After years of working on smaller projects for Wildstorm and IDW, Fiona Staples has risen to the A-list of comic-book artists thanks to her work on the Image Comics series Saga with writer Brian K. Vaughan, scoring multiple Eisner Awards including “Best Painter/Multimedia Artist” last year and “Best Artist/Penciller/Inker” this year. Her stylish designs and nuanced characterizations on Saga make Staples the perfect artist to help Archie Comics reimagine its world for the relaunch of the flagship Archie title with writer Mark Waid, and she’s brought Archie, Betty, Veronica, and the rest of Riverdale into the present with some gorgeous visuals. The A.V. Club spoke with Staples about her design process, what Archie means to her personally, and how Saga allows her to evolve as an artist.
The A.V. Club: What was your introduction to Archie Comics?
Fiona Staples: They were probably put in my hand at a very young age because they were definitely the first comics I ever read and pretty much the only ones I had access to as a child. You really have to go out of your way to get into superhero comics or anything like that, and you can only really buy them at specialty comic shops, which is not the case with Archie, obviously; it sold at every grocery store and gas station. My parents just gave them to me and my brother and I’ve read them for my whole life.
AVC: How did you get involved with the Archie relaunch?
FS: I’d been doing some covers for them over the years, just a handful of them. Whenever they called me. And I had the time, starting with a Life With Archie cover around 2011 or ’12, which was the adult version of Josie And The Pussycats. I was introduced to the company by Alex Segura, who I had known from DC. So he was at Archie and had them give me a call, and it was always a really great experience working with them. They were a really cool company—the editors there had some really fun ideas—and then a few months ago, Mike Pellerito, the [Archie Comics] president, called me and told me that he had this really big secret, confidential plan for a relaunch of Archie and he wanted me to draw it. And I wasn’t sure I was going to have the time for it but, ultimately, I decided it was something I had to do. I couldn’t possibly turn it down so I managed to work it into my schedule.
AVC: What was the thing that told you that you had to do it? What’s the thing that attracts you to Archie and this world?
FS: A lot of it is the nostalgic appeal, to be honest. There aren’t too many properties that have that hold over me because I didn’t grow up reading Batman or Spider-Man or anything like that. So I didn’t grow up with the dream of drawing Batman or Spider-Man, but Archie is kind of that for me. [Laughs.] An icon of my childhood, and he’s changed so little over the years, I thought it was a really exciting thing they were doing with this reboot and exploring different art styles and different stories and different genres and all the new stuff they’re putting out these days. So, yeah, that’s what really appealed to me.
AVC: What have your priorities been for redesigning the characters? What have you been looking to for inspiration?
FS: I kind of took a cue from Francesco Francavilla’s work on Afterlife With Archie, which was one of the first new comics they did with a different art style and something that doesn’t resemble their house style at all. And I thought it really worked, I thought it was awesome how Francesco was able to really displace the characters, put them in a whole new context with different genres, different types of stories, draw them in a completely different art style and still have them look like themselves. So that’s when I first realized that they don’t need to be drawn in a house style to be recognizable and look iconic. So that made me more comfortable, I guess, with drawing them in my own style. But in doing the designs of these characters, I changed very little of their design. I just transferred them into my style, which alone is a pretty radical new interpretation of them. Taking them out of their old cartoony look and taking them in a different way. But I didn’t change much of their design when it came to their clothing or hairstyle or anything like that.
AVC: How much research do you do into contemporary fashion? How important is that to you when putting the characters’ looks together?
FS: I don’t think I needed to do a whole lot of research—it was just everyday observation that I’m doing all the time anyway. I just look at fashion blogs and Tumblrs and magazines for fun, so it’s something that’s always there and I’m always aware of, so it’s pretty easy to put them into contemporary styles. I didn’t do anything crazy with the fashion because they’re meant to be regular, everyday teens. Some of the characters, like Sheila Wu, I wanted to be a little bit more style conscious, a little bit more trendy. Betty, though, is kind of a tomboy, kind of on the verge of learning how to dress in a more feminine way, so I have her mostly in jeans and a baseball shirt. Same with Archie—just normal stuff like his classic varsity jacket with ‘R’ on it. I kept Reggie’s leather jacket and kind of gave him a greaser look; Jughead still has his sweater and his hat so there’s a lot of callbacks to their trademark looks and just minor updates of what’s in fashion.
AVC: How do you balance that classic Archie house style with a more modern world? How much do Mark Waid’s scripts help with that?
FS: Mark’s script is pretty much the basis for everything that I do. From the tone of the story to everything that’s going on in the background, it’s generally scripted. I didn’t worry too much about sticking to the house style, actually. In the beginning when I was doing a bunch of character sheets and sketches for them to look at, some were a little bit more cartoony and closer to the house style and then some were just completely my style and I sent them to Mark and to Mike and Stephen Oswald, our editor, and was like, “This is the starting point, let me know which ones you prefer, which ones to stay away from, and which ones you want to explore.” The only feedback I really got was, “Yeah, great! They’re really cool, we liked them all!” [Laughs.] I didn’t feel like I needed to stick to any house style; I thought, “Well, I guess doing my own thing will be fine. This is a re-telling, anyway.” So I kept a few little visual callbacks to the traditional design. There’s a subtle version of Archie’s weird hash marks in his hair. His plucky eyebrows, he kind of has a pointy nose, stuff like that. I tried to still make them look like themselves, but it would have taken me another two months to learn to draw them in the classic Archie style so I thought I would just go ahead and draw them in my own natural style.
AVC: Which of the character redesigns is your favorite?
FS: I’m pretty fond of Sheila Wu even though she’s a relatively new character I wasn’t very familiar with. She was pretty fun to draw. Mark is pretty conscious of making the cast of Archie a little bit more diverse than it has been. It’s a very white cast overall, but over the years they’ve added a lot of minor characters of various ethnicities and orientations that Mark has tried to bring to the forefront and diversify at least the main group of kids. Sheila Wu is Betty’s best friend in this version and is featured pretty prominently. She has a different style and colorful hair so she’s a lot of fun to draw. And Jughead as well, always a favorite. [Laughs.]
AVC: How is working with Mark as a collaborator?
FS: It’s amazing, actually, I think he’s, for sure, one of the best writers working today and I’m really lucky that I get to work with all these genius writers I’ve had in my career. Getting a script from Brian [K. Vaughan] or Mark is just so easy to work with because they just know what they’re doing and it’s easy to translate their ideas into visuals.
AVC: What has been your favorite thing about drawing Archie?
FS: I guess my favorite part has been just the amount of visual gags I get to do, especially starting in issue two. There’s a lot of fun slapstick humor and general goofiness and cartoony gags that I don’t get to do in Saga or anything else, really. So it’s fun to practice comedic stuff.
AVC: How important is it to you to diversify your output? You had been working on Saga for the last three years and Archie is something that is so dramatically different.
FS: It’s really important to me to stretch different muscles and try to do as many different things as I can so I don’t stagnate creatively. I’m really lucky with Saga because of the nature of the story. It can be so many things and we can go so many places with that. But one or two things we don’t get to do with that are teen drama and classic humor. [Laughs.] So Archie has got that covered.
AVC: Because you’re juggling both Archie and Saga at once, how has that changed your work ethic?
FS: It’s been pretty challenging, honestly. I’ve just had to work more hours, basically. I’m not doing any conventions this year and I don’t really have any weekends anymore—not very many days off. [Laughs.] But I knew when I signed up that there would have to be a few minor sacrifices to get it done and [Archie’s] only three issues so I think it’ll be worth it in the end.
AVC: Let’s jump in to Saga. I was surprised to see in recent issues that your name has appeared before Brian K. Vaughan’s in the credits. Was that his decision?
FS: Yeah, we’ve been alternating first billing from issue #25. So we take turns now. I think on all the odd-numbered issues, my name comes first, and on the even-numbered issues is Brian’s and, yeah, it was entirely his idea. I’d never even considered it, but he brought it up one day and he was like, “Hey, do you think we should do this for artist equality and all of that?” So I thought that was very cool of him.
AVC: Artist equality has become such a big talking point for very valid reasons, and I remember picking up #25 and thinking, “Fiona’s name is at the top of this. That’s so cool!” And you really are doing so much heavy lifting there. The characters and the environments in Saga require so much imagination. Where do you get the inspiration for those designs?
FS: Usually I just try to do something we haven’t done before to make sure each character is distinct and easy to remember. And a lot of it just comes from the script. I look for what the scenes require and where the story is going and just try to come up with a fitting environment. In our break, when I’m about to start sending story art, I’ll usually have a few long conversations with Brian where he’s like, “Is there anything particular you want to draw this year or locations you want to visit? Do you have any cool monster designs that you want to use?” Stuff like that. So we just had that conversation and I think we’re going to start incorporating more urban environments, more architecture, technology, all the stuff that I feel like I need to practice. [Laughs.]
AVC: That’s really cool that you get to choose how you want to stretch yourself, which I assume is not a luxury a lot of artists have.
FS: Yeah, Brian is very flexible that way with me.
AVC: How has it felt watching a book you co-created gather such an audience and serve as a gateway book for a lot of people?
FS: I don’t know, just extremely gratifying. I’m really, really grateful to our readers who decided to show it to their friends or give it to their mom or their girlfriend or husband because I’m pretty sure that’s how we got our readership—through word of mouth and people lending their books out. It’s been really amazing to see. I never thought a book this weird would reach this many people and I’m kind of continually surprised.
AVC: One random thing I’ve always wondered about is that there’s usually one panel on any given page of Saga that has a cutoff corner. Why?
FS: That’s just something I started doing in the very first issue because I thought it looked kind of sci-fi. [Laughs.] It made it look more sci-fi fantasy because I have very conservative layouts, I use very plain, white borders and black gutters and most of the panels are just squares so I thought, “Maybe I’ll jazz it up a little bit.” So it’s purely decorative just to add a little interest without being distracting.
AVC: But it is a really interesting detail that does gives it a sci-fi feel.
FS: Well, Battlestar Galactica, the TV show—all of their books and papers have clipped corners like that so maybe that’s where I got it from. Maybe that’s where I got the idea of, “Oh, yeah, in space all paper is clipped like that.” [Laughs.] They don’t have rectangles.
AVC: What is your reaction when you get to one of those graphic splash pages or a really devastating cliffhanger that Brian tends to give you? How much advance notice do you have? Are you just as surprised as the reader is when you’re getting the script?
FS: [Laughs.] I don’t get advance notice. I just get it when I get the scripts. And I like it that way because it makes it really, really fun and exciting to get a new script. So, yeah, my reaction is sort of childlike glee that I get to do something really gross or weird, followed by embarrassment. [Laughs.]
AVC: What is the biggest obstacle you’ve had to overcome in your career so far?
FS: Probably the big thing is what the majority of artists go through: fighting procrastination or anxiety at your own work and sticking to a schedule, which can be hard to do when you’re home alone all day with no one really monitoring you. Yeah, that’s the hardest thing to get right, but I think I’m there now or at least close enough to where I can do an almost monthly book on time.
AVC: What’s the biggest piece of advice you have for aspiring artists trying to break into the industry and people trying to last in the industry?
FS: I guess it would just be to try and reach a level of discipline so you can work even when it’s not easy and fun. Rather than trying to find a way to make everything easy and fun all the time, just forget about that and try to find a way to do it anyway even when it’s not enjoyable in the least and you’d rather be doing anything else because that might end up being most of your work day, when you don’t feel particularly inspired to do anything. But it’s the only way to produce enough work to be able to do this for a job.
That sounds a bit grim. [Laughs.] Maybe that’s too negative of a note to end on. [Laughs.] I’ll say that it’s definitely all worth it when you produce something that you’re proud of or even if you’re not especially proud of it, when you’ve drawn a whole stack of pages, that’s a particularly satisfying feeling. There’s nothing like it.