It’s impossible not to smile when you see Colleen Coover’s art. The Portland-based artist, previously known for her adult-oriented series Small Favors and the more kid-friendly Banana Sunday from Oni, has gained a new and massive fan following from her adorable back-up stories in X-Men: First Class.
Coover’s colorful, cartoony, gentle work has resulted in some of the most fun Marvel comics of the last few years – and she’s just getting started! Coover gave us a special look at some of her upcoming projects, including a new full-length Spider-Man story featuring some of Marvel’s most famous female characters. Let’s take a look.
Newsarama: Colleen, you are all over the place at Marvel! Tell us about everything you have coming up.
Colleen Coover: For a while now I’ve had short backup strips appearing in X-Men: First Class, written by my good buddy Jeff Parker. They began in the X-Men: First Class Special, and have continued on an occasional basis throughout the current ongoing series.
Several of them focus on Marvel Girl and her friendship with the Scarlet Witch, at a time when Wanda was no longer in Magneto’s Brotherhood and not yet an Avenger. But I’ve also gotten to play with the other X-Men; the latest strip is a Harvey Comics homage featuring the Angel.
I’ve also been doing backup features in Fred Van Lente’s Power Pack Day One miniseries. In each issue, one of the Power kids explains the science of their powers: Alec explains Gravity, Katie does Energy, Julie covers Velocity, and Jack gives the low-down on Density.
Fred wrote all the strips very much in the same “edu-tainment” style as his and Ryan Dunlavey’s Action Philosophers. The lessons are presented in a cartoon narrative in order to make lofty concepts like the First Law of Thermodynamics easier to wrap one’s head around.
Finally, I just finished work on my first full-length Marvel story, written by my husband, Paul Tobin. It’s going to appear in the King-Size Spider-Man Summer Special, starring Mary Jane Watson and a small army of other Marvel ladies! Paul and I have been increasingly busy in the last few months working on Marvel stories separately, so it’s really exciting to do this one together.
NRAMA: Now, that King-Size Spider-Man story is your biggest spotlight at Marvel to date. What’s it about, and who are some of the characters we can expect to see?
CC: It all starts out when the Enchantress, frustrated that Thor has once again mopped up the floor with her champion the Executioner, decides that she should get her dirty work done by some of Marvel Comics’ most powerful women. (Because the God of Thunder would never hit a lady!)
She casts a spell to bring five super-heroines under her thrall, and Mary Jane Watson and her friend Millie (the Model) Collins are caught up in the ensuing adventure! The story also stars Marvel Girl, She-Hulk, Clea, the Scarlet Witch, and Hellcat.
NRAMA: What's it been like doing a full-length story as opposed to a short?
CC: The easy answer is that it takes longer! But it’s more complicated than that. When you’re doing a short piece, the end is never far away, and it’s not hard to keep up a steady pace from start to finish.
Because I do all the colors and letters on my pages as well as pencils and inks, I can’t keep up anything like a page-a-day pace, so a four or six page story will take me from ten days to two weeks.
But a 22-page story is more than the sum of its parts. My enthusiasm never flagged, but my energy occasionally did, and there were several times when I had to work on other projects like X-Men or Power Pack. Fortunately, our excellent editor Nate Cosby was aware going in that this comic was going to take me a while, and gave me plenty of time to make my deadline.
NRAMA: When you started work on the X-Men backups, did you expect them to catch on as much as they have? Why do you feel your work has struck such a chord with Marvel fans?
CC: My inflated artist’s ego totally expected everyone to go ga-ga over them, but my equally inflated artist’s insecurity was in terror that everyone would hate them. All I can say is that Parker and I have a blast working on these strips, and I think that it resonates with the readers.
NRAMA: What have you enjoyed about working on these characters?
CC: I love working on characters that I know like they lived next door to me growing up. My first X-comic was a reprint of X-Men #1, so even though most of what I read as a kid was the post-Dark Phoenix stuff of the early ‘80s, I have a special fondness for the original team.
Most of my strips are even more light-hearted than the rest of the book, so I’m always drawing people having a great time using their crazy-cool powers and smacking bad guys around!
NRAMA: In doing the Power Pack educational strips, what are some of the unique challenges in illustrating scientific principles?
CC: Most of the hard work is (thankfully) already done by Fred Van Lente, who has a gift for coming up with visual representations for the principals of physics that normally make my brain hurt.
He’ll write some crazy panel description like, “The Universe, this swirling mass of stars and galaxies, brings a bowl up to the counter of the “energy store” like Oliver Twist. But the Big Bang, this big exploding burst thing, who runs the store, won’t give him any more energy.”
And Fred knows that even though that’s an impossible image, a good cartoonist is just going to get it. I found that quite flattering because it showed that he put his trust in me as an artist.
NRAMA: What materials and techniques do you use in illustrating your stories?
CC: I rough out my pages in pencil at about half the size of the final art. Then I scan the layouts and place letters in with Photoshop, so I can see how much space I’m going to need in each panel. Often, I’ll tweak my layouts with Photoshop, too, shrinking or enlarging things to make room for dialog or to fix composition problems.
Then I enlarge the layout and print it out full-size—about 9” x 14” – and put it on a lightbox to do the finished pencils on a piece of 500 Bristol paper. I ink with a brush (Winsor & Newton series 7) using Rapidograph Rapidraw ink for technical pens.
I like the Rapidraw because it’s nice and black, doesn’t get gummy, and dries quickly. I do NOT ink in my panel borders. I scan the inked page, shrink it down to print size (6.125” x 9.666”, for those of you keeping score at home,) and use Photoshop to draw in the panel borders, fix mistakes, letter the page and color it.
NRAMA: You often work closely with people you know in real life -- Parker and Paul being the obvious ones! What's unique about collaborating with people who are right there?
CC: It’s actually more unusual for me to work with someone I don’t know! Van Lente is the only writer I’ve worked with who I’ve never met.
Of course working with Paul is as natural to me as breathing air. He was my first writer and he’s either written or helped me write pretty much every comic I’ve done up until the beginning of my time working for Marvel. He knows what I like to draw, but he never lets me get lazy by staying in my comfort zone!
Sometimes he’ll write a challenging scene for me to force me to push myself. My whole style has developed with his writing, and when I read his scripts I can see what the comic should look like in my head.
Parker writes like an artist because, you know, he is one; he’ll give me minimalist panel descriptions and let me intuit what he’s after. I think he writes a little more loosely for me than he would for an artist who doesn’t sit three feet away from him every day—our desks in Periscope Studio, where we each do most of our work, are separated by Parker’s orange metal bookcase full of Essential trades and Prince Valiant volumes. If I ever get stuck on a panel design I can swivel my chair and ask him what he wants, and usually he’ll just grab a piece of paper and sketch it out for me.
We’re all really fortunate in that we have set up a whole culture of collaboration for ourselves here in Portland. Not only do I work closely with Paul and Parker, they’ve also worked with each other—co-writing for What If? and the Free Comic Book Day Marvel Adventures Iron Man, and now they’re writing side-by-side stories in the upcoming Age of the Sentry mini.
They both work regularly with other Periscope members, too: Paul does Marvel Adventures Fantastic Four with David Hahn, Parker has an issue of X-Men: First Class drawn by Karl Kesel coming up, his run on Virgin Comic’s Gamekeeper series was drawn by Ron Randall and Ron Chan, and he’s writing a spelunking thriller for Steve Lieber. It feels like we’re keeping it all in the family, which helps us all stay motivated and happy!
NRAMA: Of the stories you've done so far for Marvel, do you have any favorites?
CC: Right now I’m really excited for the King-Size Spider-Man Summer Special story to see print. Not only is it my first full-length story for Marvel and my first super-hero adventure with Paul, but your most recent project is always the one most dear to your heart.
But I got a kick out of having the Warren strip in First Class last week, and I’ve got a special fondness for the Mole Man’s appearance in one of the Marvel Girl/Scarlet Witch adventures.
NRAMA: Do you plan to do any comics outside of Marvel in the near future? You've been working on a graphic novel called Freckled Face, Bony Knees, And Other Things Known About Annah – how's that coming along?
CC: Freckled Face is done; Paul and I are still in the process of deciding how we want it to be published. With all the work we’ve been doing on other stuff lately, we haven’t had much time or energy to devote to thinking about that! It is at the top of our list of things to get done, and I’m going to be working on getting that ball rolling again soon!
NRAMA: Also, do you see yourself doing more adult-oriented stories again?
CC: Eventually I will, because I love the characters in Small Favors and I would be sad not to revisit them again. But right now I’m enjoying my other work, and there simply isn’t time.Click here to discuss this article in our Marvel forum, or post your comments below.