What happens when the universe’s ultimate weapon of mass destruction doesn’t want to fight anymore? That’s become the core to the newly returning series A Distant Soil by writer/artist Colleen Doran.
Initially launched in 1983 when Doran was just a teenager, the space-faring coming-of-age story A Distant Soil became one of the most prominent independent creator-owned works of the 80s and early 90s alongside Bone, Strangers In Paradise, Grendel and Mage. After publishing the series off an on between other work like Orbiter with Warren Ellis and The Book of Lost Souls with J. Michael Straczynski, Doran had to take a more permanent forced hiatus in 2007 after health issues and computer problems mounted up. But now six years later, Doran is back on track with a remastered edition of the long out-of-print inaugural volume of A Distant Soil coming out next month and new issues of the series coming out again – all building up to the series finale fiftieth issue that the writer/artist has been aiming towards for decades.
With the second issue in the returned A Distant Soil on stands this week, Newsarama spoke with Colleen Doran about returning to the series, returning to comics, and other upcoming projects including a graphic novel with Neil Gaiman.
Newsarama: First question is an easy one, Colleen – what are you working on today?
Colleen Doran: I'm working on a number of things, and am so busy it is actually kind of scary at this point. I'm bunkered in here with things to eat and pop culture entertainment to consume while I face the next couple of years, which are very full. This is not a complaint, but it's not unusual for me to work until 2 or 3 AM these days. Lat week I pulled a 44 out of 48 hour work jag.
I am trying as best I can to get around to finishing this new graphic novel I am doing for Dark Horse with Neil Gaiman. It's easily the best drawing I've ever done. It really ups my game quality-wise, and it's hard to stay on top of that. It's quite a difficult project to draw. I chose a very laborious technique, and I keep slipping behind, but that's not really the fault of the book, of course. The restoration of A Distant Soil turned out to be a lot harder than anyone thought it would be, which I suppose is kind of whiney, but I really didn't have a frame of reference for what to expect, so it's bitten me in the bum. Most of the restoration is being done by my assistant Allan Harvey, since my effort proved to be a big waste of time in the end.
I'm also on the last ten issues of A Distant Soil for Image Comics.
I'm gearing up to do a new ongoing series I am not allowed to discuss yet, and a mini-series with Matt Hawkins for Top Cow. I also have some various illustration gigs going on, little things for Star Wars and a series of novels by Carol Strickland.
Nrama: I reached out to talk to you today to revel in the return of A Distant Soil to comic shelves. The first new issue in 6 years, A Distant Soil #39, came out on April 24th and you’ve got two more coming in June and July that’s building towards a finale with issue #50 down the road. A lot to talk about, but let’s start with last month’s #39. When you were creating it, did you approach it differently given that there’d been such a big gap between it and the previous issue? Did you make it more “new reader friendly” than it might have been had it came out in 2007?
Doran: No, I am not going there. Because that just means stopping the narrative in the middle and piddling around with it, and then gearing it back up. It's not necessary at this point. You've got the website where you can go look at any time, you've got Comixology, you can buy the trade paperbacks. If you pick up the comic and you like what you see, then you can check out more. This is a cohesive unit, one long story. I took a stab at making it new reader friendly right in the middle of the narrative years ago, and felt like an idiot for doing it. It makes sense to do that with a franchise, but my work isn't a franchise.
Nrama: That unexpected hiatus really threw a wrench in your plans, but you’re back at it. Did that time away from doing it help you in any way, in terms of honing the story or your approach for the art? How different did #39 end up being that it was done in the past year versus back in 2006-07?
Nrama: Not very, except my drawing has gotten a lot better. Which is weird to look at. I picked up the book and it feels no time has passed at all one day, and on other days it feels like a million years. Very disconnected. But the drawing is so much nicer. My older work always vexes me. Also, it's just very hard to get the Japanese tone sheets I commonly use, and I had to let some art go that I didn't feel was finished because we couldn't get the tones in time! I still do all my tones by hand instead of digitally.
Nrama: At the center of the series is the teenage girl Liana, a child ruler on the throne of the Avatar. Can you tell us what that means for the people – her people, those of Earth… and for her?
Doran: If I did I'd spoil the plot.
Nrama: I’ll give you that, but let me ask about this: Liana has some extraordinary powers, and comics fans being comics fan they want to know specifically what she can do. What does Liana’s powers entail, exactly?
Doran: Basically, she's a conduit for the psionic abilities of everyone on her planet. She takes all your powers and makes them hers. She's a big gun.
Nrama: With those kinds of powers, who can even hope to stand in her way?
Doran: Well, she may be a big gun, but as a weapon, she doesn't do a lot of shooting herself. Someone has to aim her, and this problem is the crux of the story. What happens when the gun decides it doesn't want to shoot for you?
Nrama: The rebels were close to striking back against the Hierachy in #38 with the virus, but things have changed. Where do the rebels stand right now?
Doran: In the middle of a plot spoiler, if I answer this question.
Nrama: Understood. In the promotion for the return of A Distant Soil, it proudly states that “the epic concludes.” Seeing this return and then promise an ending is bittersweet, but exciting. What’s it like to have an ending in sight for a story you’ve worked on since you were 12?
Doran: Very weird, actually. I spent a lot of time gearing up to get back to work on this, dancing between elation and anxiety. It feels really strange. Less anxious now, because I no longer worry so much about what people think. I'm just out to finish it all. 1000 pages, it's quite a load of effort. But I used to let other people's opinions really get me up or down. It's best to free yourself of that and just get on with it.
Nrama: For those who haven’t discovered A Distant Soil yet, you’re putting out a remastered edition of the first arc of the series in July. I’ve read about the troubles you’ve had in getting this together since your printer lost the negatives, but now after rebuilding these comics - -some from scratch I hear – how does this new edition stand up to the original issues that came out in singles?
Doran: Oh, it's definitely better. We had great luck tracking down a lot of original art, which fans loaned us, but I really did not have the skills to restore any of it, nor did I have the know-how to figure out how to find someone, or what questions to ask to get the right help.
This struggle goes back some years: I'd tried hiring out before. There are a lot of people who say they know what they are doing with this sort of thing, but in truth, this is very specialized work, and it's a short list of people out there who have a clue what the heck they are doing. The first guy I hired totally flaked, and then took off with the original art for about two years. He was just so overwhelmed and embarrassed that he'd made all these lofty promises he could not possibly keep. I understand that perfectly, and I'm not even mad anymore, but it was a nightmare trying to wrestle the stuff back from him.
Ironically, after searching high and low for someone to do the job, it turned out the best guy for it was right there all along, a long time A Distant Soil fan who is a Photoshop specialist named Allan Harvey. He did some samples and I was blown away by the quality of the work.
Hand drawn comic art using hand applied tone sheets was never meant to be scanned digitally. The whole point of the way the tone sheets are created is to use them for the photographic printing process: the tones perform the task of making drawings produce a grey effect which isn't really grey: it's just little black dots which appear grey to the eye. Early digital scanners were murder on these tones. You were much better off printing from film. Our printers couldn't even scan anything above 400 dpi, and you can't do that with tones, you need 1200 dpi. That's why so many manga reprints look so crappy: it's the tones, and no one had the gear to scan them. Of course, older computers just couldn't handle the workload either: if I scanned something at 1200 dpi, my Mac G4 would just croak and freeze. So, we dutifully shot and archived film negatives of all the pages, several versions of each page, actually, only to have the printer lose the whole enchilada: at least $20,000 of production work.
Anyway, all kinds of little flaws are much more likely to show on a digital scan than in the photographic process, and all that had to be fixed. Early printings of the book were kind of muddy in spots, and there were some tones which printed so dark you couldn't even see expressions on people's faces. We just went in and cleaned all that up. Allan had to go on to every single page and tweak it, and then for every page which required full restoration, he had to remove all the tones and replace them. It's a huge improvement. The pages you see on the website are nothing compared to the printed book.
Also, Richard Starkings and John Roshell at Comicraft came forward and offered to create a new digital font based on my hand lettering, which you can now get at the Comicraft website. Originally, we had several letterers on the project, and I did some very unwholesome-looking early lettering as well. It's pretty amateurish in spots, and the stylistic differences are jarring. Allan, using the new font by Comicraft, re-lettered the entirety of volume I and tweaked a bunch of the word balloons as well. The improvement is remarkable. I've always been kind of embarrassed by my early work, it brought down the quality of the art. Now, it has a professional gloss it just didn't have before.
The design is also more modern and streamlined. We've added chapter breaks, that sort of thing. It's a very nice-looking package!
Nrama: Comic shelves feel like a better place with you, one of the original creator-owned independents, back on it. What’s it like returning to the fold, and then also seeing friends like J. Michael Straczynski also doing it with creator-owned work at Image?
Doran: That is incredibly kind of you to say! It's great being back at Image, and JMS is one of my favorite people. In fact, his generosity is a big reason A Distant Soil is coming out again, since he supplied most of the computer equipment for the restoration. He's awesome.
Also, Jim Valentino is one of my oldest friends in comics. We weathered some truly horrible small press storms back in the day, and here we are, all those years later, and he's my boss!
Nrama: It seems you’re re-taking the comics world by storm. In addition to this, you have a graphic novel with Neil Gaiman in the works that you mentioned, a project over at Top Cow and I even heard you’re doing a cover for Dynamite’s Red Sonja title soon. What’s it like to be this busy again, with your own projects and working with others again?
Doran: I'm ready to drop, but I've been overworked and I've been underworked, and overworked is better. I'm not a workaholic, I'm a work reveler. I love to be busy and have goals and purpose. I hate to flounder about wondering where my next gig will be coming from. That's depressing! A freelancer's life is so uncertain. When I know I am booked two years ahead, that's magic to me. I know I can get up in the morning and feel compelled to move forward, and have good books to draw, good people to work with. It's fantastic. They're going to have to drag me away from this. I want to drop dead at my drawing board like Alex Toth. But I'd like to hold off on that for at least 50 years!