Marian Churchland and the "Beast"

We could introduce Marian Churchland ourselves... but Warren Ellis has done it already, and better.

"Marian Churchland is a comics artist who recently blew everyone's shit away on a three-issue stint of Richard Starking's long-running 'Elephantmen' series," Ellis wrote on his website in June, plugging an art sale Churchland was doing. "She's going to be a huge fucking deal within two or three years."

To date, Churchland's had a scant few professional comics credits to her name - the three "Elephantmen" issues Ellis mentioned, a "Conan" story on MySpace Dark Horse Presents, and a piece in the "Meathaus S.O.S." anthology. But the world is going to see a lot more of her in September with the publication of "Beast," her first graphic novel from Image Comics. CBR caught up with Churchland about "Beast," her past, and her future projects.

"Beast" is the story of Colette, a struggling sculptor who's trying to get on with her life following a break-up. Her father, who doubles as her "informal and somewhat unreliable" agent, finds her a job: Carving a portrait of a man out of a specific block of marble. But neither the man,who turns out to be a shadowy creature named Beast, or the block of marble are what they seem.

If that plot sounds familiar, it's supposed to. "The initial idea for 'Beast' was that I would do a very, very loose retelling of the Beauty and the Beast fairytale," Churchland told us, "based more or less in the present day, with some mild magical elements." But from that starting point, the story's transformed into a more personal tale for the protagonist. "It evolved into something less about the standard fairytale romantic coupling, and more to do with the main character, Colette, having to figure out what she wants out of his life, and whether she's going to stick with what she knows or break off into uncharted territory."

Churchland describes "Beast" as a vignette rather than a traditional story, and she feels the piece is fairly unique in the medium of American comics. "I can't really think what to compare it to," Churchland said. "And hopefully that, if nothing else, is a good sign rather than a bad one."

"It's a very quiet story," Churchland said. "As people have pointed out, there are no dynamic camera angles. There isn't a lot of movement. It relies more on individual moments than it does on any kind of gripping plot. More often than not, it leaves you without explanations." As such, it fills a hole Churchland sees in the industry. "I think comics needs less books that people anticipate will sell well, and more books that are widely atypical in content and execution," she said. "I think risk is worth failure."

Looking at Churchland's work, you might guess European comics artists like Milo Manara heavily influenced her artistic style - but you'd be guessing wrong. "I'd never read a single European comic until I met Brandon Graham," she said, referring to her boyfriend, creator of the Tokyopop/Image series "King City." By the time Graham lent her his books by Manara and Moebius, Churchland was already 50 pages into "Beast." "Nowadays, of course, I snatch up as much of the European stuff as I can," she added, "but it came way after the brain-sticky formative years."

Churchland describes her exposure to seminal work in the comics industry as "kind of a desperate, after-the-fact affair." Instead, she lists two primary sets of artistic influences: "Old, dead European painters" like Eugène Delacroix, Van Gogh and the classic Renaissance artists, and '90s Japanese video game artists like Yoshitaka Amano, Akihiko Yoshida and the design teams at Capcom and SNK.

In fact, Churchland didn't get into comics through comics - as odd as it sounds, she got into comics through video games. "I think the first comic I ever read, other than Sunday strips and Archie digests, was a short story in the instruction manual that came with the Super Nintendo game F-Zero," she explained.

Churchland wasn't someone who grew up wanting to be a comic creator; she had other careers in mind. "When I was a kid and a teenager, I actually really wanted to make video games," she explained. "I designed characters and levels and scenarios and the rest. Failing that, I was willing to consider being a writer of 'fine novels.' Making comics was just the reasonable - which is to say 'not impossible' - alternative to both of those things. And it made sense, because I'd been drawing since I was a tiny child."

Most of "Beast" actually predates Churchland's work on Dark Horse Presents and "Elephantmen," and working on the projects represented a change for Churchland. "It was certainly a very different experience working with a writer after having done an entire graphic novel entirely by myself - and not ever thinking that I'd want to work any other way," Churchland said. "The contrast [between working by herself and collaborating with other writers] could have been much greater, though, and I was surprised how much I enjoyed myself in both cases," she added.

"Both experiences were mostly very laid-back and fun," Churchland said, "but working entirely alone is my ideal." After "Beast," Churchland has several more original projects she's hoping to devote the next few years to. The first is "a kind of surreal fantasy epic," called "Greymalkin." "It's about a simulacrum creature, made out of mud and the bones of various animals, who is following a dead king across a vast landscape"

"The second is a more episodic, cartoonish story called 'Fetchers,'" Churchland said, "about a bunch of kids in a fantasy Elizabethan England, fetching things for money." "Fetchers" isn't a solo project by Churchland, but a collaboration with her best friend Clair Gibson. Churchland describes the project as "something we worked on years ago, and decided we'd like to come back to now that we're responsible and sober adults who know how to handle these things."

Churchland's artistic process doesn't have the usual distinction between the penciling, inking and coloring stages, and her drawing process is also inextricably fused with her writing process. "I'm happiest if I can work with it all as a whole," she says. She's dabbled with other peoples' creations, but original projects like "Beast" are what she wants to be doing in comics. "I'm hoping beyond a rainbow teardrop of hope that I'll be able to work on them exclusively over the next several years," Churchland said. "Rent be damned."

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