Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Becky Cloonan and Her Arsenal of Styles

“I wasn’t sure what I was going to do in college,” Becky Cloonan admits from the lobby area of her Brooklyn studio. “I thought I was going to be an animator, but then I dropped out. I started making mini comics and bringing them to conventions. One of the first people I gave a mini to was David Mack. He read it, and thanked me for it. I was floored, here was a professional creator who I looked up to, and who thought my comic was worthwhile even though it was photocopied. The next year I went to another con, and he remembered me and asked if I made a new book. It was great to feel like you’re part of a community where everyone is pretty cool.
Cloonan has since gone beyond being just a Xeroxed ashcan cartoonist, and proven her diverse artistic chops with the successful 2004 Vertigo mini-series, Demo. The twelve-issue anthology series, written by Brian Wood, tells the story of one character per issue with a unique ability. The series showcases Becky’s special ability to mimic different stylistic approaches each issue, giving the impression of a different artist each story.


“I think the styles are the same, but the techniques that I use are different,” she modestly says. “That’s because of the ashcans, because I always worked so differently each one. When we first talked about Demo, I knew it was twelve issues, and I knew there wasn’t any way I could draw 300 pages consistently, so I went with different approaches to each story. I think Brian wrote each story with a different sensibility, so I approached the stories as individually, as well.”

Demo features Wood’s insightful character-driven stories, from an awkward teenage girl who gets her every spoken wish, to a powerhouse forced back in with the old gang, to a break-up and goodbye told in the form of a mix tape. The stories range from horror to drama to humor, and Cloonan’s diverse hand works well with Wood’s varying narrative voices.
The team are now working on a follow-up series of six issues, all featuring new characters in solo stories.
“As far as the end of Demo, I think the powers got a little more ambiguous,” Becky admits. “It’s the same here. We are really exploring what makes a super power a super power. There are still some more traditional powers, but I think it’s a good mix.”
Between Demos, Becky drew close to two years’ worth of American Virgin, a Vertigo series written by famed writer Steven Seagle that just recently ended its run. Both Seagle and Wood gave Cloonan two separate script approaches to work from.
“Both are pretty different in how they write their scripts,” Becky notes. “With Steve on American Virgin, his scripts all started with ‘Page One, Panel One,’ and he would describe the emotions of the characters, and had anecdotes in the scripts that were wonderful to read. (One day, they should publish a book of script anecdotes from American Virgin, they were amazing!) It was very clear what I was going to draw and how I was going to approach it: it was very straightforward and organized.

“With Brian’s scripts, there’s a lot more wiggle room. He doesn’t always break the panels down, but gives a script with different beats in it. It’s obvious to me what the big panel breaks are, but there is space where I can add a panel or move them around.”

Becky was born in Pisa, Italy in 1983, and only lived there for about a year.
“A few years ago, after traveling to Greece, the guy at customs asked me why I was born in Italy,” she recalled. “So I told him that after a lot of thought, I felt that it was the best country for me to be born in.”
Growing up in New England, Becky’s first comics were issues of Silver Surfer. She can’t remember which ones, because her father read them to her as bedtime stories when she was a kid.
“A little bit later,” she added. “I started reading X-Men, and after that I started reading Ranma 1/2. When I learned that it was a girl who drew it, I was just amazed. There weren’t that many girls in comics at that time.

Becky hit her teenage years around the time manga comics came over from Japan and became more mainstreamed in American markets. When manga hit the shelves of comic shops and Barnes and Nobles everywhere, it brought on a new wave of female comics readers who may have also been submerged in animated Japanese imports like Pokemon and Sailor Moon.
“As much as I love X-Men,” Becky admits. “but when I read a Shojo comic that’s a little more girly—it’s nice to feel catered to, that it’s a story made for my gender.”
Manga has not only inspired a new breed of female comics creators (injecting a much-needed sentiment and approach to a predominantly male-produced medium), but has also brought with it a unique manner of storytelling.
“I’d say it’s the decompression, the way the comics are spaced,” Becky says. “Five panels on a page is a lot, generally speaking, for a Japanese comic. They’ll have like three pages of someone taking off their glasses. I think there’s just a broader range of storytelling. American mainstream comics are more compressed, and more stuff happens in each issue…I wouldn’t say every manga is the same, but I think it might be more cinematic. I’m just speaking generally here.”

The manga influence is most obvious in her online strip, Comic Attack, where Becky’s comics avatar is drawn with the trademark small nose and large mouth and eyes of the typical manga character. Or pick up her graphic novel East Coast Rising, about punk rock pirates, to see her manga style in full force.


Becky's collaboration with fellow artists Vasilis Lolos, Fabio Moon, and Gabriel Ba, resulted in a two-part mini-comic PIXU that blends their styles in a horror setting. The book is a follow-up to their (along with Rafael Grampa) Eisner award winner 5, which won for Best Anthology in 2007.
“It’s about a haunted house, and each one of us took an apartment in the house and told a story of a haunting from the tenant’s perspective,” Becky says. “They all collide at the end. It’s not as much an anthology as 5 was the previous year, but more of a whole story.”
Each of the four haunted tenants in PIXU –an obsessive-compulsive, an Old World grandfather and his granddaughter, a professor with a dark secret, and a woman unhinged by something that finds her in the basement –embodies a separate kind of horror, but all with a psychological element. PIXU doesn’t fully explain the hauntings, leaving the reader to speculate things possibly more horrible than the four authors had originally intended.

Dark Horse Comics just picked up PIXU for publication beyond the limited mini-comic of its first form, and approached the group about doing another project for them, this one more mainstream and with loads of pop culture cred: Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Tales of the Vampires.
“After Dark Horse had picked up PIXU, we bounced around the idea of doing something else together,” Becky reveals. “At the time Vasilis and I were the only ones with the schedule to do something new. I guess you could say one thing led to another.
“Since I was busy drawing Demo, it would’ve been hard for me to juggle the artwork on Buffy also, so I told Vasilis that I would write it. Fabio and Gabriel still got on the book’s alternative cover, too.”
Buffy The Vampire Slayer’s creator, Joss Whedon, revived the show in the form of a monthly comic book at Dark Horse a few years ago, allowing him to continue building the mythology and please legions of Buffy fans.
“I’d actually never seen the show, and I hadn’t read much of the comics because I didn’t know the show and wouldn’t understand them,” Becky admits. “When we started working on it, I took a crash course and watched a bunch of episodes on hulu.com, and read every single comic.”
Immersed in the show’s mythos, Becky took a social approach towards the Buffy-verse, and ran with the current state of vampires:
“The vampires have become more accepted in society, and that’s shifted the balance of power between the vampires and the slayers. I guess, in the new series, it all happens pretty fast, and my story is a chance to really take a step back and look at the situation and the current social climate of Buffy. Even though it’s non-specific, it definitely fits into the series. I think there is a place for it.”


Where several comic book artists tend to come across as one-trick ponies who are slaves to their set style, Cloonan has an arsenal of styles that all come out per project. The diversity of styles comes from her experimentation in ashcans. They may have started as a chance to get her work out there in the closeness of the comics community; as she started to gain work, however, she continued to do the ashcans as an exercise in form and sequential storytelling – for comics’ sake.
Another noticeable thing about Cloonan is her natural cartooning ability. While many train themselves to illustrate comics, her work is intuitive and natural; talking to her doesn’t elicit much focus on specific technique, but more on a narrative and directorial approach. Every year, she continues to explore new techniques and approaches in her ashcans and mini-comics, despite the heavy workload of comics coming her way.


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