Mighty Mike Russell Interrogates WHITEOUT Graphic Novel Illustrator Steve Lieber!
Published at: Sept. 11, 2009, 2:56 p.m. CST by mrbeaks
THE AICN Q&A: STEVE LIEBER
Steve Lieber sweats comics. Putting it another way: Steve Lieber visited the set of "Whiteout" -- the movie adaptation of the 1999 graphic novel he illustrated from a Greg Rucka script, about U.S. Marshal Carrie Stetko solving a string of murders in Antarctica -- and during this visit, it's possible he was less interested in meeting star Kate Beckinsale and more interested in using the visit to sharpen his drawing skills.
"Seeing movie lights in real life was a revelation for me," he told me. "You know, I've sketched from paused DVDs a million times. But to actually be able to walk around something that's being lit for movies -- seeing how the shadows break up and how they transition from light to shade to core shadow -- that was wonderful to me. I was sketching like a fiend.... I think the way I drew shadow changed based on that."
Lieber has also drawn Batman, Superman, Hawkman and a ton of other licensed material. He co-wrote an "Idiot's Guide" on making graphic novels. These days, his interests lie in non-corporate material -- including comics written by his wife Sara Ryan and, as we speak, "Underground," an Image Comics miniseries written by Jeff Parker about a park ranger and her wild adventures in a Kentucky cave system.
I met Lieber at Periscope Studio, which he co-founded. It's a jam-packed communal workspace for freelance comics pros in downtown Portland. Several Marvel, DC, and indie writers and artists -- including Jeff Parker, David Hahn, Paul Guinan, Colleen Coover, Jesse Hamm, Karl Kesel, Matthew Clark, Paul Tobin, Ron Randall, and Terry Dodson -- call it their office, sharing scanners and Cintiqs and, if the deadlines are particularly crushing, their talents. (Steve tells a great story below about one particularly insane comic-book barn-raising.)
The decor in the place might be best described as "the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum of nerdica" -- Periscope is just sick with original art, gigantic model planes, and hilariously expensive collectibles from comics, movies and assorted foreign wars. I was nerding out on Curt Swan's original art for the Aquaman Hostess Fruit Pies ad when Lieber suggested we go out for coffee.
So we walked to a Peet's down the street, sat outside, ignored the car alarms, and talked for an hour-and-a-half -- about "Whiteout," how to draw Antarctica, Lieber's almost supernaturally Zen attitude about the Hollywood development process, obsessive research, amateur spelunking, how to extract payment from difficult publishers, how to make a 100-page comic in 20 days, horrible teaching experiences, designing Hello Kitty floats, working for a literal ton of food, and why a 3-D map of Gotham City might be a nice way to appease the continuity gods. At the time, neither of us had seen the finished film version of "Whiteout," though he's since walked the white carpet with his wife at the L.A. premiere and reportedly enjoyed the experience immensely, despite being mocked by Parker on Twitter the entire time. Anyway, an edited transcript follows.
(Oh, and if you're curious, I also made a comic strip out of like maybe 4 percent of this conversation.)
-- Mike Russell
'WHITEOUT' AS PERSONAL BREAKTHROUGH
MIKE RUSSELL: Your afterward to the "Whiteout" trade paperback is a pretty great read: You talk about how the story was a huge personal and artistic breakthrough for you. How so?
STEVE LIEBER: In 1998, when I was working on the book, my career had come to an impasse. I had done a number of commercial projects, and none of them were well-received. I wasn't happy with any of them. I looked at them all and wondered why I'd gone to art school in the first place. I looked at them and said, "This is the kind of comic you see in the three-for-a-quarter box." Nothing was clicking. Nothing came together. It was all assembly-line stuff, and it felt like the parts of the assembly line weren't talking to each other.
"Whiteout" was the best story anyone had given me at that point. I knew I could tell it right -- as well as anyone alive could tell it. And because Oni was paying very little, I was free to make it look exactly the way I wanted it to look. There wasn't a single line in the book that wasn't mine -- every dot, every dash, every tiny little pen squiggle was mine, and the penciling, lettering and toning.
RUSSELL: People think, "You do comics? You have complete control." Well, not always.
LIEBER: You do if it’s your material. But if you're working on a comic book at one of the majors -- a corporate-owned comic -- very often they break those up into assembly lines during the production process.
"Whiteout" wasn't a product -- this was a story. I was able to tell it as well as I possibly could -- I didn't have to "get away with" any of these drawings.
RUSSELL: I was fascinated to read about the sheer number of separate techniques you employed on the "Whiteout" book -- Zipatone, raw pencils, crayons. Very Bill Sienkiewicz of you. But the book still looks cohesive stylistically.
LIEBER: It's a bizarre quiltwork of techniques. It was all over the place, technically. But what unifies it is that it's all my own sensibility -- I'm still the one making the marks.
And I didn't work on a page until I hit a number of steps -- I worked on a page until it felt right.
RUSSELL: Which is a luxury in your line of work.
LIEBER: Absolutely. I took a long time on each page, and if a page didn't work, I would hit it with another technique. I rubbed a page halfway down with sandpaper at one point.
RUSSELL: Really? What page was this?
LIEBER: This was in the second issue, just after Carrie is lost in the whiteout. The Zipatone I had laid down was too harsh, so I took sandpaper to it, and I wanted to fuzz out some of the white I had painted over it, too.
And none of this was just for its own sake. Greg had written a really atmospheric story -- Antarctica was a character in the story, it was a force that acted upon the other characters. And so I knew what I had to get across, and I would just fight with the page until it gave up the feeling I wanted it to give. I just beat on it until it looked right.
RUSSELL: You've said your obsessive process of making "Whiteout" drove family and friends "insane." How so?
LIEBER: I was working in a studio by myself. I typically work ten-hour days. But I didn't hesitate to be rude to people on the phone and get back to my pages. I was ... less-than-pleasant to my wife at times, because I was just inside the pages and couldn't see past the battle I was fighting with each one.
I think I let being concerned about how the book was going to turn out turn me into someone who was less concerned about how everything else in my life was going to turn out. [laughs]
RUSSELL: When you're in the zone, there's always the risk of sort of taking an autistic personality out on loan and wearing it for a while.
LIEBER: I was a damned troll under a bridge. [laughs] I was just really unpleasant. I was solving new problems, and rather than feeling satisfied that I was solving new problems, I was getting angry because everything wasn't coming out perfect the first time I put a line down. I would spend 10 hours, 11 hours, 13 hours, 14 hours. I wasn't sleeping right. I wasn't treating myself right. But in the end, one decent page after another was coming off my table -- and it was the first time that I could really say that about my career.
RUSSELL: Now that it's more than ten years on, do you find that you manage that energy better now than you used to?
LIEBER: Oh, much better. So much better.
RUSSELL: What was the trick you learned to manage that? "Trick" may not be the right word....
LIEBER: Working around others was really helpful. Getting into Periscope Studio made a huge difference for me. And realizing that if something isn't working out the way I want it to, I can ask somebody else. [laughs] I can shoot photo-reference instead of trying to invent everything from my head. I finally realized that if Norman Rockwell felt the need to work from a model, if Michelangelo felt the need to work from a model, then maybe it's okay for me to work from a model.
RUSSELL: It's okay to look at life to draw life? Yeah.
HOW TO DRAW AN OLD-WEST ANTARCTICA
RUSSELL: You've said you were "aching" to draw the "Whiteout" script. What images in particular made you ache? And did they make it into the movie?
LIEBER: Some did -- although I hesitate to spoil anything for people, and I don't know what's in the final cut.
RUSSELL: All I've seen is the trailer.
LIEBER: Yeah. I've seen some footage that people got to me on the sly, which was very nice of them.
A lot of what I ached to draw was just the Antarctic imagery. I've always loved drawing nature; it was always the strongest thing in my sketchbook. And the extreme shapes in that climate -- the forces, the wind, the cold, the dryness carved right into it -- just fascinated the hell out of me.
And then to put a town like McMurdo right into the middle of that.... McMurdo is a town built on the "good enough for government work" plan.
RUSSELL: [laughs] Lotta things out of kits.
LIEBER: Yeah. There were a lot of Quonset huts. The place could look a lot like Pittsburgh, where I'm from -- that same beaten-by-the-elements quality, and an entire aesthetic built upon keeping things functional. And I just felt like I knew the folks who were there.
RUSSELL: And certainly there's an Old West quality to it, where you've got a lone marshal out on the frontier. That's got to be one of the last places on earth where you can create that in a modern sensibility.
LIEBER: Absolutely. You don't get much more frontier than Antarctica. When Greg initially told me about the series, he described it as "a Western starring Marshal Carrie."
Yeah, I've been trying to sell people on Westerns for years. I like Westerns a lot.
RUSSELL: In comics, you mean?
LIEBER: Yeah. And I've gotten to do a lot of Western-tinged things -- Western-tinged science fiction, Western-tinged superhero comics. But I haven't ever really been able to sell anyone on a Western. "Whiteout" was the closest I was going to get.
TRACING MILTON CANIFF
RUSSELL: You studied at the Joe Kubert School. Can you explain the Kubert School for the lay reader?
LIEBER: It's a commercial-art trade school for cartoonists, with a curriculum that emphasizes marketable skills over personal expression. I learned a lot from the place -- mostly that I needed to sit down and learn the rock-solid basics of drawing and leave the master-strokes for the masters.
RUSSELL: I see a lot of classic newspaper adventure strip in your "Whiteout" style -- some of Milton Caniff's "Steve Canyon," some of Roy Crane's "Wash Tubbs and Captain Easy."
LIEBER: Yeah. Roy Crane mostly second-hand. I've looked at his work and enjoyed it, but I've never made the study of it that I did of Milton Caniff; if I had, then maybe I wouldn't have had to fight with those pages so much.
RUSSELL: Yeah, Crane was renowned for working incredibly quickly.
LIEBER: Yeah, and with real artistic economy and efficiency. There's never two lines when one will do. Never two shades of tone when one will do -- whereas I had to put down seven or eight shades of tone until I found the right one. I guess Roy Crane wrote a how-to guide when he left "Captain Easy" that walked his successors through his process for drawing the strip, and I'd love to read that. Crane could strip storytelling down to the essential basics. I want to do that, too.
But what I did get a lot from was Milton Caniff -- particularly "Terry and the Pirates." One of the best exercises I ever had in art school was very, very carefully tracing blown-up Xeroxes of very old newspaper strips of his from early World War II. I would Xerox each panel until it was approximately the size I think he drew them at, and I'd just copy them brushstroke for brushstroke, just to see what it looks like when you develop a picture like that.
I asked a teacher of mine who knew him, "Is this how Caniff would have done it?" And he said, "Well, he wouldn't have been careful about this. He would have used a lot more white paint than you're using...."
RUSSELL: "Milton would have been a lot more slapdash, Steve." [laughs]
LIEBER: Oh, absolutely. But you've gotta earn that. You don't get that one for free.
Anyway, I learned a lot from that. It was a big jump I took in art school right there, applying those sort of techniques. Saying, "Oh, okay. Wow. A drawing that good can come off the end of my hand. If only I'd been the one to draw it."
RUSSELL: You've got the motion. Now it's a matter of getting the brain behind the motion.
LIEBER: In any serious art program, the artist ends up copying the masters. That was my version of that.
HOW TO DRAW PERFECT SNOW
RUSSELL: The latest trade-paperback edition of "Whiteout" is billed as being "remastered." What does that mean, precisely?
LIEBER: They were printing it at a different size than it was intended to be printed. It was drawn to be printed at 6x9", and the new volume is at a purse size now. And because of all that strange tonal stuff I was doing, there were a million possibilities for really terrible reproduction.
RUSSELL: Oh, sure. There's really fine work in this.
LIEBER: Tiny, tiny little dots, arranged in all sorts of grids. So the guys at Oni went through and twiddled the knobs on every single panel in Photoshop to make sure that everything looked right. Then they gave me a pass at it. I fixed ten-year-old mistakes that had been poking me in the eyes. [laughs] Nothing like going back and correcting errors you made a decade prior.
RUSSELL: Though I'd imagine, on some level, that you'd want to fight the urge to do that.
LIEBER: I didn't want to subvert any of the artistic decisions I had made. I just wanted to make sure that both eyes were pointing in the same direction the whole time. Things like that.
RUSSELL: What's the secret to drawing good snow? [pause] I love how I use the word "secret," like it's easy. "There's a trick!"
LIEBER: You figure out where the shadows fall, and very delicately put your marks down there.
RUSSELL: It'd be interesting to hear you and Frank Miller talk about this together.
LIEBER: Who was it in baseball who said, "Hit it where they ain't"? [laughs] You can go back in later and pretend I got the attribution right. [Editor's note: It was Willie Keeler.]
RUSSELL: You also wrote in your afterward to "Whiteout," "I tend to judge a comics page by how the pictures sound." What did you mean by that?
LIEBER: It's hard to talk about without sounding like someone's stoner roomie from college, but when a picture works for me, it seems to trip appropriate audio-related circuits in my brain, and I get a discernible sensation that I'm actually hearing what the image sounds like. I've spoken to other artists who describe similar reactions.
THE ZEN OF THE DECADE-LONG MOVIE-DEVELOPMENT PROCESS
RUSSELL: I'm curious about the courtship process involved in making a deal to get "Whiteout" onscreen. How does that work? How long does it take? Do you and Greg Rucka have equal say in the matter? Do you have a long-time agent who smoothes this all out?
LIEBER: It was mostly Greg's people doing the work. Greg has a literary agent and a film agent.
RUSSELL: Wow. Good for him.
LIEBER: Yeah, Greg's people are really on top of things. Initially, Wolfgang Petersen was interested in working on the film, and his production company held the rights for a while, and they commissioned a script by the Hoeber brothers [Jon and Erich]. But the deal never quite got made. It went into turnaround.
Reese Witherspoon picked it up -- Type-A Productions. A script was commissioned there that didn't really work for anybody.... That one died, and then Joel Silver picked it up. And Silver -- or should I say, Silver's people -- actually seemed interested in the material.
Dominic Sena, the guy who wound up directing it, had read it when it came out as a comic. I met him, and I was on the set when they were filming, and it was clear that he actually knew the material from the book. I watched him direct a pivotal scene from the comic, and he was directing Kate Beckinsale, and he said, "I want you to fall backwards, grab your hand, and fall to your knees." And he was walking her through the whole panel progression.
And they didn't have any storyboards. Sena doesn't use storyboards at all. His big thing was music videos before he moved to features, and he's got a great visual sense. That's his joy -- setting up really beautiful shots. I have no doubt that you could go through this movie and freeze-frame, and every single frame is gonna be a gorgeous photograph.
RUSSELL: One thing I noticed from the film's trailer is that it's bigger than the comic -- which is a fairly stripped-down story told over just four issues. But in the movie trailer, they've added airplane mayhem, a giant collapsing crater in the snow, and clearly they've replaced the book's Macguffin (core samples of gold found under the ice) with some sort of buried aircraft. Are you philosophical about the changes in the translation to screen? Do you care?
LIEBER: I always thought of our first book as an independent film and our second book ["Whiteout: Melt"] as our big-budget Hollywood thriller.
RUSSELL: The second book -- which I'm sorry, I haven't had a chance to read yet -- is Russians and nukes, right?
LIEBER: Yeah. And some of the big stuff in the movie comes from the second book.
RUSSELL: But on some level, this story would HAVE to be made a little larger, wouldn't it? The first "Whiteout" book almost feels like an hourlong episode of a Carrie Stetko TV series.
LIEBER: Yeah. The movie is not the book. The movie is a $50-million movie.
RUSSELL: Were you involved at all in the storyboard or production-design process on the film?
LIEBER: No. They essentially paid me to go away. [laughs] Greg Rucka was a producer on the film, and was eventually hired as a scriptwriter.
RUSSELL: Yeah, I heard a podcast interview with Rucka, and he sort of ended up being an on-set script doctor, didn't he?
LIEBER: Yeah. He went up for a courtesy visit, and they were conferring about a plot matter, and he leaned over and whispered his thoughts about what they were solving into somebody's ear. And that was whispered in the director's ear, and the director said, "Why isn't he on set?" -- and hired him on the spot.
RUSSELL: Every writer's dream. You did a set visit, correct? How was the tour arranged?
LIEBER: It was arranged by Greg calling me on my cell phone and saying, "Steve, can you get up here?" And I said, "I guess so. I think my passport's in order."
RUSSELL: They were shooting around a lake in Canada, correct?
LIEBER: The exteriors were shot in the middle of Lake Winnipeg after it freezes up, because they wanted a 360-degree panoramic view that was nothing but ice and snow, and Lake Winnipeg's got that. The crew members said it was a two-hour drive each way, just to get to it and just to get to the set.
RUSSELL: I can't believe they didn't do that with green-screen.
LIEBER: [mock-wipes forehead] Whew! Yeah, the cold is real. On those exterior shots, if they look fucking frozen and miserable, it's because they are fucking frozen and miserable. They didn't have to act that.
There's an art collector up there -- the guy who does "Hey Oscar Wilde! It's Clobberin' Time!!!" He collects sketches of comic-book artists doing literary figures. He lives about an hour from where they shot the movie. It was tremendously enjoyable for him to watch the trailer -- where they say, "MAN WASN'T MEANT TO LIVE HERE," and "HERE" was about an hour from his house.
RUSSELL: You're going to the premiere, correct? Is it at Grauman's Chinese?
LIEBER: I thought it was, but it's actually at another one of their theaters. I have no idea what the difference is between one and the other, except one is legendary. [laughs]
But back to the tour: The exteriors were shot in the middle of Lake Winnipeg; the interiors were shot on a soundstage in Montreal, and that was awesome. I've been on TV-commercial shoots before, but I'd never been on a serious movie shoot, and that was something to see. You're in a room that's three stories tall with cranes moving around, and seeing the absolute reality of a set just stop, and then there's nothing but three planks of wood propping it up.... It's dazzling.
And seeing movie lights in real life was a revelation for me. You know, I've sketched from paused DVDs a million times. But to actually be able to walk around something that's being lit for movies -- seeing how the shadows break up and how they transition from light to shade to core shadow -- that was wonderful to me. I was sketching like a fiend.
RUSSELL: I'll bet your sketchbook from that visit would be pretty interesting.
LIEBER: I did a whole bunch of sketches. My favorite is a shot of Dominic Sena directing. I drew it from behind. He has a mannerism where he waves his hands like a conductor when things are going on, so I caught him doing this strange hand motion.
RUSSELL: I'd love to see those sketches. I mean, when you're drawing a comic panel, if you're serious about lighting, you're kind of positioning lights in your head ...
LIEBER: ... and looking for ways to graphically simplify. But here I was, seeing the real artificial thing, for lack of a better word [laughs] -- seeing how things look when they're lit by unbelievable amounts of candle-power by professionals who are trying to sculpt form with light. That was a great set of lessons, right there. I think the way I drew shadow changed based on that.
RUSSELL: The film has been optioned and in varying levels of development since November 1999. Did you think the process would take this long? Do you go through any sort of emotional journey during the development process -- where you had to come to terms with the Zen of it, you know?
LIEBER: From the very start, I've never let myself get excited about it. I was always happy that the option sold, I was happy to collect the check for the rights to make a movie. I never let myself assume that a movie would be made -- and I certainly never let myself think that the movie that they did make has anything to do with me. Or at least I try very hard not to let that happen.
It's a funny, sad thing: I know lots of artists who've had movies made of their comics, and to a man, they're all unbelievably unhappy people. [laughs] They've hit the dream -- Hollywood loves their vision -- and they go through life like their book's just been cancelled. And I know why: Because it's almost impossible not to let yourself think, "Now I'm a big deal. Now the magic's really gonna happen. Now it's really coming together." And you wake up and you're still the same asshole -- and the only difference is that there's a movie out there that people think you adapted.
RUSSELL: [laughs] Sure.
LIEBER: I had several people in San Diego walk past my table and say, "Oh! You're doing the comics adaptation of that movie they made! Is this a spinoff?"
RUSSELL: That's a moment of real humility.
LIEBER: It's part of the deal. They're gonna buy me half a house, I'm gonna have to eat some shit, you know? [laughs]
WORKING WITH WRITERS and MAKING PEACE WITH PHOTO-REFERENCE
RUSSELL: As an artist, how do you prefer to work with a writer?
LIEBER: I don't really have a preference. Greg was very, very hands-off with the art. He's fond of saying that he doesn't think visually. I think he's selling himself short, but it's true -- he is less concerned with orchestrating a series of pictures than he is with constructing a scene out of moments. And there's a whole lot of room to nail the feelings he wants, the beats he wants, the rhythms and the moments that he's looking for. So there's a lot of opportunity for an artist's voice to come through.
Working with Jeff Parker is a much more organic process.
RUSSELL: Jeff Parker is himself a cartoonist.
LIEBER: Jeff's a cartoonist with very, very strong visual ideas himself.
RUSSELL: In my experience of Parker at the Stumptown Comics Fest and elsewhere, he strikes me as being something of a madman.
LIEBER: Jeff is a brutal collaborator, but great ideas just come pouring out of his pie-hole. He's the man who puts the "mental" in "judgmental." He's a philosopher-thug.
RUSSELL: And I can only imagine there's a lot of pressure having to follow up "Doom, Where's My Car?"
LIEBER: Jeff's one of the best writers -- he snuck up on everybody. It's very easy for the industry to underestimate a guy who comes out of the art side into writing -- but often they end up being the most influential writers. Alan Moore started off as an artist and a writer. Grant Morrison came out of art school. Brian Bendis was an artist. Miller, of course. Paul Tobin drew comics. And now Rick Remender and of course Jeff Parker are really blowing people away. And the big advantage they have over non-drawing writers is that they're able to construct things that work on a purely visual level -- and they may be able to squeeze a little more juice out of their artists because they know what it's like to be driving a desk. [laughs]
Jeff writes in hugely visual scenarios. There's a lot of stuff with Parker that I don’t think an ordinary writer could write. There's a lot of stuff that he flat-out doesn't write -- he'll thumbnail it, or he'll work with me and set up models and we'll work on a photo shoot together.
RUSSELL: So you're almost doing a kind of pre-viz fumetti.
LIEBER: Oh, absolutely. As I mentioned before, I had avoided shooting reference for years. I'd say, "Well, that’s getting in the way of my own creativity." And in fact, what that meant was that I wasn't bringing anything new to any page -- I was only working with what I already had inside me. After ten years of drawing professionally, I think I'd drawn every way I could make up of somebody sitting at a table, of somebody leaning back in a chair. But the moment I started working from models, I found that real life was always able to throw me a curve ball and give me something I'd never put into a picture before.
RUSSELL: I've been working on this historical thing -- sort of a fever-dream historical thing -- and one of the things that was kind of funny was that back in the day, when I started doing this, I was like, "I don't need research! I'll find all kinds of crazy stuff in my head!" And it was really depressing to find out I had a finite amount of crazy stuff in my head. [laughs]
LIEBER: Yeah. The good news is, the rest of the world is out there for the taking.
RUSSELL: Yeah. Plunder doesn't seem so bad to me any more.
SUBVERTING YOUR GIRL-ON-GIRL EXPECTATIONS
RUSSELL: One thing really struck me about "Whiteout" the book: Both its buddy-movie protagonists are women. (I know this has been changed for the film.) You'll see a man-woman pairing, but seldom a woman-woman pairing.
LIEBER: I didn't realize that was how it was going to play out, because I only saw the first issue when Oni first showed me the script. I didn't see the buddy dynamic coming up. That said, I thought it was fantastic. I really liked the interplay between Carrie -- the angry little tank whose only emotion is anger that things aren't working out the way she wants them to -- and Lily, the cool, calculating British secret agent. It was a fascinating interplay. I liked playing with the different physical types.
RUSSELL: Yeah, there's a lot of height juxtapositions in your panels featuring those characters.
LIEBER: Yeah. One reviewer made a really off-kilter observation that I was going with a stereotype by pairing blonde and brunette.
RUSSELL: [laughs] And what stereotype would that be, precisely?
LIEBER: She thought it was Betty and Veronica. And I actually wrote to her and said, "No, I did that because it's a black-and-white comic with a whole lot of panels Sometimes the blonde and brunette heads are going to be less than a quarter-inch tall, and if they aren't different colors, no one's going to be able to tell which is which -- they're dressed the same." [laughs] I don't have much to work with there.
RUSSELL: Critics always assume there was some artistic intent, and a lot of time it's just a practical logistical consideration.
LIEBER: Absolutely. It's the same reason that a movie director doesn't cast two actors who look alike to be in the same scene with each other. It makes it hard on the viewer.
RUSSELL: But "Whiteout" the book does subvert expectations. When you see two women paired together -- and maybe this is me being a bit of a troglodyte -- I was conditioned by years of watching entertainment to expect certain things. I expected them to be rivals and one of them to be evil, or, frankly, I expected them to get together. And neither of those happened.
LIEBER: Greg was very slyly subverting expectations, and very consciously. What he wanted to do was play off the homoerotic tension that underlies a lot of buddy films.
I almost killed the gag by not realizing how closely people pay attention to these things. Carrie's supposed to be kind of butch, and that's something that I played up in drawing the character, because as a cartoonist, you look for visual elements about a character to hang your hat on. And at 2 in the morning or something, just as a visual gag, I drew her with a "Dykes to Watch Out For" coffee mug -- I drew Alison Bechdel's central character, Moe, on the coffee mug, with the smallest Rapidograph pen I have. The little profile of Moe is maybe one-eighth of an inch tall on that panel.
RUSSELL: On the original?
LIEBER: Yeah. It's miniscule. And it was just for me: "Ha-ha -- I see this and no one else sees this, ha-ha." And then the book comes out and there's half a dozen people on the Internet who notice it -- blowing the panel up, enhancing it in Photoshop to see what I had done.
RUSSELL: Wow. Never underestimate the Web.
LIEBER: Never underestimate the Web. And I guess I made explicit something that should only have been a sense of possibility, rather than part of the story. It was worth it to me -- because somebody pointed it out to Alison Bechdel and she ended up getting the book and liking it. So it was worth almost killing the story to get my stuff in front of a cartoonist I admire.
RUSSELL: Right, because "Whiteout" actually passes the Bechdel Test: Two women talk about something other than a man.
LIEBER: Very true. But the whole interaction between Carrie and Lily was the buddy-cop thing. Years later, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost did a much more explicit version of that gag in "Hot Fuzz," where they just gave all the girlfriend's lines to the buddy. [laughs]
RUSSELL: One of the other things I also loved about "Whiteout" the book is the fact that our heroine is disfigured in a really disturbing way almost immediately. That must have presented some interesting drawing challenges. It's almost body horror, in a way.
LIEBER: I told you I make a real effort to find out what things look like and research them accurately. And my research for "gangrenous fingers" was not really a pleasant day in the library. [laughs]
RUSSELL: I did notice from the trailer that in the movie, they take off less-disturbing fingers. Because you took off her index and middle fingers in the book, which is way weirder to look at than removing the pinky and ring fingers.
LIEBER: Oh, yeah. I'm sure they had their reasons for that.
THE TIME YOU SAVE? APPARENTLY IT'S FOR MORE RESEARCH
RUSSELL: How did you stretch yourself when you drew the "Whiteout" sequel, "Whiteout: Melt?"
LIEBER: That was less about stretching myself and more about applying what I'd learned on the first book. The drawing on "Whiteout: Melt" is a whole lot more professional, more polished -- because all those things where I'd fought with myself and tried 20 things before they worked? Now I knew which one worked, so I was able to get it right the first time.
RUSSELL: So it took a lot less time to draw.
LIEBER: No, unfortunately, not. [laughs] It was easier, so I was able to concentrate on things like getting all the military equipment right. There was more fight-scene choreography, things like that. But I didn't have to fight with getting Antarctica to look like Antarctica.
That said, there were some really challenging things that Greg asked me to draw and research -- problems I never expected to run into. There's this one sequence early in the book where we kind of give a five-page history of Antarctic warfare. Among the things that took place: In World War II, the Nazis flew planes over Antarctica and dropped a whole lot of little metal swastikas over the Antarctic tundra, the Antarctic plains, to claim it as their own. And Greg wrote that scene in there.
So okay, I get to draw that. But what plane were they flying?
The Internet was not helpful at that time. I spent a day on the Internet looking -- no luck. It took me two days in the library to finally find a reference to find out what plane it was, and then another half-day to find decent reference for the plane itself.
LIEBER: So it's just one throwaway panel in the book, but by God, I got the right airplane. That was important to me.
RUSSELL: I've heard you're a hardcore sucker for research.
LIEBER: Well, I married a librarian.
RUSSELL: How far down the rabbit hole have you gone to get a piece of research info? That Nazi-plane story might be my answer....
LIEBER: Literally the deepest was probably about 300 feet. [laughs] Researching "Underground" with Parker, we went into the Ape Caves in Mt. St. Helens Park. We literally went deep into the earth to learn more about caving.
RUSSELL: I think I've been in that cave.
LIEBER: I learned a lot of valuable things in there. I mean, it's not the same kind of cave we’re using in "Underground," but it's still a great big hole in the earth. There's a part at the end where the lava starts to run out, and it's like "Alice in Wonderland," where the room keeps shrinking. Finally, you're flat on your belly, propelling yourself with elbows and knees.
RUSSELL: I've actually done that. We actually got to that part of the cave and turned off our lamps and sat down there in the dark for a second. You've never been in the dark until you've been in the dark.
LIEBER: Yeah, that's so dark that your optical cortex just starts making up shit to do, because there's no other input coming in.
RUSSELL: Yeah. The guy I was with said, "You know, I'm not sure if my eyes are making this up or its bioluminescence -- but it's probably not bioluminescence."
LIEBER: Not that cave, no. There's nothing alive in there except for ... children. [laughs]
RUSSELL: Except for the things from "The Descent."
LIEBER: The main lesson I learned there is: In "Underground," our protagonist has big ol' kneepads on. I would have done well to follow her example. I would have been a much happier guy. Also: helmets.
RUSSELL: You didn't wear a helmet? Bad! Bad spelunker!
LIEBER: I learned the human head actually does make that "Gilligan's Island" coconut sound when it comes into contact with rock.
RUSSELL: I love that your research was, "What equipment should I have worn? I'll add it to my fictional character."
LIEBER: Yeah. Both Parker and I were stumbling along and saying, "We don't have people tripping enough. They are not falling down nearly as often as they should."
RUSSELL: What's the status of "Whiteout: Thaw," the planned third book in the series?
LIEBER: It's on hold. Greg just got over-committed with all the high-profile stuff he's doing at DC and his commitments as a prose author. He's written the first third of the book and I've drawn it. If he gets a change to write the rest, I'll draw the rest.
BECOME A HARD-ASS, GET PAID
RUSSELL: You once told Sequential Tart, "No matter how much they teach you in the classroom, you inevitably learn a lot more on the job." What was your first big "real-world" lesson? I'm guessing it had something to do with deadlines.
LIEBER: Let me think about that. [long pause] My first big lesson was that clients will lie to you about when they've mailed the check. [laughs]
RUSSELL: "Lesson A: The money sucks." [laughs]
LIEBER: Early in my comics career, I had a client who was fond of promising that the check was in the mail, that it was about to go out, having the secretary tell me, "The check's right on the boss' desk, but he's out of town, so he can't sign it."
RUSSELL: [eyes rolling into head] Oh, God. They do that in magazine journalism, too.
LIEBER: What I ended up having to do was: Months and months had passed past the time that they had to pay me the money that they owed me. So I took another job from the client and completed it, and on the deadline, I sent them a big set of bad Xeroxes showing them the job was completed -- with a huge fat red Sharpie "X" drawn through every single panel and "FOR POSITION ONLY" re-written across the Xerox, so they couldn't use it but they could see the job was done. And a ransom note: "If you ever want to see this comic alive again, you're going to have to pay me what you owe me." And it was the first time they actually returned my calls.
RUSSELL: The thing is, you feel like a dick for doing that. And then it, like, works. That's a tough lesson.
LIEBER: Yeah. Learning to be a hard-ass to protect yourself is a really valuable thing.
As I was trying to break into comics, I was supporting myself by working a telemarketing job -- the worst job on earth. But one of the things that they teach you in telemarketing is that you make up a script to overcome any possible objections that the person you're talking to may have. So I sat down and I tried to think like a weasel: "Okay -- if I was trying to hose a freelancer, what would I say to him?" And I had notecards with every possible thing I thought he might come up with.
LIEBER: So when he said, "You know, this is really unprofessional of you," I'd say, "Well, a professional is someone who gets paid for what he does." [laughs] And I had all my answers ready, and I won the argument and got paid.
RUSSELL: You should publish that script somewhere. Because I've never met any more self-loathing group of creative people -- as far as getting paid for their work goes -- than comics artists.
LIEBER: Comic-book artists have been taking it in the shorts in the U.S. for so long that they seem to believe it's deserved, or that getting screwed is just "paying your dues." It's not. It's just getting screwed.
RUSSELL: Exactly. Self-respect is the key lesson here.
LIEBER: You don't have to get date-raped before you're allowed to be married. It doesn't work like that. If you treat yourself well, you can handle yourself like a professional and expect to be treated professionally from the very beginning. You just have to believe that what you do has value. Of course, what you do has to have value, but...
RUSSELL: Right. "Be any good."
You started your career during the mid-'90s comics speculative boom, when there were lots of startup companies like Tundra. It strikes me as having been a fertile ground in which to get started, but not necessarily a fertile ground in which to get paid.
LIEBER: I was actually really lucky. I think over my entire career as a comic-book artist, in the end I've only been hosed out of pay for two or three pages I've done -- because I knew how to fight for what I was doing and how to protect myself contractually.
I was in a strange position in the early '90s in that -- as we discussed -- I was influenced by comic-strip artists of the '20s, '30s, '40s and '50s, and I was drawing with a bunch of techniques that were state-of-the-art for 1954. And comics had undergone such a huge change stylistically, where the thing that was least in fashion was exactly what I was good at. I felt like Dean Martin at a Metallica concert or something.
RUSSELL: You worry that you just got out of horseshoeing school in 1905.
LIEBER: Exactly. I came out of graduate school with a degree in radio drama. [laughs] But yeah: I had learned very old -- I shouldn't say "old-fashioned" -- academic, classical drawing, and I was applying it to very, very straightforward storytelling at a time when the market was looking for stuff that was influenced by video games, music videos, and a lot of edgy, wild, dangerous things. And I had no interest in impressing people with flashy stuff -- I just wanted to tell the writer's story as clearly as I possibly could.
THE ART OF CONCEALING YOUR EFFORT
RUSSELL: In interviews, Greg Rucka has praised your sense of storytelling -- a sense he says not all comics artists have, a sense of how panels flow together. Is that a natural gift, or something you can develop?
LIEBER: I wasn't a natural at all. I had instincts that were pushing me in the right direction -- but it took me a long time to learn the craftsmanship I needed to get there.
RUSSELL: Do you consider yourself a classicist, someone who values the concealment of effort? Because reading old interviews, it struck me that you like a lot of comics artists who hide their effort a little bit and have really solid fundamental technique -- Curt Swan and the like.
LIEBER: Oh, yeah. Some of the guys I like have a lot of polished flash -- Al Williamson, for instance. But I think that art should be a window on the story. If nobody notices that the comic they just read was drawn by a human being, I'm fine with that. The most important panel in a comic is the one that the reader puts in his head between the two that I've drawn.
I want them to come away from my comics thinking, "That was a really good story." As such, my job isn't to put myself between the reader and the writer -- my job is to be a window. I want to reveal the writer's ideas, and tell that story as clearly and compellingly as I can.
HOW TO MAKE A 100-PAGE COMIC IN 20 DAYS
RUSSELL: Portland's been a big comics-creator town for a good long while now, thanks to Oni and Dark Horse and Top Shelf. But now the webcartoonists are moving here -- some of them into your studio. I've seen an explosive concentration of comics talent in this city in the past few years. Has that been your experience?
LIEBER: Oh, it's unbelievable. I don't know how you measure it, but it's a pretty fair guess that Portland has more cartoonists per capita than any other decent-sized city on earth. We have an enormous creative community. And they're not here because of local jobs, because there aren't that many -- there's Laika and a couple of smaller studios. But for the most part, the cartoonists working here are working for publishers out of state.
Part of it's just because of the Richard Florida creative-class migration to cities like Portland. More established cartoonists have moved here because it's one of the last cities on the West Coast where a middle-class income will still buy you a house.
RUSSELL: As Patton Oswalt joked: Portland is one of those rare cities in America where people think they can buy a sandwich with a song.
LIEBER: And it's also a city where there are social rewards for artistic success -- because there are creative communities that appreciate what we're trying to do.
RUSSELL: Yeah, all the cartoonists in Portland are, for the most part, pretty nice to each other.
LIEBER: Yeah -- unbelievably so. There are dozens of cartoonists, inside the studio and outside the studio, that if I was in a jam on a job, I know I could call and they would drop everything to help me, and they know the same about me.
And it happens sometimes: Folks are buried under a big commercial deadline sometimes, the word will go out via Twitter or e-mail, someone will call "all hands on deck," and a whole bunch of folks just come swarming to help.
One time, one of our members had signed a contract he shouldn't have signed. The long and short of it is that we wound up having to help him produce 100 pages, in full color, in 20 days.
RUSSELL: Jesus. Five pages of fully completed comics a day.
LIEBER: Yeah. And we did it. There were a whole lot of hands on the thing. None of the reviewers noticed. Everyone did a really good job sublimating their own natural styles and working in the style the book was being done in. Our interns pitched in. Cartoonists who aren't part of the studio pitched in. Guys from out of town pitched in. The guy's dad, who's a working cartoonist, pitched in. A small army of people just swarmed the job and got it done, and the book's gotten great reviews and it's just beautiful.
RUSSELL: You treated making that comic the way the Amish treat building a barn.
LIEBER: That’s a fine way to put it. And nobody likes working that way; it's fun while you're doing it, but everyone would rather that everything come as a perfectly crafted labor of love from their own hands. But this is something where it was more important for the publisher to have all these pages done on this date that it was to let the guy grow roses. So we got the book done.
And it was valuable from my point of view -- not just because my friend got his comic done on time, but because the young artists, the interns who were there that summer, they got to put their hands on a whole lot of pages, see a whole lot of problems being solved. I think it was a big learning experience for them.
'OKAY, BEAVIS, YOU'RE ON YOUR OWN'
RUSSELL: I know you've worked on an "Idiot's Guide" book. How important is teaching to you?
LIEBER: I love teaching. I don't know if I'd want to teach in a classroom scenario. I certainly would never ever want to teach someone who didn't want to be there learning. And I have run into that the two times I've taught in classrooms.
But I wasn't a natural artist. Everything I know about storytelling and cartooning I learned by doing it every possible wrong way before getting it right. And because I had to fight for everything I know, I know how I learned it, and I remember that, and I think I'm pretty good at teaching it. So I enjoy the mentoring aspect. It's every bit as satisfying for me as actually producing work, as a matter of fact.
But the last time I actually tried teaching in a classroom.... A college flew me in as a visiting lecturer for a week. And one of the things [the professor] assigned was drawing three pages of the "Whiteout" script. The script to "Whiteout: Melt" #1 was reprinted in a book of scripts by comic-book artists, and he assigned three pages from a sequence in the book. He thought that I could critique it with greater understanding than in most critique situations, because I was already intimately familiar with the material.
And these were students who were paying $15,000 a semester for their education -- a lot of money. And two or three guys batted something out in half an hour on spiral-ring notebook paper and turned it in.
RUSSELL: I'll bet they went on to start their own webcomics.
LIEBER: And this will haunt me until the day I die: One guy swiped me. He turned in three pieces of typing paper that he'd clearly laid over the comic book and just traced my drawings -- and turned that in as finished work and tacked it to the wall and signed his name. And I don't know if he thought I would have forgotten what I drew. I didn't even bother to critique the guy; I looked at the guy, and his mouth was just hanging dead-open, completely blank -- there could have been flies going in and out for all he knew. And I just thought, "Okay, Beavis, you're on your own," and walked on to the next one.
That's a less-than-ideal teaching situation. The ideal teaching situations are the ones I've been able to do with the interns at Periscope -- where I can lean over their shoulder and point out one or two things that might solve a problem that they're working on. And it's a funny thing: If you tell somebody a piece of information outside of a practical context -- like, if I just walked up to that intern and described how to create the illusion of depth using three tones and a comic-book panel -- they wouldn't quite get what I was talking about. But if he's sitting there fighting with the problem, and I tell him how to do it, and he sees it work right at that moment, that information just snaps into place like a Tetris piece and he's going to have that for the rest of his life. And it's so rewarding watching a light turn on. You will not have to solve that problem again; you can work on something else. That's immensely gratifying.
RUSSELL: Let's talk about the formation of Periscope Studios. Is "collective" the right word for it? How do you get invited to join? What led to its founding?
LIEBER: You don't really get invited to join much at this point; it's like a band or something. The room is full -- there's nowhere to put anybody else.
It started off with, I think, 11 of us. Somebody drops out or somebody moves out of town just as another cartoonist moves to Portland who's already friends with some people in the studio, and that person ends up joining. It's just this kind of organic process of assimilation.
At this point, we honestly don't have enough room to fit all the people who are members. Three of our members have no permanent space, and they're paying a smaller amount just for access to the room.
RUSSELL: I'd imagine there's the advantage of collective use of printers, Xeroxing and the like....
LIEBER: Oh, absolutely. We've got two Cintiqs, we've got giant printers, giant scanners. We're all able to share one allegedly fast Internet connection. But I think what's really valuable in the room is access to the other artists in the room. No matter who you are, there's a problem you're going to run into that you can't solve on your own -- but somebody else has beaten that eight ways from Sunday, and they're going to have no trouble at all telling you how to fix that thing, and you can put your energy into the truly creative work, rather than worrying, "How can I get this hand right? How can I make this panel work? Where do I put those word balloons so it reads in the right order?"
And there's been a lot of useful cross-generational information transfer.
RUSSELL: Sure. I’d imagine Web-bred cartoonists like Dylan Meconis bring a whole different energy and knowledge base -- particularly about things like the Cintiq -- into the room.
LIEBER: Yeah. And an understanding of the Internet and how it works, a different set of cultural references, a different set of artistic influences. They're teaching stuff to more established cartoonists like me and Ron Randall and Jeff Parker, and we're able to help them out with more technical matters of drawing and storytelling.
It's largely an equal partnership -- they've got stuff to offer, we've got stuff to offer -- and everybody is producing better work as a result.
RUSSELL: People might be surprised to learn you don't make your sole living drawing comics. Periscope also handles production design and advertising art and concept drawings and the like, doesn't it? On your website, I saw some bizarre drawings of what look to be costumes and carnival/parade floats for some sort of Hello Kitty theme park.
LIEBER: Yes. That was done for a local theatrical designer, commissioned by the folks at Sanrio Puroland. They were doing a great big costume parade with floats and people in Hello Kitty costumes, and the puppet engineer came down for the designs.
RUSSELL: I'd imagine that might be a nice break from comics.
LIEBER: Oh, I adore that kind of stuff. I love storytelling, but sometimes it's nice just to be able to exercise my imagination and not have fit pictures together like pieces of a puzzle. It's a lot of fun doing wild imaginative turnarounds; it's fun to do the problem-solving to fit an entire environment onto a 5-by-10 parade float. I worked with a lot of artists in the studio coordinating that, and outside the studio, too: Colleen Coover, Bill Mudron and Ron Chan all did beautiful work on that.
RUSSELL: So why comics above illustration?
LIEBER: I love telling stories -- beginnings, middles, and ends. Illustration can do that, but it's mostly about catching one significant moment.
WORKING FOR BARTER and WORKING WITH YOUR SPOUSE
RUSSELL: You were once paid half in food for some comics you drew for a website that made Y2K survival packages. Does that remain the strangest job you've done? And will you accept strange barter as payment if the job is interesting?
LIEBER: I hesitate to give clients any ideas. [laughs]
RUSSELL: "I'll pay ya in corn!"
LIEBER: If someone out there has several tons of food they'd like to exchange for some cartoon drawings, we can talk. I'm sure Sisters of the Road would appreciate the donation; that's where the food from that Y2K job went. I think it was a literal ton of white beans. If there was an increase in flatulence among the homeless in Portland --
RUSSELL: -- a literal green cloud over the city --
LIEBER: -- then that was my fault. I don't think I'll ever top that. That was a weird one.
RUSSELL: You've worked on several comics with your wife, Sara Ryan. Do you have any tips on working successfully on a creative endeavor with one's spouse?
LIEBER: Take the gloves off, and use the fact that you're married to mean that you're able to be more honest with your collaborator rather than less honest. Keep in mind that what's better for your or your spouse's work is better for their career, and thus, better for your marriage. [laughs]
When we give feedback to each other, we're brutal about it. When one of us gives the other an opinion, we know we can trust it; neither of us is ever being diplomatic or saying something to make the other one feel better. Sara knows that, in the end, I will feel better if I've done a better drawing. And I have the same privilege with her writing -- I can tell her what I think works and what doesn't.
THE CONTINUITY ATLAS
RUSSELL: You've worked on mainstream superhero comics, including Batman. Does this make it harder for you to enjoy superhero comics as a reader? Does your career push you towards different comics reading?
LIEBER: I think I know the riffs that make up superhero comics pretty well, and don't need to see them replayed so often. Plus I just don't seek out escapist entertainment much anymore. I like my life; I don't want to escape it.
RUSSELL: You once told me a story about a hard-core "Batman" fan who had drawn a complete map of Gotham City using only the street references from "Batman" comics. How much does fan management play a role in your day-to-day existence?
LIEBER: Absolutely none. I haven't worked on something I don't own, or something that had that sort of fan base, for several years, so I've managed to stay away from that sort of thing. I guess I've graduated from worrying about proper stewardship of fan-cherished corporate properties.
At the time, it was something I worried about a lot.
RUSSELL: I would imagine the ideal state would be to be a little worried. I'm mean, that's just professional.
LIEBER: Yeah. It's a fine line to dance. Other guys in the studio have to worry about it a whole lot more. There are people who are very concerned about where the stories that they are reading -- that you are writing -- in 2009 fit into the context of two stories done by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in 1964, at a time when Stan and Jack weren't thinking about the previous issue all that much. [laughs] It's a very difficult balance to strike.
Some guys are able to do it almost effortlessly because they've just absorbed that information and are able to access it. Other times, you just have to find the cracks and slip through them. If you've got a fan who knows the names of every street in Gotham City, shoot the panel from an angle that doesn't show the street signs. [laughs]
It wouldn't surprise me if, in a couple of years, they are able to keep Gotham City absolutely co