Artist Unmasking: Fiona Staples
A 2010 Eisner Award nominated artist for her work on Aaron Williams' North 40 and a 2011 Shuster Award winner for Outstanding Comic Book Cover Artist, the Canadian-born Fiona Staples' brief career as comic illustrator has been one rich in collaborative talent and diverse productivity. From small, independent works onto coloring John Wagner's Button Man for 2000AD in the span of less than two years, Staples has gained notoriety and acclaim for her varied work on The Secret History of The Authority: Hawksmoor and North 40 for Wildstorm, Mystery Society for IDW Publishing, and, most recently, her covers or interior work for properties such as Jonah Hex, Superman, Batman, and T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents. The buzz and attention continues, however, as Staples announced her role as illustrator on the forthcoming Saga title with Brian K. Vaughan from Image Comics in 2012. I had the privilege to chat briefly with Staples at San Diego Comic Con about her life and career in comics.
I don't know much about your early life before comics, so can you tell me a little bit about your background? Was art something you pursued as a child and teenager, a passion born out of an influential art teacher or supportive parent?
Yeah, it was something that I always did and I was encouraged by my parents. I think all kids like to draw and I just kept doing it; I never stopped. When I got to high school, I decided I'd like to go to art college and somehow make a living out of it.
Was it always comics or just art in general during those early years?
It wasn't until I was older that I really understand how many options there were, how many different fields it was possible to go into. I had a vague understanding of art and what I would do with my art. When you're a kid and you picture being an artist, you picture wearing a beret and standing at an easel (laughs).
(Laughs). The influence of Warner Brothers cartoons I see.
It was in high school that I played with the idea, though, of doing comics.
Were there any specific artists you looked at and said, "That's what I want to do" or artists from whom you drew inspiration or influence?
Yep, when I was fifteen or sixteen, I was really into Top Cow, and that style of art. Especially when I learned there were other genres out there other than superheroes. Top Cow was putting out all this stuff I thought was really cool, science fiction stuff, action comics, and spy stories. That opened my mind a little bit. When I realized how many different types of stories it was possible to do and when I got into college, I worked in a comic store and saw the breadth of the medium.
And this was all in Canada, correct?
Yeah, I went to the Alberta College of Art and Design.
Were you primarily influenced then more by American comics artists or native Canadian comic illustrators, or was it a blend of the two? Something from Drawn & Quarterly, perhaps?
It's funny because I never really picked up on any of that indie, literary stuff done in Canada. A lot of Canadian artists were doing work for American publishers. It was mostly American comics for me and Japanese and European comics. I was really into Heavy Metal for a while.
Was it in college then where you learned about how sequential art worked, the rhythms and design of visual storytelling, or was this something you picked up on your own prior to school?
Not at all, not until I got to college. There were really encouraging, and gave a lot of support to people who were into comics. John Byrne actually went to ACAD in the seventies, dropped out, hated it (laughs). But they've come a long way since then and they're really into comics now. My major was visual communications and I took a narrative illustration class where the project was doing comics, so a focus on storyboarding and stuff, which was a good foundation to learn those aspects.
That seems like a rare experience for artists. Most I've spoken with lack that college training, let alone such a specialized focus in comics illustration. Do you find that as you advance in the industry that you still revisit or even rely on that university foundation?
Yes, definitely. And not just the technical stuff they teach you either. It's sort of a cliché, but they teach you how to teach yourself (laughs), how to be critical and how to look at your own work, to see where you need to improve and how to take criticism from others. The whole critiquing process is drilled into you in college. That's something that I keep going back to.
I always ask writers or artists what is the most important praise or criticism they've received in the profession from a peer or mentor as either a validation of what they were doing or an impetus to shift their approach. For me, it's amazing to see that instilled from the beginning.
Yeah, I think that's the most important tool at getting better. Learning how to have a discerning eye and good taste, whatever that means to you (laughs).
Because it was so specialized, though, did they expose you to other forms of art and storytelling beyond comics alone?
Definitely. The first year is a foundation year, so a little bit of sculpture or painting.
Do you find yourself ever going back to those other mediums or is it all illustration for you at this stage?
I'm trying to get back into painting. I did a lot of that in college and halfway picked up oil painting. I'm doing that a little bit more now, but it's not at the stage where I could do it professionally for a cover or interior.
I see. So, after college then, what was your break into the industry? Was it portfolio reviews at conventions or did the University have an "in" with publishers?
While I was in my last year of college I started working on my first series, called Done to Death. We had this sort of portfolio building class where we would put together whatever we wanted to do, so I started working on this comic. I worked with this writer, Andrew Foley, from Edmonton. We met on a message board for local creators and he sent me the script for Done to Death. It was five issues and the first issue was out by the time I graduated. That summer, in fact.
Yeah (laughs). So, we drove down to Comic Con in San Diego to promote the book.
So you never had to experience the horrors of a portfolio review then at a comics convention?
No. When I went in 2006, DC had this method where you'd make copies of your work and put them in this bin, and they'd call you back if they liked them. But they never called me back. I never got a review (laughs).
Strange. Is that something you remind them of when you do current covers or interiors for them? (laughs).
(Laughs). Yeah, they were just like "not for me."
Have you ever been on the other side of that equation, the judge or the reviewer of new artistic talent?
Actually, people have brought me things during signings to look at. I find it really flattering.
Well, that you've been an influence on them has to be validating for you.
The fact they'd value my opinion or that I could teach them something is a great feeling.
It shows that somebody is looking at your work critically and carefully beyond just comics being a disposable medium.
Yeah, it's great.
So along with Done to Death, was Elsinore something else that also made up your early endeavors into comics?
That's actually, wow. I had been in contact with a guy online and he wanted me to do some illustration for his book Elsinore, but I was still in school and I didn't have time. I showed him some of my work, though, and one of them was this triptych, three-panel design exercise from an Oscar Wilde play. He wanted to use it and I said go for it. He managed to cut them up and put them into panels to tell a dream sequence. I had actually forgotten about that one (laughs). Good digging.
How then did you make the transition from being at San Diego and showcasing Done to Death into your early work for Image, 2000AD, and then Wildstorm?
It wasn't a linear process at all. It was mainly things I was doing here and there. The coloring stuff for Proof (Image) came about because I knew Riley Rossmo and he's from Calgary and we went to the same college. He needed a fill-in colorist for a couple of issues.
Had you done much coloring at that stage and were you working traditionally or digitally?
I had done a lot of coloring at that point. It was digital, in Photoshop. But in San Diego, I had met artist Frazer Irving, and I began doing some coloring work for his project Button Man for 2000AD. Neither of these books though was really connected to Wildstorm. It came about because Andrew had found a manager to represent Done to Death in Hollywood. It got into the hands of Michael Dougherty, who was a writer on one of the X-Men films and Superman Returns, and he had this movie coming out called Trick 'R Treat that he'd written and directed, and wanted turned into a comic book. So, after he'd seen Done to Death, he hired me to do that and it just happened to be Wildstorm who published it. It was a full issue. It gave me a good relationship with Wildstorm and my editor, Scott Peterson, who gave me some follow up work on Hawksmoor and North 40.
So it was a testing ground for you at Wildstorm then?
Were you working completely digitally by that point then or did you have a hybrid workflow?
Not yet. Trick 'R Treat was the last thing that I did was drawn in pen and ink, but colored digitally. The next series was Hawksmoor, which was on a really, really tight schedule. I had to turn around a fully colored issue in four weeks for six issues, so I thought there's no way I can do this unless I go digital. Frazer lent me his Cintiq to use. It was my first time using it. I took to it right away and it wasn't too steep of a learning curve.
That's pretty impressive. I've only seen one and I was amazed at how hot the screen was to touch.
Maybe it's just the display model that's working overtime because I don't notice it on mine. A lot of artists, though, have tried it and don't like it, which isn't a comment on their ability or skill level, but it's just not for everyone.
Since you've worked digitally for so long, do you find yourself limited by the environment and miss, say, the happy accidents that would occur with traditional illustrator tools?
I think it's all in your technique and how you draw. I never over render my work.
No, not at all, and as a matter of fact, if I hadn't known you were a digital artist, I wouldn't have guessed it since Mystery Society and Jonah Hex look so much like traditional brushwork. For me, that's the best type of art because it leaves it open.
I don't know. The tools I use in Photoshop are directly parallel to those I would traditionally use.
So do you create your own textures then?
Yeah, sometimes. I'll put down a watercolor texture and scan that in to use digitally. I don't think there's anything I could do better traditionally than digitally and I think that's because I've spent so much time developing my digital skills over the past five years.
Is there any desire then to ever work traditionally on a comic project?
If there wasn't a deadline (laughs), then yeah. I guess I'm not too sentimental about traditional media. Working in Photoshop is very efficient. Whenever I sketch I use a pen or a pencil, but all professional work is done digitally. I'll sometimes do the thumbnails in pencil just so I can leave the house sometimes (laughs).
That's good (laughs)! Do you read your own published work?
Sometimes (laughs). I'll flip through it when they send it to me mainly to see how it prints.
Well, since comics are such a collaborative process and you worked early on with people like Ray Fawkes or Mike Costa, for example, what did those experiences teach you about story development, progression, and your role in the process beyond just drawing what's instructed in the script?
I guess I was just lucky to work with writers who were willing to keep up communication and have a lot of back and forth. They let me offer my own ideas.
Well, for somebody like Fawkes, who is also an artist and I would guess has a very visual sense of scripts, do you find that working with writers who have that background or experience are better for you as a collaborator?
Yeah, it tends to go really smoothly when that happens. Working with Brian Wood was like that. He's a very visual person. He's a designer. It's obvious he's visualized the page already when you see the script. He makes that really clear. It makes the layout process really easy and pretty smoothly in general.
In terms of all the work you've done, there's the horror genre, the spandex aspect, westerns, and even action adventure. Is there one that appeals to you the most?
I really enjoy doing horror stuff actually. A lot (laughs). I don't have any particular affinity for superheroes. It's not something I'm really interested in doing.
You have a very innovative take on them though. I think of your cover work for Superman Batman, it's such a different interpretation. Do you think that because the superhero genre is so static and unfriendly to change, that perhaps that's why they don't appeal to you as an illustrator?
I don't know really. It's not that interesting to me, really, I guess. They usually are not the type of characters I go for. Too many clichés and all the things that go along with them, such as the costumes. I don't really get it. I understand why they wear spandex, but I don't see why they still have to today. You're limited by a lot of things when dealing with superheroes. There are constraints from the fans, the publishers, and the companies who own the characters. There are the decades of history that bind the characters. It's possible to be innovative with them, but it's a struggle.
Well, you obviously want to push yourself to be better, but there's only so far you can go with them.
Yes, and in general it's more interesting to deal with original characters than someone else's.
If you were going to do an original, creator-owned project, would it be in horror?
I would love to do another horror book.
Would you want to script anything yourself or would you prefer to remain on the illustrator side of the equation?
No, I'm not really much of a writer. Maybe if I worked on it a little bit, I'd be able to script something. It appeals to my vanity (laughs), but I don't have the writing chops to be able to pull that off. I have a lot to learn about writing before I do that.
Do you see yourself then wanting to do a creator-owned horror project that isn't tied to a brand or somebody else's designs?
Yes, I'd love to do another project with Steve Niles. I'm actually starting a new series that'll be announced tomorrow [Saga had not yet been announced when this interview occurred].
Oh, that's great, congratulations.
Thank you. It's an ongoing series, creator owned. It's not horror, unfortunately, but it's sci-fi fantasy which is great.
Is there one title that stands out to you when you look back over what you've produced as something that signified an evolution in your style and growth or was very important to you?
I don't think I've done it yet. I haven't been doing this for very long.
With the Eisner nomination and Shuster win, though, which are great validations, do those works stand out or hold extra value?
It's flattering to get attention for something like North 40, which I thought flew under the radar for most people. To find out it was nominated was a thrill. I was shocked. It's pretty oddball. And the Shuster win wasn't for anything specific, but for work done in 2010.
Since you spend so much time creating comics, do you still enjoy reading them regardless of whether they're mainstream or independent?
Yeah, to some extent. It has to be good, though (laughs).
Are you drawn more to books visually because of your training?
Definitely. If I don't enjoy the artwork, I can't enjoy the book. Sometimes the story can be enough for me to get into, but usually I buy what looks good. What can I learn or steal from them (laughs)?
I see. The secret is out (laughs). Well, would you consider yourself a disciplined artist then and do you set new standards and goals each time to take on a project to challenge and push yourself forward as an illustrator?
I try to stick to a schedule, but it doesn't come easily. I usually double my workload as a deadline looms (laughs). Probably like most people, I would imagine. You have to look at everything else that's out there. That's how you improve your taste, how you see what's good. You study it and then go back and give your own work a very hard look to see where it is and where it needs to be. It's something I try to do constantly.
In your career, what would be the greatest praise or criticism you have received from either a peer, mentor, or fellow creator that has either changed the way you approach your work or affirmed your commitment to the profession?
Wow, that's interesting to think about. It's not just one person, but various people, especially when I was starting out, who would say, "Wow, your work looks like so-and-so" or "Ben Templesmith." I'd get mad because I thought I was really original (laughs). In the end, though, it gave me the drive to seek out other influences, not just the one or two I really liked. To see what else what was out there and expand my horizons. Take in a greater variety of art and media to see where I needed to be.
Does most of your inspiration then come from comics or do you pull from outside the profession?
There are a lot of comic artists I really admire, but also a lot of painters and classic illustrators. Animators especially. That's what drove me to find other influences and create something that was truly unique.