me

Assuming you can talk about them, what are some of the other projects you're working on?

I'm working on a graphic novel of a Neil Gaiman story for Dark Horse at the moment, which is dragging on much longer than it should, so Diana Schutz deserves a medal for patience. A Warren Ellis project hangs fire. I'm also going to be doing a project with Matt Hawkins of Top Cow later this year. I just wrote a short story I can't tell you about yet, have done some random illustration work, and have a couple of other rings jammed in there. 

I'm really glad to be up and firing on all cylinders these days. It feels great to be back at top speed, and feeling so good about work. I could go for another 100 years of this.

"A Distant Soil" #39, the first new issue in six years, debuts from Colleen Doran and Image Comics/Shadowline on April 24.

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