Image Comics: Kurt, you've clearly got an eye for talent. What appeals to you most about Ben and Jordie's work?
Kurt Busiek: In Ben's case, the first time his work caught my eye was a pinup he did for the Emerald City con's art book—a rock band with a girl, a rhino, and a gorilla playing for an audience of animals. It had amazing energy and charm to it, but also strong drawing, great depth, and terrific animal portraits. You can see why I thought he might be good for AUTUMNLANDS, right?
There's also a ton of humanity to what Ben does—an odd choice of words in a book so full of animals, but he's got a really tough job, making them expressive and emotional without losing the realism of the animal faces. But through using the right angle, the right lighting, he really makes it sing.
As for Jordie, I can't take any credit for an eye for talent there—it was Jordie's eye for talent that brought her to the book. She saw Ben's art for our first issue on a visit to Portland, and immediately asked if she could color it. We, of course, were not dumb enough to say no.
Jordie's just got an amazing sense of mood. She doesn't just color a scene, she enhances it, making a violent scene more raw and brutal, making a pastoral scene more inviting, making the magic unearthly...I mean, Ben gives her great stuff to work with, but she builds on it in a way that makes it even stronger every time. Whether she's choosing to make a scene monochromatic and restrained, or a magical apocalypse like an explosion in a SweeTarts factory, she knows just what a scene needs. She sees more in the art than anyone else does, and brings it out in color.
IC: The covers for AUTUMNLANDS are striking, with an intriguing juxtaposition of white space and Dewey's detailed linework. What's the creation process like for one of these? Kurt, do you suggest ideas, or do you leave it to Ben to come up with the idea and composition?
KB: We'll talk over ideas, and I'll make suggestions, but mostly about what the subject of the cover should be. Ben then works out great-looking compositions and sends me a bunch to choose from. We talk them over, and then he draws a cover that's never quite what was in the sketches, but always powerful.
A lot of that white space comes from us talking about Sergio Toppi's artwork around the time we were about to do the second cover, and Ben enthusiastically embracing that sensibility as a way to go. He's been taking that influence in different directions of late, making it more and more his own, but we started with the idea of a Toppi sensibility and just kept rolling from there.
Ben Dewey: It's definitely a thing that requires some back and forth that generally starts with a prompt from Kurt. He'll say 'maybe a group of walrus mages dancing' or something of the sort, and it is my job to come up with some possible ways that might play out. Because I have to do them in advance of my knowing the story associated with them, they end up being more design oriented and abstract. The Toppi influence was something that we discussed early on and agreed on in the course of Kurt laying out his vision for the series. His work is even more pattern/shape-oriented and I'd like to try to angle towards that in the future.
Steve Lieber (my mentor and friend) is always reminding me that "negative space is a positive element" and it's nice to be obligated to explore that because I have a tendency to get a bit Baroque.
IC: Ben, tell me about working with Jordie. What do you like best about what she brings to the table?
BD: Jordie's input is essential to making the best book we can possibly offer.
She's as much or more of a storyteller as any other comics professional I've ever met. Her work is just as important to establishing calm, suspense, joy, sorrow, alienation, and the whole range of moods, as any film soundtrack. The properties of the comics form which seem like limitations from the outside (no sound/no motion) become strengths with the right coloring and Jordie is a person who excels at extending those boundaries out to new and innovative places. Her work allows what I do to carry more weight emotionally, imply movement, and heighten intensity of all the most intricate imagery because she makes choices that harmonize with the efforts that Kurt and I have put in prior to her receiving the foundational material.
On top of her value as a collaborator, she is a wonderfully sweet and giving person who is unremittingly professional and direct. I'm lucky to know her.
IC: How do you strike a balance between human features and animal features when designing anthropomorphic creatures? What aspects of the original animal do you find it's most important to replicate?
BD: I focus on the broader shapes and intrinsic features of a given species and preserve them as much as possible in the process of anthropomorphizing. I think of it like that old silly-putty trick where you press it on comics and pull it different directions to distort the form; you don't draw extra things on the putty, you manipulate what is already there. That being the case, I am careful about adding mammalian secondary sexual characteristics to reptiles (no boobs on snakes) or facial/other hair to birds/fish people (no eagle with a mustache and mullet) and vice versa. I keep to my rule-set for story reasons that Kurt may choose to reveal in the future.
IC: Ben, you've mentioned that Kurt will occasionally offer tips on composition or storytelling. What's some of the best advice he's given you?
BD: My favorite thing he's told me involves using movement between tiers as a reset for the reader's brain. If you keep a scene change on the same tier, it feels like you're showing things in a closer succession and that less time has passed. By bumping the scene or time shift down to the next tier, you give the reader a subconscious cue that they should separate those moments or locations.
"Leave room for dialogue balloons" is probably the most common note (sorry, J.G.!) It's true that artists should make that a part of their process. I'm trying to get better because it's a crucial part of story flow and directing saccades.
He's also great at explaining what sort of gesture and posture align with emotional intent. He's like a savvy film director; he knows what he wants to see and can explain how to get there. That's why the thumbnail review conversations are so important. We do some takes and in some cases, we do 'reshoots'! I'd be a total fool to think I had nothing to learn from someone with his level of experience, passion, and investment in comics. He's a fantastic collaborator because he always says, "if you think differently on this, tell me," but he hasn't been wrong yet on any storytelling suggestion. I'll be sure to laugh and point when I get one on him!
IC: There's clearly a lot of work going into the backgrounds in AUTUMNLANDS. How do you know when a background is finished?
BD: Like any choice on a page, I want to serve the story. If a background can help readers feel more invested in what's happening, then I want to push that as far as I can because I consider that information to be like a silent but omnipresent character. I think Kurt and Jordie feel that way too. I try to push information into the distance, creating depth like a Viewmaster toy, without losing relevance. Sometimes I'll drop it out for emphasis on an expression or a silhouette; those moments are meant to reorient the reader so they get a type of tunnel vision for the only object/character depicted. Once the reader's eyes have been successfully guided to the most important parts of the panel, I have to stop.
Steve Lieber once taped a note to my desk that said 'Stuff has to breathe' and I do my best to remember that too!
IC: While getting prepped for this interview, Kurt mentioned that the crash sequence in AUTUMNLANDS #1 began as a two-page spread and was reworked to a single page. One thing that's remarkable about that spread is the hand-lettered sound effect—is that thanks to Dewey or J.G. Roshell, who letters the comic?
BD: I did that! I don't do it a lot because I think of that as the domain of the letterer unless I have an exciting compositional idea based around the lettering or I know that it would be asking too much of J.G. to do what I won't do myself.
Friends of mine had a big influence on my trying that. I had been looking at a Star Wars manga that Dustin Weaver showed me that had great 3D-looking sound effects, the brilliant effects choices that my buddy/doppelgänger Chris Samnee makes, and the fun that Brian Hurtt was having with them on The Sixth Gun, and I couldn't resist! Ultimately, I go with my gut and make sure it is there to enhance the story. If it distracts, I'm doing it wrong. I was bummed when that spread got trimmed down but I'm really psyched that it has been restored and it's all the more reason for people to check out the trade.
I love being part of a team where all the participants have the same goal of serving the story and making a quality comic. I'm a lucky guy.
THE AUTUMNLANDS is available in a collected edition (VOL. 1: TOOTH & CLAW) and as ongoing single issues. THE AUTUMNLANDS #7 is out this Wednesday. THE AUTUMNLANDS #8, part two of the current story arc, is out 12/09.