Rosy Higgins and Ted Brandt on their Swashbuckling Artistic Process for ‘Princeless’ [Interview]
With the release of Princeless: The Pirate Princess, creator Jeremy Whitley really started to take his all-ages princess-power series and boost it deep into the consciousness of the comics community. Following Raven, the aforementioned Princess of the High Seas, as she gangs up forces with two other princesses, the third volume of the story was drawn by the team of Rosy Higgins and Ted Brandt in their first ever published work.
That's a hugely impressive feat, especially given that they had to jump straight in on a continuing series after two volumes, and keep pace with a world of dragons, swashbuckling and piracy. They don't have a simple artist-colorist sort of arrangement, either --- both of them alternate back and forth throughout the creative process. With Princeless proving to be one of the breakout books from Action Lab of the last few years (as well as one of our most-recommended comics for kids on this very site), ComicsAlliance spoke to Higgins and Brandt about their artistic process.
ComicsAlliance: I believe you met at university, when you were both on a course studying comics?
Rosy Higgins: Yes, we did.
Ted Brandt: We were both on the Illustration for Graphic Novels course at Glyndwr, in Wrexham, UK; it's taught by the great Dan Berry [The Suitcase], who most people in comics know these days!
RH: I transferred to the course in the second year; I was pretty quiet and withdrawn. I still remember the first time Ted spoke to me: the classroom was empty, and I was flicking through one of the comics on the reading shelf. Ted came in and said it was a good book, and I just yelped. We started talking after that.
CA: Do you feel having a background in comics academia changed the way you approach making comics? Were you making comics around this time, or simply studying them?
TB: We were absolutely making them, yes. But the course was definitely theory-oriented, which was great, as it really helped us to get a better grasp of deconstruction and analysis, which are such important things for artists to understand if they want to get better!
RH: I certainly learned a lot about how to properly put together an actual page on the course --- my only previous experience before then was making a small webcomic.
CA: When did you first start working together as a creative team?
RH: Literally when we decided to apply for Princeless volume 3! We'd helped each other out here and there on projects beforehand, but this was the first time we really worked together.
TB: It was initially a merger of expedience --- we wanted work in comics, but the Princeless job needed the full package, and that was something we knew neither of us could do alone, much less in a timely manner! It's developed from there, though, and now I can't really imagine working on my own.
CA: What is your actual creative process on any particular page? You go back and forth with pencils, inks, colors and so on, right? Who does what when?
TB: Funny you should ask, as we're currently undergoing a change! You're absolutely right though, that all the work before Raven volume 2 was a very delineated thing --- I would do layouts, Rosy would pencil, I would ink, Rosy would color and I would letter.
RH: Unfortunately we've had to change due to time limitations --- we did our best but we're just not quite capable of doing an entire 24-page issue on our own in a month yet.
TB: One day! But for now, on Raven volume 2, we're going to have a colorist and a letterer on the book with us, to make sure we don't slip on the schedule.
CA: In particular I’m interested in your lettering; not many people letter their own artwork in monthly comics. Do you think this changes the way you sequence a page?
TB: Definitely! When we were still providing the lettering, I would always do a rough first draft of the lettering before the layouts, so we could sculpt everything around the dialogue. We're not providing the lettering any more, but I've kept those lessons going forward, and have a variety of generic speech balloons of varying word counts to allow us to give our letterer plenty of space to work with.
CA: Are you working digitally?
RH: I'm still working digitally, but due to an equipment malfunction for Ted we're having a bit of a shake-up process-wise. Ted's computer died on us, and it turned out it was a lot cheaper to get a large printer and have Ted start inking physically!
TB: Yep! Unfortunately, my Cintiq Companion decided it would rather not bother, which was a terrifying moment. Being at the low end of the art world, we didn't have enough cash to get another, but happily, I think moving to traditional inks has actually really helped me.
CA: How do you feel your artwork has developed and changed over the last few years? Are there any particular parts of your work that could only improve over time?
TB: Wow, that's a tough one. I mean, if you look at everything we've done so far, they're all really distinct, in terms of style (which we'll come back to on a later question). For me, I think the one thing that you can see a definite through-line on everything is storytelling improvement. Raven volume 1 was definitely better than Princeless volume 3, and hopefully Raven volume 2 (I know, confusing) will be better again!
RH: Certainly my pencilling has gotten neater, which I'm sure Ted is grateful for! There were quite a few times during our Princeless-proper run when he had to ask me exactly what I'd drawn. As for improvement, I can only hope everything does! We're always striving forward.
TB: Absolutely; right now I'm focusing on the quality of my lines, but there are plenty of other things that need work!
CA: How did the collaborative balance work out between yourselves, back then --- and how does it work now? When you’re designing a character, say, how involved do you get in the concept work as a duo?
RH: Ted definitely helps me out with shapes and body types.
TB: It's remarkably similar to our other processes. I'm good at the very bare bones of the characters, to ensure diverse silhouettes and characterising, but it's Rosy that brings them to life.
CA: What’s really interesting is that Princeless came about for you because you were particularly proactive in getting involved. What was it about the series that made you both so passionate to get involved?
TB: Shamefully, when Jeremy announced he needed an artist, we hadn't actually read Princeless! But we were intrigued by the idea, so bought the first two volumes from Comixology and binge-read. For me, I was definitely attracted to the humor of the series.
RH: There was a lot of fun in the writing, and we thought it would be a great thing for us to try work on together!
CA: What was the ‘pitch’ process like? Did you get given a pitch script, or anything like that?
RH: We both sent off samples of comics we'd done during university, which was enough to get us in the running. But we wanted to show what we could offer them in a way that was easy to see, so we requested a pitch script, and got sent the first issue.
TB: That was definitely a good thing to do; as far as we know, no-one else applying had the idea to ask for that! So over that weekend we got character sheets for the main three girls, and that, combined with our enthusiasm and initiative, got us the job.
CA: Do you feel there is a difference in style when you work on Princeless, or is this your natural 'default' style, so to speak?
RH: Honestly, at this point I'm not sure we have a default style, do we?
TB: Probably not! As I mentioned earlier, every book we've done so far has been different, either as we've grown artistically or due to content requirements.
RH: We've been experimenting with styles based on levels of stylisation and cartooning outside of the current comic, to try keep us fluid. Doing this is certainly helping us gel more as a team, and is really allowing us to find what works and what doesn't.
CA: Did you want your style to match previous volumes in certain ways, or was your intent to stand out as different and new?
RH: The thing with the first two volumes of Princeless proper was that they'd both been done by different artists, so we wanted to try ensure we had a similar tone, but not be completely identical visually.
TB: It's always pressuring coming onto a continuing book, as there's a lot of audience expectation already in place. So we tried to make sure we were working in a way that wouldn't feel too jarring to the readers, but would still be fun for us.
CA: What was hardest about making the jump to a full sequential issue of comics?
TB: Oh god, so much. There was obvious pressure to perform, but we'd never worked together before. On top of that, we were still getting a feel for the style, so it was rough going!
RH: Mostly it was just that it was so many pages! I'd never drawn a comic that long before --- I'd probably only made 40-odd pages in my three years at uni. So stamina was definitely an issue.
TB: The first issue took us nearly two months to complete, all told. Luckily, nothing else takes that long any more.
CA: How have you found working with Jeremy on the book? Does he tend to write full scripts, or does he leave you a few notes and let you play around, experiment as you like?
TB: It's somewhere in the middle, usually. If he has very specific ideas for visuals, then he'll make sure that comes across, but when it comes to smaller things like body language, facial expressions and the like, he trusts us enough to do as we see fit.
RH: When it comes to Raven's spinoff series, there's one particular character I like to take liberties with --- Sunshine, the half-elf. Whenever she's in a panel but we're not given specific requirements, I have a tendency to really have fun with her expressions! Judging by a couple of Tumblr posts, it seems like people approve.
CA: What projects are you working on now? Is more Princeless coming?
RH: We're currently working on the second volume of Raven's spinoff, and are just about to finish issue #5 at time of writing.
TB: We also did a short all-ages book for Action Lab called Action Lab: Dog of Wonder earlier this year, which should start hitting the shelves early 2016. As for anything else, we're in the very early stages of a webcomic, which will be starting sometime later next year, if all goes to plan.