[Becky Cloonan is a writer and artist who has worked on books like Demo, Northlanders, American Virgin and recently with recurring collaborator Brian Wood for Dark Horse’s relaunch of their Conan property. She’s also swiftly becoming the King of Self-Publishing, with last year's self-published short story Wolves being almost as well-received as her new work, The Mire, available now.
She’s a woman of several phrases, but two of them in particular inform her streak of independent creativity: Comics Rule Everything Around Me (CREAM) and Self-Publish Or Die (SPOD? I don’t think this one was meant to be made into an acronym).
I got the chance to stammer questions at Becky recently, during a busy signing for The Mire at Travelling Man in Leeds (that’s in the United Kingdom, fact-fans)! Come, and read the stammering and answers in equal measures!]
Steve: [utilising a fade-in introduction] ….and your latest story is The Mire, a sequel to Wolves, which came out last year-
Becky Cloonan: Almost exactly a year ago. I launched Wolves at TCAF, and I did the same with The Mire this year.
Steve: You fully self-published this, right? You not only wrote it, and drew it, but you even made sure to choose the quality of the paper and the production values that went into it.
Becky Cloonan: Yes. I really like the feeling when you pick up a short story and you can feel quality in the production. When you pick up a monthly comic, it’s floppy and the quality feels more disposable. I think part of that, at least for me, is in the paper – when it’s cheap, and thin, you feel more free to pick it up and then throw it away. I wanted to have something which felt like “once you have it, you keep it”.
Steve: [Unintelligible stammering]
Becky Cloonan: …sure. My short stories – I want people to have a reason to re-read them and come back to it, and if I want to have a story with that sense of longevity, it needs to feel good when you open it up. It’s a little more expensive to put things out that way, but I hope it adds to the experience when you have it in your hands.
Steve: Is it a particularly personal work?
Becky Cloonan: In the sense that… it’s about stuff I’m really interested in. It’s got historical stuff in it, and fantasy – but not high fantasy stuff, it’s a little more grounded
Steve: Like the original gothic stuff. Only a little part of any given story would be openly supernatural, while the rest of the narrative tended to be grounded and realistic, as counter-balance.
Becky Cloonan: That’s exactly the kind of thing. It’s very medieval , supernatural, paranormal.
It’s not necessarily stuff that’s happened to me, or based on things I’ve had happen, but the themes speak to me. I do try to write about what I know, and things I’m familiar with. And I try to make sure it’s universal. Everybody’s experienced a betrayal, and can relate to some feeling of having once been stabbed in the back, and so I can talk about that and have readers relate to it. It’s a feeling that I want to get out from the book, and have readers experience with me.
Steve: [who watched a Louis Theroux documentary the night before] But what’s interesting in that is that, well, many of your characters don’t really get to have happy endings…
Becky Cloonan: I guess that’s kinda true. I was noticing that when I tried to write the third instalment in this – I don’t know if it’s a trilogy, but I definitely want to print three of them and then have a collection – where my idea was “they fall in love… and then they kill each other!”
And I stopped and realised, every single story I’m writing has these characters who fall in love and then DIE. I think it’s because I love all the gothic romances, and a good tragedy.
Maybe one day I’ll show off my comedic side instead of all these tragedies, and try writing something like that. But I am drawn towards writing drama and fantasy. It can be difficult not to go overboard with melodrama, and even though the story may be about big dramatic events, I do try and pull away from ever going too far over the top.
Steve: You do seem to be able to find the grounded moments which build up the rest of the story –actually, that’s something which comes across in your collaborations with Brian Wood quite often. When you first start reading Conan, you notice that the biggest moments are the smallest ones. The most memorable part, to me, was at the start when Conan is fleeing from… trouble… and he turns to the reader and smiles, like “so, are you coming with me or what?”
Becky Cloonan: I’m such a big fan of finding the little moments. When I grew up fantasy was almost all I read. But it’s common in fantasy to go big all the time, and that always feels like a mistake to me. When you see something like Game Of Thrones, the reason that show is so successful is because it takes the time to focus on character and conversation. The show gives you time to find these characters as people and live with them.
When at the end of Lord of the Rings you see Aragorn lifting up his sword and yelling “FOR FRODO!!” [at this point Becky is waving an imaginary sword over her head] we’ve spent so long with him and Frodo that when he says it, we’re drawn into the moment alongside him. So much time was already spent building up this world that you really, really care about it.
It’s difficult in comics because you’re only left with twenty-two pages to work with every month, and you have to have spectacle while still trying to really get inside these characters. When you try to tell an epic story you have to keep going big with everything, it could be easy to forget to take the time to focus on the little moments that develop the characters.
Steve: When you get a script from a writer like Brian, as opposed to writing it yourself, do you look through the scripts to try and pick out the character moments you can build the rest of the story around?
Becky Cloonan: Brian and I clicked right away, when we first started together [on Demo] and I immediately got what he was doing with his storytelling. He was an artist too, so when I read his scripts he makes it so you can picture everything right away, straight from the page. He really gets into his characters too, so when he’s writing he never makes them into archetypes. You notice them and they feel like people you know. That makes it easier to find a place to start the story.
He also writes very loosely. When I worked with Steven Seagle [on American Virgin], he was writing funny characters, so even the characters I didn’t get into right away – like Adam, who was the hardest one to draw at first. Adam felt to me like a bit of a stiff at first, but after a few issues you start to realise how he’s developed and where the character actually was coming from, and things became easier. The sister, Cindy, was so much easier because I related to her immediately.
Steve: [who is rewriting all his questions so they sound smarter] When you come to write the stories yourself, how do you find the moments which structure the story, and piece together your narrative?
Becky Cloonan: Sometimes it all starts when I have an idea for a scene – if it’s a short story, I’m looking at a specific theme, and then I try to see what scenes would fall under that theme. I’m looking for something that works to capture the concept in one single moment, the moment where the readers connect with and feel the tone of the story. Then it’s about what characters I want to tell a story about.
With the longer stories – I’ve written two longer books which I haven’t brought to a publisher yet – it’s a little harder. I’m still thinking about theme, but the longer format means the story has to be more engaging throughout. Not that my short stories aren’t engaging, of course! But it has to be layered – I try to layer my short stories as much as I can – and that’s obviously much harder when you’re drawing things out so much longer.
Steve: Wolves is one of the most obvious stories where you can see the layering. That story effectively sits atop itself, so once you finish reading you need to circle back and start reading the beginning again.
Becky Cloonan: I freaked out when I first wrote that. I was obsessing with the tense in it, trying to sort out what was representative of what. I read a review where they’d called out attention to the tenses and verbs, and I never realised everyone else was going to be reading it on this same level that I’d written it in.
Steve: Does The Mire come from that same sort of place, thematically?
Becky Cloonan: They’re very different stories. Not only do they take place a hundred years apart – which you can see in the style of the armour; and the castle setting has definitely changed, even though both stories are medieval. The Mire has more dialogue, for a start. In Wolves, things were all more vague and dreamlike. Nobody had a name, the locations weren’t identified. But in the Mire everybody has a name, like Owain or Aidan, the squire who’s my main character. I’m trying to get more personal and close with the characters now. They joke around and laugh, there’s more range in their interaction.
With the narration, things are COMPLETELY different. Wolves is narrated entirely from the main character’s point of view, looking back on himself from the future. But this one has a similar narration… done in a completely different way.
But no spoilers.
Steve: Oh no.
Becky Cloonan: No spoilers.
Steve: But now let me try and get some spoilers. Wolves was part 1 and The Mire is part 2…. What could we expect from the possible part 3?
Becky Cloonan: Oh, well it’s a female main character this time. I noticed that I hadn’t any female main characters in the other stories. That’s because I’m working in a setting which wouldn’t allow it, though – you wouldn’t have a female squire in medieval times.
Steve: There’re quite a lot of men in Northlanders, too.
Becky Cloonan: True.. although Demo had several girls in it. But these two stories just ‘happened’ to be about guys, and it was just the way they played out. The third one’s got a female main character, and… well, I don’t want to give anything away.
Steve: Go on…
Becky Cloonan: …well, there might be a fisherman in it.
Steve: I’m counting that as an exclusive. Heidi will be so pleased.
Becky Cloonan: I’m still working on the next story at the moment. Actually, after I did Wolves, I’d been planning to do my next story about orcs. But then I found out that some of my friends had just released their own stories about orcs, with orc in the title even, and I didn’t want to step on that particularly.
…It was actually based on a poem about orcs.
Becky Cloonan: It was kinda lame!
Steve: Could you recite some of it right now?
Becky Cloonan: Ah! Well… not right now. I have it memorised, and I think I have it written down on my blog somewhere. It’s a little embarrassing!
Steve: All poems are!
Becky Cloonan: I guess! But I had this story about orcs, regardless. And when I wrote it, it didn’t quite work. So I rewrote it, and it was still off. I wrote it again and still not quite clicking. On the third pass, when I start thumbnailing it, I just can’t feel it. The characters didn’t feel that strong, it was maybe heavy-handed. And so I take it, scrap it all, and move onto something else.
Steve: Which is one of the hardest things to do, as a writer. Scrap a project and write something new.
Becky Cloonan: You have to, though! You shouldn’t keep struggling which a story which isn’t going to end up where you want it to.
Steve: [Remarkable segway coming up now] Speaking of new and different projects, then – what do you have coming up in future?
Becky Cloonan: I’m on issue #7 of Conan, but I’m not sure where that’ll head from that. Killjoys with Gerard Way for Dark Horse is something that’s been coming up for a while now, and that might be on the horizon soon.
But for the moment I’m really just looking forward to writing some of my own stuff. I’ve done a lot of licensed work over the last few years, and it feels like a good time for me to try some long-form and short-form storytelling ideas out that I’ve been wanting to do for a while now.
[last-minute edit: And Batman! She's also going to draw some Batman!]