Making Magic: Amy Reeder Hadley on Madame Xanadu
Amy Reeder Hadley on Madame Xanadu
Amy Reeder Hadley cut her teeth in the comics' industry on her Tokyopop series Fool's Gold. After the second volume of the series, Hadley moved from OEL manga to collaborate with Matt Wagner on his return to Vertigo with the Madame Xanadu series, reviving the character from her DC origins, and bringing her to the more sophisticated world of the Warner Bros partner company. With a crystal clear storytelling style, and soft, distinct line work, Amy is one of the freshest visual voices working today. We talked to Amy about her experiences in moving into mainstream comics, her collaboration with Matt Wagner, and her favorite parts of drawing.
Newsarama: This is a monthly book, 22 pages, versus your 100+ page graphic novel. How does the pacing differ, both for your workload, and for the actual project? Amy Reeder Hadley: Well, artistically the way I approach it is pretty different. I'm not writing the story when it comes to Madame Xanadu, but there's a faster pace you put into each page. People get their twenty-two pages a month, and you want it to feel like enough for them. With a graphic novel, you're really giving them a sum work of art. Also, I sort of panel things differently. With a graphic novel, physically, it's so thick, so you can't read anything that goes towards the spine. I always make sure I have nothing that goes into the spine, just so you don't have to break the book. And as far as the workload goes it's definitely the most different part. Once you get a page started, you can't really stop. The good part about it is that it is actually a monthly goal. With a graphic novel, there are sort of monthly goals, like to try and get a chapter done a month, which is about thirty pages, but it's difficult to be able to do that. When you start a book, and you know you've got to draw 160 pages, its hard to start to draw, and to motivate yourself. You know the deadline is so far off that the main, important deadline is that final, printing deadline. I had a pretty tough time with that, and what's been nice about doing a monthly book is you always have people you're working with, and you always have deadlines that are real deadlines, y'know, because there are things constantly being published. One thing that I really like about doing monthlies is that I constantly have new art to show people. Whereas with the original graphic novels, no one sees anything from you for a whole year. It's been really cool, because they can see the growth. It's almost like, they're more up to date as far as seeing the level that I'm at, instead of if I were on a graphic novel. NRAMA: If that is the most rewarding aspects, then what are the biggest challenges in working on an ongoing Vertigo book? ARH: Well, I guess it'd be just to keep going, keep staying creative, and making it new. I've found usually when I've had a break, and come back to do something, or do something new, I always have this big jump, artistically. I think that might be the biggest problem, just making sure the quality is always good. I'm a big believer in not letting quality be sacrificed no matter what, and doing an ongoing monthly series is so taxing that the focus really is just getting things done on time, that on my end it's really just being sure that the quality is always there. NRAMA:One of the things that is readily apparent in Madame Xanadu, and something that makes it stand out from other books, is that, clearly, your art has a very strong feminine quality. It is something that, if you read a lot of books you can notice it there, but it is still difficult to quantify or pin down. Do you think you can describe how you realize that feminine quality in your work? ARH: Honestly, I think its just a matter of what you focus on in the art, what you're better at. Because I definitely have my own weaknesses, and things I don't probably pay enough attention to, and therefore I'm not as strong at those. Whereas I have other things that I pay particular attention to, that you might not if you were the typical, male comicbook artist. I don't want to make any generalities, but the things that I'm strong about, that I think are maybe because I'm female, are things like drawing children, for instance. I probably pay a little more attention to them. And, I can draw women better than I can draw men, and, like, hair better than armor, y'know what I mean? I've found that there are a lot of things like that, where just, my goodness, I struggle with something so much, and for others it comes as second nature. Like, I was trying to draw a lot of billowing smoke, and it came out so cute! It didn't look scary or intimidating at all, it was all perfectly round and everything. I actually had to go and look at different comicbooks, that happened to be drawn by men, to figure out how to draw smoke that was dynamic, and not, like, the pretty clouds you draw as a kid. (Laughs). But yeah, it is probably just the things I focus on. NRAMA: That's why I ask, it is such a gut, emotional response. It is sort of nebulous, You can definitely sense it, but like I say, hard to quantify. ARH: And you know what's funny? I think that one of the reasons its pretty distinct with my stuff is that, I wasn't really ever planning on being a comicbook artist. I never read them as a kid, and I really grew up- well not in a totally girly world, but I was also never a tomboy. So it really is a second nature thing, and I think that's why it looks so unusual to people. I haven't even really spent that much time in the whole culture of it, to ever feel like I was outnumbered, and needed to belong. NRAMA: And how has that transition been, going from your own work on Fool's Gold, to both work for hire, and “mainstream,” comics now at Vertigo? ARH: It's just been a whole lot harder. Of course, because of that, its a lot more rewarding. But when I'm writing my own stuff, I can at least picture it in my head, or at least I could picture it without research. When you have something written by someone else, it's their vision, and you have to translate it into yours. There's so much research you have to do for that, especially since Xanadu is so historically based, there's just a ton of research as far as that goes. So it's a lot more work, but it also really forces you to improve a whole lot faster, and expand your horizons. It's been a really interesting transition, and now that I look back, if I had done everything my way, and continued to do high school dramas, (because maybe thats what I was going to do), I might never really grow that much. So it's been cool to work for the “corporate,” world, and with this story in general. Really cool. NRAMA:That leads to my next question; really basically, going from your previous work- slice of life, high-school drama, and now diving so fully headfirst into a whole fantasy epic, with the scope of Camelot, Ancient China, etc, how has that been, just in terms of drawing completely different things? Especially given that you aren't coming from a heavy mainstream comic-reader background? ARH: Like I said, I try and make smaller goals. I'm really striving for it to look like I've been drawing it all my life, even if it is new to me. But yes, it changes settings so many times, and there's so many little details that you think you know, but to recreate them you need to know them so much better. There are so many different clothes, and architecture that you have to keep accurate. A few of the future time periods we'll visit are the French Revolution, and late 1800's England. Those two probably have more similarities than any of the others, and its my job to really distinguish the two. You end up having to know more than you actually end up producing. You really have to be immersed in it to create it. And you probably don't have to be too loyal to it, but you still kind of need to know what it is you're rebelling against if you're going to do it your own way. In researching for Xanadu, the court of Kublai Khan- that was probably the one I had to do the most research for. There really weren't any movies that I could find that were a good, direct source for it. There are different periods in China that were during different dynasties, and there are a few European movies that I can use for Marco Polo and so forth, and I was pretty much stuck. I ended up falling upon a few things, for instance I typed in “Chinese clothing,” or something like that on Wikipedia, and I found out there is this traditional clothing called “hanfu,” and there were all these associated characters. So I sort of put them into the search engine, and when I did that, it would show me the images that would go along with that. So there were some crazy ways to try and figure out what I'm doing, and I really hope that it shows! I hope I don't get too far off, I'm sure I've made mistakes, but it's been fun. NRAMA: In our conversation with Matt Wagner, one of your strengths that he pointed out was your affinity for costuming. Notably, your design on Nimue, with the headdress and so forth. Do you get an extra boost from designing the characters looks? ARH: I think fashion is a huge part of why I want to do comics. Before I got into comics, I got into fashion design. Pretty simply, I wasn't an expert in terminology or anything, but I did create my own clothes, most of what I wore was my own, and when I got into comics, it was through manga that was all about fashion designers at a design school. It's sort of my reason to draw, or at least the benefit of it being visual, rather than it being a novel. So with Fool's Gold, the main character is an aspiring fashion designer, and I think I keep trying to find excuses to make clothing an important part of the work I do. Now with Madame Xanadu, I happen to be very interested in the history of clothing, and do a lot of research just to get that accurate. The fun thing about Madame Xanadu is that, since she's lived for a really long time, I don't have to keep her loyal to any particular period. You just take pieces of the past, and join it with something previous to that, or even make her completely original, and stick out. Those first couple issues in Camelot were really fun. She was supposed to be this forest nymph, and I wanted her to be wild, but I wanted her to be noble. And I thought, well what's a better animal to imitate than a deer? That's wild, and noble at the same time. I tried it out with that antler head dress, and I know that some people think those are actually growing from her head, which they are not, (laughs), and those deer-hoof shoes. So going for wild and noble, and not, say, dirty and feral or anything, just representing the different kind of mentality that she starts out with. NRAMA:The hoof feet, just being subtle and naturalistic, were a personal favorite. Another one of the things Matt spoke about was the difference in a Vertigo book, where the central conflict is less often physical, a staple of mainstream comics, and emotional manipulation. Visually, selling physical confrontation on a page takes care of itself, how do you “sell” the emotional manipulation and resonance better? ARH: Well I think since I happen to be better at the emotional resonance, than physical confrontation, what I try to do to sell it, is that, personally, I actually enjoy it more, so it sells me more. So I think it makes it easier for the work to resonate with other people. I just want them to actually care about it, and make it full of life so that you don't need a fight scene just to be interesting. I try to make it more dynamic, even when they're speaking. The goal is to tell it in a new way, that someone hasn't done before. As well as that, there might not be quite as much action, but there is some. There's also, since it is historical, there's a lot of visual flair. Thats the coolest part of this series, I think. It's constantly changing, and is never the same thing. I think that's more interesting than action, but again, I'm not a big action fan. NRAMA: The book is largely built on her relationship with the Stranger. She is so outward, and he is so aloof and inward. What sort of strategies are you using to contrast her with the Stranger? ARH: You definitely hit it in that she is more outward in her emotions and stuff. I did it that way, partially just to contrast, but also so we identify more with her than him. So with scenes between them, she's usually the one to lose control, and have different extremes to pass through. The Phantom Stranger is like, if you even get a hint of a smile, or a hint of surprise from him, it's a big deal, and it won't happen more than once every couple of issues, if that. And that's what's funny about the contrast; I think Madame Xanadu, started in the DC world as a very serious character, but in this series, she's not so much. And perhaps that's because she's no match for the mystery of Phantom Stranger. NRAMA: So you've been working with Matt from plot-style, right? Doing it that way, with your own paneling, make it an easier transition from writer/ artist to primarily artist? ARH: It has been way easier for me to transition. I had originally done a couple sample pages for Marvel, and those were done full-script. And it was just so hard for me to read. It was a new thing for me, comics, in the first place, and it just seemed like code to me. They put it in a really funky order where they give the action first, and the dialogue second, in the order of each panel. So you're looking at the words before you “see” the action. It was like I had to rearrange it, like rearranging a sentence. It was tougher for me to internalize it, and as an artist, internalizing is the most important thing you do. You can't just spew out what other people's ideas are, it has to come from inside. So that's been a great thing about working plot first with Matt- he writes it a lot like a novel. So it reads more visually, then I can naturally come up with ways to piece it together. Even when I listen to books on tape, or something, I'm paneling it in my head. So yes, having Matt give me the reigns as far as paneling goes, because it has made the transition way easier. NRAMA: Lastly, what has been the most fun or rewarding part of the gig? ARH: Huh, now I really have to think! Just being able to work with amazing people. I've got these great editors; Brandon Montclare is the one that brought me in, and then Bob Schreck is such a great editor, he's an editor legend! Matt has been just so easy to work with. He makes suggestions, but it's never “oh, make this more mainstream.” He encourages creativity, and helps me to grow. Rich Friend is inking starting issue three, and Guy Major is coloring, and both of them have been amazing to work with too. I have a close relationship with all of them, and that is just so different of what the process was when I was doing everything alone. I have people that support me, and are behind me, and it's this great part of comics I just didn't realize existed. So that has been the most rewarding. Madame Xanadu #3 is in stores now. Issue #4 is due in stores on September 24th.