INTERVIEW: Colleen Doran
Women Know What Comics Women Like
By Shaenon K. Garrity

"People just found this quite bizarre": from A Distant Soil. © 1997 Colleen Doran.

Note: An edited version of this interview runs in the print version of the August 2001 issue PULP. This is the full text of the interview

Colleen Doran's professional career began at the age of 15, when she displayed samples of her work at a science-fiction convention and was immediately hired by an advertising agency. By her high-school graduation, she had signed a contract with WaRP Graphics to produce her science-fiction epic A Distant Soil. Doran's relationship with WaRP quickly soured, and she moved to the Donning Company until it began to financially flounder. After spending several years as an artist for DC and Marvel, where her credits included The Amazing Spiderman, Wonder Woman, and The Legion of Superheroes, Doran returned to A Distant Soil under her own imprint, Aria Press. Since 1991 she has been rewriting and redrawing the story from the beginning, and it is now nearing its conclusion.

A Distant Soil was one of the most successful B&W comics of the eighties, and Doran was among the first professional cartoonists to be a collector of and advocate for shojo manga. In 1996 she was chosen to attend the Comics/Manga seminar in Tokyo sponsored by Tezuka Productions, along with Jeff Smith, Jules Pfeiffer, Nicole Hollander, and Denys Cowan.

Shaenon Garrity: Why don't you tell me a little bit about how you got started in comics? I know about A Distant Soil... did you do anything before this?

Colleen Doran: I did a lot of commercial work before I did A Distant Soil. In fact, A Distant Soil was not my first comic book assignment; it was just the first time it got published. I actually got my first commercial art job by going to a science-fiction convention when I was fifteen years old and being scouted by an advertising agency. That was my very first professional assignment.

SG: What did you do for it?

CD: They had me doing... this is going to sound so funny... they had me drawing cartoons for restaurants. They wanted to draw this little bowl dancing with a little margarita for margarita night... little things like that. Little advertising illustrations. Shortly thereafter I went to another convention and I got spotted by somebody that works for one of the small-press companies, and they had me work on developing a superheroine comic. I don't even know if it ever came out. I spent probably two years working on the same thing.

A Distant Soil didn't actually come until a little bit later. I got approached by a small-press company who pursued me for quite some time. I think they were just waiting for me to get out of high school.

SG: So you were still in high school at this point.

CD: Oh, yeah. I was definitely in high school. I can't even remember when I signed my first contract. I signed two contracts for A Distant Soil. It took maybe two years from the time I signed the contract to the time when the book came out. It came out when I was nineteen. I was with that company for a little while, but we had a serious dispute over the rights for the series, and I left. I completely rewrote and redrew the whole series from Page One at a later date, and I've been working on it ever since.

SG: I understand that you were in Japan several years ago for the Tezuka Award...

CD: I did not win the Tezuka Award. I was there for a manga seminar, a discussion about Japanese and American comics. There were a number of American creators there, and a number of Japanese creators there. It seemed like the entire press corps of Japan was there. It was nervewracking to be followed around by people with cameras and film crews and everything! (Laughs) I kept thinking, God, when can I scratch my nose?

SG: So how were you selected for that event?

CD: Actually, they used to have it every year - I think they had it for three or four years - and I was recommended by people who had attended before. Fred Schodt, who was the author of Manga! Manga!, called me up, and he said, "They're interested in you. Would you mind sending some of your work so they can have a look?" So we were actually chosen on the basis of our work. They looked through our portfolios and picked us because they liked what we do.

SG: And what year was this?

CD: 1996. Four and a half years ago... (Laughs)

SG: What was your impression of the manga industry while you were there?

CD: I had been reading manga for a while before I went, but it was a great experience to go because, being a manga fan here in the U.S., I had an unrealistic view of the manga industry. Naturally, all the American fans think that all the manga artists are like rock stars and they're all millionaires, and that kind of thing, and of course that's not even close to being the case. They work very hard. They do make more money, on the whole, than their American counterparts, but of course it's a great deal more expensive to be a cartoonist in Japan than it is to be a cartoonist in America.

SG: Is it? And why is that?

CD: One is expected to have a studio and a staff, and of course that's not the case here. In fact, one is expected not to have a studio and a staff. (laughs) I know that, especially in alternative comics, which is where I've been working on A Distant Soil, having an assistant or an ghost artist can make you vilified by tthe fans. They hate that. But in Japan, you're expected to have an entourage and a half-dozen assistants and a whole crew of people around you, and you've gotta pay these people! (laughs) It's very, very expensive to be a cartoonist in Japan. I was quite surprised by how expensive it is in Japan, and how well I live compared to some people...

SG: Really?

CD: Oh, yeah. An apartment in Japan is extremely expensive, especially in Tokyo. I live in a nice condominium which I own here, which might cost me as much as a half-million dollars there. Of course I didn't pay nearly that much for it in the United States. Just to get a driver's license is three thousand bucks. Tokyo living is extremely expensive.

The manga industry also depends on volume. You've got to be able - or you've got to want to, let me put it that way, because I think anybody could produce a lot of pages very quickly if your style is streamlined enough... But there's no waiting for the Muse to hit, there's no waiting for the artist to create a beautiful page. It's produce forty, eighty, 120 pages a month or die. I'm really glad I don't have to do that. I was also surprised to find out that the page rates are not any better than they are here, not even close to being better. It was disillusioning, but in a good way. It gave me a much more realistic attitude toward the manga industry, made me appreciate what I have a lot more. It also gave me respect for these artists who have to manage a great deal. They have to manage a staff and manage a huge volume of work, which I'm glad I do not have to do. I don't think I'd like it very much, actually.

SG: How do you feel about the degree to which manga artists make use of assistants?

CD: Personally, I wouldn't do it. I don't care for it. It makes me uncomfortable. But then again,I come from the United States, where if your name is on it you're expected to do it. In Japan, it's completely different. If you don't have a team of assistants, the question is, "What's wrong with you?" (Laughs) There was just a complete breakdown of cultural understanding there for a while. I'd be sitting there explaining to them, "Well, I do my own lettering by hand," and they'd say, "Why? What are you, crazy?" (Laughs) And I'd be like, "Well, it looks better. It's more graceful," and they just looked at me funny, like "We can't believe you're that nuts." They felt the same way about some of the European artists that they had met, going to the Frankfurt Book Fair and so forth. One person said something that I felt was very telling. It was a producer for an artist that does a lot of anime, and she said, "We met an artist there, very famous, but he only does 100 pages a year! In Japan, you could not be a professional and do 100 pages a year!" And I went, "But in the West, it doesn't matter how much you produce. It only matters whether or not you're making a living at it."

SG: I guess it's much more of a business over there.

CD: Well, it's a business over here, too. It's very much a business over here. But, like I said, there's a completely different attitude towards the production of what is and what is not art. If you have an artist like Sabieri(?) or Moebius, or somebody in Europe who's doing these incredibly elaborate pages that take days to produce, and he's doing them himself... actually, Moebius does have a couple of assistants, now that I come to think of it. But some of the artists there will labor for weeks on a single page. And they will produce maybe one gloriously beautiful book a year, and it'll sell boku-boku numbers. It's just a different market. In Japan, the market is all about volumes, volumes, volumes, volumes. In Europe, it's about the comic as art. And in America, it's somewhere in between. You've got one section over here where it's the comic as art, and you've got one section where it's the comic as commodity. It's just three different worlds.

It was actually kind of disappointing to me, because there was such an emphasis on volumes volumes volumes, sales sales sales, and that's what made you good. To me, what makes you good is whether or not the work you do is good, not whether the sales are five million or you produce 300 pages a month. I really don't care about the top-selling manga these days. They don't interest me in the slightest. I'm interested in what I think is good. It may be some obscure Japanese artist that none of the manga fans over here care about, but that's what I like and that's what I think is good. That's what's important to me, not who's best-selling.

It's funny, because in Japan sometimes people would say, "What's your favorite?" and I'd say, "Well, I really like this," and they would look at me like I was crazy and go, "Why? That doesn't sell." Well, it doesn't matter to me. That's what I like.

SG: I wanted to ask you about what manga you're interested in, and what you've been interested in in the past. When did you first get interested in Japanese comics?

CD: I remember the day I got interested in Japanese comics. I'll never forget it. I was in New York City; it was 1984. A Distant Soil had been coming out for about a year and a half to two years at that point. A friend of mine named Leslie Sternberg, who works for Mad Magazine, had invited me to stay at her place... She's a delightful person. She's so funny; she's just one of the funniest people I have ever met. She's hilarious. We had met through the pages of a fanzine that we had both been working on since we were teenagers. So she's like, "When you come up to New York and finally get to visit the Big Apple, come see me." And when I was there, she said, "You know, I've been buying these Japanese comics, and they really remind me of your work. Would you like to see them?" I said sure. And she handed me this book called From Eroica With Love, by Yasuko Aoike. I went, "Oh my God! I LOVE this book! I love love love love love!" I was hooked. That weekend she took me to Books Kinokuniya, which is right down the street in Rockefeller Center. I probably bought, I don't know... this was in the days when a dollar really went far. You could buy manga for like three bucks. So I bought...

SG: Could you hold on for just a moment?

(Interview cuts off)

SG: When we left off yesterday, you were talking about how you got into manga after reading Eroika yori ai o komete...

CD: (Laughs) I'm glad you can say it! Yeah, after my friend Leslie had given me the comics, she said, "This really reminds me of your work." It was a revelation for me. It was such an exciting experience to see them for the first time. Because even though I'd been in comics for a while at that point, a lot of the things that I wanted to do with my work were expressly forbidden by all of the comics publishers with whom I was working.