Rucka, Young, Bellaire & More Reveal Their Storytelling Process

At 2017's C2E2 (Chicago Comic & Entertainment Expo), Image Comics brought together some of its top creators to discuss the creative process during the "Image Comics Presents: Storytelling Essentials" panel. Featuring Jordie Bellaire ("Injection," "Autumnlands," "Pretty Deadly," "The Manhattan Projects," and more), Donny Cates ("God Country" and "Redneck"), Jamie McKelvie ("The Wicked + The Divine"), Greg Rucka ("Lazarus," "The Old Guard," and "Black Magic"), Declan Shalvey ("Injection"), and Skottie Young ("I Hate Fairyland"), the panel was moderated by Image Comics' branding manager, David Brothers.

The panel opened with each panelist briefly describing their Image books. Brothers asked McKelvie what "The Wicked + The Divine" is about, to which McKelvie jokingly replied, "Kieron [Gillen]’s emotional journey," before explaining the series' gods-as-pop stars concept.

Bellaire joked that she works on everything, but that she loved coloring them all. Brothers asked her how she got onto so many great series, to which she replied, "A lot of trickery and deceit." Bellaire then discussed her upcoming series "Redlands" with Vanesa Del Rey, which she described as "a Satanic love letter to all things witches and a hatred of the patriarchy."

Brothers then turned to Rucka, who said "Lazarus," co-created with artist Michael Lark, was "about the blood red rage that leads to a Trump administration," before joking, "You guys weren't reading it apparently! I tried to warn you three years ago!"


Rucka then described the immortal protagonists of "The Old Guard," co-created by Leandro Fernandez. According to Rucka, the series is "really just a Looney Tunes cartoon, but with people," and with a lead character who was based entirely on Slappy Squirrel from "Animaniacs."

Finally, Rucka mentioned "Black Magic," praising Nicola Scott's art on the book. Rucka noted that like "The Old Guard," it explored questions of mortality, and joked that there was a lot of witchcraft on the panel.

Asked about the "I Hate Fairyland," Young said it's what happens when you spend five years working on a fairytale (his "Oz" books for Marvel) and then have kids and have to watch the same episode of "Yo Gabba Gabba!" five hundred times. “I will murder people over 'Caillou,'” Young declared. He then explained that he thought that the series came out of the idea that a real person would not want to put up with any of the insanity of Oz. Young then gave a shout out to his frequent colorist, Jean-Francois Beaulieu.

Brothers asked the panel about the coloring process, and Shalvey noted the color-driven covers for "Injection," where he said he tried "to give as much space as possible for Jordie [Bellaire] to make decisions." Shalvey specifically mentioned the cover for issue #11, where he put in a few background lines for colors, and Bellaire “came back with something way more interesting than what I would have done.” Bellaire said she saw the cover and decided, "I’m just gonna glitch this thing way the fuck out.”

Bellaire then described how she has to make incredibly fast decisions as a colorist, because there is very little time to get the work done. She and Shalvey then commiserated about how there was not time to get together and walk over every inch of the comic; there was simply too much work to be done.

McKelvie discussed his work with colorist Matt Wilson on "The Wicked + The Divine," saying, "He takes my kernel of an idea and comes up with something way better than I could have come up with." McKelvie gave the example of a flashback sequence where Wilson used a color palette associated with the character narrating the story.

That McKelvie draws digitally increases what Wilson can do, because he can use Photoshop layers and multiple colored lines in his drawing. He noted where Wilson had used dropped shadows on blue specs in an panel, which would have been much more difficult with traditional inks.

The artists on the panel then got into a discussion of how some things that look like they would be difficult are often easy, while things that look easy are often hard. Shalvey gave the example of repeated panel images, where he doesn't like to simply copy and paste because it takes the sense of life and movement from the image, but where it can be very hard to recreate the original image.

Rucka talked about the way that Fernandez worked with colorist Daniela Miwa to play with light in "The Old Guard". According to Rucka, "I’ve never worked with an artist like Leo who is so religiously dedicated" to his light sources and the way that they influence the color palette.

Rucka noted that while "Black Magic" is technically a black and white book, there is very little actual black -- rather, the book is mostly shades of grey. When he first imagined the book, he thought it would be in color and could not envision it in black and white. But, "as a writer, one of the things I learned early in comics is that it doesn’t matter what I see in my head. What’s important is to get the hell out and trust the artist.”

There are, of course, inevitable misunderstandings between writers and artists, and Rucka noted there are times he gives an artist something and they come back saying they couldn't draw it. As a result, Rucka said, he has learned to instead focus on the feelings he wants to get across than specific imagery.

Asked about his process on "I Hate Fairyland," Young stated that 100% of it was his imagining something and then figuring out how to make it work in the book. He was inspired by "Groo," which was nominally a barbarian book, but really just told whatever story Sergio Aragonés wanted to tell that month. "All the books I want to do, I will do inside of this book. Do I have a forty issue samurai story in me? No, but that can be one issue." He then talked about watching "Pacific Rim" and being inspired to do a kaiju issue of "I Hate Fairyland."

Shalvey then asked Young if he had separate writing and drawing days for the book. Young responded that he had separate writing days, and that he writes full scripts for "I Hate Fairyland," because the book is a comedy and so much of comedy depends on timing. When he tried to write and draw at the same time, he couldn't get the timing right, as what should have been a three-panel gag would spread out over three pages. Writing a full script has helped him with that.

The panel then discussed how working for Image meant there was some greater flexibility in story length, but that you still couldn't add just one page, since comics are printed in 8-page signatures, so adding two pages could mean significantly higher costs. Plus, McKelvie added, adding a single page in the middle could ruin page turns later in the book.

At this point, panelist Donny Cates arrived and discussed his two recent Texas-set books, "God Country" and "Redneck," both of which are supernatural stories taking place in Texas, where he grew up. He noted "Redneck," which is illustrated by Lisandro Estherren, was something of an inverse of "The Walking Dead," as it focused on a group of vampires trying to be a family "in a world surrounded by us."

The design decisions in "Redneck" are intended to throw the reader off balance. The first issue opens immediately on a double-page spread that begins on the inside cover. He also described a character who is telepathic and at one point in the story starts responding to another character's captions.

Cates also talked up Dee Cunniffe, colorist for "Redneck," who he said created a color scheme designed to look like the world through vampire eyes.

McKelvie interjected, saying Cunniffe also worked as flatter for Matt Wilson, which led him to ask how many people in the room even knew what a flatter was. McKelvie was impressed by the number of hands (approximately 1/4 of the audience), and stated that five years ago no hands would have gone up. McKelvie then described for the rest of the audience how flatters separate out color layers for colorists, and that many flatters are aspiring colorists themselves.

An audience member then asked about what made comics different from film and why the panelists who chosen to make comics. McKelvie joked, "That's a whole other panel." Cates added, "The chief thing is when you make a comic, it actually comes out," and added that with a comic, you have creative control.

When the issue of comics having an "unlimited" budget came up, McKelvie said this was both true and not true, as the budget was really the artist's time. So while you can draw an alien invasion, you would have to make up for the time spent on it in other panels.

Young then mentioned that there's a sense of ownership with comics, and that with even the most auteur of films there was still a crew of about 200 people. Bellaire added that she had worked with animators in Ireland who had said they wanted to get into comics because of the desire to have something that was theirs, with their name on the cover.

Brothers then returned to the audience member's question, asking what else they found appealing about comics. Cates mentioned how once you get past the early part of your career, you can create whatever you want, and that if the panelists wanted to, they could just decide to make a book.

Young interjected, jokingly, "I love the sweet, sweet money," to which McKelvie replied, "Well, that’s 'cause you don’t have to divide it in two since you write your own book." He then joked that comic writers were worried Young would give other artists ideas.

Rucka closes things out by describing his scripting process. While he writes in full script, his scripts are effectively written as letters to his collaborators -- effectively, they're epistolary scripts. He noted that he had learned a lot about the importance of collaboration since his early career, and that he did not try to control artists like a marionette.

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