It’s a funny thing about comics, graphic novels, whatever you want to call them, but even if you don’t read them I’ll bet at least one of your friends does. Forever off mainstream until Hollywood (or HBO) comes calling once in a while, they speak as deeply and as directly as any art and often with a subtlety that people who think they never progressed beyond the Adam West TV Batman ‘pow! kablam!’ parody would never suspect.
You see humans have been telling stories and trying to teach lessons with pictures since before words could be written, and have been weaving those words around pictures since they could. Deep and serious, silly and bawdy, all points in between; they can and do turn their hand from cosmic horror to kitchen sink drama just as prose, film, sculpture and music can.
Reading anything is good, reading fiction can be as enlightening as reading fact in the right hands. It can be as emotional a ride as the best album so here is an excellent place to start to catch up with your friends who already know: Becky Cloonan.
And don’t worry if you don’t (yet!) read comics, friends, there is music here. Your safety rope to known shores it’s intact.
Becky Cloonan is a US based artist and writer (and a fan of black metal!) whose work has graced comics for DC and Dark Horse amongst others. She has given her distinct, smooth style to writers across the board: The socio political cyberpunk Channel Zero, the Viking based Northlanders, the music and modern world Demo, American Virgin, Batman, Swamp Thing and currently the acclaimed Killjoys for Dark Horse Comics and an Eisner Award nominee several times over (that’s Oscars for comics if you are unaware). But she is also a fine writer herself and recently has self-published three short stories in graphic form which are linked by both a feudal/dark ages folklore setting and a theme. Step this way: Wolves, The Mire and Demeter await.
Wolves is the first of the tales. A tale of a hunter of the most dangerous kind of wolf and a man given to following his instincts even against his better judgement away from the woods. The deeply shadowed art, which tightly wraps the reader in branches and thorns, brings a sense of claustrophobia and isolation to the hunt which is curiously echoed in the lighter, open panels of the return to the lord’s hall. This, you see, is a tale of the conflicts between passion, honour and loyalty. The protagonist chooses passion and yet still obeys his lord knowing full well the fate that awaits him and his lover if he does. The words are from his point of view, an unflinching stare into his fate, though perhaps blind to the selfishness of his actions. The kind of tale that has you judging motives long after the last page. A bleak, but immensely satisfying tale.
The Mire in a kind of contrast has more of an air of innocence to it. It begins a story of earnest youth. Aidan, a young squire eager to please his knight Sir Orwain, to show the traits that he believes are to be essential in his life to come; obedience, dependability, loyalty, bravery. On the eve of battle he is, to his dismay being keen to be at his master’s side, sent away from the battle to deliver an important message to a castle deep in the mired woods. The woods are once again evocatively rendered, close drawn towering trunks closing ranks as the story leads you in. Phantasms live between them and the darkness, another curtain layer to see behind. A journey that seems pointless to a squire becomes a time capsule, opened for better or for worse as the truth of Aidan’s world is revealed.
Demeter three latest short stories leads us down to the sea where people try to sink secrets into the depths, forgetting the pull of the tide’s appetite. It begins as a tender tale, one of love and partnership between a man and woman eking out a hard isolated living from sea and shore. The thread of tension, though, becomes apparent. There is a distance between the couple, a strangeness between them that haunts one and confuses the other. Of the three this is the darkest story; rich in the kind of folklore that only the sea holds and drawing on Icelandic, Scottish and Faroese myth it is as much about selfishness as love and the things that the tide brings even to the innocent when there is a debt to be paid. Debts accrue interest. The final panel is a dark, haunting one that crystalises the elemental nature of the tale beautifully. My favorite one of the three.
What all three tales share is a thread of choices made in passionate haste, of secrets turning bad and rising to the surface from where they have been buried. There is also a gorgeous sense of quiet and stillness to them despite the undercurrents of short sharp violence. The art speaks clearly but in often small movements that perfectly capture your eye, character expressions brought out with subtle lines and use of shade. The words speak in isolated ponds where the protagonists live though we glimpse the connections to the greater world. Beautifully observed and realised anyone with a love of folklore and the past, they do what graphic works do best; tell a tale where the atmosphere and emotion are a tightly bound chimera of lines both visual and written.
Stylish, skilful and very much in their own voice they are a perfect way in to comics if you know nothing beyond superheroes, and a short but rich drink if you already do.
All are available at: http://www.lounak.com/werehouse/index.php?route=product/category&path=33
And/or digital versions at:
Or on your Kindle etc. Seriously worth your time.
Through a combination of social media, email and managing to actually catch up with Becky at a signing session on her recent guest appearance connected to the Thought Bubble UK art and animation convention we had the pleasure of asking a few questions, and share a little love of black metal in the bargain.
AN: Firstly, I have to ask an old question: How did you get started in this graphic novel/story business? Sequential art and writing isn’t an obvious career choice these days. Do you have formal training or are you self-taught?
BC: I was in a cab the other day and the driver asked me what I do. When I told him I draw comics, he said, “That’s a weird job.” And I guess it is, but I honestly can’t remember wanting to do anything else. Most of my friends are cartoonists or writers, so to me I guess it’s totally normal! I actually went to school for animation, but dropped out in my third year to draw comics. I learned a lot from my friends too, who are insanely talented. I think surrounding yourself with people who are better than yourself helps to keep the bar raised high.
AN: I read somewhere that you were the first woman to draw a Batman comic. Is this true because it kind of shocked me? If it is true do you think this is any meaningful pointer to anything concerning the state of mainstream comics regarding women in general, or just one of those stats that really doesn’t signify anything deeper?
BC: Yeah, it’s weird, right? But I guess it’s true! I think yup can probably be safe in reading into it a little bit, it’s really a sign of the gender disparity that the comic industry has subconsciously cultivated for the past 50 years. I am happy to report that’s all changing though. More and more talented ladies have books on the shelf, and this means more women will start reading comics, which makes for a healthy, diverse industry, with richer content and a wider range of stories!
AN: Although some people may know you as an artist particularly of the current, critically accalimed Killjoys work, you have of course always done complete works yourself: Writing and art for a variety of personal projects like East Coast Rising and a variety of anthologies. Between your busy art work, you have recently self-published three stand-alone short stories in graphic form: Wolves, The Mire and Demeter. These are beautifully realised pieces which, whilst being stand alone, do share certain links of setting (Viking/Saxon/fantasy kind of setting) and theme (I found a strong thread of haunting secrets coming to the surface in these tales). What about these settings fascinates you and besides being just great entertaining stories, what about this notion of secrets not staying buried draws you to these themes?
BC: Thank you! I’m so glad you enjoyed them, because they really are labours of love. I actually started making short stories because I was discouraged with my writing, and I wanted to practice before jumping into a bigger story! I’ve managed to do one a year, and now I have a trilogy! I suppose the common themes link them together, and folklore has always been a big inspiration to me- the themes of love, loss and terrible secrets easily fall in line behind that! I try and think visually as well, and create atmosphere, mood, and metaphors with the artwork. The settings are very reminiscent of where I grew up; New Hampshire is mostly all trees and granite, and the older I get, the more I realize the impact it had on my work.
AN: I saw you describe these works as the stories between the pages. How did you manage your time between these personal ideas and the big company work which, I guess, is as well as being something you love too but is also the bill paying stuff?
BC: Holy shit I have no idea!! Yeah, honestly this year it got to be too much. I self-publish my short stories, and its become viable and self-sustaining, but it’s also too big for me to do on my own, but not big enough to be able to hire people!! It’s really awkward. I love the DIY aspect of self-publishing though, so I don’t think I’ll ever give it up. My goal is to make my personal ideas my main job, and cut back on the big company work!
AN: I assume that, obviously, these works are very personal and as such not something you want to stop (thankfully!) But do you have any plans for any longer works in the foreseeable future? Or is just getting the time to do them the issue?
BC: I kept saying that I would stop at three books– but I recently thought of two more stories, so I might have a five book trilogy on my hands! I want to eventually work up to longer stories- I’m actually adapting an Arthur Conan Doyle novel next year, so I hope that opens a few doors for me in terms of writing.
AN: What kind of things do you like reading yourself?
BC: I just finished Rubicon, which was a fantastic book on the Roman Empire. I am a casual history nerd, so that makes up a lot of my reading material. I also love classics and cheesy mysteries. I just got my hands on a beautiful Tartarus Press edition of F. Marion Crawford stories too, so that’s been on my pile. I kind of love books?! I guess I don’t read as many comics as I should these days, but damn there are some great titles hitting the shelf. Pretty Deadly, Sex Criminals, Thor, Battling Boy… all comics that I’ve really been enjoying.
AN: For people who are not familiar with comics or their production, can you give us a brief insight into the sheer time and effort needed to draw a full monthly comic and, when working as an artist to a writer, how the process between the two works and how much freedom the artist has generally.
BC: Most people draw about a page a day. I put in 10-14 hour days at my studio, and that’s just for the art! The script is a whole other story. Then add in editing time, scanning and formatting the pages, lettering, colouring, oh man… it’s a pretty crazy process! I’ve been lucky to work with writers who give me a lot of freedom to play around and interpret the story, but I think I’m at a point in my career where people who work with me probably know what to expect!
AN: I did, as a fan of both your work and the bands in question, find it great when I saw you noting having been working with Wodensthrone playing in the background, and also the package that Chris Naughton sent to you of the Winterfylleth album The Ghost of Heritage and the last album by From the Bogs Of Aughiska. Is this type of underground metal music that you have always been in to? Are you musical yourself? How did you come to have contact with Chris Naughton?
BC: Oh yeah, Wodensthrone’s Curse is a phenomenal album!! Great music to stay up late and work to.
Well, besides playing flute in the school band, and poor/drunk karaoke skills, I have pretty much no musical talent. It’s always been a huge part of my life though, so when I moved to NYC in 1998 I started doing art for a few local punk and hardcore bands, and that quickly spiralled into gig posters, album art, shirts… I guess the progression into metal was pretty natural from there.
Collaborating is a whole lot of fun, as is doing work that isn’t comic-related. And it’s a great feeling to be involved with people whose music inspires me as well. Funny enough, I got in touch with Chris over twitter- I’ve been raving about Threnody since it came out, and I guess he noticed and thanked me! We exchanged some emails, I sent him some of my self-published books, and he sent a little package back. As conflicted as the internet makes me feel, it’s pretty fucking amazing sometimes too.
AN: Do you always work to music? And does the work you are doing dictate what music you listen to? (I always kind of wondered what music might have accompanied the process of working on Channel Zero or Demo.)
BC: I’ve almost always got music on. When I write I need something more atmospheric or ambient, so I’ll put on Wardruna, Tenhi, Empyrium, Ulver, Summoning, stuff like that. I can’t listen to lyrics in English while I write because it’s distracting, ha ha. Then when I start drawing I can put on whatever I want! Lately I’ve been working to The Sword, American Sharks, Red Fang, Graveyard and Kvelertak. I just got my Spotify account back up and running too, so I’ve found a lot of new stuff, plus music I thought I’d forgotten about. Deafheaven’s Sunbather might be my new favourite album at the moment! So good.
AN: I saw you did some excellent artwork for the band The Sword. Have you done much other artwork for bands as I would have thought your style would be so good for many bands, not just metal. Would you like to get more involved in this aspect or is it just having the time more than the opportunity?
BC: I used to do a lot more than I do now, but I still love working with bands I love. The Sword are fucking incredible, and on top of that they are all really awesome guys. I get asked to do a lot of album art now which is awesome, but I sadly don’t have much free time these days. I will however, always make time for The Sword. Or Winterfylleth, if Chris asks, haha!
AN. I always think that if you get half a dozen metal fans together you’re bound to have at least one comic fan amongst them. What do you think the common ground is? Is it just a willingness to use their imaginations and to enjoy that or something else?
BC: Yeah, it could be! So much of what draws me to metal I think is the way so many bands are able to craft stories and mood through their music. I mean, we are all storytellers on one level or another, and if you are being taken on this journey from the start of an album to its end, that’s not so different from reading a comic I suppose. Well, it is– but for me that is a big part of why I love metal. I try and approach my short stories in a similar way to the songs I like, where you might not get the whole story right away, and each time you read it you find something new. I like making my stories open to interpretation as well, without being too vague. I get these feelings from a lot of my favourite songs- music I like I tend to over-analyze, and songs stick with me as I try to figure them out. I want to make comics like that. So yeah, I have to believe there is a lot of common ground there!
AN: I guess that conventions in the comic world are a little like the festivals in the metal world to some extent. You’ve recently been in Brazil and now are in sunny…er… Leeds. How has the travelling been? What do you like about doing these events so much (beside the opportunity to see a few fascinating places in the world.)
BC: I’ve only ever been a punter at metal shows– from what I’ve seen there are a lot more queues at comic conventions, haha! But in the last five years comics have taken me all over the world, from Brazil to Norway to Japan to Ireland. It’s an amazing opportunity to meet readers and other creators, store owners and festival organizers! Now I’ve got a bunch of good friends who I only see two or three times a year. I’m writing this from my friend’s sofa in London- and just a week ago we shook hands in beautiful York! It’s a surreal time, but I love it. I’m taking a few months off from travel to hole up and work, but in the summer I’ll be back at it. All of this travel ends up informing my work in some way too, so I like to try and stay a few extra days to see more than just the comic festival. Otherwise it seems a little disappointing.
AN: The comics industry always seems a little precarious. How do you think it is handling the digital revolution? I am seeing more comics available as downloads (besides the long standing web comics) but as comics are such a unique medium in their own right (they are not books with pictures, or films that don’t move, they are a different narrative and immersive experience) how do you think they are doing? Are there changes you can see happening?
BC: Comics didn’t get hit as hard as the music industry in terms of piracy, but it’s still a big thing, and everyone argues about it all the time! I feel like if comics were available digitally at a cheaper price and in more accessible places, there would be less illegal downloading. But I also don’t think that digital comics are where they should be- but then, I don’t know if digital comics can ever replicate the tactile sensation of a nice paper stock, or the thrill of a page-turn, the smell of the toner or the satisfaction of closing a book well-read… But then I’m a little old-fashioned. I always write for print; digital is an afterthought, but lately I’ve seen some innovative digital comics that really push the medium.
The future is wide open, and the landscape of the industry is changing rapidly. Self-publishing is totally viable, and the internet has made distribution a snap. Right now is a really exciting time for comics, and there’s nothing I’d rather be doing than making them. Fucking love them \m/.
I really want to thank the hugely talented Becky for being so generous with her time and the thought behind her answers. It’s always a pleasure to meet someone whose love and enthusiasm for their area of work is brimming over and who can express it so well. On top of that she is a lovely person to meet; friendly and very cool.
So go on, try a few comics if you never have, or if for some reason you stopped. They are so good for your soul. Try the digital comics maybe too, but get the hard copy as well. It’s like vinyl, people; real and you can always take them along to get signed at the next convention near you. You won’t be the only metalhead there, not by a long shot.
(Article & Interview by Gizmo.)