Smash Pages Q&A: Ray Fawkes

The creator of ‘One Soul’ and ‘Possessions’ discusses the process of creating ‘In the Flood,’ his latest release from comiXology Originals.

Ray Fawkes is the writer of a long list of comics series including Constantine, Wolverines, Batman Eternal and Gotham by Midnight, but for many of us, no matter how many comics he writes, he will always be the cartoonist behind a long run of graphic novels and comics series including One Soul, Underwinter, Intersect, Possessions and The People Inside. He’s a creator who seems to effortlessly move between forms and approaches and genres

His new book is In the Flood. A digital comic that’s out now from comiXology Originals, Fawkes made the book with Lee Loughridge and Thomas Mauer, and though it’s hard to talk about the book involving a couple separated by a flood without giving some of the story away, it very much fits in with Fawkes’ other comics which he’s written and drawn. I spoke with Fawkes recently about how the book required a different way to work, how having a messy studio helps him to craft order on the page and his drawing practice.

I always like to start by asking, how did you first come to comics?

I first came to comics as a kid. My parents would buy me lots of comics. I was a voracious reader, so I don’t remember a time when I didn’t have comics. As far as making comics, I first came to the business from a do-it-yourself angle. I had friends who were really into the music zine scene. I loved that they could put just about anything creative down on paper and photocopy it and sell it. I started making my own comics and selling them at zine fairs, and I went into self-publishing from there. I come from a world of people with their crazy unique voices just putting it down on paper. Which I think relates back to a lot of the comics I read back when I was a kid. I remember having my mind blown by Bill Sienkiewicz and Frank Miller and indie books like Flaming Carrot.

As far as In the Flood, I’m not sure how much I want to say about the story so I’m deferring to you.

The book itself is a trick and a puzzle, so I find the best way for me to talk about it is to talk mostly about the setup and not give too much of the process away.

So how do you describe the setup?

The pitch is that it’s about a devoted married couple, Mike and Clara, who are physically separated by a flood – a possibly apocalyptic flood – and they have sworn to get back to each other. The book is about their struggle to get back to each other as they realize that the flood is more than just an ordinary rainfall. There is something beyond the physical happening.

Flooding is always a great metaphor, and right now now apocalyptic flooding happens regularly around the globe. Did that affect how you thought about the idea?

It was very much on my mind as I was conceiving of the book. It’s funny because when I first came up with the idea for the book and I wanted a kind of apocalypse happening, in my notes I wrote that I wanted it to be a creeping doom. I didn’t want it to be a sudden doom like a nuclear exchange or alien invasion, I wanted it to be something where people had to realize how dangerous it is and the characters had to realize how dangerous it is. I was thinking of that as we’ve all been watching and thinking about the changes in the weather and how many people are struggling to get it noticed and get people to do something about it. It seemed perfect to me to make the doom that’s approaching Mike and Clara to be related to the weather.

There’s a gradualness to it, and there’s not quite a “five stages of grief” to dealing with a flood, but there is coping and bargaining.

Yes, it turns out to be much worse than you thought it was. The person seeing it happening and continually saying to themselves, it looks bad but it’ll be okay. It looks bad, but it won’t get any worse. And of course, there are times when it does get worse.

You described the book earlier as a puzzle, and structure has always been important in your writing.

I’m a bit of a formalist addict. I love that the shape of a story can powerfully effect the experience of reading the story. The structure of this story is very deliberately chosen to have a specific effect. 

Structure is always important to you, but I always think of your writing as poetic. So much of poetry is about structure, and those two aspects seem to go hand in hand for you.

I think you’re right. To me, structure doesn’t just apply to the order of the pages, it applies to the actual text as well. I’m a lover of poetry, so I really enjoy it when people say my work is poetic, so thank you for that.

Related to that, you’re always very conscious of the design and form. Reading a book digitally is a different experience. Were you thinking about that as you were making it?

I knew early on that this was going to be a digital release book. Honestly I thought about it a lot and fretted over it a lot. I worried a lot because this is my first time doing a digital release book, and I kind of had to figure out the experience. I was taking a look at the pages I was doing on screens to make sure they were working the way I wanted them to and making sure that the experience of reading them would work the way I wanted them to. I think it worked. I’m eager to see what people think.

Did you change how you work?

To a certain extent I wrote and drew it the same way as always, but because comiXology has the guided view option, I did a lot of thinking about how the pages would look taken as a whole but also how they would look if they were chopped into bits and the reader would move through the pieces. There was definitely more of a process of checking over my work and making sure it worked in the different ways it could be viewed. Once I knew what I was doing and where I wanted everything to sit on a page, the actual process was the same as ever.

What is your typical process?

A lot of the books I’ve made recently were painted by hand on paper, and for this book I decided to draw it digitally on a screen. My studio is a little bit of a mess for someone who’s such a formalist. I have everything within reach. This particular book was an all digital production but all around me I had pieces of paper with characters and locations sketched and quick ideas written down. I do such a job of attempting to control the output on the page that the actual work within the studio can be a bit of a whirlwind.

There’s that famous line by Flaubert about how your life must be ordered so you can take risks on the page – your life is chaotic to bring order to the page? [laughs]

[laughs] Yeah I guess I’m creating the illusion of an extremely structured mind.

For this book, Lee Loughridge worked on the colors and Thomas Mauer did the lettering and design. How much interaction did you have with them and how does compare to other recent projects?

A fair amount more interaction than I usually have with colorists and designers. Often times at other publishers – especially the bigger publishers I’ve worked for, like DC – they put everyone in their silos and you communicate a little but not much. Whereas I was quite frequently messaging or on the phone with Lee and Tom, and we were making sure that everything was jiving the way we wanted it to. It was actually a really pleasant.

Did the fact that this was digital require more interaction to make sure you were all on the same page as far as how it should look and making sure it will look right?

Those guys are old hands at doing digital stuff. Lee and Tom have both done a few books for comiXology, so I was the one often asking them questions to make sure that things would work out on the digital production side of things.

You write a lot of comics for DC and Valiant or whoever, but you always seem to be writing and drawing your own work as well. Why?

It comes down to a hunger, I think. As I’m working with other people’s material I also am always thinking of things that are maybe a little truer to myself or that come from a deeper place. When I think of ideas like that, I usually want to hold onto them and tell them my way. If I come up with a great idea for Batman or Wolverine, then certainly I will take it to the people who own it and I will treat it as carefully as I would one of my own ideas, but when I have an idea for something I really want to talk about, usually I find I’m almost overwhelmed by the urge to tell it in a certain way. That means that I usually have to tell it myself. 

What’s your daily practice as far as drawing?

Whenever I’m not working on a project, I have sketchbooks and notebooks at hand and I’m throwing down ideas or drawing. I do a lot of painting on the side whenever I want to create, but I’m not working on a big project. In my daily life I’m pretty much painting or drawing every day. Generally inside the office hours I keep I’m working and writing scripts and writing down ideas, and if I’m not working on a specific piece for publication then generally I’m painting something.

Do you paint anything in particular?

Mostly figurative paintings. People I get to model. 

But not making anything for a specific purpose.

It’s habit and the pleasure of doing it. When I’m working on a book, I’m so focused on the material of the book that that’s basically all I draw for six months or eight months. When I’m not working on a book I give myself the freedom to paint or draw anything. I don’t have a lot of days where I don’t draw something.

After finishing In the Flood, which you drew digitally, did you need to work on paper and have that physical experience of making art?

Yeah, anytime you restrict yourself in the medium. When I did a book like One Soul, which was all ink, or a book like In the Flood, which was all digital, I almost take a childish pleasure spending the next week painting or working on canvas or paper or something I can get dirty with. If I paint a book like Intersect or Underwinter, when I’m done with that, I can’t wait to get onto a screen. Just to express myself in a way that I haven’t let myself for a few months.

As you said, you’ve made comics that are in ink, you’ve painted your own work. Do you keep changing because you want to try something new? Or are you always trying to find an aesthetic that fits the story?

To me, every element of a book is part and parcel of the story. I think to myself, just as with the structure and the language, that the way I draw the book needs to fit the way the story is told. It needs to be what I feel like is the best way to tell the story. It’s hard to explain, but as I begin to envision a book, I begin to work out what it’s going to be. I’m eliminating things I don’t want to do until I’ve pared down to what I think will tell the story most directly and most efficiently and most pleasantly. In this case, I wanted to make it a digital work and that’s just the way it was.

I’m curious about the color and why you decided to work with a colorist. Because the color is used very deliberately in the book.

A little bit of it was in discussion with the comiXology people. I told them what I wanted to do with the color, and they suggested Lee. I’m really glad they did because not only did Lee get what I was talking about right away and came back with some really beautiful elegant solutions, but Lee’s experience with color for different media was really useful to me and really appreciated. I believe it made the book more powerful than if I had handled the color myself with paint.

Lee is a master of using a limited color palate and finding really powerful ways to utilize it.

I just sat down and explained to him what I needed the color to do in this book, and he came back to me with these subtle touches that were wonderful and just perfect. He really brought something to the book that I appreciate. I’m nuts about some of the pages and what he did with them. I think he very much improved on the black and white.

What’s a page or sequence in the book that you really like?

That’s a tough one. From a writer’s perspective, I think the pages with the card tricks and hands work exactly the way I wanted them to. I think my favorite page involves a submerged tree. I was very happy with the way it originally looked and then I was blown away by how it looked after Lee added the colors to it.

Will this ever see print at some point?

It’s a possibility. Coming from the world that I come from, I would love to at least print a few copies. I think demand is going to decide that. It’s a digital release, but if people are demanding paper copies, I’m sure something will be arranged.

You’ve played around with so many forms and formats, as we’ve been talking about. What did you enjoy about this format?

I wanted the specific format for this book to be of a piece all of its own. In part because of the storytelling trick in the book that involves part of the later narrative. I don’t think that would have worked in serial format. I think it needed to be all one piece so readers could experience the whole thing and then ideally go back in the story and try to reorder it in their mind. I don’t want to give the trick away.

What have you been doing since or thinking about next?

I’ve been planning the next pieces. Going through my notes and deciding what I’d like to do next. Like every writer – whether they admit it or not – I’ve been quietly terrified about how my book will be received. The way I usually describe myself when I’m done with a piece is immediately begin to think about what I’m going to do next.

I know that you’re always writing multiple books, so you don’t have too much time to relax after finishing a project.

I allow myself one or two days and then it’s back to work

In preparing for this, I realized how many more comics you’ve worked on lately than I knew. Also, weirdly enough, I’ve talked with you and Matt Kindt and Jeff Lemire in the past few months – though I didn’t intend to interview the entire Black Hammer ’45 team. You seem to be enjoying yourself.

I definitely am. It’s funny you mention Black Hammer ’45 because that was a job that was pure pleasure – because I got to do it with Jeff and Matt who I’m close friends with. I wish every book could become like that one. It’s important in this job to enjoy the work. Obviously. I’m very serious with some of my books, but I try to cast about for gigs I know I’ll enjoy. Black Hammer was like that, and some other projects you’ll hear about soon aren’t just professional jobs, but also things I want to do and enjoy doing.

It’s interesting that you and Matt and Jeff are friends because I think of the three of you as having a similar sensibility and approach to comics.

I think that has a lot to do with why we’re friends. We all see the process of creation and the point of what we’re doing, if not exactly the same way, along lines that we can all understand. 

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