Colleen Coover Talks ‘Girl Comics,’ Superhero Anatomy & Hating Purple [Interview]
ComicsAlliance recently visited Periscope Studio and talked at length with Coover about the controversy surrounding the all-female anthology, how to break into comics, why so many artists have trouble drawing anatomically correct women, and her intense hatred of the color purple (with special guest stars Jeff Parker and Steve Lieber).
ComicsAlliance: When “Girl Comics” was first announced, there were some comments on the internet that the anthology was “ghettoizing” female creators. What did you think about that criticism?
Colleen Coover: That really pissed me off. That was really irritating, because I already had two other assignments from Marvel that I was working on, and I was making time out of my schedule [of making comics] to do “Girl Comics,” so in what way am I being ghettoized? Somebody on the internet said something about how Marvel is saying we’re supposed to like these cartoonists just because they’re women, and no – you’re supposed to like us because we’re good cartoonists. It’s just that we got this particular job because we’re women, because that’s what the anthology is about. Yeah, the whole ghettoization thing really kind of irritated me, because for one thing, it delegitimizes all of the work that we already do professionally. It’s also important to remember that superhero comics aren’t the only comics in America. People like to use the word “comics” as synonymous with superhero comics, and it’s not. You can discuss whether or not there are as many women cartoonists who really want to work in superheroes, but you can’t say that there aren’t a lot of successful women cartoonists in this country.
Jeff Parker (in background): “Fun Home” sure kicked ass.CC: Yeah, “Fun Home” sure kicked ass. So I think people forget that we’re the rare unicorns. It’s about even in indie comics and webcomics [between men and women]. I’m not really sure why I’m such a superhero addict, except that I grew up with it… I don’t want to make generalizations about what genders enjoy in entertainment, but in a superhero comic you’ve got your power fantasy – although you’ve also got a lot of soap opera stuff.
CA: That’s what got me into “X-Men” originally, I think.
CC: Totally. That’s what got me into X-Men too. My first “X-Men” comic was the first issue of “Days of Future Past,” so it was the first big Kitty Pryde starring comic. This was right after the funeral of Jean Grey, but from that point on there was this girl who was my age – 13 and a half – and she had just started her superhero career and her training; she was freaked out about Nightcrawler because he’s all skeevy looking. And she was crushed out on Peter, because he was a big hunky dude. And I got a subscription based on those two issues. I was like, “This is hot stuff!” I got a subscription for two or three years, and so that really kept me going, that whole soap opera in the ’80s.
CA: On a separate note, I hear that you hate the color purple.
CC: I do. Let me clarify. Do you know where magenta should be used in comics? In the skin tone of a “Green Lantern” villain. End of story.
CA: Where would be a place that you really shouldn’t use magenta?
CC: Everywhere else. [laughs] Here’s the thing about purple and magenta. They are neither/nor colors. They are neither hot nor cold. And in a comic book, what you want with color is to use hot colors that pop out of cool colors, which recede back. Purple is both red and blue, and magenta is a very cold red. Green sometimes falls into this as well, because it’s blue and yellow. That’s why in the Golden Age and Silver Age, heroes wear blue, yellow, and red. The bad guys wear purple and green. Superman: Blue, red, yellow. Lex Luthor: Purple and green. The Hulk is an exception, but he’s an anti-hero. He was never originally supposed to be a real hero; he started out as more of a monster. Hawkeye wears purple, originally a villain. Madame Medusa wears purple, originally a villain.
CA: Rogue had a green costume, and she was a originally a villain.
CC: The other thing that really bugs me about the overuse of purple as a shadow is that it becomes very dreary to look at. It becomes very dour. It’s like it’s raining at twilight. But one really nice use of purple is if you have a lot of purple shadow and then you have some bright yellow to pop out – that can be really exciting because they’re complementary colors; they’re opposite each other on the color wheel. I often look at the wall of comics at the comic shop, and all the cover are just saturated with a lot of purple. But speaking of color, in the “Girl Comics” #2 story that I did with Kathryn Immonen – which stars Shamrock – I finally gave up doing my own colors for that story. It was hard, because as you can tell I’m very opinionated on colors. I like to control. But I got Elizabeth Breitweiser to do them, and they’re awesome – really, really pretty. I’m just so pleased.
CC: I don’t know. I think my stuff is girl-friendly not because of any particular genre or technique, but because I am a cartoonist who is working for myself first and foremost. I often say that I’m my biggest fan, but I’m my own primary audience. Because I feel like if I’m not satisfied with it, who else will be? I see every flaw in all my work. I’m also my own biggest critic. For the most part I’m only putting out stuff that makes me happy, and I think that’s a good way to go. I wish creators would worry more about satisfying themselves than satisfying a genre or a demographic. But maybe that’s why I’m still considered more of an indie artist than a mainstream one.
CA: And certainly, the issue is not just getting women into comics but also more generally about getting a broader audience into comics, or into comic book shops.
CC: I don’t want to say that comic book shops are going to be a thing of the past pretty soon, but the electronics are going to be the way that people get comics in the future. The interface is getting a lot better. I think that’s going to be the way that comics go, digitally. And that might actually change the medium a little bit, which will make a lot of people uncomfortable. I think the iPad will make things happen. And it seems like people expect it to happen right away. I have Panelfly now on my iPod, and it’s a little small for comics. Most of the forays from print to electronic in superhero comics – they’ve not designed to be read on a little screen; they’re designed to be read on a comic book page.
CA: I know there’s been a lot of success with phone-based comics in Japan, but a lot of them are broken down so that you can move panel to panel, not just scroll around a screen.
CC: It’s different if you’re actually producing the story specifically for that panel shape. Once they start thinking about what shape the screen is, how big the letters need to be so that it’s not work to read on the screen – that’s the real key. You don’t want to make it work for people to read your comic. Keep it simple, and don’t get crazy with squiggles or try to lead the reader around the page with your word balloons. I’m actually pretty stodgy when it comes to layout and design, because the first thing we need to do is tell the story. I’m a big believer in gutters and panel borders. Otherwise is just becomes one flat image, and it can be very confusing.
But let’s talk a little bit about gender in comics again. One of my failings early on in my career was that I could not draw men to save my life. Their bodies, their anatomy – I couldn’t do it. They would look very girly. I couldn’t figure out how they moved. Then I came here to Periscope, where I was surrounded by male cartoonists, and they’d tell where I needed to thicken up the neck, or broaden the shoulders, or lengthen the torso. Or where the center of gravity is on a man. For a man it’s higher, because they’re built to kill each other. Whereas the center of gravity is lower on a woman because we’re built to carry babies.
CA: And jugs of water.
CC: One in each arm! So as a result of all that, I’m a lot better.
CA: Do you think that a similar sort of thing can happen for some male artists that draw women?
CC: Yes, I do. This is another generalization, but I’ve had this conversation with a number of my male counterparts – that they have trouble drawing ladies because it doesn’t come as naturally to them that [women] have more graceful fingers, or wider hips, or narrower necks. A lot of times [drawings of] women in comics will look really strange because they’re standing as though their weight is hanging off their chest, which of course it doesn’t. We’re balancing on top of our hips. It’s men where it’s hangs from their chest. But it’s something that comes with practice and observation.
CA: Personally, I think there should be a rule that no single breast should be drawn bigger than a woman’s head.
CC: And also, [the breast] starts at the armpit, not the clavicle. One reason why the breasts seem to end up around women’s shoulders is because their torsos are drawn really, really short. And there’s nowhere for them to go because their right under the breasts and the hips, and then it’s all leg, all the way down. So yeah, they’re not getting long enough torsos. There’s a torso shortage among superheroines.
CC: Well, I didn’t have a choice. People talk about breaking into comics, but there is no breaking in. If you’re not compelled to make comics by a deep visceral need that doesn’t let you go, then you’re not going to be able to make it. There’s no breaking it, only doing it. I didn’t have a choice about being an independent artist, because I had to make something and I wasn’t going to be making “X-Men,” because I wasn’t working for Marvel. This is why pretty much everybody who works in so-called mainstream comics started out working in independent comics. That’s the only way to show that you can do the job. And you must do the job. If you need to make comics, you’re going to be making comics, even if that just means you Xerox – do people still Xerox? – or scan and print yourself. Don’t you agree, Steve?
Steve Lieber (in background): You break into comics by doing the damn comic. The moment you’ve done that comic, you’ve broken into comics. Whether you’re making money at it or have broken into a mainstream publisher is separate.
CC: But nobody gets a job in comics unless you’ve comics is the thing that you’ve been doing after your job every night.
CA: Or if you’re a best-selling novelist.
CC: Yes… to varying degrees of success. Unless they’ve self-taught by observation for years and years of reading comics and think about it all the time. I’m more or less self-taught. And then collaboratively taught, since [husband] Paul Tobin and I have talked about this every day for the last 16 years. It helps too that he’s as big a nerd as me. This is all I think about ever. I can’t even talk to people who don’t read comics! [laughs] As my career was starting, Paul would be my critic, and he would say, this is why this is really working or not working. But he wouldn’t let me redraw anything! I had to keep moving on. As an artist, he’s one of my biggest influences, even though he’s not an artist. But he’s a thinker about what makes comics work.
CA: So you never went to art school?
CC: I took a couple semesters as an art major and then dropped out. As a comic book artist I’m entirely self-taught. But for the last 16 or 17 years, Paul and I – it’s like those people who go to the museum and study the old masters by copying them. It’s like that, but with our entire library of comics from the last century. I spent probably a year reading Milton Caniff and thinking about what he was doing. And every comic that I’d come across, I’d think about what these people were doing that worked. What is it about ["Usagi Yojimbo" creator] Stan Sakai that works?
CA: What is it about Stan Sakai that works?
CC: He has great storytelling, for one thing, and his textures are really amazing. It’s all bunnies in samurai costumes, but he has such a good grasp on pattern and texture, so even though it’s a black and white comic, you can see all the richness and even imagine the colors. And there was a period where I was thinking about Rumiko Takahashi. I read “Ranma 1/2″ for a couple of years and absorbed a lot of that.
CA: Do you look back at that period and see a distinct influence on your work? Giant sweatdrops?
CC: [laughs] Yeah. But I think that’s one of the reasons my art style has developed into something pretty distinctive. A lot of people say, well, it looks a little bit like Archie or Jaime Hernandez, and granted, those are big influence on me. But I don’t think any who looked at my stuff and Jaime’s stuff, or Dan DeCarlo’s stuff would ever confuse them. Because I looked at stuff all across the board – American, Japanese, European, from the early 20th century to the present – that’s why my style is kinda uniquely my own. I don’t know what’s taught at the schools that teach sequential art, but I hope they’re teaching the whole spectrum. What I always really want out of comics is good storytelling. One of the advantages of thinking about comics all the time, and one of the disadvantages, is that I’m always looking for the stuff that’s got really, really spot-on storytelling, and also the mistakes.
CA: So it’s harder to read comics for pleasure?
CC: It must be how directors watch movies, just constantly thinking, how would have done this differently? I’m always thinking, well, if this had been done slightly differently, then this could have been clearer. And then when I see something that’s really good – a good bit of “acting” or some really clear storytelling that hadn’t occurred to me before, then I like to suck that in and use that. That’s why having the opportunity to work with different people and being here [at Periscope Studios] is so good for me. I’m looking at their good stuff, or pointing out a mistake they’ve made, and vice versa.
CA: Do you think that’s an unusual experience for comic book creators to have?
CC: Yeah, they don’t always have that physical interaction with their peers all the time the way we do.
CA: That aspect of the process of making comics has always seemed a little strange to me – that a writer in one place script something, and sends it an artist in a completely different place to draw it, and they don’t necessarily have much interaction.
CC: It’s kinda weird to me too. When I’m working with someone here [in the studio], it can be more collaborative. I could say, hey, if we stick a panel in here between these two panels, that might be better. And we can actually have a dialogue. When I’m working with a writer who’s not physically here and who I don’t know, I feel like my job is more to just tell the story as they’ve put it down. But sometimes I’ll be able to sneak some cool stuff in of my own, where I’ll have my own little private jokes. Like, I’ve decided that Scott Summers? He’s color-blind. So whenever I would draw Scott Summers, he’d always be wearing a yellow shirt with a brown jacket and green pants, or something like that. [laughs] But I really like working with new people. It’s always kind of a challenge to learn how those writers are thinking as I work on their script. Every writer is different. It’s always kind of exciting.
I’ve actually been really excited about the little bit of writing that I’ve been doing for Marvel lately. It’s a muscle I’d like to flex a little bit more… When I wrote the Hercules and Power Pack backup for “Thor and the Warrior Four” miniseries, it really kinda clicked. The same with the Ms. Lion story that I did for “Tails of the Pet Avengers.”
Steve Lieber: I think there’s a pretty strong bifurcation in comics between people who got into comics because they wanted to draw big guys smashing each other, and people who got into comics because they wanted to tell a story. Colleen is very clearly one of the latter. Colleen, if you were teaching, what would you steer someone towards to teach the mechanics of storytelling?
CC: I don’t know. That’s the thing – you have to spend a couple decades at this, and dedicate yourself to it, and think about it. I think the real masters of it were the comic strip artists, like [Milton] Caniff, or [George] McManus, or Al Capp.
CA: Have you considered teaching?
CC: No, I hate teaching. I just think about it as being bitchy. But I was interested to see – [Marvel editor] C.B. [Cebulski] tweeted a while ago that they have artists workshops to teach young artists who are just starting out at Marvel. I’d love to sit in on one of those; I’d be so curious to see what they’re doing. I’m very opinionated about these things. I wonder what the average fan would think of a world of comics run by me, because they might think it was boring. A lot of people like to see the flashy stuff that goes all over the place and the multi-page splash or whatever.
CA: So you wouldn’t want to use splash pages and flashy stuff, or you’d just want to use them better?
CC: Well, there’s a reason to use a splash page, and it’s to make a big beat. Like say in an “Asterix” book, the big fight where all the Legionnaires and the Gauls and there’s all this crazy s–t going on – something like that. But what I hate is when it’s a splash page and it’s just a close-up on one person. That’s not a beat; that’s just a page.
CA: I mean, I think superhero fans would enjoy better storytelling.
CC: I like to see comics have a little bit more to read in them. I prefer something that has a lot going on. Something I can sink my teeth in and think about for a while. But I wonder if maybe that’s not the popular thing anymore. Maybe it’s because people aren’t reading stories so much as they are reading universes? That’s what I feel like I get from listening to a lot of podcasts. They pick up their Marvel comics to find out what happened in Marvel today, like they’re picking up the CNN headline news of Marvel. This is what happened to Iron Man, this is what happened to Captain America. They might not be focusing on whether or not it’s a great comic as much as how it shapes this fantasy world. It’s like playing fantasy baseball and collecting stats rather than reading a story.
CA: I think some of the concern over spoilers comes from a similar place. I’ve seen a lot of people say things like, “Well, if I’ve seen this spoiler, why would I read the comic?” I mean, I would think the story, because otherwise you could just read Wikipedia.
CC: I also like good characterization. I’ll hear somebody say, “Oh, I don’t like this character because they did X.” There’s a lot of hate for poor Lois Lane, for example. The thing is, all Lois Lane needs is to be written awesome! That’s all she needs to be an awesome character. That’s what happened with Iron Fist. All he needed was to be written awesomely. And then everyone was like, “He’s awesome!” I’m using “awesome” a lot.
CA: But it’s true.
Steve Lieber: This is why I would love to see Paul Tobin and Colleen Coover doing “Lois Lane, Intrepid Girl Reporter.”
CC: Actually, I would love to do a comic of Lois Lane as basically Nancy Drew with a press badge. She’d be all wearing heels and stockings with seams up the back.
Steve Lieber: They should introduce it in the next “Wednesday Comics.”