Cartoonist Colleen Coover and her husband, writer Paul Tobin, are the prom queen and king of digital comics in 2013. Their creation, Bandette, is the top-selling comic from MonkeyBrain Comics, the Chris Roberson/Allison Baker (monkey) brainchild that publishes digital comics. Bandette was nominated for four Eisner Awards this year (Best New Series, Best Penciler/Inker, Best Coloring, and Best Digital Comic), winning the Best Digital award. Both Coover and Tobin have had careers in comics reaching back over two decades. In part one of this exclusive Toucan interview, Coover—who along with Tobin is a special guest at APE on October 12 & 13 in San Francisco—talks about her work, how she met her husband, and why she loves comics.
Toucan: You’re quoted on your website as saying, “I am a comics nerd.” How did you get into comics?
Colleen: I was born that way. I’m seven years younger than my older sister, and our grandmother had a job at a Five & Dime—like a general store—and she would give my sister the stripped comics. After the comics had outlived their life on the newsstand they would be stripped of the covers and the covers sent back to the distributor for a refund and she would save the interiors and give them to us. So by the time I was born—again my sister is seven years older than me—we had a big pile of comics in our house. This would have been in the early ’70s. So I learned to read on Archie and Harvey and some of the superhero comics. My sister was more into the horror comics. So literally from birth I’ve been reading comics.
Toucan: What were your favorites?
Colleen: At the time Archie and Harvey and then I had some like DC Famous Firsts [tabloid-sized reprints of classic DC comics]. When I was about—I don’t know how old I would have been—but when Marvel did the Spidey Super Stories that was in collaboration with The Electric Company, I had a subscription to that. And also I was watching a lot of the Batman TV show that was, at the time, on television every afternoon after school. So I’d watch that or Bugs Bunny depending on whether or not Batgirl was in the episode. Growing up I never differentiated between one kind of comic or another. I would read the Sunday funnies. I would read whatever I could get my hands on, Peanuts compilations, anything. If it was a comic book or a comic strip I would read it, and that extended into the later ’70s and the ’80s when I got my hands on some underground comics and then eventually ElfQuest, and then Love and Rockets and then so on and so forth until I had sort of “graduated” out of the X-Men into reading Love & Rockets and Eightball and the rest of the independent and underground comics of the later ‘’80’s, and then into the ’90s.
Toucan: When did you start drawing?
Colleen: Well I started drawing also really, really early, but I started drawing comics seriously right after I met my husband Paul Tobin, because he was writing a series that was drawn by Phil Hester for Caliber Comics called Fringe. This would have been around ’91. And then when I met him in ’92 or ’93 he was writing a single-author anthology for Slave Labor called Attitude Lad and I did a few little short pieces with him for that along with Phil and another artist called Vincent Stahl. That was my first serious thinking about actually drawing pages. And then a few years later I started with Small Favors and that was my first serious, solo, semi-long-term project.
Toucan: Who do you look to as your artistic influences?
Colleen: That’s a really good question. I mostly credit the Hernandez Brothers and Milton Caniff who did Terry and the Pirates and Steve Canyon. And those are the people that I cite as my main influences, but I think that would be a severe underestimate of who has been an influence. I can’t disregard Wendy Pini [ElfQuest] or Seth [Palookaville] or—in that same vein—Peter Arno. Or the years that I spent looking at Curt Swan’s Superman or Neal Adams. I can go on and on and I probably should if I want to answer this honestly but it’s just . . . I’ve tried to look at and understand and appreciate pretty much everything that I ever seen and incorporate what I can use into my own work. I feel like the Hernandez Brothers taught me to take the influences of Dan DeCarlo and apply that to more mature fare, those same sort of cartooning storytelling techniques. But then I think my art style, because I have so many influences, is very distinctive and unique to me. I don’t think that anyone who has a knowledge of comics could look at my work and think that it was anybody else. I mean I hope not, but I don’t know who else it would be.
Toucan: When you made the jump from let’s say mainstream superhero comics into things like Love and Rockets and Eightball and even ElfQuest, did you realize at that point how different those comics were and did it open any doors for you?
Colleen: It really didn’t occur to me. I was reading Cerebus as well and it didn’t register as a different thing, and again I think that has to do with the fact that when I was so young I had Archie and Harvey and then also House of Mystery and the Neal Adams Batman stuff and the Curt Swan Superman stuff and Spider-Man. It just never felt like something different and it’s like I never understood . . . I knew a couple other people who were like, “Eww . . . ElfQuest is black and white,” and I was like, “Yeah, so?” It just didn’t occur to me as a thing. Also, because my sister was so much older than me she had some Epic magazines and some Heavy Metal, so I got my hands on those probably way too young to be reading them. You know I have some very definite memories of being traumatized by looking at stuff that I probably shouldn’t have been looking at in 1976 or 1978 or whatever, but it’s cool. I got through it. I’m okay.
Toucan: You’ve been able to do many different types of comics. You work varies wildly from all ages stuff like Banana Sunday to adult material like Small Favors and you’ve done stuff for Marvel Comics and now of course, Bandette. Do you have a particular favorite story type or work on?
Colleen: I really don’t. I mean I really enjoyed doing the adult stuff when I was doing it. I’m not sure that that would be something that I would [do again]. I can see doing short stories that were adult again. In fact I did a story for Creepy with Jeff Parker about a year ago that had a little bit of sexiness in it. I was like, “Oh yeah I remember doing stuff that was maybe a little bit more risqué, that’s a lot of fun,” but I never really wanted to be pigeon-holed there and it’s all just story con to me. Obviously right now I’m mostly interested in doing what I consider all ages—if you have a European sensibility—with Bandette, and that applies to how we have a little bit of canoodling on one page of number one, but it’s all with underwear on and there’s nothing to be seen. But to me, that’ll just go over a kid’s head, nobody should really care about that, and that’s sort of that European sensibility of oh you know a little T&A is not going to hurt anybody as long as it’s not really graphic or whatever. Also there’s a lot of smoking going on in Bandette, which I don’t encourage. I actually loathe smoking but it was so perfect for that particular character that I couldn’t really resist. It seems very French to me.
Toucan: Do you have a particular format that you like working in? Traditional comics or digital or graphic novels?
Colleen: I actually prefer to work shorter, in short chapters. I’m not as keen on working on long graphic novels. I’ve done a just straight-up original graphic novel once with Gingerbread Girl and that was a really good experience, but by the time I was done I was really exhausted. Without chapter breaks, it takes a lot of stamina and discipline to get through a project like that. So in general it’s more comfortable for me to be working on stories that are between 10 and 20 pages. Sometimes I enjoy a little haiku story of like two pages, that can be a lot of fun too, but I usually just do that for myself or for a backup. Of course that’s what was fun about doing some of the backups for the Marvel comics is that I could do that and have a little bit of fun and tell these very short sort of event-oriented stories, rather then long tales or whatever.
Toucan: As a kid reading the X-Men in the ’70s or ’80s, did you ever dream that you’d some day be drawing them?
Colleen: I did, but I didn’t know how to do it because I had this idea that in order to make comics you had to live in New York City for some reason, which is silly but that’s how I felt.
Toucan: It was kind of true then.
Colleen: Well it was kind of and there wasn’t really anywhere you could go to school for it although I never did go to school for it. I had thought about it and I just didn’t really know how to get started until I met Paul. And it’s because of the late ’80s, early ’90s black-and-white boom where you could just . . . you know he was doing Fringe at Caliber—and things were just happening. It was a really exciting time, so he got that done and over the years he has been like the person who has basically taught me how to be a professional.
Toucan: How did you two meet?
Colleen: He was working in a comic book shop. It’s the old tale. So we struck up a friendship and then we started dating. It was about five years later that I was working at the comic shop and by around 2004, I had been doing Small Favors for a while. We were starting to think about Banana Sunday and we looked around and we were living in Iowa City, Iowa and we were like well, we can stay here and continue to work at the shop, which is great, for the rest of our lives basically, or we can be proactive and move somewhere where things are happening. And that’s when we moved to Portland, Oregon. Partly because we actually knew people here who were in the industry and then also because it’s the location of Dark Horse Comics and Oni Press and Top Shelf and probably a couple of others that I can’t remember right off hand. So we moved to Portland. Not long after that we published Banana Sunday with Oni Press and I joined Periscope Studio, which got us the friendships and connections that we have with all the professionals here: Steve Lieber, Jeff Parker, David Hahn, Ron Randall, Erica Moen, Dylan Meconis, and a bunch of other people, and as a result both our careers really took off.
Toucan: What’s the attraction of working in a studio atmosphere?
Colleen: Well there are several. I mean the professional benefits are working with people that you can network with. So say somebody has a commercial job that they can’t take, someone else in the room is going to be able to take that job and then that way we keep those seeds spread amongst ourselves and we sort of grow our own client base. But on a personal level most cartoonists work at home at a table by themselves with the radio on and nobody to talk to except the shock jock or the baseball announcer they’re listening to, and as a result they go slightly mad . . . or at least that was my experience. So for the first year that we lived in Portland I was working as a cartoonist full time while Paul had a day job at a bookstore and he would come home and I would be like, “Hey how’s it going? What are you doing? What did you do today? Who’d you talk to? What did you talk about?” And it was insane. When I joined the studio, I was surrounded by people that I could interact with like a human being. It also provided me with a place to go to work, because when you work for yourself you can never say goodbye to your boss. And when you work at home you can never leave. You can never leave work. So having an actual physical place to go and work and then leave at the end of the day—whenever that time is—is just really valuable to any professional idea thing.
Toucan: Are most of those projects in the studio comics-oriented?
Colleen: They are often comics-oriented. They are occasionally just illustration or storyboards or something like that like for advertisements or sometimes corporations have in-house publications, like when you have several thousand employees, they might print something just for those employees to entertain them for whatever reason. So often we get those types of jobs.
Toucan: I noticed your website showcases a lot of illustration work you’ve done for indie newspapers like the Portland Mercury and The Stranger in Seattle. Is this type of work a regular thing for you and how did you get started in it?
Colleen: It was for a while. I was recommended by another cartoonist, I think, for The Stranger in Seattle. The Stranger and the Mercury are owned by the same company, and I haven’t actually done that work for probably about four or five years. But to my knowledge those two free weeklies are the only two free weeklies that still have a budget for illustration. So yeah I was lucky to get into that because at the time I was doing Banana Sunday and I didn’t really have a lot of illustration work lined up. So that was very handy to have that as a sideline for my comics work.
Toucan: I would imagine they were pretty tight deadlines, too.
Colleen: Very, which is sometimes kind of useful because then there’s not a lot of hemming and hawing by an editor going, “Oh, can you make this change, can you make that change?” You get it done and get it done fast. It was good. It was a good time.
Toucan: So you and Paul settled in Portland. What makes Portland such a great comics town?
Colleen: Well partly it’s just the population of other creators. I continuously bump into people who have lived here for years that I didn’t have any notion lived here and I’ve been here for like nine years now. Part of it is the fact that it’s just a very comfortable city to live in. For the city of this size in the West, it’s very manageable financially to live in. So it’s a good place to be self-employed. It’s not great if you’re actually looking for a job. The market kind of fell out of Portland for that, but it really is a good place to be self-employed.
Toucan: Do you prefer writing your own stuff or working with writers?
Colleen: I actually prefer working with other writers usually, unless it’s something short, in which case I occasionally enjoy doing a little short story on my own. I especially like working with Paul, of course, and then [Jeff} Parker. They’re my two favorite writers to work with, and I figured out the other day it’s because while I’m drawing their story I can turn to them and say, “Hey look at this, this is how I told this and this is really clever of me,” because Parker will tell you that I’m my own biggest fan. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but that’s what Parker will tell you. It’s probably true. Yeah, I enjoy telling the story and finding a way to tell the story that’s in the script.
Toucan: You and Jeff Parker are doing a Batman 66 story, is that correct?
Colleen: Yeah. I’ve been working on it for a while and we haven’t said anything because I didn’t know if they did an official announcement yet. It’s probably not officially announced but it’s in Previews, so we can go ahead and talk about it. Yes, I am. I’m working on that. I just finished working on that. That was fun because again I did all the art.
Toucan: Including color?
Colleen: Including color but not letters. Letters will be somebody else. But again with that TV show being so important to me as a kid that is probably the one comics project in the world that I would take time away from Bandette for right now, because I did have to take a couple of months away to work on that because I just couldn’t say no. It’s basically the comic that I’ve been waiting my whole life to draw. So if opportunity knocks you better open the door.
Toucan: Can we assume that Batgirl is in it?
Colleen: Sure. Go ahead and assume that.
Toucan: So how do you feel about this whole digital thing?
Colleen: I love it and I’ll tell you why. I love it because if you self-publish you have so many opportunities to lose money, and with digital comics so many of those ways to lose money are alleviated. Paul and I have put a lot of time into Bandette but we have put no kind of risk, no kind of financial or other kind of proprietary risk. So anything that we get back from Bandette is just icing on the cake. I know better than to expect from any independent project that fortune will be coming along, because that’s just silly. I mean that would be great. I’m ready for fortune, I’m waiting, but I’m not expecting it to come along.
With digital, the distribution is global, which is really exciting. It was two days after the first issue of Bandette was released and I was listening to a podcast from England and they bought a copy of Bandette while they were recording the podcast. So that’s crazy. With print that would have been just insane. I like that as soon as I finish drawing an issue I can send it to comiXology and four weeks later it will be out there in the world, as opposed to print where you have to plan six months, seven months ahead of time. I like that anyone can get it anywhere. I like that you can price each unit as cheaply as you want with the bottom limit being 99 cents. I’m a big fan of the 99-cent price point. I think it basically gives people permission to give something new a try and I’m a big fan of that.