Born July 24, 1963 (Cincinnati, Ohio)
American author, artist
"I want to give my readers the same sensation of immersion as film. From costumes, to set design to characterization, to casting, I want a complete, storytelling experience on every level. …"
Colleen Doran's career as a writer and illustrator of comic books and graphic novels began at a very young age. An early love of animation gave way to a fascination with comic books, and by the age of twelve she had begun work on the story that would later become the acclaimed A Distant Soil series. Doran's work on A Distant Soil, along with her illustration of many other comics and graphic novels, has been an important part of the evolution of the American comics industry toward the deeper character and story development of the graphic novel. Her influences come from both the superhero comics she loved in her youth—which created an uproarious, larger-than-life world, where anything is possible—and from Japanese manga—stark, intense comic books featuring black-and-white illustrations and long, complex storylines. Combining these very different styles, Doran has increasingly used her highly developed artistic skills to create new worlds in comics.
Begins to draw
Colleen Doran was born on July 24, 1963, in Cincinnati, Ohio. Times were hard for the Dorans during the mid-1960s. Colleen's parents, Ron and Anita Doran, could not find work, and for a time the family was homeless, sleeping in friends' living rooms and even once sharing a pigeon coop with the birds that lived there. While Doran was still an infant, her father heard that many Southern police departments, overwhelmed by the social tensions caused by the civil rights movement and racist whites who opposed it, were desperate for new recruits. He took a job as a police officer in York County, Virginia, and the Dorans moved south.
A Distant Soil: The Gathering (2001).
A Distant Soil: The Ascendant (2001).
A Distant Soil: The Aria (2001).
A Distant Soil: Coda (2005).
Orbiter (with Warren Ellis) (2003).
Reign of the Zodiac (with Keith Giffen, Bob Wiacek, and Tony Harris) (2003).
The Essential J.R.R. Tolkien Sourcebook: A Fan's Guide to Middle-earth and Beyond (with George Beahm) (2003).
The Book of Lost Souls (with J. Michael Straczynski) (2005).
The Legion of Superheroes (various issues) (1980s–90s).
Robotech Art II (1987).
The Amazing Spider-man (1991).
The Sandman Vol. 3: Dream Country (with Neil Gaiman, Malcolm Jones III, Kelley Jones, Charles Vess, Steve Erickson) (1991).
Wonder Woman: The Once and Future Story (with Trina Robbins and Jackson Guice) (1998).
(With Lee Townsend) Drawing Action Comics: Easel Does It (2005).
While Bob Doran established a successful career in law enforcement and Anita worked as a veterinary assistant, young Colleen Doran began to develop her artistic skill. Anita Doran was also an accomplished artist who had attended art school, but she had received little encouragement to make a career from her art. However, she still had books from the Famous Artists School, a respected art course designed to learn at home, and she encouraged her daughter to develop her artistic talent. Studying her mother's books and using the backs of her father's criminology papers for canvas, Colleen Doran began to draw.
Her earliest ambitions were to become an astronaut, but she also harbored a desire to work for Walt Disney, creating the animated cartoons she loved. At the age of five, she won her first art contest, sponsored by the Walt Disney Company. There were few comic books available in the rural Virginia of the early 1970s, and Doran's interest in comic art did not develop until she came down with a severe case of pneumonia at the age of twelve. While she was confined to bed for several weeks, a friend delivered a big box of comic books to help pass the time. Not only did Doran fall in love with the flamboyant superheroes and their dramatic storylines, but soon she began to draw and write her own comics, complete with misunderstood teenagers who have superpowers.
That first comic evolved into the four-volume series titled A Distant Soil. The superhero protagonists were Jason and Liana, the son and daughter of a human mother and an alien father who came to Earth as a refugee from the planet Ovanan. The teens' psychic powers mark them as the heirs to a powerful dynasty on their father's planet, where there are jealous enemies who seek to destroy them. As the story developed over several decades, it reflected Doran's increasing interest in character development and intricate storytelling. However, many elements and even several core characters remained remarkably similar to those created by the twelve-year-old artist recovering from pneumonia.
Lands first art job at age fifteen
While educating herself as an artist, Doran was an independent and impatient student at school. She made good grades with little study, responded with active interest to the teachers she liked, and did little for the teachers she disliked. However, her teachers soon learned to make use of her artistic expertise and often traded grades for Doran's designs on posters and displays. At the age of fifteen, while displaying her artwork at a science fiction convention, she received her first commercial job offer from an advertising agency.
Doran continued to work professionally through her high school years, illustrating a wide variety of projects from a police Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) team training manual to a Planned Parenthood brochure. After her graduation from high school in the 1980s, she attended Christopher Newport University in Newport News, Virginia, where she began to study business. She received special permission to use her commercial art as part of her class credit. However, she soon had so much commercial work that she quit college to work full time.
Along with her ad agency work, Doran was also hired to draw comics and continued to work on her science fiction series. Graphic novels still interested her for several reasons. She knew from her own childhood love of comic books that the comic format created an instant bond between book and reader, even those who did not read well. Comic heroes and their adventures became a vehicle through which readers could feel themselves to be special and powerful. Doran also felt that graphic novels combined words and pictures in a unique way. As she said in an interview with Graphic Novelists (GN): "We watch films and plays that have that combination of the visual and the verbal. The difference with graphic novels is that the reader participates a great deal more in a comic or graphic novel than they do in a film. A film is paced exactly as the filmmaker wants to pace it. The reader paces the story in a graphic novel, depending on how they choose to read the panels and turn those pages. It's more interactive than just watching a movie."
Publishes first graphic novel
During the early 1980s, Doran signed a contract to publish The Rebels, Doran's original title for A Distant Soil. But after the publication of nine issues of the series, Doran was unhappy in her relationship with the publisher. She entered into a legal struggle that resulted in her withdrawing from her contract. She reworked all of the published material to create new books that she then published with a different company, Image Comics. Image had been founded by a group of comics illustrators who had become upset over publishers' misuse of their work. At Image, Doran felt that her right to control her own work would be respected.
The resulting series, collected in four volumes—A Distant Soil: The Gathering; A Distant Soil: The Ascendant; A Distant Soil: The Aria; and A Distant Soil: Coda—have sold more than 500,000 copies. The first volume has been translated into Spanish and Italian. Though the series is a science fiction fantasy, A Distant Soil confronts many real-life concerns of its readers, such as bigotry, political corruption, and gender identity issues. Liana, the heroine, along with other strong female characters, has made the series extremely popular with teenage girls. During the 1990s, the out-spoken girl magazine Sassy named A Distant Soil one of the five best comics for girls. Doran's sensitive handling of several gay and bisexual characters led to the series' nomination in 2001 for a Spectrum Award for best science fiction. Spectrum Awards are given by the Gaylactic Network to honor science fiction, fantasy, and horror publications that demonstrate positive handling of gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender characters and issues.
Unlike many other graphic novels, A Distant Soil has earned respect as a literary work and was profiled in the quarterly journal of the Young American Library Association. Alasdair Stuart, of the Ninth Art, described the first volume, The Gathering, as "intelligent, mature storytelling with its own unique voice." He also noted that Doran had a "clean, striking art style and skill for storytelling composition."
What makes A Distant Soil unique among hundreds of science fiction comics and graphic novels is Doran's painstaking and confident technique. Doran, who said in an interview with GN, "I study more now than I ever did when I was in school," draws on many influences for both her art and her story, from pictures taken on her travels to great literature. She uses the comic format to fill her panels with drama and movement, advancing the story through understated contrasts, often telling part of the story in the word balloons, while letting another part unfold in the carefully drawn background. Drawn in black and white, the panel art is simple, yet vivid, and filled with subtle details that advance the story.
Though A Distant Soil continues to be warmly received by critics and fans, Doran earns the major part of her living drawing the artwork for other writers in a wide variety of comics and graphic novels. Fulfilling her childhood dreams, she has illustrated such classic comics as The Legion of Superheroes, The Amazing Spider-man, and Wonder Woman: The Once and Future Story. She has also illustrated such important graphic novels as Orbiter, written by Warren Ellis; Reign of the Zodiac, written by Keith Giffen; and The Book of Lost Souls, written by J. Michael Straczynski. In these works, she has demonstrated her versatility as an artist, often surprising critics with the ease with which she can change her style from project to project, whether portraying fantastic imaginary worlds or the concrete hardware of the NASA space program.
As a working artist, Doran has often found illustrating the work of other artists to be less demanding than creating her own story. "In some ways," she told GN, "doing A Distant Soil is harder than anything I've ever done, because I'm responsible for everything.… When I get something from a writer, some of the thinking has already been done for me." Graphic novel writers typically give their illustrators a basic design for the finished book, detailing the number of panels to a page and the general content of each panel. They also give a brief description of each character, upon which the artist can elaborate.
Because she has supported herself through her work in the comics business since she was a teenager, Doran has always been willing to share her experience with other artists who are working to create graphic novels. As part of this effort, she writes a regular column for Slush Factory, a comics Web site, advising other artists about such practical topics as organizing a home office and avoiding procrastination.
Pencillers, Inkers, and Colorers
As an illustrator of comics, Colleen Doran has often become frustrated with the traditional method of creating the drawings that fill the panels of comic books and graphic novels. In many comics, the original artwork is lightly drawn with extra-hard graphite pencils by the "penciller." The drawings are then sent to the "inker," who traces the pencil lines with India ink, using both pens and brushes. If the comic is not to be done in black and white, the inked artwork then goes to a colorer, or colorist, to receive the vibrant colors often associated with the comics.
Pencillers, inkers, and colorists are all artists, and each may add to the quality of the finished comic panel. However, because it is in the nature of an artist to want control over his or her creation, there is often tension among the three types of artists working on comics. Pencillers often worry that a careless or unskilled inker will destroy the subtle lines of their fine pencil drawings, while inkers complain that pencillers do not respect their art.
Confident artists like Doran have begun to streamline the process by creating their own ink drawings, eliminating the need for an inker. Computer technology has further simplified the illustration process, by allowing the artist to work in any size and send the finished artwork to the publisher by email. Colorists who once added color to comics illustrations with brushes and ink now use programs like Photoshop, which allow them to experiment with colors and textures easily.
Doran's knowledge of these matters has been gained through her own years of hard work as an independent artist. Often describing herself as a "workaholic," Doran spends long hours in her studio, once working for three months without a day off in order to meet a deadline. Though deadlines can be stressful, Doran welcomes them as motivation to immerse herself in her work, "I need something to push against, or I stop pushing completely.… I prefer to be a little overbooked," she told GN. Spending one's workday alone in a studio can be isolating for an artist, but Doran is a natural loner who appreciates solitude. In the early 2000s, she moved to a tiny town in Virginia's Appalachian Mountains, where she is surrounded by peaceful beauty while imagining the distant planets and fantastic characters that populate her work.
For More Information
Rosenberg, Aaron. The Library of Graphic Novelists: Colleen Doran. New York: Rosen Publishing Group, 2004.
Raiteri, Steve. Review of Orbiter. Library Journal (September 1, 2003): 140.
A Distant Soil. http://www.adistantsoil.com/ (accessed on May 3, 2006).
Colleen Doran. http://www.colleendoran.com/ (accessed on May 3, 2006).
Doran, Colleen. "The Home Office." Slush Factory. http://www.slushfactory.com/columns/cd/ (accessed on May 3, 2006).
Epstein, Daniel Robert. "A Chat with Colleen Doran." UnderGroundOnline. http://www.ugo.com/channels/comics/features/colleendoran/interview.asp (accessed on May 3, 2006).
Mason, Jeff. "Interview with Colleen Doran." Alternative Comics. http://www.indyworld.com/comics/doran.html (accessed on May 3, 2006).
O'Shea, Tim. "Colleen Doran: Working Hard." Silver Bullet Comic Books. http://www.silverbulletcomicbooks.com/features/106515332492810.htm (accessed on May 3, 2006).
Stuart, Alasdair. "The Friday Review: A Distant Soil: The Gathering." Ninth Art. http://www.ninthart.com/display.php?article=281 (accessed on May 3, 2006).
Additional information for this profile was obtained through an interview with Colleen Doran on August 6, 2005.