CARLA McNEIL ANSWERS 15 QUESTIONS WITH JULINDA MORROW
Carla is an engaging writer, artist and comics creator whose tasteful use of panels makes her sequentials a joy to behold. She has been self-publishing her unique science fiction adventure series Finder since 1996. Carla has won an Eisner Award, two Ignatz Awards, a Kim Yale Best New Talent Award and, most recently, a Los Angeles Times Book Prize.
Single-issue print copies of Finder are available directly from Carla’s website and early issues can be read online, free of charge. Carla’s work, both old and new, is presently being packaged and published by Dark Horse.
A gallery of Carla’s lovely line work follows this interview.
Julinda Morrow: What path led you to comics and sequential art?
Carla Speed McNeil: I was reading every black and white comic there was when I was a teenager – this being the early eighties, it wasn’t hard to do. By the mid-eighties, of course, it was a regular flood. Compared to the hero stuff and the horrors I’d read as a kid, they were so different and so idiosyncratic, they were perfect for me. I wanted to write and I wanted to draw – never only one or only the other.
JM: What schooling or training did you receive?
CSM: I completed a degree in fine art, but my being there was a huge disservice to my teachers. I didn’t want to learn what they had to teach, and, for their part, they didn’t know what I wanted to learn. I did get a great foundation in life drawing and composition, but everything else I’ve had to reinvent or teach myself.
JM: Who, in your opinion, are the pioneers of sequential art?
CSM: I’m not a historian. I love the work of Winsor McCay and George Herriman and Gus Arriola and Posy Simmonds and Moebius and Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez and Dave Sim, and I return to them all often. They are my pioneers, which is the closest I can come to answering the question.
JM: How do you define sequential art?
CSM: Any story told with visual as well as verbal grammar. This excludes tableau images, that is to say, single images that evoke the details of a story. That’s unfortunate, as a single, well-crafted image has much to say, and the presentation of strong tableaux is a powerful storytelling technique, but by themselves they evoke – rather than tell – a story.
JM: Do you find that sequential art provides you with near-limitless possibilities for storytelling or do you experience it as constraining?
CSM: Writing prose is faster than drawing comics. To say it is more economical is an understatement. Quite a lot of people take it for granted that someday I will write a novel or novels and the idea makes me want to curl up on the floor under my chair. While I depend heavily on the power of a well-turned phrase to bring a point home, the thought of giving up images for imagery appalls me. Not to say I will never do it – I used to say I’d never work from an outline, and that has turned out to be a very useful tool – but my ability to write a scene in prose is not on par with my ability to draw that same scene. On those occasions that I’ve tried to do so, it feels like [I’m] walking on stilts.
JM: What qualities or resources do you believe are most important for a sequential storyteller to have?
CSM: Again, I’m speaking of the storytellers that suit my taste, and that is not all-encompassing. I look for people who have a strong feel for what an image – a fleeting expression, an evocative setting, a vocabulary of symbol – can say. I look for people who have a feel for the rhythm and flow of dialogue. I prefer work that has a certain mixture of words and pictures – it takes a master to tell a story entirely without words, and even so, those stories still feel incomplete to me.
Resources vary enormously. But you can tell who goes back to their wells continually and who doesn’t.
JM: How do you approach your work process?
CSM: Writing takes the most sweat from me. I am always tinkering with a story in the back of my head (I’m very easily bored, and when I am bored, I am a horror.) My pet story, whether it is or isn’t what I really should be working on, keeps me amused. When I sit down to write an actual script, I may have a stack of ugly scribbled bits of this and that to stuff in. Those that don’t make it go back into the mulch-pile. I can’t have music or a movie on when I’m writing, and when I hit certain spots in the writing where I stop, I have to get up and move a bit – take a walk, run an errand, go to a bookstore, even housework. I do all my preliminary writing longhand, leaving room for notes on images. Recently I’ve taken to typing up my readable-only-to-me scribble into proper scripts, which constitutes a second draft.
Once the writing is done, layout commences, and that also takes sweat. Layout determines the pace and structure of the story– what has to be seen, what can be suggested, how much dialogue needs to be trimmed or omitted. Word balloons come first. This is my third draft.
I rough in figures and landscapes as I do layout. It saves work. If I try to just slam word balloons into panels without regard to who’s speaking, whether they were the first to speak or the second in the preceding panel, blocking and movement through the scene, and all those other factors – if I just stick the words in and don’t consider all the rest, I’m just letting myself in for a lot of erasing.
NOW I’m down to the easy part, the drawing. However much reference material I need, the art is always much less worrying than the writing and layout. I take reference photos, I keep a dead file, I pester friends and family to pose on occasion, and I keep a mirror and my iPad in my studio. I pencil a whole book straight through if possible. If it isn’t possible, I pencil in big chunks. That’s my final draft. I don’t mind redoing or throwing out fully-pencilled pages if they don’t work, but I will resist mightily any force that compels me to change or discard anything once it’s inked.
Inking is the home stretch. I don’t have to think anymore, and this stage can go fast and furious. That’s been a saving grace many times when inking had to be done in a tearing hurry to beat a deadline. I make three passes when inking: once to letter, once with a brush or brush pen – keeping things fast without losing precision – and once with technical pens to add details and brush for solid black.
JM: How many hours a day do you work? Are you uniformly productive on any given day or more productive on some days than others?
CSM: Five, or so, hours while writing; maybe seven if I go back to the studio. Eight or more when I’m drawing, since that can be done pretty much anytime I can find a minute, and doesn’t have to be in the studio – I’m very portable. Sometimes twelve when I’m in an inking frenzy.
JM: Was it a struggle, at the start of your career, to find work and make ends meet?
CSM: My husband and I lived in an apartment measuring 15′ X 30′ while we were both starting careers at once. Managed not to kill each other. I learned to cook on a hot plate because beans and ramen got mighty old.
JM: What has been your most valuable professional experience?
CSM: Starting as a self-publisher. This gave me a protracted time in which my deadlines were not arbitrary yet were somewhat fluid, so I had to produce but the pressure wasn’t screamingly high. I learned what worked for me to keep me productive without having to divide my attention. I learned what to carve off my work method in order to speed up without sacrificing what I valued. I made a lot of contacts and friends, not only among other artists and writers but in printing and distribution. Shop owners too, let’s not forget them. I was broke, but I was teaching myself what I needed to know. I recommend it wholeheartedly.
JM: What inspires or informs you creatively?
CSM: Anthropology, science, history. I grew up on National Geographic and even now some tidbit about the point of view held by ancient Greeks or modern inhabitants of the Solomons can have me off and running again. The vast spread of things-to-do that human beings can consider boring and everyday is beautiful to me.
JM: What is your position on digital comics? Are they a good thing or a bad thing?
CSM: Oh, both. As a consumer: Good Thing. I like having them on my iPad where I don’t have to hunt for them. Bad Thing: I don’t like having my collection dependent on the whims of a company like Apple sometimes. Bad Thing: I do find I still want to have the actual comic in my hands, which is not true of prose books. Good Thing: I can get my dose without leaving my house. Bad Thing: I need to go to the comic shop to browse, I hate browsing comics electronically – a Good Thing for comic shops, which are definitely Good Things. As a creator: can’t think of a down side. My work is easily disseminated, cheap to maintain, and most people are willing to spend money to support work they like. You don’t have to worry about your digital stock being invaded by stink bugs in the garage.
JM: If you were to make any changes to the industry or the market what changes would you make?
CSM: More Good Things for comic shops. If supporting your local shop remains part of the culture, they’ll survive. And they should.
JM: If you could apprentice under any artist at any time in history and anywhere in the world who would it be?
CSM: Just one? That’s not fair. For pure excellence in American illustration, Andrew Loomis. No question. For Japanese painting and woodblock printing, Kawase Hasui. Honestly, I’d love to work under Jill Thompson for a while, for her virtuosity in watercolor illustration and her pleasure in ornamental detail. Glen Keane, if I could stand to work as an animator. He’s one of our greatest contemporary anatomists. Heinrich Kley, he must have been loads of fun to drink with and scribble on tablecloths with.
Writers, now. If I’m daydreaming, I’m not going to limit my apprenticeships to artists. Shirley Jackson, Diana Wynne Jones, Louise Fitzhugh, John Wyndham, Terry Pratchett. All of them are far better plotters than I am, and powerful storytellers.
JM: What, in the future, would you like to accomplish creatively?
CSM: If I can hold this whole multi-book plot together across four books in Finder, I’ll be happy as all get-out. After that, I have a bunch of smaller projects (which could easily grow into large ones) that I’d like to see happen. A writer friend and I hatched out a period-Victorian story about a dying girl and her Faustian bargain with something that isn’t a vampire but isn’t NOT one; and the hunky groom’s son and the wastrel aristocrat and all that fun. I also have a strange fantasy romance featuring a couple engaged in a long-distance relationship whose only point of contact is in dreams. I’m always inventing something new when I should be focusing on paid work so no doubt I’ll have more by the time I get through with them.