Talking Comics with Tim | Ming Doyle on <i>Mara</i>

To best understand a creator's project, I typically like to learn how the storyteller views her main character. In this week's interview, artist Ming Doyle immediately provided that insight into the star of Mara, her six-issue Image Comics collaboration with writer Brian Wood.

As she explained to me, while Mara is a volleyball player, it's the character's celebrity that "is the core of her being." Doyle clearly relishes the chance to draw "futurecity gridlock," and she does a good job conveying such scenes. In discussing her craft, it struck me that while respect for her work has been growing steadily, it appears she's just beginning to get comfortable with her storytelling talents (while continually striving to improve upon them).

Comic Book Resources recently ran a preview of Mara #2, which goes on sale Wednesday. Wood and Doyle together tell an engaging tale. If you missed the first issue, this week would be a good time to pick up two issues and see what you're missing.

Tim O'Shea: How much did you know about volleyball before this project, and how much have you learned since then?

Ming Doyle: I knew essentially nothing about volleyball before reading the script for our first issue, and now after weeks of furiously clicking around on Wikipedia and YouTube and scrutinizing players and positions, I know only a little bit. I've made the effort to learn what I can, but I'm not a very athletically minded person, I don't watch any sports in my free time, and a lot of the logistics and culture of that lifestyle are definitely foreign to me. But really, Mara's profession is almost incidental to her celebrity, which is the core of her being. Hopefully there are enough visual cues that a casual reader can zone in on Mara's place on the team and her place in society and feel that it reads as authentic to her.

In the big reveal of the first issue, the full-color book switched mostly to black-and-white/subdued hues to draw even more focus on Mara. Was that your idea or was that at the suggestion of colorist Jordie Bellaire?

That was a mutual solution reached by all three of us. Brian wanted to convey that Mara was kicking into super-speed for the first time ever but not use motion lines or any schlocky blurring effects, so we came up with the idea of putting some sort of aura around her, and Jordie thought of desaturating everything but Mara so that it would seem like the world was frozen. But if that wasn't immediately evident to readers, that works, too, because at that point everyone in the story is shocked and confused by what just happened, including Mara herself.

How much and what kind of discussion did you and Brian have before you started designing the look of the futuristic city setting of Mara? Am I right in thinking you got a kick out of drawing futuristic cars?

Brian left most of the stylistic details up to me, but early on he threw a lot of fun keywords my way, like "supercities," "blimps," and "Starship Troopers," which I was instantly all over. I haven't had the opportunity to draw anything on the scale of this story before, so whenever I get to a panel in the script that says something like "futurecity gridlock," I just have so much fun.

Early in the first issue, I was struck by the silent full page where Mara is sitting in the locker room by herself before the game. Was that a story beat that Brian scripted or was that a moment you suggested?

That was all Brian's script, and I loved it, too! Whenever people ask what it's like working with Brian, I just have say that it is great from an artist's point of view because Brian is a very accomplished artist himself, he's a great graphic designer and he truly understands how to lay out a story visually. He knows what will work and he knows how to write to an artist's specific strengths, and I'm really grateful to him for that and for the opportunity to explore moments of quiet emotion and introspection over such large swathes of page real estate, which is not something all writers would be willing to do.

In CBR's review of the first issue, Greg McElhatton praised your understanding and effective use of body language in your art. First off, where did you learn to appreciate the power of body language in storytelling? Secondly, how challenging is it to convey body language without derailing the narrative?

Very challenging, and it's something I try to practice and improve upon with each page. Understanding anatomy in a technical sense is difficult, and making anatomy act for you within the visual logic of your style is doubly so.

I think all you have to do to appreciate body language in comics is to look at the greats, the Kirby's bombast and Toth's eloquence, and then just resolve to try like hell to make your own art speak as fluently in whatever style you're rocking.

You used photo-referencing in 10 to 20 percent of Mara. Why do you think some people view photo-referencing in a negative light, and how has it helped to improve your art?

Photo-referencing only becomes problematic to me when it's an obvious shortcut, like tracing a face from a well known print ad. It looks sloppy and lazy, and I think it reads on the page like the equivalent of a particularly bad piece of made-for-TV CGI. However, observational drawing is absolutely essential, even if your style is only tenuously linked to the laws of physical reality.

I create my own reference photos or make my friends pose for me because I can't always visualize the specifics of every gesture perfectly. In art school, I was lucky enough to have a three hour long studio class several times a week where I could draw models from life. That helped me make a huge jump in understanding from my high school doodles to my thesis work, and now that I'm a professional I look for any opportunity to make my own life drawing "classes" out of everyday examples.

How quickly do you think you and writer Brian Wood established a rapport in the course of this collaboration?

I think it took us a couple issues, and that's mainly because of nerves on my part. I love Brian's work so much, I wanted to make a good impression! Now I just trust him completely, and whatever he wants to do with the story I'm totally down for because he makes the work fun. I love his scripting style.

Back in a September CBR interview, Wood said: "I write the scripts to her strengths." In what way do you think the scripts capitalized upon your strengths?

Well, I love drawing people and glamorous fashion and flowing hair, so he makes sure I get enough of that to keep me happy. And like I said, I haven't worked on a story that features this level of detail and action before, and I know Brian is conscious of that. When he asks me to draw a stadium scene or a helicopter or a three-story explosion, chances are that's gonna be the first time in my career I've ever attempted to draw that specific thing, so I am by no means a hardened expert veteran, and I think it's beyond generous and brave of him to task me with those elements as well as the pretty stuff. Turns out, I love drawing explosions and motorcycles!

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