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

SG: Such as?

CD: In the first place, I had a very romantic style with a telegraphic ink line. I used a pen to ink my work when I did ink my work, and people just jumped all over me for it. "You've got to stop doing that, that's not right, don't draw this way, don't ink this way." I thought it was very bizarre that they would hire me, only to tell me to stop drawing the way I was drawing (laughs), but that's pretty much what was happening. The Japanese cartoonists that I saw, particularly Aoike... She was doing all kinds of things that I was doing in my work that, in America, people were forbidden. As I've already described, the ink line and the romantic feeling to the work, but also male characters who were very erotic and desirable, and also symbolism in the background of the art. For example, I'd have flowers or shapes spontaneously generate in the backgrounds of panels to indicate mood, or romantic fascination, or whatever. People just found this quite bizarre. I started doing all of these things because they were things that I was familiar with from the work of the Symbolists, and from book illustration, and I was applying them to my comic-book work. But it wasn't going over very well with my clients. Of course, I was the only young woman in the entire comic-book industry at that time. I was a teenager; I was twenty at the latest when I saw my first Japanese comic. All the other women were middle-aged adults, married, or the girlfriends of professionals, and I was completely out in a little world of my own with nothing in common. And here I discovered, on the other side of the planet, there was this entire world populated by young women who did comics, drew the way that I drew, liked the things that I liked, and they were a hundred times more successful than any of the men in American comics.

I just started... when my clients would say, "Well, we don't want you inking with pen," I'd go, "On the other side of the planet, there are dozens of women creators who draw as I do, they write stories like I do," and I'd say, "Hey, maybe you should give me a chance and let me write and draw the kinds of things I want to write and draw."

SG: And what year was this?

CD: This was 1984. I remember very specifically that it was 1984... well,actually it may have been 1983, now that I think of it, but I think it was 1984. Back then there were no imports of Japanese comics. Here I was doing this funky series, A Distant Soil, which everybody just thought was so unusual, and yet I had discovered that there was a whole market in Japan with an aesthetic sense that mirrored mine. It gave me a lot of courage to start doing things the way I wanted to do them. And I proved to be right. A Distant Soil turned out to be one of the bestselling black-and-white comics of the 1980s, and here it is, still in print today. I actually was speaking to an editor from DC Comics about six months ago about how Japanese comics have become more popular and how the aesthetic sense that I always supported became more popular, and she came right out and said to me, "Colleen, you got the last laugh." And I went, "Yeah, I really do." I knew that there was something to it, that I wasn't just a total freak. If I liked it, and here was a whole country that liked it, it couldn't be a fluke, it couldn't be an accident.

SG: Were you surprised to see so many similarities between your work and Japanese comics?

CD: I was. As a matter of fact, I am part Japanese - not very much, you'd never know to look at me. When I've done work with Japanese clients, had meetings with Japanese clients, their response to that is, "Oh, it's because you're part Japanese. It's your ancestry calling to you." But I think that it really has more to do with the fact that most of the illustrations I admired growing up were the work of the Art Noveau movement. And, of course, Art Noveau grew out of exposure of nineteenth-century artists to Japanese woodblocks and Japanese pottery. I think that's where my sense of line came from, and where my aesthetic tastes came from - from a source that was ultimately Japanese, but through the back door, so to speak. So I was surprised, but I was happy. I was very happy to see this stuff. And I've been interested in it ever since. Every time I've gone to New York since then, I make these pilgrammages to the Japanese bookstore and I spend an hour or more in there, looking for more things to admire. So I was very, very happy to be exposed to this kind of material, especially in terms of storytelling technique and so on, becoming familiar with other creators who were doing epic-length stories like mine. At the time I was doing it, it was considered a very odd thing to do, and now, of course, everyone does it.

SG: I wanted to ask you a little bit more about your other artistic influences. I did notice an Art No- no- Now I can't say it (laughs) - Art Noveau, and also maybe a little of John R. Neill, the artist who illustrated the Oz books...

CD: No, not at all. There wouldn't have been any influence from John Neill, but definitely many of the illustrators from that era - people like Howard Pyle, for example. Howard Pyle was a major influence on my work when I was growing up. He was a very popular illustrator of the turn of the century. And he was a teacher; he had his own school, and he taught many of the finest illustrators of that generation, people like N.C. Wyeth. A lot of the Brandywine school of art hearkens back to Howard Pyle. He was a real inspiration to me, growing up. I also liked the children's book illustrator Tasha Tudor a great deal. I still collect her work, and I have to this day my copy of The Secret Garden from when I was a little girl. Boy, I have a lot of inspirations, I really do. (Laughs) Aubrey Beardsley, for example: someone who was heavily influenced by the Japanese imports. I haven't reproduced that many of them, but when I was a teenager I was doing these incredibly elaborate, decorative line drawings. It would take a week to complete one drawing. They were all in the elaborate style that Aubrey Beardsley would have used for books like The Rape of the Lock.

SG: What would you say would be your favorite or most influential manga?

CD: Eroica is my sentimental favorite, but I would have to say that the one that was most inspirational to me would have been The Rose of Versailles, by Ikeda. I absolutely loved that, and I love her work. I became this manic collector of her stuff for the longest time. I not only was interested in her work, but I was interested in her. It was a great thrill to meet Fred Schodt and get to talk about her, because he has some experience with her. It was just incredible to discover her historical dramas. I read his English adaptations of The Rose of Versailles, which were actually done as textbooks for Japanese students trying to learn English. I had a couple of those. And I remember having read a biography of Marie Antoinette from which a lot of the research for The Rose of Versailles was derived. It was a German biography. I was very impressed by the research and historical accuracy that was in it. I loved the costume detail, of course I loved the melodrama - how could I not? - and I loved the fact that these were artists and writers who took time with their characterizations and spent a lot of time developing the story. I was very, very impressed by that. It was a great influence on me. I think I discovered The Rose of Versailles very quickly after I first learned of Eroica, and that would have to be the one that impressed me the most of everything I ever read. There are certainly others that I think are brilliant, but that one hangs in my mind like a little jewel.

When we went to the Tezuka Museum when I was there as a guest of Tezuka, we were at Takarazuka, of course, which is where the Tezuka Museum is and where they have the Takarazuka Revue. They had just done a revival of Rose of Versailles. At the time, I had very long, curly blonde hair, and I was wearing a jacket that looked a lot like a seventeenth-century frock coat. And the whole time I was there, everyone was calling me Lady Oscar, and I was just thrilled. (Laughs) I thought that was just great, because that was my favorite character. It was not intentional, but it was very nice to hear! (Laughs) So that was really great for me - there I was at Takarazuka, and people were going, "Lady Oscar!" It was pretty cool.

SG: When was this?

CD: This was back in '96.

SG: Are you reading any manga right now?

CD: Yeah, off and on. I've been collecting, off and on, Genji no Monogatari, which I think is beautiful. Of course, I can't read a word of it, but I'm certainly impressed by the costume detail and everything... My Japanese is very poor. I took Japanese in college, but it's been useless to me for many years. I collected the manga Fake, which I thought was very funny. I don't know if they're still coming out with Eroica or not. I heard that they were coming out with new stories, but I haven't seen any new collections in a long time. I'm not really reading anything new right now. I'm filling in holes in my old stuff, but there is old stuff that I go back to again and again and again. Cypher was a book I really liked. I like the work of Minako Narita very much. There are some manga artists that I admire, and I go looking for their work, but I don't know what their names are. The kanji are too complicated. So that's kind of a drag.

There are some things that delight me about manga. Many of them disappoint me because, when I read them in English, the stories aren't nearly as impressive as the story I came up with in my head to go along with the pictures. (Laughs) But I did read some bootleg translations of Eroica, and I was very impressed with not only how clever the stories were, but how good the characterizations were, and how funny they were. And I've been thoroughly enjoying the translations of Banana Fish in Pulp. It's just terrific. I've always had a little love-hate relationship with manga because, like I said, so many times I look at the pictures and it seems so dramatic, and I impart great meaning into every panel, and then you read it in English and absolutely nothing is happening in the picture.

SG: Because it's shoujo, and there's a huge fuss over everything.

CD: Yeah. CLAMP is always amusing to me, because it seems like no matter what is going on in a particular panel, it looks like a life-or-death situation, and somebody may just be talking about their hair. (Laughs)

SG: There's sparkles, and there's always flurries of feathers, because it's CLAMP...

CD: Yeah. It's very funny. Getting to read Banana Fish...

SG: I'm really glad we're doing that one.

CD: Oh, yes. Banana Fish is great. And well-written... I've also been enjoying reading Tomoko Tamaguchi's work that's been coming over here, because it's so cute. I actually met her. We've been pen-palling for awhile. I think she worked as an assistant for Akimi Yoshida at some point. I may be misremembering this. But she and another girl worked for Akimi Yoshida, or something like that, and she got my address somehow and started writing for me, and we started corresponding. I thought, "I'll ask her to do a pinup in A Distant Soil, and see what happens." One of the publishers saw her pinup and thought it was great. They got in touch with her and started publishing her work in the United States. And it's so cute! It's really cute! I think Princess Prince was adorable.

SG: You wrote an introduction to the Call Me Princess graphic novel, didn't you?

CD: Yeah, I did, which I think pretty much sums up my experience with getting in touch with my manga side, getting to see it for the first time and going, "Wait a minute. Why are all these publishers in America telling me I can't do these things? Look, here's a whole country that's doing these things." That was incredibly exciting to me, to be exposed to this material. In fact, ironically, years later, almost all of the American inkers now ink with a pen, whereas when I got into the business they all inked with a brush and it was forbidden to ink with a pen. The only inker that was allowed to ink with a pen would have been someone like Terry Austin. I remember very specifically saying, "I ink with a pen," and my editor saying, "You shouldn't do that," and I said, "Well, Terry Austin inks with a pen," and he said, "Well, you're no Terry Austin."

SG: Ooo.

CD: And I'm like, "Well, no, and I don't have to be," and I'm inking with a pen to this day, and nanny-nanny-boo-boo to everyone else! (Laughs) I don't even think that publisher's still in business (laughs), so I got the last laugh.

SG: The shoujo manga industry is very female-dominated. Do you feel that affects the manga industry? There are more female artists in American comics than there used to be, but it's still a minority. Do you feel it affects the style there?

CD: Because there are so many women drawing comics? I'm sure it does, but, let's face it, women know what women like. If men knew what women like... (Laughs) I was about to make a dirty joke, but maybe I won't. (Laughs) If only men knew what women like, we'd all be happier today! I'm firmly convinced that men don't have a clue what women like to read, and I'm firmly convinced they don't care. And you know what? That's okay, because if they had their way we'd all like football, you know what I'm saying? And that's fine. But I've yet to see a comic book in the United States, in my entire adult life, being done by a man, that was of real, solid interest to girls or women. I don't know, maybe the Archie comics. There are a couple of comics that sell well to women, things like Strangers in Paradise, but nothing, nothing has been done in years and years and years and years in the American comics industry that could be considered a girls' comic. Not a thing. For better or for worse, I can't recall any comic qualifying as a comic for girls that was popular. If it doesn't appeal to men in some way, here in the States, it doesn't get published. Even when they publish comics about female superheroes, there's generally a certain amound of prurient interest involved. That's fine, and it's a free country, but...

SG: But it doesn't have much appeal to women readers.

CD: It doesn't have much appeal to women, no. Not at all. There are some comics that are being done that they call girls' comics, I guess; the Powerpuff Girls qualify. But I'd have to say that probably most of the people buying it are men... That's okay, but the girls' comics market really doesn't exist in this country. I'd have to say that half the readers on A Distant Soil are men, and I would be reluctant to market it as a girls' comic because my sales would tank.

SG: I think it's very unusual for a comic to get a 50% female readership here, much less an 80-90% female readership.

CD: Yeah. Whatever made it possible... We were told what happened in the Japanese comics industry that made it develop differently, and we were told about the women cartoonists who came in. I actually think Tezuka did start the girls' comics thing, with his...

SG: Ribon no kishi.

CD: Yeah. They had generations to get it right. In the Americas, we've spent generations dismantling it. And that's just the way it is.

SG: Okay, I guess that pretty much covers it. Did you have anything else you wanted to add?

CD: Oh, I don't think so. If you have any more questions, I'll be happy to answer them for you. I hope I've been useful.

SG: Oh, you've been wonderful, thank you. You've been very accomodating.

CD: Oh good! (Laughs)

SG: Well, thank you very much for a wonderful interview.

CD: You're very welcome, and thanks for considering me.