Lora Innes: Bringing History and Comics Together

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Lora Innes is one of many new friends I made on my annual trip to Pittsburgh this year. She is the creator of one of the finest webcomics I've ever seen, The Dreamer. She's a die-hard history buff, a fantastic artist, and a wonderful person. She even took time off from her comic recently to help the people who were devastated by the floods in Iowa. Lora was kind enough to share with me her thoughts on The Dreamer, her creative process and her views on gender in the industry.

How were you first introduced to the world of comics?

I was in Middle School. I used to draw Disney cartoons all the time, but I had gotten pretty good at that and, without realizing it I think, was looking for the next challenge. My sisters and I watched the X-Men cartoon by accident one Saturday morning and we recognized some of the characters from that old Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends show that we watched when we were really young. We started to get interested in the characters, and one day my younger sister brought home an X-Men comic. I think it was just one of those X-Men Animated Series deals, about Rogue who was my favorite character in the cartoon. The art was so much more realistic and detailed than any of the cartoons I had been reading that I fell in love with it. I went to the store and bought Uncanny X-Men #303, the issue where Illyana dies. I had no idea who Illyana was, but the art was unreal, and I found myself tearing up by the end of the issue. Comic books can make you cry…?  I was sold.

I still have that issue. It’s dog-eared and the spine is broken but it is so, so well loved.

You've worked for a variety of clients in various artistic endeavors. What was it about the medium of comic books specifically that hooked you? And what other comic projects have you worked on? Didn't I hear about you doing something with Vertigo Comics?

I was hooked on comic books long before I did any of that other work. Really, it’s always been comics for me, since X-Men #303. I love great art and storytelling. Comics are the perfect marriage of the two. When I decided to leave the illustration studio that I used to work at, my boss sat me down and said that ever since he hired me, he had been anticipating the day when I would leave to, um, have kids or go draw comics! Well, he was right on the second account at least, ha!

I did do something for Vertigo. It just came out in stores recently — American Splendor Season 2, Issue #2. I did a short story called “Joy Moves Ahead.” It was a real honor. I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t.

What is your process, by which I mean is there a certain place you prefer to work, music you listen to while you work, do you use thumbnail layouts first, etc.?

I work from home, we turned one of our extra bedrooms into an office. I have my drawing desk and my computer there, so I can jump back and forth between the two — and doing an online comic, it’s nice to have easy access to your email/message boards!

I’m an audio book addict. I listen to audio books all the time. It’s gotten ridiculous, the longer the book the better for me! I’m home alone all the time, with no co-workers, so my co-workers become Alexander Hamilton or Benjamin Franklin or whoever’s biography I’m listening to at the time. This week, I’m spending my days with James Madison and Patrick Henry and those boys won’t just get along and behave…!

I also love podcasts, though I like the 30+ hours of well researched info you get out of an audio book over the 2 hours of some guy talking off the top of his head on a podcast, ha ha! When my brain gets too full, though, I usually veg out to the pop station on the radio.

I usually do rough layouts on typing paper, and do a chunk of pages at one time. And just to change the scenery, I’m usually doing this at Starbucks just to get out of my house. But it’s nice to do 6-10 pages at a time, smaller and very rough so I can follow the flow of the pages as one working unit. It lets me get the big picture fast.

Then, at home, I draw my pages. I know this isn’t typical comic book procedure, but I picked it up from doing commercial illustration: I draw with tracing paper and colored pencils. I draw my page to scale, really rough. Then trace it again, but tighten it up. Then I trace that on Bristol board with a light box and a non-photo blue pencil, and go over that with a 2mm mechanical pencil real clean and anally tight. This is because I don’t ink my work. So I use these tight detailed pencils as my inks. I photocopy the board, and then scan in the high contrast photocopy and color that in Photoshop.

I have a Mac Pro, I use Photoshop CS3, a Wacom tablet and I have a big beautiful 24” monitor.

For those who haven't checked out The Dreamer yet, how would describe your art style and who are some of your stylistic inspirations both inside and outside of comics?

Hmm. People always compare my stuff to Disney, and I think that’s fair though it’s an over-simplification. I spent the first half of my life idolizing and trying to be Glen Keane so I’m sure his style has been a most significant influence. I know that comic books haven’t always been fantastic when it comes to expressions, and even some of the top-notch guys in the business still draw faces that make me cringe at times. I think Glen Keane’s cartoons really influenced me in that way — in capturing expressions that you can really connect to. Some of the moments in his films are more powerful than had they been live action, because in a drawing you can exaggerate a look just enough to make it transcend reality while having its basis in it. I’m thinking of that scene at the end of "Beauty & The Beast" where Belle looks into the eyes of the prince and realizes he’s the Beast. Glen Keane is a genius. You couldn’t do that with actors.

My favorite comic artist has always been J. Scott Campbell, though I like his early Gen 13 stuff more than his current work which is a lot more distorted. I liked the more realistic with just hints of cartooning that he had back then. I know I got into comics in the nineties when Image was still ruling the industry, so all those guys, Jim Lee, Travis Charest, all of them, I think have influenced me to a certain extent. If you look at my work next to most web comics, mine certainly has a much more traditional comic book style.

More recently, I think I’ve taken some things from Takeshi Miyazawa's outstanding run on Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane. Some of the cute things about his style — like his character’s expressions — has slipped into The Dreamer.

The Dreamer is hard to categorize simply: there's historical fiction with military/espionage intrigue, the comedy and drama of modern high school, and even romance. With Beatrice as the central character, one might think The Dreamer  is targeted towards a female audience, but I quite enjoyed it. Did you set out with a target audience in mind?

I did set out with a target audience in mind: me! Ha! Beau Smith asked me what sort of story I wanted to tell. The answer to his question was The Dreamer. It’s the story that I would love to read even if I weren’t writing it. That was the goal all along. I love great characters and great storytelling. I think both appeal to men and women alike.

When I did the big, epic first-kiss drawing on page 2 of issue #1, a bunch of my guy friends had come over to take me out for my birthday. They all stood around my computer screen in awe, and admitted there wasn’t enough romance in comics. They said that they secretly loved romance, and they cared if Peter & MJ end up together, but they weren’t into the trashy stuff in comics these days and they missed great, classic romances.

I mean, mixed into a great story. The Dreamer is a love story, but it’s also a war story, and a coming of age story. I think those things appeal to both sexes, and all ages. If you’re a teenager you can relate, if you’re not, you can reminisce about when you were. It’s definitely nostalgic for me!

The Revolution is well-researched and the historical elements never come off as a social studies lecture. The romantic scenes never induce a "wind-blown Fabio book cover" cringe from my male psyche. Your depiction of modern high school life is spot on as well. I read on your website that the story was born from a dream you had. How did it evolve from this dream into such a unique combination of past, present and romance? Did you plan from the beginning to high school experiences with the War of Independence or did you surprise yourself as the story took shape?

That shot of Alan with the lightning behind him didn’t evoke Fabio? *whew*

Well, I did have a sort of hot and steamy dream about Josh Holloway… that was remarkably similar to Bea’s first dream in Issue #1, minus the redcoat. But I had a second dream that was more of an adventure. I don’t remember much about the dream except that I woke up with a feeling that what I was doing in the dream was important, and it mattered whether or not I finished my objective, which I hadn’t. It left me with both a sense of unfinished business and some level of satisfaction — I mean, don’t we all want our lives to mean something? I have this great desire to end my life well, that at my funeral there will be some sort of positive legacy behind me that I left the world a better place then I found it in. (Don’t all people feel that way, or am I idealistic?) In this dream I felt like what I was doing mattered, and I really wanted to go back to sleep and finish what needed to be done.

That dream happened during a time when I was going through some hard things, so the desire to escape to someplace better, easier, where I had direction was so appealing. My story came from that question: what if you could go back? Would all of the hard parts of your life just pale in comparison because you know at night you’ll set of on some great adventure? Or would you start to resent the time you had to spend here in the real world? One aspect of The Dreamer that I’ll be developing a lot more as the story progresses is how all of this affects Bea’s real life, and the strains that start to form between herself and her friends and family. It won’t really be a cute and happy high school drama for much longer. Though I love writing comedy so much that I’m sure we’ll always have things to laugh at.

To answer your other question, once I had my idea, I realized I wanted to do a “time travel” type piece. I love history, and don’t really like fantasy at all. So doing a fantasy elves and dwarves and fairies sort of world was out. I love American history — and if I did that, then my character could live in the same place she was dreaming about — just centuries later. I mean, your standing in the same place the man you’re in love with stood 230 years ago. Now you just have to find a way back to him.

I started researching both the American Revolution and the Civil War but I never made it to the Civil War. I fell head over heals in love with the struggle for Independence (ideas that changed the world??) and all the amazing men and women who poured our their lives so that later generations could live in a better world. I just love their story. I wanted to tell it.

John Quincy Adams has a great quote, “Posterity: you will never know how much it has cost my generation to preserve your freedom. I hope you will make good use of it.” I had no idea how much it had cost, until I started to learn their story.  And once I learned it, well, I had to share it with everyone else.

You know, the first time I pitched The Dreamer to my husband, he was very encouraging, but he also said, “You just have to make sure that the historical parts are interesting.” Oh, that makes me laugh now! My pitch to him had all been about Bea’s growth as a character and teenage angst in the present and then “they, uh, go back and fight each other.” The story has surely come a long way! Now when Bea wakes up in the modern world, all my readers get angry! I just had to do a lot of research, but I think the strong history is one of the really appealing aspects of The Dreamer.

If you were the casting director for a big-screen adaptation of The Dreamer, who would you pick to play your core characters?

Well I already have actors picked out that I draw from. Whether or not they’d work as my characters in a film, I don’t know. But I like their faces! So, I certainly wouldn’t be 100% committed to these people if The Dreamer ever did become a movie. (That’s me dreaming.) But I use Emmy Rossum to draw Bea Whaley, and also sometimes Katherine McPhee because I think she has a lot of that spunky personality that Bea has — she has some fight in her. For Alan Warren, I haven’t found one guy who I look at and say, “That’s him!” but I draw from Jude Law, Rupert Friend, and most recently I’ve fallen in love with Joe Anderson. He has those sparkling blue eyes and just comes off as that all-American, likeable guy. I think if he bulked up a bit, I might love to see him play Alan. I use Jensen Ackles as Captain Nathan Hale, but I’m afraid he’s far too cool and sexy to pull off Nathan’s intellectual, overly-wordy quirkiness. Who knows, maybe it’s because he’s never been cast in a role like that! But I like his face, because Alan’s face is so angular and long and tall that he gives me some lines to go from that are a lot rounder — enabling the two look different. As for Ben, I think he’s the most obvious — I use Usher! Bea is a teenage white girl with a major crush on the African-American football star at her school. I asked myself if I were a teenage girl, what African-American boy would I be crushing on? The answer was easy: who can resist Usher and those dimples? Not me. He’s amazing.

What is your take on how female characters are portrayed in comics?

Well, females in comics are, for the most part, written by men. I think when you get a great story written about women by women, it is just apparent. Because I’m sure we don’t really understand you men as well as we think we do, and vice versa. I think a great example is the complexity of characters in Gilmore Girls written by Amy Sheridan-Palladino. I don’t think a man could have come up with that story. But the complexity between the three generations of women in that family was so compelling and believable that it spanned 7 seasons without feeling repetitive. My other favorite example is Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette. There is a scene in that movie after her lover leaves and the she’s left in her parlor with all her usual activities — gossip, games, indulgent foods — but none of it holds her interest anymore. She politely asks her husband if she can leave and he says “Of course.” She gets half way down the hall and then starts to sprint, a big smile on her face. She throws herself on her bed and dreams about her lover for hours. I just don’t think a man could have written that — you just have to be a woman who has been on that side of love before. So I don’t fault male writers that their women aren’t as believably feminine as they might be. I’m sure women writers can’t capture men as complexly or realistically, either. I’ve never walked a day in your shoes. But being married has really helped, though, as I get to know my husband better all the time, learning about the things that make him angry, or afraid or insecure. Hearing about the things he dreams about and longs for has helped me (I hope) write more masculine guys and not just men who are a woman’s fantasy.

Also in comics, I think both women and men are portrayed very ideally. It’s something inherent about telling a story about heroes. I think as more women are allowed to participate in the genre we’ll get more believably complex women characters.

What are your thoughts about being a woman in a predominantly male industry? Have you encountered any unusual challenges due to gender?

Unusual challenges? Not really. Just extra opportunity. I mean, at a comic conventions you might meet 15 new guys trying to break into the industry, and then you meet me. If you’re one of those 15 guys you really have to stand out (in your work and personality) to be remembered. Me, I just have to smile and be friendly. I’m probably one of the only female creators you’ll meet that day. So you’ll remember me. It’s actually been really fun. I don’t draw really traditional superhero stuff, so maybe if I was trying to get into that genre I might have a harder time? I don’t know since I haven’t really tried.

Put yourself in the executive chair at any major comic company -- what would you do to attract more female readers?

Ha. Oh, well… I have a lot to say about this but I’ll keep it brief. I would start by having women write the stories. You occasionally get a Sean McKeever, but he’s very rare. I thought one of the interesting things about the MINX line at DC was that they’re supposed to be comics for girls but are all written by men. I got what they were trying to do with having the short manga books since that format is popular with young tween girls, but I find I have no problem reaching that audience, even though a lot of them say, “Wow, I’m so surprised I actually like an American comic!” What these girls don’t realize is it isn’t the American style of art or format of book that has kept them away, it’s that there aren’t stories in American comics that are written for them. I think MINX also surprised me by not doing sequential stories. Each book has its own set of characters. I don’t know how they’re doing, but I thought that was the nail in the coffin for them. Girls love relationships and drama! They’ll read never ending manga books where the same things happen over and over again just because it’s what they love reading about. I think that the long term, soap-opera aspect to complex relationships is essential in keeping the interest of women. I don’t mean soap-opera in the sense that it’s cheesy or cheap, but just that it’s ongoing and complex. I devote a lot of time in my story to developing depth in my characters.

I’m just now starting Issue #4, and it is in this issue that we finally get our first gunfight — and I’m writing about the Revolutionary War! I think most men would start out with an epic battle to show the scale of the story. I started out with an epic kiss. Now that we’re in Issue #4 and the musket balls will start flying, I already have people really caring whether or not Alan Warren is going to live or die. There’s much more of an emotional investment. The Dreamer is such a big story that I knew I had three issues to devote to character development at the beginning. I thought it would pay off.

I think there’s such a race to get to the action in comic books, you can lose your characters in that. Runaways the original series was very successful, but in terms of action it was quite slow. But Brian K. Vaughan did a great job developing the relationships between the kids, and the kids in their parents, and that’s what drove the story. I don’t think it’s accidental that Runaways is so popular with girls.

This just in... Starting in November 2008, The Dreamer will be published through IDW! Lora will continue producing The Dreamer in webcomic format as well.