NYCC 2016: Colleen Doran Interview
Interview conducted by James Ferguson
Colleen Doran has been drawing impressive comics for years with work for Marvel, DC, Valiant, and more. Most recently, she adapted and illustrated Neil Gaiman's Troll Bridge as a graphic novel for Dark Horse Comics. I had the opportunity to speak with her in the comfortable press lounge at the Dark Horse booth at New York Comic Con.
James Ferguson: What drew you to Troll Bridge?
Colleen Doran: Well, I've been friends with Neil Gaiman since about 1989 and he began writing some prose short stories in the early 1990s that he faxed me. Yeah, faxes. We were working on Sandman and he would ask me what I thought about these stories. He said he'd like to see these drawn some day. He had sent me many stories, some of which I wanted to do more than Troll Bridge, but he said that he'd rather see me do Troll Bridge because he felt it would be more of a stretch for me. He wanted to see what I would do with it.
A few years later, I did it as a short story in the back of a comic I was doing for Image called A Distant Soil, issue #25. It was a little pen & ink short. I wasn't really happy with it and I didn't think eight pages gave it enough space. I festered about it for the longest time. I just didn't like it. Years later, I was looking at it and I said, “Man, Neil, I would love to give this another go,” and he said, “Go for it.”
I was working a new painting style that I did for Tori Amos Comic Book Tattoo and he really liked that style, so I told him I'd do Troll Bridge that way. Then I ended up doing it differently, but he liked that even better. So that's how that all came together.
|Click images to enlarge|
JF: What was the collaboration like between you and Neil for this?
CD: I did everything with regard to the adaptation. Neil gave me a pretty free hand and I think I was about as faithful as you can be. I only took out two sentences. Adapting it means not just figuring what to keep in and what to take out, but controlling the pacing and the visuals of course. He had seen the short I did and I don't think he was any more impressed with it than I was. He had given me free reign with that as well. Years later, when I said that I could make this even better, he said, “OK, let's see what you can do.” I started turning in pages and the reaction was very positive, so we just went from there.
Also, when I decided to throw out all the original paintings and start over, he was on for that too. Everybody was very supportive.
JF: How long was the overall process in creating the book?
CD: Five years. Between the time I said I would do it, getting the contract, and clearing out the time. I know it sounds weird, but I spent a lot of time thinking about writing it, but only spent about two days actually writing it because it meant changing Neil's prose into a script. The drawing and painting took a lot of time. Every page was at least three to five days. You can forget about doing a book in a timely fashion like that. It had to be fit in between all my other work. I did maybe four graphic novels while I was working on this. It had to be done in my spare time because every page was so laborious. You just can't crank that out like a comic.
|Click images to enlarge|
JF: How was your artistic process on Troll Bridge? It doesn't seem like a traditional pen & ink style.
CD: Every page is drawn in pencil and they're very meticulous and fully rendered. It's not like standard comic book pencils. They're tonal. A lot of people use tone differently than the way I do it. I used my pencil the way the old masters would use what's called silverpoint.
Back in the day before pencil (which is graphite), artists used chalk or metal point, which is gold, silver, or platinum. It is literally drawing with a metal wire. The paper is treated so that the marks will take and set. The silverpoint is silver wire drawn on this treated paper. You're literally drawing with something that is no bigger than the head of a pin. I sharpen my pencils down so that they are also no bigger than the head of a pin. If I were drawing in silverpoint, this would be even more difficult because you can't erase it, but you can erase graphite obviously. The look and delicacy of it is unsurpassed in the way people normally use graphite.
An artist like Alex Ross is going to draw a great swash with the side of the graphite and then smear it to get his tone. I don't. Every tone is created with hundreds of tiny strokes of a pencil that's about the head of a pin. It's crazy and nobody does it for a reason. It's not very practical, but it's the only way I think to get that very specific look and it's one I prefer. Instead of ratcheting up the PhotoShop levels so I bring up the pencil as if it were ink, I leave the pencil to look like pencil. Then I layer it and I paint digitally.
In some cases, and in only a few pages of Troll Bridge, I actually do an original abstract painting. They're oil emulsion on handmade paper with gold or silver leaf that is then layered in, and I paint on top of that in PhotoShop. For most of the book, it looks like water color, but it's not. There are no water colors in the book. It's a PhotoShop technique that I had to figure out how to do to look as much like water color as possible. I don't think the average person is going to look at that and see anything but water color. I didn't know how to do it when I started. In fact, I'm not a digital artist. I am now, but I had to figure it out. I had only done maybe one story digitally before this and that was like twelve pages.
JF: Is that the reason you decided to do this digitally instead of traditional?
CD: No, the editor asked me to. She said they wanted digital and I went “Holy shit. I don't know how to do it.” [Laughs] They were willing to wait until I figured it out. The Tori Amos Comic Book Tattoo job I did with the pencil, but I did it with hand painted abstract paintings layered on it with minimal digital paint on top of that. I did what I could figure out. For Troll Bridge, I had to learn how to paint the way I wanted it to look without knowing how to do it. Dark Horse was very patient. Diana Schultz and Daniel Chabon helped me out. It was very good of them. I hope to god it sells because they sure waited a long time for it. [Laughs]
|Click images to enlarge|
JF: Given the long and laborious process, would you consider doing another book in this style?
CD: Absolutely. I'm actually talking to Neil about another book. We're looking at the right situation. It'll be even more complex and difficult and experimental visually than this one. It will probably take less time to produce because I know things I didn't know before, but it will be very different than other comics. It won't technically be a comic, but it will have elements and it will be very complex. Neil wants to do it. I want to do it. We just have to pin down the rights.
JF: That actually leads me to my next question. Are there any other of Neil Gaiman's work that you'd be interested in adapting?
CD: I don't want to name the one I want because I don't want to jinx it, but I am working on American Gods. I'm very excited about that. I just found out about that recently. They want me to do it in the same style as Troll Bridge, so I have to start now even though it's not due until next year. [Laughs]
JF: How did the design for the troll come about? Does that come from Neil's prose and his description of it? It's a really creepy creature.
CD: Thank you. My original troll was meaner looking, but I wanted the troll to have almost a noble quality as well. I don't know if that comes through that he's actually got a sense of gravitas to him. His body language and his character make me think he's soulful. At the same time, he's terribly intimidating and scary. Neil talks about the troll as almost being this little troll doll with his gaunt hair and I definitely pulled that off. I went through five or six versions until I really got him. I was thinking of artists like Alan Lee and John Howe and Brian Froud when I was drawing that troll. I wanted him to be very classic. I didn't want him to be ridiculous and cartoony. I wanted him to be real.
|Click images to enlarge|
JF: It definitely comes across that way. I like how it seems to change over time and become less intimidating and more...almost sad.
CD: That's in the story. Neil talks about there are times where the troll seems to fill the bridge, all the way up to the top and there are times he's transparent or solid or shrinks down to the size of the man in the story.
JF: Who would win in a fight between the troll from Troll Bridge and the one in Three Billy Goats Gruff?
CD: Well, Neil's because it's written by Neil. [Laughs]
HorrorTalk would like to thank Colleen Doran for taking the time to speak with us. Troll Bridge is currently available from Dark Horse Comics.
Want to comment on this interview? You can leave one below or head over to the HorrorTalk Review Forum.