A Fantasy of the Future: Celebrating Colleen Doran
Colleen Doran was born on July 24, 1964, and she was an artistic prodigy from her earliest years, winning a Disney art contest at five and finding a place at an ad agency at fifteen. She had already begun work on the saga that would most define her comics career, A Distant Soil, when she was twelve.
As a teenager, she was hired by Tom Long to draw a revival of Golden Age heroine Miss Fury for his Graphic Showcase fanzine. She quit the assignment when it turned out to include adult content, which is particularly understandable since she wasn't yet 18.
At the Art Institute of Pittsburgh she was given academic credit for work that she was also getting paid for, something most art students never have the chance to experience. She also apprenticed under noted sci fi artist Frank Kelly Freas.
Her work was noticed by Richard Pini of Elfquest fame, and he co-wrote the first A Distant Soil series, which was published by WaRP Graphics, a company that he co-owned with his wife and Elfquest collaborator Wendy Pini. That initial series ran for nine issues, but there was tension between Pini and Doran, who felt he was trying to claim ownership of her ideas, and she ended their professional relationship. Those WaRP issues have never been reprinted.
Colleen Doran restarted A Distant Soil at Aria Press and it was later picked up at Image. It's continued there and also appeared as a webcomic. A Distant Soil is a lavish space opera with fantasy elements --- right down to characters pulled from Arthurian legends. It begins with a young girl who's secretly the heir to an alien religion, but it spins out from there into a wide-reaching multi-planet saga with themes of identity and sexuality. It featured queer characters long before that was common in comics, including Seren and D'Mer, a gay male couple who are the romantic leads of the series.
Along the way, Doran was noticed by DC Comics, leading to her artwork appearing in Wonder Woman, Legion of Super-Heroes, and Neil Gaiman's Sandman, among other books. Sandman also featured a character named Thessaly, whose appearance and demeanor were based on Doran herself. It seems likely that the fierce inner strength concealed behind Thessaly's timid bookishness also owes something to Colleen Doran --- but the latter is not an immortal witch, so far as we know.
Doran's most memorable work on Sandman was a story called "Facades," which focused on a character from the 1960s Metamorpho comics named Urania Blackwell, also know as the superhero Element Girl, who had become suicidal and agoraphobic. The issue featured an early appearance by Death, and while Mike Dringenberg was the artist who created her visual style, the particular smile and easygoing mannerisms that Doran gave her turned out to be very influential on future versions of the character.
An influential artist, especially in fantasy and sci fi comics, Doran was one of the first women to write and draw her own comic book. The industry and the artform both owe her a debt for the gorgeous work she done, and for the path that she forged into the field for women with their own ideas.