Joe Keatinge And Leila Del Duca Talk Fantasy, Character & Inspiration In ‘Shutter’ [Interview]
Since the first issue hit stands earlier this year, Joe Keatinge and Leila del Duca's Shutter has established itself as one of Image's most popular new titles. The tale of Kate Kristopher, a world-famous ex-explorer who gets embroiled in all manner of mystery and adventure, it's been winning over readers with its idiosyncratic blend of science fiction, urban fantasy, and good old-fashioned derring do.
With the first paperback collection released this week, ComicsAlliance sat down with the series' creators to talk about developing the world's characters, the story so far, and pushing the limits of their self-created reality.
ComicsAlliance: This isn't an easy comic to describe. It was initially hyped as a straight adventure/exploration story, but that got pushed to the side pretty quickly, and now it seems like easy genre categorizations are being subverted at every turn. How do you explain this book to people without getting too long-winded?
Leila del Duca: I try simplifying it to a phrase similar to this: It's about Kate, an ex-adventurer, who is shoved back into the world of exploration when her family secrets come back to kill her – and it's set in a crazy fantastical version of Earth with robots and mythological creatures and samurai jackals, so unlimited weird stuff happens.
Joe Keatinge: Easy!
CA: Joe, you mentioned in the text pages of issue #1 that you had basic concept kicking around for a few years: Kate Kristopher, adventurer, globetrotter, trouble magnet. How did it finally make the leap out of your head and onto the page?
JK: It wasn’t really one big thing, more like a confluence of disparate big things – the first and foremost was seeing Leila’s artwork after sitting on the proposal for Shutter for so long and realizing she was what was required to bring it to life. Like you said, the concept was around for years before and I almost worked with other people on it, but it just never seemed right.
And it’s not as simple as art style, Leila is also adamant about seeing the type of change we want to see in comics, wanting to see something like Shutter out there.
It was also the right time for me. I was personally in a place where I felt less and less connected to what I was doing and feeling like I strayed away from what I got into comics to do in the first place – collaborate with artists I’m excited about, to create things wholly our own, in this medium allowing us to do anything without restriction.
Shutter seemed like the right book to get back on track again and Leila was the perfect collaborator to do so. I say it often, because it’s true – she can draw anything – we see eye-to-eye on a lot of things, we don’t see eye-to-eye on others, so in the end it’s a constant challenge to write scripts which live up to her art – whether or not I succeed is up to her, but I do feel its made me up my game over the last year, finding my place which I felt I lost for a bit there.
CA: And Joe, you also mentioned that you'd always tried to keep the story grounded, and it seems like once Leila came on board, you jettisoned that restriction and went as far as you could in the other direction. Literally. Page one of issue #1, we're in outer space. How far has this strayed from what you originally envisioned?
JK: The skeleton of the overall story remains intact, but with six issues published and almost ten issues written later, I feel the way we’re going about it now tells the story much better than what I intended before. Kate being thrust into the more fantastic elements of the world outside our window could have been interesting, but having it on an Earth where the impossible is common place, gives great contrast and, in turn, focus on how important the everyday elements are, the things you otherwise miss.
CA: Why the title? When the first issue was released, everyone saw the cover and title and assumed "right, it's about a photographer." But that whole idea was pretty much discarded by the time we got to page one. Is there a deeper, secondary meaning to the title, or is it just a word that sounded cool and you guys could agree on?
LdD: To me, the title always meant something more symbolic than literal. We've opened a window into Kate's world and we're looking at the events through the shutters. Maybe that's sentimental or trying to be too deep about this project, but from the beginning of Shutter it was always clear this wasn't going to be a comic about photography. It's a comic about what happens to Kate, who was a photographer, who is now on the run, having no time to snap photos because she's trying to survive and figure out how to get back to her normal life.
JK: That being said, people upset there’s not more photography in the book will find a kindred spirit in issue #7.
CA: Kate, the main protagonist, doesn't really look, act, or talk like any other comic characters. What was the impetus for creating her as the lead, how did you guys go about developing her, and how did you know when you'd hit on the right combination of elements?
LdD: We wanted Kate to be everything we wanted more of in comics. I didn't want to draw a white main character, so we made her a mix between Caucasian and something else not yet divulged to our readers. I wanted her to have a pointy nose because I didn't see many pointy-nosed ladies in comics.
I gave her a lanky build because I was tired of seeing over-idealized female figures. I made sure she was posed in a realistic ways instead of with stereotypically sexy body language. I drew her face with a wide range of emotions that I could relate to. I wanted her to be a perfect balance between hip and dorky, confident and insecure, someone who can make great decisions but also screw up massively at times (which she does).
All of these elements make her character realistic to me, even though it's set in this ridiculous version of Earth, her motives and actions are believable and relatable.
CA: Joe, we've spent a lot of time talking comics and movies over the years, so I can definitely guess at some of the inspirations you're drawing on. The menagerie of anthropomorphized gangsters recalls '70s Kirby books; there's a bit of Mignola in the way you're mixing and matching all manner of supernatural and scientific elements -- Ninjas! Ghosts! Robots!; the freewheeling futuristic world you've created has echoes of Moebius' sci-fi cityscapes. But what other influences are you drawing from that may be a little deeper beneath the surface?
JK: '70s Kirby is certainly hardwired into my system with Kamandi and 2001: A Space Odyssey the most prevalent code. Mignola’s someone I admire – and Hellboy In Hell is my favorite current ongoing series at the moment – and Moebius easily my greatest inspiration, almost more in terms of philosophy on art in general than the art itself even though it’s some of the best ever, but I don’t know that the latter two directly relate to Shutter.
Tintin and Corto Maltese were the explorer-adventurer comics I read which made me want to do an explorer-adventure comic of my own. The over-the-top menagerie is rooted more in CC Beck and Otto Binder’s long run on Fawcett’s Captain Marvel Adventures. I didn’t read them until my 20s, but the world they created and the logic it operated on is unlike anything comics has seen since, regardless of genre.
For those unfamiliar, Captain Marvel was originally the story of an orphan named Billy Batson, who follows some guy in a trench coat down into a subway station, passed a hallway filled with statues of the seven deadly sins, into a chamber with an old wizard who kills himself with a rock before bestowing Billy with the magic word, “SHAZAM” which trades his mind and body with another being named Captain Marvel.
To be clear, Captain Marvel was an entirely different being at the time (at least for the most part; it got a little nebulous as time went on) and with few exceptions there weren’t any major villains, those that were there were either killed right off the bat or relegated to a mostly self-contained serial entitled “The Monster Society of Evil.”
Most of the stories were just awkward situations operating on their own internal logic, not too worried about justifying the why, focusing on just telling a cool, odd story – like Earth getting pissed humanity is driving it nuts and fighting back with continents, or a council of gods deciding to repeal the law of gravity because it’s “stupid”, and everyone floating around. One of his best buds was a tiger who just happened to learn how to talk. It wasn’t explained until a long while later, and I frankly preferred when it wasn’t. A talking tiger is a talking tiger is a talking tiger.
Getting exposed to that work at a time when most super-comics were focused on becoming more in line with what they were doing in movies or justifying them for an aging audience, Captain Marvel Adventures was a huge revelation.
The thrust of Shutter is Kate’s personal journey – emotionally and spiritually. Like I said, having the backdrop of an insane world puts even more of the focus on it in a way. What would normally be considered mundane in fantasy driven work becomes the focus – and I credit a lot of that to Leila’s work. I’ve said this before, but the moment I knew the book was going to work was when I saw the panel in issue #1 of Kate in the railcar with a minotaur, space-man, satyr-like kid. There’s all this strange stuff going on, but the focus remains on Kate, what her state of mind is. It’s the most fun part of the book for me, contrasting the everyday elements of Kate and her turmoil against the bizarre world she lives in.
And its those elements of my own life which inspire the work more than anything else – more than any comic, novel or whatever. Pursuing writing as a full-time gig came out of traveling overseas somewhere to a place I didn’t speak the language, and where ordering dinner was an adventure in and of itself, unsure of the results. There’s been a lot of Life stuff with a capital L since then – loved ones passing away, relationships changing, life altering in some extremely different ways, big and small. Even just owning a dog and keeping it alive. That kind of thing.
CA: And Leila, I have much the same question for you. Your style is clearly your own, yet manages to synthesize many different influences over the course of this story, as each page demands – but overall, are there particular creators or works you'd cite as inspiration?
LdD: I seem to always turn to Mark Schultz, Sean Murphy, and Mike Mignola when I need inspiration or ideas for solving visual problems. Schultz has phenomenal page layouts, compositions, inking textures, and actions. I feel like I learn something new each time I see a page of his work. Same thing with Mignola and Murphy. I'm constantly learning something new from these guys and they have qualities of their work that I strive to incorporate in my own art: sketchy vs. tight lines, simple vs. detailed, setting up scenes with amazing camera angles and perspectives, posing figures in a way that convey the exact emotion you want to have readers feel.
I also gain a lot of inspiration from life out of comics. If I just sit at home and draw all day, my motivation dwindles and I become a pathetic sod. I need life experiences to keep me creative, so I try to keep a healthy social life, do new activities as much as possible, and have varied interests. I try making music on the side, since it’s a form of art that works a different part of my brain, yet still keeps me in the creative mood. I also try to exercise on a regular basis to get natural endorphins and to also help prevent the carpel tunnel that’s creeping up on me. I bike around a lot and this year started practicing yoga. Eventually I want to get back into Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, but I’m going to wait on that one.
CA: Something I've enjoyed in this series is how you structure each chapter – issues 3, 4, and 5 open with quick flashbacks that make no sense at the outset, but end up providing important backstory. You get the readers off-balance with non-sequiturs, then punch straight back into the larger adventure. Was that a considered tactic, or just the way it turned out?
JK: It’s definitely considered. In #3, I liked the idea of giving Kate’s assassin a mostly grounded – and at its core, anyway – maybe even relatable backstory. How exactly we’d do it, how we related it to a more innocent style rooted in childhood fantasy, etc. wasn’t stuff which came out until after I'd plotted it and begun to script. Around the time we got to Harrington’s origin in #5, I had been researching children’s picture books from the turn of the last century and I liked the comparison in sequential storytelling to comics and decided to work at it from there.
I dig having a situation the reader doesn’t entirely understand until later, which might not have full context until the very last page. Urasawa would do a lot of interesting things with this in 20th Century Boys in particular, where you’d follow a character for dozens upon dozens of pages without getting what their connection to the overall story is and then – BAM! – it hits you like a ton of bricks.
It also gets into the earlier thing I was talking about, in terms of feeling I went astray from what I wanted to do with comics – and part of that was incorporating other storytelling techniques outside of the medium beyond the typical pursuit of making things more “cinematic.” The picture book thing is a good example. There’s another good example in the opening of #8. It’s a bit jarring, but I’m hoping its jarring in a good way, forcing the reader to focus on what’s going on with those pages, even though it initially seems like its outside of the wider context. A lot makes up Kate’s work, and messing with format has been an enjoyable way to convey that.
CA: So Joe, is everything you see and read fodder for this series? Are you just keeping notebooks of every wild notion you run across, and waiting for the right moments to toss them in?
JK: Yeah, absolutely. It goes for everything I work on. I’ve gotten a lot better about having notebooks of all sizes, for every situation – one in my pocket at all times, one at my bed side table, one for each series I’m working on. As I mentioned before, the minutiae of life inspires Shutter for me more than anything.
There’s a Quentin Tarantino adage I think about a lot, when he was talking to Charlie Rose about how he thought all his movies should be a bit embarrassing to show certain people, because they’ll know exactly what you’re actually dealing with or talking about in your own life, putting yourself out there – being totally vulnerable. It’s not always a direct connection. Kate’s parents seem like assholes, my parents are all great human beings who’ve always been there for me. But still, life experience is where the good stuff comes from.
CA: Leila, so far as the visuals go – Joe has said you "can draw anything", and it seems like you're getting the chance to do exactly that with this series! Are there things you want to draw that you've pushed him to include? Or for that matter, have there been moments where you get a script and want to strangle him when you see what he's asked for?
LdD: I never want to strangle Joe. He’s done such a great job writing the most incredible visuals, and even though they can be so frustrating they bring me to tears, the outcome is always so rewarding. I’ll use the example of the Chicken Death House wreaking havoc on Midtown New York City. At this point in my skill set, I was still like, “Perspective what how?!” Also, there were so many elements that I had never drawn before. I made a list of all the things I didn’t know how to draw in that scene and it was frighteningly long. It was terrifyingly challenging but working through those problems just made me improve that much more as an artist.
I haven’t asked Joe to write anything special into the script yet. Lucky for me, he always includes stuff way cooler than I could ever have thought up, so I’ve been pretty damn satisfied!
CA: When you started work on this series, it was a long-distance project, shooting things back and forth. Now that you're both based in the same city, what's your typical collaborative procedure?
JK: We don’t write and draw in the same place, but we do meet up whenever she has layouts or a new issue comes out. I like the conversation you get in a face-to-face situation. I find it results in something a bit more free-flowing than what you get over Skype. But yeah, in terms of the actual production, we go our separate ways and converge when we’re done.
CA: So do you feel like your collaboration has changed at all as a result of being able to work face-to-face?
LdD: I guess it has changed quite a bit. We discuss new scripts in person now, and ideas are bounced off each other more often, too. If I'm having trouble with a visual concept, I can now sketch it out in front of Joe and solve the problem in the moment instead of having to email back-and-forth. I definitely have a better understanding of his process now, and vice-a-versa.
CA: How do you break down the basic storytelling duties?
JK: I have an outline for the entire story written out, which I think of as more of a map than anything else. I know where it starts, I know where it ends, I know where I want to go, but it allows the freedom to take our time or hurry up in certain parts, to take a different detour or whatever. The last thing I’d want to do with this book especially is to tell Leila or even myself, “yeah, we can’t do X, because Y’s already in place.”
So, there’s that, then I write a plot out per issue, basically a loose page-by-page breakdown of what I think will happen, then I go full script, then Leila reads it, then we talk about it, make edits if necessary and she goes onto drawing.
LdD: The only time we switched things around was on the interior front cover of issue two where Alarm Cat is baking cookies. We initially didn’t have an IFC, but we wanted to add a little extra character development for Alarm Cat and to have a sort of intro to the chaos that was happening to Kate. I had already drawn the rest of the issue a few months earlier, and I think Joe was in the middle of working on something else, so we decided to save time. I drew the page first, then he added dialogue later.
CA: So how far in advance -- and how precisely -- do you have the big picture planned?
JK: I’ve written the last three pages of the entire series already. So, the ending is set in stone. There are a number of things which have to happen, and I have a personal rule of never introducing a mystery unless I know the solution... But I like taking this journey with Kate, and we’re at the point where the characters are starting to take things into their own directions. There’s a lot with Alarm Cat in #7 I did not have planned out, but developed naturally from where he seemed to be going.
CA: Yeah, it seems that Alarm Cat has quickly taken on a major supporting role. Did you always intend him to be such a big part of the story, or did that just happen naturally?
LdD: So it kind of happened like this... Joe was going to kill Alarm Cat in issue 3 or 4, and I was like, "NOOOOOOOOOO! But I understand if you need to." Joe was nice and kept him in there and made him more of a main character because I dug him so much. Thanks, Joe!
JK: I’m curious if people will still be happy he’s survived after what he goes through in the second arc.
CA: Leila, what's your usual art process, as you're handling both pencils and inks for this?
LdD: My art process is the typical layouts to pencils to inks thing. One thing I do differently is lay out perspective grids in Photoshop that I print out on the back of each comic page, and trace on a light table so I don’t screw up my perspective on important panels. It saves time and minimizes mistakes. After Joe and I talk about the layouts, he just asks to see final inks, so I don’t have to spend time sending him my messy pencils. It’s a huge relief to go from pencils straight to inks without having to show it to anyone.
CA: Credit is also due to Owen Gieni and Ed Brisson for their contributions to the book. How did you settle on them as the rest of your team?
JK: Owen and Ed both come from Glory. The experience made me want to keep working with them on what I’d do next at Image, which ended up being Shutter. It’s not as simple as that, especially in the case of Owen. The moment I saw Leila’s “The Traveller” story in Ladies Chatterly, not only did I know she was perfect for Shutter, but I thought Owen was the perfect colorist to collaborate with.
Ed’s background as a writer has led him to becoming an extremely smart letterer, but unfortunately for the book its also led to him blowing up, so he’s moving on to focus on writing full-time. He was a tough dude to replace, but luckily I got my first pick to do so – the legendary John Workman.
CA: As for Tim Leong and Monica Garcia, who are credited as "designers" – how did they come on board, and what exactly do they do?
JK: Tim’s a guy I’ve known for a while now, since his Comic Foundry, days and speaking of blowing up – holy crap, that guy has been everywhere. When I was at Image Expo 2011, we were hanging out, talking about SuperGraphic and how he was interested in doing some comic book design on the side. The guy’s one of the most interesting magazine designers working today, so I jumped on the opportunity. We gave him the basic direction of wanting to make it more like a mix between a classic travelogue and a contemporary magazine, that anyone who wasn’t familiar with comics could relate to.
Like Ed, though, his being so talented made him blow up to the point he’s now the main guy behind the design at Entertainment Weekly, so Image’s Monica Garcia helped finish what he started and turned it into the cover we have today.
CA: Part of the fun of this series has been the various back-up stories you've featured in each issue, the "short subjects" that accompany the feature, so to speak. What inspired you to make those part of the package, and how do you go about selecting which creators you have contribute?
JK: It’s a bug that bit me when putting together Popgun with DJ Kirkbride, Adam P. Knave, Anthony Wu and Mark Andrew Smith back in the day. I really liked bringing together creators I was excited about and giving them a spotlight to do whatever at a major publisher. A lot of people have helped me along the way and I find it’s important to keep paying it forward.
We don’t take open submissions, but it’s basically meeting people at cons or wherever, getting a gut reaction they’d do something which would work well in Shutter, and inviting them to do something. Shea Hennum is a writer whose pieces about comics has me really excited, so he’s done a retrospective on John Workman for #7 and has a text piece about Paul Pope’s Heavy Liquid shortly thereafter.
Every issue thus far has had a Tiger Lawyer strip written by Ryan Ferrier and drawn by a whole bunch of artists, and he’s welcome to the space as long as he wants it. Ryan’s a guy I really believe in and the Tiger Lawyer concept is genius.
CA: And though this is obviously your main gig right now, do you guys have other projects in the works as well?
JK: Tech Jacket is the ongoing sci-fi Saturday Morning Cartoon for grownups I’m writing at Skybound and collaborating with artist Khary Randolph on. I like the idea of working the creators of other concepts on doing new things with them – doing so with Rob Liefeld and Ross Campbell on Glory gave me my career. Getting to do so with Robert Kirkman and a genius like Khary on Tech Jacket is fulfilling that for me right now. And I love every minute of it.
I’ve got a lot of unannounced things in various stages; two things in in particular are set to come out in 2015. Every single one is totally different from the other and it’s a nice place to be in.
LdD: I just finished drawing a teen superhero comic called The Pantheon Project, written by Erik Taylor and published by Action Lab. I also have only one more page to draw of this weird erotic comic I started a couple years ago. I struggle back and forth about whether or not I should release it to the public, but if I do it’ll be later this year or early 2015.
JK: Everybody should join me in bugging Leila to release her “weird erotic comic” to the public. I’ve read it. It’s damn good stuff that I hope gets out there.
CA: Lastly – as this is a creator-owned book, and you're not limited by having bosses looking over your shoulders, policing every word – care to drop a hint or two about what's next for Kate and Cat and company?
JK: Everybody goes to Cambodia. Everything goes horribly, horribly wrong.