Five Stars: How The Seeds of ‘A Distant Soil’ Helped Colleen Doran Shake Up Comics
Colleen Doran made her first comic when she was twelve, and she's still writing and drawing it today. A Distant Soil stands apart as a unique project within the comics sphere; an epic longform story that has spanned decades in the real-world, and yet remained contemporary and compelling. It was also the project that brought her into the 1970s independent comics scene, which was a still-developing and often serpentine world at that time. Indy comics of the time were run by people working from their own basements, and often with a shady understanding of professional contracts.
Doran was scouted by Keith Giffen, however, who brought her to DC Comics to work on several projects, including Amethyst: Princess of Gemworld, and The Legion of Super-Heroes --- a title that she would return to over time.
Wherever Doran went, she gained admirers, but also vocal critics. As a pioneer in the male-dominated world of comics, she was a prominent target. For every admirer like Giffen or Joan Hilty, she frequently found herself dealing with people who did not want her in the industry, and who worked to try and push her out. For a period of time she was in a self-described "rut" of work-for-hire, where she believes the tight turnaround time of the work stopped her from distinguishing her style, or making the material her own.
That changed with the rise of Vertigo, as she became one of the most admired artists in Karen Berger's burgeoning roster. Sought by writers including Neil Gaiman and Warren Ellis, she was treated more as a collaborator than a pencil-for-hire, and subsequently thrived, receiving nominations for several industry awards, and winning Eisners for her arcs of The Sandman.
Doran's experience dealing with con-men in the industry also led to work as a lobbyist and creators' rights advocate, and she spent time on the committee for the Graphic Artists Guild. Continuing work on graphic novels, including Orbiter and Gone to Amerikay, fed her growing reputation, and she also worked on several experimental projects, including some of the first mainstream webcomics.
This year her long-term collaboration with Ellis sees her return to that format with the serialized story Finality, due to be published later in 2017. With recent work that put her in collaboration with Ellis, Gaiman, Alan Moore, and Stan Lee, she's one of the most acclaimed artists in the industry today, and a major creative force.
And she's still writing and drawing A Distant Soil, even now.
A Distant Soil
Created, written and pencilled by Colleen Doran
Published by various publishers, including Image Comics, 1983-present.
ComicsAlliance: You came to comics with A Distant Soil, a comics story you started working on in high-school. One thing that struck me was how much the series immediately felt like something Image could publish today and it would still feel contemporary. What was it that attracted you to this story, and when did you feel you had enough interest in the idea that you wanted to actually bring it to the page?
Colleen Doran: I don't think I was old enough to process why I was attracted to anything, because I was a kid just going with the flow. I liked spaceships and superpowers; kids do.
Star Wars was a new thing back then, you couldn't not be caught up in it all. I'd read a lot of SF. I liked writers from Tanith Lee to Katherine Kurtz. I'd just discovered Harlan Ellison. I liked Star Trek, and would stay up until 1 AM to catch a remote broadcast on the TV while holding the rabbit ears to get reception. I loved how Star Trek presented such a positive and hopeful view of the future; how all kinds of people were on that ship doing great things.
I was writing and drawing something that pleased me, with absolutely no intention of ever publishing it. It was a thing I did to entertain myself. I had a big crush on Aquaman, and it all began as Aquaman fan fiction --- as ludicrous as that sounds.
I showed it to a woman who worked at a local publisher called Donning/Starblaze, and unbeknownst to me, she started showing it around to third parties, presenting me as her "discovery." That was unethical of her; she had no right to distribute my unpublished work. If there is one thing I learned about people in the small press, it's they often have very unprofessional habits, and one of those habits is an utter lack of boundaries. If someone did that today I'd probably hit the roof.
The work landed in the hands of another small press and they jumped on it. I'd published bits of it in fanzines, but I never had any serious belief it would be published anywhere else. I'd every intention of working for DC Comics, and was involved in a Legion of Super-Heroes zine at the time. I only thought people were looking at my work as a measure of my skills to translate to corporate work. I was already working in advertising back in school.
But the small press wanted to publish my original creations. I foolishly made a verbal promise to them to let them publish my stuff, and when DC Comics made me an offer a little later, I felt I had to honor the verbal promise, which was a disastrously naive move. I'd have been much better off at DC. Keith Giffen called me out of the blue and offered me an audition, and I said no. I still cringe about it.
So, the truth is, I never intended to publish it professionally, and was surprised anyone else did.
CA: What were your interests at the time, as you were developing your comics work?
CD: I am interested in all kinds of things, SF/Fantasy, romance, historical fiction, just about anything but Westerns. I actually hated romances when I was a kid, but I like them now. A Distant Soil is actually a hodgepodge of genres, and if I were to do it today, I'd probably excise the fantasy and keep it strictly SF. But I really like my nutty book with the genre mismatches.
My start was in SF fandom, all my early convention experience were SF shows. And my mentor was Frank Kelly Freas, the science fiction artist. I used to work at his house.
I also had agents back then, most notably science fiction writers Steve Miller and Sharon Lee, authors of the Liaden series. They would take my art to shows and sell it for me. I was really into the SF fandom scene back then. I didn't do many shows, but all my friends were SF fans. Mostly I was being pushed to do SF illustration, which I ended up not ever really doing.
CA: The series has had to move through several different publishers over the years, for various reasons. So, not only have you had to make and market the book yourself, you’ve also had to navigate across an extremely rocky industry over the years. Do you think it’s getting easier to find support for a creator-owned comic like A Distant Soil, or are the issues you encountered still there?
CD: Oh, it's easy to find creator-owned stuff, but nothing has changed, there are still predatory, incompetent people out there. I mean, some of the companies will try any trick to take advantage of kids, it's utterly obnoxious, and there is not a lot people can do about it. It's almost impossible for these kids to have a frame of reference for what they are signing, or to imagine changes in industry standards and practices twenty years in the future when their work may still be making money for other people and not for them.
It is astonishingly easy for publishers to convince kids they are signing creator owned contracts and then to add weasel words into the document that make the contract anything but. Or to simply violate the agreement and steal the work, and then dare you to sue, or to hit you with a SLAPP [strategic lawsuit against public participation] to keep you from retaliating. I've been through all of these experiences, and even when you explain everything (because these people have no frame of reference, they can't process what you are telling them) they just go do whatever.
You get these extreme responses: paranoid people who are certain everyone else out there is going to steal their great idea, or people who are so cavalier or self absorbed they just can't imagine bad things happening to them. And, of course, if bad things happened to that person over there, they must have deserved it or been stupid. After awhile, it all gets very tiresome.
You can self publish, you can put your work on the web, but unless you are OK with endless self promotion and good at running a business, you are going to have some serious issues. I don't think people realize how hard it is. Lots of people go, "Look! I made $75,000 on my Kickstarter!" and they still end up in the hole.
CA: How difficult is to to manage a story across such a long period, as you’ve changed and developed yourself, as a writer, artist, and person, and your narrative interests have perhaps shifted? Have you had points where you’ve elected to change or shift from your original plan, or have you been able to stick to your intended story?
CD: I did, I cut a huge section out on the advice of Jeff Smith, who is the only pro who knows the end of the story. I went over my struggle with clarifying the narrative with him, and he advised me to remember what it is I was trying to say, and stick to that. It was all getting frighteningly obtuse. The plot is the same, but a big side story is now gone.
The Legion of Superheroes
Written by Paul Levitz, drawn by Colleen Doran
Published by DC Comics, 1986
CA: Publishing your creator-owned work in zines, as you originally did with A Distant Soil, is one thing, but how did you translate that across to further comics work --- on work-for-hire books like Legion of Super-Heroes over at DC? How did you first make the leap to "mainstream," corporate comics?
CD: As I wrote before, I had every intention of working in the mainstream. People really don't understand that the indy press was nothing --- absolutely nothing --- back in the day. I never even heard of it when I got into comics: almost no one did. These people would publish a book and get a distributor to buy a few thousand copies and act like they were all that. But mainstream comics when I was a kid were moving hundreds of thousands of copies per issue, and "small press" meant "fanzine." I don't care who you were, you were considered a fan artist if you were indie. You couldn't even get in the Periodical Index unless you were moving 50,000 copies back then.
I recall being described as a "fanzine artist" by mainstream creators long after I was working at Marvel and DC, the contempt for the small press and people who got started there was so strong. I had one woman writer inform me after 10 years of working in the mainstream that I did not deserve to be there, I hadn't paid my dues. It was very gatekeeper-ish. Nothing like it is now. I tell people this stuff, they can't even process it. They can't process a time when conventions didn't happen every week, and fandom pre-internet.
People assume I started out in the indies and "transitioned" to mainstream, but I started out loving superhero comics and got sidetracked by the indies. I'd never heard of any of these people, I'd never read their books. Naturally, after people started coming up to me and going "We like your work, we want to publish you," I made a point of finding out who the client was and parroting, "Yes, I am a big fan," because I was a kid and was told to rah rah the client or else. But I didn't have a clue about these people.
I think my first "pro" work was for Tom Long at Comics Showcase. That sold pretty well, and he discovered people like Mike Kaluta and Bernie Wrightson --- but even though you got paid, it was considered fanzine work. His zine would be a huge indie success by today's standards.
I was getting offers from Marvel and DC very early on, but indie clients were incredibly touchy about losing their artists to the mainstream, and would tell other publishers that you had exclusive agreements to do work for them even when you didn't. So when I finally got to my first couple of comic book conventions around 1984, and got to talk to people at DC, they were like all, "We heard you had an exclusive contract," and I was all, "Like hell I do, hire me."
I never did very many comic conventions in the 1980s, I only did shows in places like New York, one in Texas, and Chicago once or twice, and Heroes World, so I was pretty out of touch with the pro comics scene. Conventions were small time affairs, and I had no money to travel. I got my start in science fiction fandom, actually, and had little connection to comics fandom except for my apazine participation. I'd never heard of shows like San Diego, which was a hole in the wall then, and didn't attend one until the 1990s. I did much better with my art in the SF field back then, and since my art wasn't worth much in comics and no one had heard of me, I had little incentive to go to comics shows. But back then, that was how a lot of people broke in.
So after I first got noticed by Dick Giordano, who was a lovely man, then I got invitations to visit DC and shortly after Marvel. Plane tickets to NYC were cheap, about $58, which was much cheaper than going to a convention, so I would fly into NY, spend the day, make the rounds and fly home that night on $200 out of pocket, which was way cheaper than a convention. That's how I got most of my early work. It used to be pretty easy getting an appointment at Marvel or DC back then, they're locked up pretty tight now.
CA: Do you feel like the experience of working in collaboration with other people, and playing in the wider sandbox at companies like DC helped inform your career as you moved forward with A Distant Soil, as well as into full-time work within the comics industry?
CD: I learned an awful lot from working with great people like Keith Giffen and good editors like Joan Hilty. I mean, early on, I was basically working with fans who had little experience, and things could get pretty bad. I had no way of knowing that this wasn't the way the world worked, that their behavior and standards just weren't professional. I picked up terrible habits and had horrible self esteem after that experience. But when you are actually working with top quality talent, in terms of co-creators or editorial, it is so educational and gratifying on every level. It's just a joy.
I had a bad attitude about editors and shady men trying to push me around for a long time, simply because I didn't get to work with real quality people until later. And once I did, I was like, whoa, I never want to work with anyone else. Things can get bad working with pros, too, but on the whole, I've been very happy with the creators I've had the pleasure of working with for the last twenty years. I'm still learning from my fellow creators, and I am really happy to spend time with them.
Written by Warren Ellis, pencilled by Colleen Doran
Published by Vertigo Comics, 2003
CA: One of those people would be Warren Ellis, who you worked with on Orbiter over at Vertigo, which really shifted perception of who you are as an artist. You moved from serialized superhero comics to a single, longform project, which gave you a new chance to express yourself. Looking back, would you view Orbiter as a point at which your career changed course?
CD: Well, I would view it as a change from another perspective: back in the day, I was pretty much an industry laughing stock and punching bag. No one respected my work. People would just kick me in the teeth about any time my name came up for a job, tell me I had no place in this industry, that people were only trying to hire me to "get in my pants," which was said to me by a woman comics writer, and I recall one deeply embarrassing party where another cartoonist picked up a copy of A Distant Soil and started reading it in snide tones. Editors didn't like or respect my stuff.
Most creators didn't, either. Neil Gaiman did, but I wasn't getting the Gaiman gigs at the big publisher after I got a couple of shots at Sandman. It didn't matter much at one point if another creator liked your stuff; the editor had to agree to hire you; most writers didn't have enough clout to get me past the editor.
I suppose it sounds odd to say the publishers were interested in me when I started, and then had utter contempt for my work after, but that's how it was. I was talking to one of my favorite writers recently who was telling me how happy he was that when my name comes up for a job now, no one looks at him like he's crazy for asking.
One day Warren Ellis said, "I like her stuff," and started pushing me forward and telling clients "I want her." He liked my art, and by giving me a chance to do the kind of work other people would never let me touch, people started to see me differently. First and foremost, he let me ink my own work. Clients were very reluctant to do that in the past. They would often assign inkers to redo the work, saying I had no talent.
Sometimes working with an inker was great, such as when I got to work with Malcolm Jones III, or with Bob Wiacek, but usually it was a disaster. I even had one inker stand right in front of me at a convention and tell fans what a lame artist I was and how he had to work so hard to bring my art up to snuff, and all he did was trace my pencils faithfully. It was very easy to sock it to women artists back then. For revenge, every Hallowe'en, I post that photocopy of my tighter than tight pencils of that pinup on social media.
And Warren changed that. I got to pencil and ink Orbiter, and to show off some technical skills I'd never been able to put on display before. I got to do the cover, Most clients refused to let me do cover work. It made a huge difference on how my work was perceived. I'll never forget it. I'm really lucky, most creators never get off the D-list artist track if the industry pushes you there; you are stuck doing journeyman gigs on tight deadlines forever. It's soul killing.
CA: I’d almost suggest that you’re one of the few “method” artists in comics today, in that you have your style and voice, which comes through in the projects you create and run --- but then you can switch out almost unrecognizably at times when working on other projects. How do you develop your style to the extent that it can change so thoroughly to match each project? What is your artistic approach?
I am very analytical, and I pull apart what I am doing and what I want to do, and take it from there. I study, I observe, I pay attention. Sometimes I don't nail it, and sometimes I do. If I have enough time to process, I usually do. If the deadline is tight, mixed results. I change my tools a lot, working with tools that reflect the job and not personal favorite tools. For example, for classic comics looks, I often use tools that are about 100 years old. Some of my tools used to belong to Marie Severin.
There are reasons why the art looked the way it did back then, and part of that is the tools and how they respond to the ground. It really forces me to stretch, but I also risk becoming jack of all trades and master of none with all this jumping around.
CA: Do you feel like following the graphic novel format --- which you have returned to more and more often in recent years, with works like Gone to Amerikay and Troll Bridge --- is generally speaking a better format for artists, and makes for better storytelling?
CD: No. It's just another format.
Gone to Amerikay
Written by Derek McCulloch, drawn by Colleen Doran
Published by Vertigo Comics, 2012
CA: It’s interesting that Gone to Amerikay is one of your few projects to be set in a real-world setting, with many of your projects typically being sci-fi and fantasy. How did this project come about, and what made you want to be involved in this look at Irish immigration in New York?
CD: I don't think it's any statement on my interests that most of my work is SF or fantasy. That's just the reality of the comics marketplace.
Derek McCulloch and I had worked on Tori Amos: Comic Book Tattoo together and the story was his idea. Naturally, I was dying to work on it, I've always been interested in the Irish/American experience.
CA: Other interviews you’ve done have heavily emphasized how much effort you put into researching and preparing projects before you start on them. Research and reference is the unseen element of life as an artist --- but how important is it to your artistic approach in particular, and the projects you choose to work on?
CD: All of them, I'm kind of manic about it. If anything, I have to roll it back, otherwise I will get so lost in the research I will fritter away time I need to do the job. I spent several months researching Gone to Amerikay without drawing a doodle.
CA: Do you try and establish a mood in the room while you're working? I've heard that The Pogues were a particular influence on Gone to Amerikay; is music an important part of your process, in helping you to set a scene and establish a tone?
CD: I am so susceptible to the emotional content of music I have to watch what I am listening to lest it interfere with my ability to work. I may get angry or I may get sad when I don't mean to, and I don't want that leeching into the art.
I listen to a lot of audiobooks though, and movies with great scripts like All About Eve. Audiobooks are the best, I listen to them for months at a time and don't do anything else. They don't necessarily have to have anything to do with the work --- I listened to Diana Gabaldon's Outlander series while drawing the Stan Lee graphic novel.
While I'm inking, especially, I need to stay entertained, because man the hours grow long.
Written by Warren Ellis, pencilled by Colleen Doran
To be published by LINE Webtoon in 2017
CA: Over the years you’ve worked on several different online projects, quite often with Warren Ellis, and this year's Finality will mark a return to webcomics. What are the unique challenges of working to that format, where the story is serialized, and readers are taking things page by page, rather than in bulk?
CD: Well a challenge for me was to figure out how to work within the confines of the online format while designing the page so that it is also suitable for later display in print. I kinda stressed about it for longer than I really needed to.
I think the bigger stressor is for Warren, who is working full script and has the bulk of the responsibility re: pacing.
CA: You always seem to have several different projects running at once --- recently they’ve been Troll Bridge with Neil Gaiman, as well as Finality. How do you manage your time nowadays? What does the average working week for Colleen Doran look like?
CD: I have some personal issues that make concentration difficult, and my work output plummeted at the end of 2016. But that has resolved, so now I am back in the saddle, with weeks of work to make up, which is godawful.
A typical day is me disciplining myself to either stay off social media or not get into a useless conflict that will distract me or ruin my focus. Stay organized and calm and focused, that's it. Try to put in at least eight hours of actual drawing. It's so easy to lose time to administrative stuff --- like this interview --- and drawing time gets lost. I try to work seven days a week; I really don't handle starting and stopping very well. I try to get some fresh air and exercise every day, and interact with some of my pro friends to see how they are. I like social media for that alone.
I keep exercise equipment in my studio. The studio stays organized so everything is where I need it. I review my goals, make lists, write down everything. I tend to forget things I don't write by hand.
And the most important thing is to sit my butt down in the chair and make pictures.
CA: With A Distant Soil entering the final storyline, and new projects like Finality on the horizon, how long-term are your future plans within or away from comics? Do you think you’d like to return to writing/drawing another series like A Distant Soil, or do your current interests lie elsewhere?
CD: I wouldn't do another major project like A Distant Soil, because how crazy would that be? I have a lot on my plate, a bucket list. I'm going to keep that private.
Colleen Doran is a writer and artist whose most recent published work includes Troll Bridge, written by Neil Gaiman, with whom she'll also be teaming for work in the upcoming American Gods comic series. She'll next be seen as the artist on Finality with Warren Ellis, published through LINE Webtoon. Doran also regularly writes on her own website. She can be found on Twitter here.
Throughout Women's History Month we're putting the spotlight on some of the best comics by and about women. Check out more articles at our Women In Comics page.
Five Stars is an interview feature in which Steve Morris looks back over an artist’s career by discussing five of their milestone works.