Becky Cloonan on self-publishing, creative obstacles, and Gotham Academy
Photo by Mauricio Molizane De Souza
Photo by Mauricio Molizane De Souza

Becky Cloonan on self-publishing, creative obstacles, and Gotham Academy

A multifaceted comics creator discusses formative experiences, new endeavors

Everybody has to start somewhere. In Firstieswe talk to some of our favorite pop-culture figures about the many first steps along the way to their current careers.

As a writer and artist of independent and corporate comic books, Becky Cloonan has seen the industry from a variety of angles, garnering critical acclaim and awards for her atmospheric artwork and haunting stories. She is nominated for a “Best Single Issue (Or One-Shot)” Eisner Award this year for her self-published Demeter (she won the award last year for The Mire), and in October, Cloonan will be taking on her highest-profile writing assignment to date as she launches a new DC Comics series: Gotham Academy with co-writer Brendan Fletcher and artist Karl Kerschl.  

First comic book she read

Becky Cloonan: I actually remember this really vividly. It was a Silver Surfer annual from 1988 and it had the Super-Skrull on the cover and Silver Surfer and some blond dude. I can’t remember his name [Ikaris of The Eternals —ed.]. And my dad was really into Silver Surfer, so he would buy these and read them to me, but we didn’t get all the issues in continuity. So you’d get one and then you’d get one a few issues later. So I was constantly having to imagine what happens in between the issues. And I feel like that might be how I got into comic books, but also storytelling and wanting to make comics, from being a really young kid. I was 8 years old at the time when I was reading these, and I just loved Silver Surfer.

First comics creator she regularly followed

BC: I remember being enraptured by Jim Lee’s X-Men #1 cover. And that was the first artist that I was like, “Jim Lee, I’ve got to read everything he does.” And X-Men was the first comic that I really followed on my own. I got really into manga as well, so I remember reading Ranma ½ when that was coming out in single issues. Those two books really informed everything from when I was a kid. Even to now, you can still kind of see it.

AVC: How did your comic tastes change as you grew up?

BC: As I grew up, you’re given different things by people. When I got into high school, I worked with a guy that was really into indie comics. I was still reading basically X-Men and manga, and he was like, “You’ve got to read this Dark Knight Returns. You’ve to read this book Kabuki.” It’s crazy. He was giving me all these darker books, more mature books. They were just out of your line of sight. You’re just unaware of it until someone slaps you in the face with it. And when I went to college in New York, you’re just surrounded by culture.

I went to school with Farel Dalrymple, James Jean, Tomer Hanuka. Incredible. Nate Powell. So the people I was surrounded with at school—who were going to school at the same time—it was just phenomenal. I was always trying to raise the bar. They were self-publishing a book called Meathaus back in the day that I did some stories in. So going to school in New York and meeting all these people, [School Of Visual Arts] was a good school, but it was really meeting classmates and always trying to learn from them and up your own game. Hopefully trying to challenge yourself, but just being exposed to all these new things as you get older.

First piece of art that affected her on a deep emotional level

BC: That’s a really difficult question. And I remember going to the library when I was a kid—you just get dropped off there because it’s something to do—finding all these crazy books. There’s books on Greek mythology that I was obsessed with, but I remember constantly flipping through Paradise Lost, which was Doré, I think. And those images—it’s just Lucifer with his hand on the rock. All the images, they’re so stark. Black and white. It’s so dramatic and so powerful. I remember as a kid getting lost in that book. I recently saw it again, another copy of it, and it was the same reaction as when I was a kid. It’s weird how those things kind of stick with you.

AVC: Who would you say are some of your major creative influences in terms of art?

BC: In terms of art, when I started getting more into inking and more into comics, more serious about it when I was in college, I remember watching a lot of old black and white, specifically expressionist, films. A lot of Fritz Lang and Carl Dreyer. These films kind of blew my mind because, first of all, they’re so creepy. But then on the other hand, their use of black and white was so stark and smooth. It was probably the film quality. They didn’t have the shades of gray, and some of it’s just the imagery. But when I started inking and drawing my own comics, I was taking a lot from that. Everything I’ve ever done I basically feel some Fritz Lang in anyway, but that’s always been a big influence of mine creatively.

First self-published work

BC: All through college I think I did 10 or 12 mini-comics. So in three of four years, I was constantly pushing these things out, and I’ve tried to do a new self-published book every year. And whether it’s with friends or just on my own, it’s always been something that I try and strive for, even though it’s extra work and kind of a headache at this point. That’s been something that kind of stuck with me.

AVC: What is that process like with your self-published books? 

BC: It takes a few months to do because it’s always in between pages of my other book. And obviously, I fall behind on everything when I’m trying to get one of these things done. It’s one of those—I feel like I’m compelled to keep making them. The first one I did, actually, when I started doing this on a larger scale, was called Wolves, and that was back in 2011. I was doing a job, and it just didn’t start. I was supposed to get a script and I never got it. So I had a few months of scrambling to find another job. So I decided to self-publish something while I had this downtime. So I did that book Wolves and put it out myself. I sent it to all my friends, I would bring it to conventions, and the first print run was a thousand, and I think I sold out in like a month. It was ridiculous. So then I just reprinted it again, and I think until now, I’ve printed 7,000 copies of that book. It’s been a few years. And then every year, I’ve done a new one. And then last year, my book The Mire won an Eisner Award for “Best Single Issue.” So I was so honored because it was just a little thing that you put out yourself. You never think that it’s going to reach that many people.

First crowd-funded project

BC: It was weird. When I did Wolves, I just fronted the money to pay for a thousand books. And then I had put up a little store online so people could buy it. And that’s how I funded the second printing—just through people buying it. And when I did The Mire, I kind of did the same thing. I was like, “Well, people preorder comic books all the time. Why can’t I just do that with my self-published book?” So of course I put up preorders, and I also had a sketch edition for an extra 20 or 30 bucks. And I was able to pay for the printing within the first two days of putting the book up there.

It’s actually become viable financially for me to self-publish. I always print a few extra and try to send them out to people who I know would put the word out, and give a bunch to my friends. But it takes a lot of extra time and effort. And when I was living in New York, I had to save. So my closets were filled with books. Any kitchen cabinets that were counter and below, that was also just books. Underneath my bed, underneath my coffee table. Everywhere you go, in my whole hallway—you couldn’t walk through my hallway because it was filled with books. You had to go around through the kitchen. So it took over my life in kind of a good way, but I would have dreams about my floors collapsing under all the weight because you’re constantly surrounded by, and aware, that this is what you’re doing.

Every week, my post office hated me. I didn’t have a very elegant shipping method, so I was just going to the post office for all these things and having to print out and mail all these labels myself. It was taking way too much time. So when I came up from Montreal—I share a studio with Karl Kerschl now. He self-publishes a book called The Abominable Charles Christopher, and we were able to combine forces and consolidate things. It’s a learning process. You’re constantly trying to refine it and tweak it and just make it run through there because there’s always somebody who’s going to be, “I didn’t get my book,” or, “I got the book but it was missing a sketch.” And you’re constantly having to go back and forth, and it takes a lot of extra time. But I think it’s worth it.

First corporately published work

BC: Jennie One with Brian Wood. That was my first published work. I don’t know if I would say corporately published, but it was still small press. It wasn’t for another few years when I was making a living drawing comics, but Jennie One was my first real published work.

AVC: What have you learned while collaborating with other creators?

BC: Well, when I first started working with Brian Wood, he was like, “Okay, now you have to draw all these cop cars and here’s a tank.” And I was like, “I don’t know how to draw these things.” I don’t want to draw cop cars. He was throwing things at me that I would have never thought I’d ever have to draw, nor would I have ever made myself draw. So in that respect when you pair yourself up with a writer, even when Brian first approached me to work with him, all of his stories resonated with me on an emotional level. So I was invested completely in these books. But at the same time, you’re like, “I would never write this. No cars are in my stories. None.” Because I just don’t want to draw them. So you really challenge yourself working with a writer, and you really always have to push yourself. And they’re going to make you better.

And the same thing with being a writer. I wrote a graphic novel a long time ago—2006, I think. I did [East Coast Rising] for Tokyopop. And that was my first big turn at writing for myself. And since then I didn’t do anything, really, until I did Wolves. And that’s been a learning experience—and not just learning—but the confidence levels. My confidence was so low when it came to my writing. When I draw, I can analyze my art and pick it apart and know where I could be better, and I know it’s just a matter of practice. I’m comfortable with the medium. But when it comes to writing, it’s different. I don’t have that level of comfort and confidence in my ability as a writer, so after three short stories that were pretty successful, I think I have the confidence now. And when Mark Doyle approached me about doing a book for DC, for Gotham Academy, I was like, “Yeah, I can do this.” I think I can write an ongoing, I can handle it. And it’s taken a few years to get to that point.

First creative challenge she didn’t know she could overcome

BC: That’s hard because I don’t know if I’ve ever had a challenge, where if someone gives me a job, where I don’t think I can finish it. I think most of my challenges, if you look at man versus nature or man versus—it’s always like man versus himself. It’s always the internal struggle more than a struggle over a particular job. It’s always, in the end, just me doubting myself and just having to overcome that. There was some job that you’d get on, and I did a project for Range Rover a few years ago, and it was kind of fun and there was a lot I learned about it, but while I was doing it, I was like, “I just want to quit.” But you can’t.

AVC: What advice would you give to aspiring creators?

BC: I would just say make something every day. Everyone says that, right? But it’s true. If you don’t create anything, you just sit around thinking about creating something. Or making excuses why you can’t start on something. There’s no excuses. Don’t be precious about your ideas because you’re always going to have another one tomorrow. The ideas I’m working on now aren’t the ones I thought I was going to do in high school or even in college. I would just say, jump in, and always put 100 percent into what you do.

First exposure to Batman

BC: That’s got to be the animated series, strangely enough. I think I was like 12 when that first came out, so that was in the midst of my obsession with Silver Surfer and other Marvel books. That was my first exposure to Batman. And then when I got a little bit older, I was reading “Hush” and The Long Halloween, Dark Knight Returns. But it all started with the animated series. Whenever I think of Batman, I think of that theme song and the animated sequence.

AVC: What are the things that attract you to Batman as a character and the Bat-universe in general?

BC: Besides just being iconic and dark, it has a very noir feeling to it, which I always loved. And the mystery of it. He’s a crime fighter, but he’s also a detective. He’s like a science crime fighter. So no matter what, he’s like Sherlock Holmes. I think it’s the same deal, but with a little more than secret identities. There is a romance to it. He’s a very ironic kind of hero too. He’s this broody, stormy Bruce Wayne, and he’s got this tragic past. All that kind of combines and makes for this perfect storm of a character. Batman is a great example of how different creators can come on board and create an icon, because when you look at Paul Pope’s Year 100 versus “Hush,” they’re two completely different stories and different styles, but they both feel like Batman. It’s like everyone’s got a Batman story in them, and he’s just the perfect vehicle for that. And that’s why he’s stood the test of time, I think. And he has a great silhouette too. That really helps. The little bunny ears.

AVC: How did it feel being the first female artist to work on the main Batman title?

BC: Oh, man. I didn’t even know I was the first woman to draw Batman until after it happened. Thank God, because I don’t know if I would have enjoyed that pressure. I almost didn’t even take that job, because I was moving that month and I was going to HeroesCon back in June, I think, a few years ago. And after I found out, I had the same reaction as everybody else. That can’t be true. It’s got to be someone else. But there had to be a first, and it happened to be me. It feels good, even if it isn’t something that’s going to be on my tombstone. It kind of shadows everything else—all the other accomplishments that I do are like, oh yeah, and first woman to draw Batman. It’s nice. It’s nice to be a part of history like that. But it’s also a little sad that it’s taken so long to happen.

AVC: How are you incorporating your favorite qualities of Batman’s world into Gotham Academy? What is the general tone of the series going to be?

BC: Well, the tone of it has definitely got some Harry Potter. It’s got some Nancy Drew feelings to it. There’s a lot of mystery. We’ve pulled from the idea Scott Snyder really touched on in his “Court Of Owls” run, this story that Gotham has this secret history that we don’t know about. And Gotham Academy takes that ball and runs with it. There’s this really old building. It’s a prestigious boarding school. All these kids are going there, and it’s definitely a coming-of-age story. They’re going to be discovering different things about the school, different things about Gotham, and that’s a big part of it.

First impressions of Brendan Fletcher and Karl Kerschl

BC: I knew of Karl’s work and Brendan’s work before I met them. Karl, from Teen Titans: Year One. I remember getting that in the comp box and just being floored a few years ago. And Brendan Fletcher and Karl worked on The Flash for Wednesday Comics. I remember reading that and just being like, “Holy shit.” But we didn’t meet until a few years ago up in Montreal. That’s where we all reside right now. Now I share a studio with Karl and I look up and I see the right side of his face. And the three of us, we’ve got a lot of similar influences.

We almost share a hive-mind, it seems. And our ideas from what we want out of a story are always along the same lines. So for Gotham Academy, it’s almost a perfect storm. We almost finish each other’s sentences, and anytime one of us throws an idea out there, it’s like, “Yes, that is it. Exactly.” There’s never been a time when one of us feels off the mark. And the three of us are a good series of checks and balances too. With Brendan and I co-writing the book, we’ll cover the plot and then show it to Karl. And then Karl will come in with a series of questions about characters’ motivations. “I don’t feel like this is genuine,” or, “Why don’t you go re-work this scene?” And we all agree. There’s no ego. There’s no arguments. It’s good. We make a good team, the three of us.

AVC: What are the team’s goals for the series?

BC: It’s really focused on a younger age group. Our two main characters, Olive Silverlock and MAPS Mizoguchi—it’s these two young girls. It’s MAPS’ first year at Gotham Academy, and Olive is a year older than her, so she looks up to her like an older sister. But their relationship has gotten a little rocky lately, so the first story arc is really a coming-of-age story. They’re learning how to be friends again and really struggling with their relationship personally. But then they’ve also got what might be a ghost in the north hall of Gotham Academy, so there’s this bigger mystery. But inside of that are interpersonal relationships between these two girls. Everyone goes through that when they’re a kid. You have the people you’re friends with, and then you fall out of friends with them and you’re not really sure why, and that’s a struggle. It happens all the time—growing apart. There’s a lot of that.

Karl is knocking it out of the park and really brings these characters to life. There’s a lot of the high school drama and romance, but then it’s also set against these mysteries of what’s happening at this school. It’s in continuity, too, so some of the events that happen affect what happens at the school. That’s been really cool, that we get to play in the world directly and not just exist in a bubble. So it really is there in Gotham, and things that happen really affect these kids. We have years of material, so I really hope we get to it because the characters, they start out really young, but we have plans for all of them within this universe.

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