Comics: Trusting His Better Angels - A Conversation with Steve Lieber

Steve Lieber on Alabaster: Wolves

By , Columnist

I’ve had the pleasure of knowing Steve Lieber for going on two decades now, having met him shortly after I rediscovered comics in the early '90s. He was a highly regarded artist with an unerring sense of drama and storytelling possessed of real knowledge and abilities. Aside from the both of us being a little older, and ideally wiser, little has changed, really, except for one thing: His reputation, and the respect of his peers and fervor of his fans, have only grown over the intervening years.

With the release of Alabaster: Wolves # 1 earlier this week, it seemed apropos that Lieber and I talk about his involvement in bringing Dancy Flammarion—perhaps award-winning author Caitlin R. Kiernan's most beloved character—to comics for the first time, why he took this particular project on at this time, and what else he’s been working on of late. As always, Steve proves himself to be an entertaining and thoughtful conversationalist.

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How would you describe Alabaster: Wolves to someone unfamiliar with Dancy Flammarion’s previous adventures, as related in the prose work of Caitlin R. Kiernan?

I'd say it's a dark fantasy starring a homeless albino girl from down south. She's compelled to fight horrible monsters by forces beyond her understanding, and I think it might be driving her mad.

Do readers need to read those books to fully appreciate, or understand, these comics?

No, but they ought to because Kiernan's a hell of a writer.

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How familiar were you with Caitlin’s work, in general, and with the Dancy stories, in particular, before now?

I only knew her work by reputation. Then when Dark Horse approached me about working with her, I read a bunch of her stories.

Well, how did you get involved in this project, and what are some of the reasons you decided to contribute to it?

I was brought aboard by Rachel Edidin, the editor on the project. She thought I'd be a good fit for Caitlin's story. Once I'd read some of the Dancy short stories, it was easy to visualize all the great pictures and dramatic situations I'd get to draw.

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What kind of challenges does this book present to you as an artist? For instance, were you at all nervous about capturing the visual essence of Dancy? What about portraying her guardian angel in a convincing manner?

The biggest challenge is trying to communicate the particular atmosphere in Caitlin's stories. She doesn't do shock-horror. It's a unique and precise mood — more like dread mixed with resignation and regret. For the angel and Dancy, I drew a bunch of preparatory sketches and ran them by Caitlin for her feedback. I'm never nervous about things like that. I just dive in and start drawing, fail miserably, and then do my best to incorporate the responses I get.

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How have you and Caitlin been working on the book? Is it a traditional, “She writes it, I draw it” situation, or is there more of a give and take to it? And what kind of scripts are you working from—are they closer to the brief, Marvel style outline, or are they more involved than that?

The scripts are pretty tight, traditional scripts. Where there are ambiguities, or where I have a different idea about staging or gesture, I'll run it past Cait and my editors for approval. My ideas don't always get approved, but there's always a good reason when they aren't. You'd be amazed at how rare that sort of sensible collaboration is in comics. Most of the time, there's just no room in the schedule for it.

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What’s your typical approach to making comics? Do you read through the entire script before doing any drawing, or do you do thumbnails and sketches as you go through the script?

I'll read through the whole script a couple of times, making notes, looking for places where something special might be called for. If something's going to be a challenge to research, I want to start as soon as possible. If there are interesting parallels that I'll want to emphasize by echoing panels throughout the book, I'll note places where that might happen. If I can see something in my head immediately, I'll jot it down right there and then. After that, I thumbnail a batch of pages, do my rough scribbly pencils and send them off for approval.

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You actually stepped back from drawing comics for a while. What was behind that absence?

There was Shooters, a big graphic novel at Vertigo which required a lot of research. Also, I had blocked out a big chunk of time for a project that didn't get written, and that left me scrambling to pick up other work. Among the projects I wound up putting my time into were Underground. That didn't pay anything so I had to take on a lot of storyboard and illustration work to cover the loss.

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Well, has your commercial art had any effect on your comics work? How about the reverse? Did your experience creating comics help you in your commercial work?

Hard work of any sort at the drawing board helps make you a better artist, and I certainly think I've learned a lot about the digital tools I use working on storyboards.

What do you get from making comics, aside from fame, fortune, and all the comp copies you can carry?

I just love the satisfaction of creating a good page of comics. I love how each picture works as both a self-contained unit and as part of an arrangement of panels on a page, communicating an emotional flow from one feeling to another. Trying to get all the elements just right while making them fit together is just endlessly satisfying.

How about your commercial art pursuits? Is that work all about the filthy lucre or does that provide you with some real satisfaction or rewards that doing comics doesn’t supply?

The best part about commercial stuff is that I'm often asked to do lighter and funnier pictures than I ever get to do in my comics career.

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How about your readers? What do you hope they get from your work generally, and from Alabaster: Wolves, in particular? Is it all about entertainment, or do you hope that they might find something more in the work if they want it?

If my published work can't get my readers laid, it's all for naught. No, seriously, all I want to provide honest, well-crafted entertainment with some meat on it.

What’s next, for both Dancy and you? Is this a book you could see doing for the long term, or might you have other things already brewing for the future?

I'd love to do more in Dancy's world. I'm talking with a couple of writers about other projects, but there's nothing carved in stone.

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Anything else you’d like to add before I let you get back to work?

Just that I really hope readers enjoy what Caitlin and I have done on this book. And that if anyone wants to learn more about my work, I've got a lot of stories available for free download at my website, including the complete Underground graphic novel.

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A veteran journalist who has covered the comics medium since 1998, Bill Baker is also the author of Icons: The DC Comics and WildStorm Art of Jim Lee and seven previous books featuring his extended interviews with Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman and other notable creators. You can learn more about Bill’s work…

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