‘Shutter’: Joe Keatinge, Leila Del Duca get weird with Image series

Dec. 18, 2014 | 12:40 p.m.

While interviewing writer Joe Keatinge and artist Leila Del Duca about their creator-owned Image Comics series “Shutter,” the first thing that stands out is how often they make each other laugh. There’s a relaxed, friendly energy between the two collaborators that is clearly evident, even through the filter of a conference call, and that personal connection has translated to outstanding creative chemistry on the comic-book page.

Keatinge and Del Duca have two very different histories with the medium. A Los Angeles native, Keatinge grew up in an area heavily populated with comic shops, and can’t recall a time when comics weren’t a part of his life. Del Duca was raised in Missoula and Billings, Mont., where comic shops were scarce. She was exposed to the medium through the Internet and the early days of webcomics, but it wasn’t until college that she started picking up tangible comics.

Creating stories first became a major part of Keatinge’s life as a child at bedtime, when his father would ask for participation in developing the night’s narrative. “Looking back, he was probably feeling kind of lazy and was just like, ‘Take over, please,’” Keatinge says. “But it helped turn those cogs in terms of telling stories.”

Those cogs began moving even faster when Keatinge read a copy of Image’s “Spawn” No. 10 featuring Dave Sim’s Cerebus, the first comic that made it evident to him that there was a rich history of characters and creators who brought them to the page. “That was hugely influential to me because that was the first time I was like, ‘I can make comics,’” Keatinge says. He would eventually drop out of college to pursue a career in comics, and 11 years later, he’s now a fixture at the company that inspired him at the start.

Leila Del Duca's cover for "Shutter" No. 7. (Image Comics)

Leila Del Duca’s cover for “Shutter” No. 7. (Image Comics)

As a student at Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design, Del Duca majored in illustration, assuming that it wouldn’t be possible to make a living as a comic-book artist. That outlook changed half a year after graduating when Del Duca met Zach Howard, an artist for comics like “Shaun of the Dead,” “Aliens” and “Wild Blue Yonder,” who told her that it was possible to survive working in comics full-time if she was truly serious about her commitment.

Keatinge and Del Duca met for the first time at New York Comic Con in 2012, where Del Duca sought refuge from the madness of the convention by hanging out at the table of Ross Campbell, the artist on Keatinge’s “Glory.” That was where the writer saw Del Duca’s artwork for the first time, and he was instantly enchanted. “When I first saw [her pages], they weren’t even lettered yet,” Keatinge says. “And I could still tell what was going on, and what hit me the most was that I could really tell what the people were feeling. And that’s hard, that’s rare. Especially when you’re already balancing solid storytelling and weird setting and supernatural stuff.”

Del Duca was the perfect person for a project Keatinge had been trying to get off the ground since 2010, a globetrotting explorer series in the vein of “Tintin” and “Corto Maltese.” He wanted “Shutter” to be about the effects of that kind of lifestyle and a lack of family structure, and everything he wanted out of the book was in Del Duca’s artwork. He had tried “Shutter” with other artists and it didn’t work out, but after seeing Del Duca’s pages, Keatinge knew she was the one to bring that story to life.

Luckily, Del Duca was comfortable enough with her own ability that she was eager to jump into Keatinge’s story. “I was reaching a point in my skill level where I was finally able to figure out how to draw whatever I wanted to,” Del Duca says. “I was finally at that point where perspective and acting and anatomy and environments were all coming together. I knew how to get the reference and draw it in a convincing enough way.”

She had refined her talent, but now she needed a place to apply it, and that opportunity came via the fantastic but grounded world of Kate Kristopher, the 27-year-old explorer at the center of “Shutter.”

This month, “Shutter” returns after a two-month hiatus with issue No. 7, the start of a new arc that delves deeper into the twisted family history that Kate has only recently discovered. (To fill the gap between issues, a collection of the first six chapters was released in November.) Keatinge and Del Duca are joined by returning colorist Owen Gieni, who brought incredible depth and texture to the artwork of the first six issues, and lettering legend John Workman (Walt Simonson’s “The Mighty Thor,” Grant Morrison’s “Doom Patrol”), who takes over for departing letterer Ed Brisson.

‘SHUTTER’ No. 7: Frank Cho cover | John Workman cover | Leila Del Duca cover | Ray Fawkes cover | Pages 1-2 | Page 3 | Page 4

Hero Complex readers can view covers and pages from “Shutter” No. 7 in the gallery or in larger versions via the links above.

In a recent telephone conversation, Keatinge and Del Duca spoke about the book’s delicate balance of fantasy and reality, the ways Kate is a reflection of themselves, what their colorist and letterer bring to the series, and the benefits of working at Image Comics.

Hero Complex: How do you find a balance between the fantastic elements of Kate’s story and more grounded, personal storytelling?

Joe Keatinge: The initial outline was a much more grounded book. When I was talking to Leila, I was like, “Well, maybe we could make it a little weird.” She could draw anything, so I think the first rule we had was kind of like “30% weird.” But when I started seeing her art and I started writing, I was like, “Man, we could really go all the way.” So I changed a lot, especially the — I don’t like calling anyone “villain” — but the antagonists. I thought, “This guy could be a lion or a robot or whatever.”

She did such a great job on it that I was like, “Why would anyone ever limit you?” If there’s stuff you like drawing and you kick ass at it so much, it makes no sense for me to restrain. And one of the things I dig so much about Leila’s work is the fact that she has this enthusiasm; you see some artists who are like, “This is what I do,” and that’s fine. This person’s a great sci-fi artist, and this person’s a good superhero artist. But she’s so versatile that it’s really inspiring as a writer, so it’s really stretched out the story beyond what it would have been.

Pages 1-2 from "Shutter" No. 7. (Image Comics)

Pages 1-2 from “Shutter” No. 7. (Image Comics)

Leila Del Duca: As for balancing the mundane with the weird stuff, I find it really easy to work off of Joe’s scripts because he puts a lot of — the story is about a real life thing, but it’s set in such a fantastical reality, and since there’s the emotional core to it, and I can put those emotions with the characters, it’s not that hard. It actually makes it easier for me.

JK: The book does have all the fantastic stuff, but it’s built around these real emotions, these real family dynamics that aren’t as fantastical. As long as we’re always true to Kate and keep Kate’s emotional state the focus, that’s what works.

LDD: It’s actually a perfect script for me, because the fantastical elements make every page so exciting for me that I don’t get bored. But it’s grounded enough in Kate’s emotions and her supporting cast’s emotions that it makes it believable to me, and that really excites me as an artist.

HC: In terms of the design for the world and the characters, how collaborative is that process? Do you bring colorist Owen Gieni into that process as well?

LDD: We don’t usually bring Owen into that process, but we don’t give him too many color notes, so he really does come up with 99% of the color choices and stylistic choices of the coloring of the book. But as for ideas, I would say that Joe comes up with the vast majority of the crazy elements of the book, and then he lets me design them.

JK: Yeah, she can draw like nobody’s business. Every once in a while I’ll be like, “This is what I’m thinking with this guy,” but you don’t tell someone like her, “This is how it will be.” Let them do what they’re great at.

Page 4 from "Shutter" No. 7. (Image Comics)

Page 4 from “Shutter” No. 7. (Image Comics)

HC: Do you see any of yourselves in Kate?

LDD: Yeah.

JK: God yes.

(Both laugh.)

JK: I think you kind of have to. If you’re doing comics and there’s no part of yourself in some way, your viewpoint, if you’re not bringing yourself in there — and it doesn’t have to be a one-to-one thing. My parents and I get along great. My mom’s super cool, my dad is my dad. We get along super well. Stuff that’s happened to me in my own life and within my family certainly informs it, but again, most of it’s not one-to-one. Some of it’s my viewpoint, some is other people I’m related to. Life experience informs everything I write, and I think that goes pretty much for everybody. Your work should be kind of embarrassing to show to certain people who really know you, the people who would know you best. Because they’ll be like, “Oh my God, I can’t believe you’re writing about that.” That really informs what I do a lot. And then I like writing about lions with giant guns and dragons.

LDD: There’s a crap-load of me in Kate, for sure. I really wanted to draw a character that was my kind of girl, and I definitely modeled a lot of how I drew her, and other characters in this book, off of me and my experiences. Because I was seeing a lot in comics girls posed in really unrealistic ways. I didn’t find their body language believable, and so I made Kate a lot like me with her body stance and everything. I thought that during this first arc, I really related to Kate and I was like, “Wow, Kate is me!” She’s doing all the things that I would do. And as the story progressed, I realized that she really wasn’t as similar to me as I thought, and especially in this next story arc, I think I know who she is now, and it’s less like me, but still enough like me that I still put those same body language characteristics and emotions in the way I draw her.

Page 3 from "Shutter" No. 7. (Image Comics)

Page 3 from “Shutter” No. 7. (Image Comics)

HC: Joe, after working with Leila for six issues, has that changed your approach to scripting new chapters?

JK: Yeah, definitely. I’m working on finishing the 10th script by this weekend, so we’re pretty far ahead. There’s a lot of stuff; we’ve developed our own shorthand. We know each other really well now, so we can talk things through, and I have an idea of what she’s into drawing and not into drawing. That kind of stuff. And I just feel like she’s helped me completely realize this book, and I have to give credit to Owen as well in that regard. I feel like with the second arc, the book is really the thing I was—I feel like the first arc, and it’s fine and everything, but it was a lot of setting things up and figuring it out.

I think you should always be in a state where you’re constantly figuring out what you want to be doing next and evolving, and not remain in stasis, but I do feel like, looking over the proof for No. 7, Leila and I were just like, “This is it. This is the book I was dreaming about.” It’s nice that it’s here, and I thought Leila’s artwork for No. 1 was just beyond, and now No. 7 just blows No. 1 out of the water. That’s the kind of stuff you hear in PR interviews all the time, and it’s usually like, “Whatever, lip service,” but it really is astonishing. I found an artist in really a short amount of time, and as a writer it inspires me to keep upping my game. She and Owen, and we’ve got John Workman on board now, letterer of Walt Simonson’s scripts. It creates this environment I love so much. It’s a pressure, but it’s a good pressure, because you’re constantly striving to evolve and keep at the level that these people are constantly exceeding. It’s a nice place to be.

HC: What do you feel Owen’s coloring brings to the book?

JK: I worked with him on “Glory,” and it was obvious — I think some people do a competent job, they color things that need to be colored and that’s about it. And with Owen, you have a guy who is not only essential at building environment, but achieves something that I think is very rare. I see it in guys like Nathan Fairbairn and Jordie Bellaire, but I really see Owen as a colorist as an additional storyteller and being really cognizant that he’s an essential part of what’s happening here. Not just someone making sure someone’s cape is gray.

LDD: He brings such a higher level to my linework that I was not expecting at all, and I was really nervous because most of my artwork, when it’s colored by someone else, I have not been impressed with in the past. When I saw his colors on my work, I was like, “Holy crap!” This book was not this book until Owen came along and colored my work. And he’s so impressive. I have no idea how he achieves these things, and I know I’m not a colorist and I haven’t studied the same stuff as him in Photoshop, but I’m still amazed he can do so many different styles, but he still makes them obviously his own coloring style. And he uses them, like Joe said, to benefit the storytelling, and he makes a conscious, smart decision what coloring style will benefit what part of the story.

So all of the flashbacks have this brighter, cel shading, Walt Disney-esque look to them, to serve the purpose of making the memory more idealized, which is what we do a lot with memories. We remember them to be way more cool or bad or whatever than they may have been. And when we look at the main story line that’s happening right now, he has this nice gritty style with a lot watercolor-type textures and stuff, and it just looks so great. Every time there’s a different storytelling method that we use in the book, he matches it perfectly. For example, Harrington the butler’s flashback pages, he did this great monochromatic style that fit my ink washy illustrations for that. And he simplified his style for my simplified style when we did the salamander assassin’s back story. He’s just so versatile, and I am really impressed. I don’t know what else to say other than I’m so happy that he’s working with us.

John Workman's cover for "Shutter" No. 7. (Image Comics)

John Workman’s cover for “Shutter” No. 7. (Image Comics)

HC: How did John Workman get involved for this latest arc?

JK: Ed [Brisson] and Owen I worked with on “Glory,” and I really wanted to keep the team together. I liked working with them. Ed I knew wasn’t going to be there forever because he’s working on wanting to write and it got to the point where he needed to focus on writing full time, so I was like, “Best of luck. No worries or whatever.” I was lamenting to [Image publisher Eric] Stephenson, I was like, “I’m bummed because Ed’s one of the best letterers I’ve worked with, and it was totally solid. I’m bummed I have to find a replacement.” And Stephenson was like, “Who do you like in lettering? Whose stuff do you enjoy?” And I said, “Well, John Workman’s my gold standard.”

“Thor” and “Heavy Metal” and all the Paul Pope stuff. “Doom Patrol.” He’s lettered all these runs I think are great, and he’s, similar to Owen’s coloring, someone who knows that what they’re doing is a craft and is part of the essential storytelling. Eric was just like, “Well why don’t you email John?” (Laughs.) Alright. So I emailed John and I’m like, “Mr. Workman, I have this comic book from Image Comics and here’s some PDFs and I sure would love it if you would come on board.” And he wrote to me pretty quick, actually. He was like, “This comic’s really weird. I dig it. I’m into it.” And so we brought him on board, and it really was that easy. I gave him all six PDFs, he dug them. I just want him to letter all my stuff now.

HC: What are you planning to explore in the second arc of “Shutter”? Have you set any personal goals for yourselves?

JK: Like I was saying before, there was a lot of setting stuff up with the first arc, and I really wanted to — this is a book, we’re getting into the main thrust of the story, we’ve established the world somewhat chaotically and now things are a little more stable in terms of this is what it is. People get an idea. I may have been a little too enthusiastic looking back at issues No. 1 and No. 2, specifically, but when you have collaborators like Leila and Owen in a world like “Shutter,” it was addicting to focus on creating this, this, this, this, this. I’ve settled down a little bit, not being so chaotic with it, and now we’re just exploring this world and going out there.

How do I say anything without spoiling? It’s alright, it’s in the solicitations. For reasons we don’t entirely know, but do involve her sister, Kate and company are in Cambodia, and we finally find out exactly why Kate’s sister is not too fond of Kate, what she wanted Kate’s little brother for, and just going off from there. Going forward, the entire series is just going to be a ton of traveling around and seeing how Kate’s family has really influenced our world and our history. There is a sequence at the beginning of issue No. 9 that I’m really excited for, because it opens up, even more so than we’ve done already, the scope of the series in terms of its history and the effects of the Kristopher family. Keep making cool comics, that’s my life goal there. And hopefully people enjoy them.

Ray Fawkes' cover for "Shutter" No. 7. (Image Comics)

Ray Fawkes’ cover for “Shutter” No. 7. (Image Comics)

LDD: Art-wise, Joe is definitely writing some awesome style changes in there. The beginning of No. 8 and No. 9 both have different stylistic stuff, similar to what we did in a few chapters of Volume 1, and so that’s been really cool. A little bit challenging at times, but just the perfect kind of challenge that I adore. Artistically, I don’t want to be boring, so I’m still trying to keep things fresh while improving on my own skill set, and trying to come up with unique designs influenced by things that I really dig. There’s some [Alphonse] Mucha-inspired illustrations debuting in No. 8, and I really dig “Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind,” and there’s a visual similar to that. Just drawing on more of my influences that I’ve really dug over the years, and putting them in such a crazy book.

HC: Joe, you’ve worked with Image quite a bit over the past decade. What do you appreciate about them as a publisher?

JK: One of the greatest things about Image is a lot of stuff that you would completely take for granted until it’s out of your hands. Like choosing our paper stock. Being able to choose where ads go, what ads run, do ads run at all? How long our letters column is going to be. When John was coming on board, I really wanted to make a big deal out of it because it’s a huge deal for me, and unfortunately for a lot of the guys who have been working in the industry for a while, I don’t think it’s done all that much. It’s not just limited to comics, but any sort of artistic field doesn’t really do a great job of respecting what came before, with some exceptions. So I was like, “Alright, let’s have John on a cover because he’s a great illustrator,” and he did an awesome cover.

There’s a writer whose stuff I really enjoy named Shea Hennum, he writes about comics and pop culture and he’s really interesting, and a while ago I was like, “Dude, if you ever need a space, use the back of ‘Shutter.’” And we’re doing a thing with him where he’s doing a thing about “Heavy Liquid,” but in issue No. 7 with John, I was like, “Man, you should write something about John Workman and lettering in general and why it’s important.” By working at Image, we can do that. I’ve worked at other companies where the editor might be super into something, but they’ve gotta go through all this bureaucracy and they can’t just make a decision. Having the ability to make the decisions ourselves and the structure that is there at Image is really conducive to benefiting the creator. I’m not going to get into the nuts and bolts of it because I think it would be a little too inside baseball, but there are things they’re doing in terms of promotion on the retail level for “Shutter” No. 7 where I was like, “That’s great. It hugely benefits us. Don’t you guys need more of a cut?”

I’ve worked with Image in different capacities for 10 years now, and even now, it’s something [Ed] Brubaker said a while ago, which is when you try to explain Image within a capitalist concept, it’s really strange to people. It’s hard to wrap their heads around, and even now I found myself like, “Really?” Sounds cool, but it works out, because I think what you’ve been seeing has been long-term planning. A lot of the stuff that’s been coming up now is like, “Oh, wow. It’s amazing that Image did a book like ‘Saga.’” What Stephenson and [Robert] Kirkman do really well is the long-term planning.

It’s fascinating to be part of it, and I’ve had a good time with other companies, some more than others, but for now, [Image] is my happy place. Everything I’ve got coming up is just weird, different types of stuff. Completely different types of genres and totally different artistic collaborators. It’s a good place. The person that I run things by is Leila, and she’s the one who draws it. That’s a nice thing to exist at a major publisher, to the point where they’ve almost created their own comics industry because no one operates the way they operate. And I don’t think anyone can.

— Oliver Sava

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