She Has No Head! – Interview With Brian Wood & Ryan Kelly
The New York Five, a four-issue mini-series from Vertigo that picks up where Brian Wood and Ryan Kelly’s The New York Four from DC’s Minx volume left off nearly two and half years ago finally releases this Wednesday, January 26th. As someone that was a big fan of the digest-sized original, and someone that searches high and low for quality comics that are also female friendly, I was excited to get a sneak peek of The New York Five #1 (check for that advance review in a special second installment of She Has No Head! tomorrow). Even better though, was getting a chance to talk with Brian Wood and Ryan Kelly about their return to these great characters.
Kelly: So as I understand it, the original plan was to do four books – each one featuring a different character (Riley, Merissa, Lona, and Ren) – I think the most obvious question is can we actually expect to get more of this mini-series, or should I just count myself lucky that I got this one?
Brian: Well, I think Ryan and I feel like the lucky ones! Seriously, a book like this coming from a place like Vertigo is not going to be a chart-topper, but Ryan and I do know how to make pretty good comics together, and I feel this is a pretty positive show of support on DC’s part to let this happen. When Minx ended, we already had contracts signed to do a sequel book, and over these last couple years everyone involved has helped figure out what to do about that – in terms of length, format, imprint, etc. What THE NEW YORK FIVE is, is something kind of unique for DC: a creator-owned, black and white, no ads, 32-pages of story comic for $2.99.
I honestly can’t say if we’ll get the chance to do more after this. I approached this new FIVE series with the assumption that we won’t, so we don’t run the risk of leaving readers hanging like we did at the end of THE NEW YORK FOUR.
Ryan: Yes, lucky is the right word. The New York Five is a unique and strange object–A 32-page, black and white, serial drama about living in New York, published by DC Comics for $2.99. I’m honored to have the opportunity to do this book, and I’ve tried to repay the favor by making the best art I can.
Kelly: So this will this wrap up and stand on its own by the end of issue #4?
Brian: Pretty much, yes. It takes the characters to the end of their first year of college, so it certainly is possible for there to be more and more sequels, but like I said, I don’t want to count on that 100% so all the storylines in FIVE will wrap up at the end of that last issue.
Kelly: Can you explain the title for The New York Five (which I love) – is a new character supposed to be “five”? Is it Angie? Someone new?
The “five” is a new character named Olive. Angie’s always been there, but I’ve never really considered her to be one of the core group of characters. She’s a bit older, more established in life. Her time of being young and new to the city has already passed her by.
Kelly: One of my favorite things about The New York Four was what a character New York City was (hell, it’s in the title) and it’s even more true to me in this new mini-series – which has the same structure – with an omni-present narrator that gives us the inside scoop on the city – was there any specific reason you decided to write it that way?
Brian: My editor, Shelly Bond, way back in 2006 or 2007, asked me to pitch for Minx with the stipulation that I give her something along the lines of “an insider’s guide to NYC”, so that’s probably where the narration thing originated. But also, it felt natural to me. Wayyyy back in 1991, I moved to NYC to go to college, and I’ve lived that experience. Writing this with first-person narration allowed me to pretty literally channel my own experiences through her.
Kelly: The structure of both books, in addition to using a narrator, uses mandatory therapy sessions for each of the girls thanks to their part-time jobs, to move the story forward and get a peek into their thought process…what was the inspiration for telling the story in that way? Do you think it was an effective technique for the book overall? What did it get you as a writer that you needed?
Brian: I remember really fighting for that therapy bit. Two reasons: I wanted a way for the characters to be able to talk about themselves and about the others that wasn’t internal… I felt it was good to have a person, even an off-screen person, prompting them to open up, rather than four lines of possibly confusing narration, or forced-seeming monologues. Building an in-story reason for them to specifically, and efficiently, communicate with the reader seemed like a good idea. Also, anyone who’s ever seen a reality show of any sort is immediately familiar with the “confessional” scenes, where the person is talking to the camera like that. I felt confident than everyone would understand what I was going for.
Kelly: Personally, I feel like the book – and especially the visual exploration of the city – from those wide impressive skylines down to the most minute details are actually better explored in this new mini-series thanks to the larger size floppy format instead of the smaller Minx digest size of The New York Four – did either of you work any differently knowing the book was going to be in a larger format? Do you have a preference one way or the other?
Brian: I limited the number of panels per page, absolutely, never going over five per page. I know Ryan was drawing at a smaller size as well. I enjoyed it, it was a different sort of challenge, and called for us to be efficient and find ways to avoid it feeling like the dreaded “decompression” that is often misused and misunderstood.
With FIVE, we are back to full size, more panels per, and so I approached it the same way I would approach something like DEMO or LOCAL.
Ryan: – The transition in formats had a much larger effect on me, I think. First of all – speaking about the Minx book specifically – I didn’t handle the move to the Manga “digest size” very well. When I look at the first 20 pages of The New York Four, I see an artist that is struggling. And I did struggle a little bit. With every new job, I always suck for a few weeks and then I eventually get on a roll. I saw The New York Four as my first, serious responsibility as a professional artist, and I had few stumbles and missteps initially. As someone who worked on standard size comics, I didn’t adjust to the new format exceptionally well and making the art simple, clear and easy to read
Now with The New York Five, everyone will be able to notice the difference immediately. My art looks much better at that scale. I’ve been able to stretch out the spaces and forms. The frames don’t feel so crammed. The lines look much better too, as I’m drawing at about 160% of print size and, thus, the delineation is better. With the Minx book, I was drawing many pages close to print size, which was insane.
Kelly: I’m sure that as a New Yorker, the knowledge and affection for NYC came quite naturally to you Brian…but I understand Ryan doesn’t live in NYC but St. Paul Minnesota…how on earth did you so nail the look and feel of New York in every single panel Ryan? It’s truly breathtaking.
Brian: For my part, Ryan and I had recently completed LOCAL, which had him drawing different locations month in and month out, based only on photo reference, and he nailed it.
Ryan: I get asked this question a lot and I never have a captivating answer. I just try to put a lot of care and attention to the surroundings and how they interact visually with the figures. Drawing backgrounds is rather fun and easy for me. It’s not a chore at all. With my projects, I try to make the backgrounds more than just set designs. I’m sure I go overboard sometimes.
Kelly: If I didn’t know any better I would absolutely say you’re a dyed in the wool New Yorker Ryan – none of the work has the feel of someone that doesn’t live breathe and sleep the city – it just has that energy of New York.
Ryan: That’s probably the biggest misconception of me. People often tell me at conventions that they assumed I was from New York. I don’t know why. You should see the look of disappointment on their faces when I tell them I’m from Minnesota. Just kidding.
Kelly: I think, had you two not really thoroughly fleshed out these characters there’s a chance that the city of New York might have overwhelmed them, but as it is, it’s a really great balance on the page and as a reader I completely believe everything about these ladies from their music selections to clothing choices – how did the two of you collaborate on creating such well-fleshed out characters? I feel like you could both tell me what each had for breakfast on any given day. What’s the process?
Brian: Shelly Bond (editor) had me do these exercises early on where I would answer a fake interview in the voice of the characters… she would literally send me an interview that I would respond to as Riley, as Ren, etc., which really helped define them from day one. I wrote really lengthy bios as well, and sent those to Ryan. He did all the really hard work, though, turning fifteen paragraphs of written personality into a single visual that can sum it all up.
Ryan: Wow, I didn’t know about the fake interview questions, haha. Seriously, we could publish an extensive The New York Four “Director’s Cut” Process Book if we wanted to. The amount of preliminary work we’ve done for both volumes is astounding. I’m talking about an inordinate amount of concepts, thumbnails, samples, character designs, photos, mock-ups, lists of titles, promotional work, unpublished pages, panels, costume changes, and commissions. I’ve never worked on another project that was so much work.
Kelly: Were there ever any disagreements about which way to go with something?
Brian: I like to follow my own rule of staying out of the artists’ hair, as they tend to stay out of mine. In other words, let each other do what they do best. I can only think of a couple times I had to ask Ryan to redraw something.
Ryan: I look back on it all and I see lots of back-and-forth between myself, Brian and editorial. But that’s a good thing. It’s why we have such a perfectly fleshed-out series of characters that we’re all happy with. No big fights though.
Kelly: Who won?
Brian: Whomever the editor sides with, probably!
Ryan: Comics. In the end, comics win.
Kelly: Good answer! Who is responsible for the fantastic fashion choices in this book? Because someone has been paying a lot of attention to fashion – and thank goodness, because it’s a rarity in comics – even when it should be a necessity, since it’s a visual medium.
Brian: I remember having some pretty specific choices in mind for Riley, and some more general stereotypical comments for the others… like genres of clothing they should more or less conform to. Again, beyond the initial designs, I’ve left that up to Ryan. I think Ren’s glasses were Shelly’s idea.
Ryan: The fashion part of The New York Five was very important to me, in more ways than just the obvious reasons. What the characters were wearing served many important functions: To distinguish their personalities; to make them convincing as real people; to reflect the character’s moods and motivations; and to make a larger statement about The New York Five being a cool, hip book to read as a whole.
I think the way some artists draw normal people – especially female characters – can be rather generic, often drawing on comic book conventions. As an artist, you just need to look at the world around you and see what people are doing and wearing. You can’t just pick up a JCPenny catalog and be done with your costume design.
The clothes should match the characters emotional state as well. If Lona is being dark, moody, and reclusive, she’ll be wearing layers and lots of black. If Ren’s feeling “girly” that day, she might wear a skirt instead of jeans. The tricky part was that I couldn’t assign “uniforms” to each character, because real people don’t wear the same clothes every day. Well, maybe some guys do, but definitely not women.
Our Editor Shelly Bond, has a great eye for style so her artistic influence is felt throughout the book.
Kelly: Ryan can you tell us a little bit about your process in designing a character like that? How much do you have to draw from actual current fashion in order to get it right? Where do you get your inspiration and references?
Ryan: I mostly based my inspiration off of real people I know and what they’re wearing, how they act and behave, that sort of thing. I taught at an art college for a long time and some of my students reminded me of the students In The New York Four. Brian really helped set the stage for the characters’ “looks”, but then I took off with it after that. For character design, I had a very basic formula:
Riley (4) – She’s the character I struggled with the most in her initial designs. She usually always wears t-shirts, jeans, Converse sneakers and a hooded sweatshirt or some combination of that. You need to be able to look at Riley and feel she could be anyone you know in real life.
Ren (3) – Ren has a “tomboy” side and a more “girly” side, so when she switches between the two, it’s a stark and noticeable contrast. I was having trouble separating the girl’s facial features, so there was a plan to have one character wear glasses and Ren got them in the end. Ren shops at vintage stores.
Lona (1) – Lona is the “fashionista”, and definitely more progressive with her style. She’s the artistic one and way more eccentric with her style, often wearing the hottest trends (Yes, I bought fashion magazines for visual reference). The key to Lona is that whenever she enters a scene, she’s wearing something completely different. When it comes to Lona, I’m often scrolling through lookbook.nu and seeing what the cool kids are wearing.
Merissa (2) – I saw Merissa as more blue-collar and working-class so what she wore needed to reflect that. She dresses nice, but not as hip as Lona. Merissa’s more likely to go to the mall and buy what ever is off the rack in H&M or Forever 21 or something.
Kelly: Were you two excited to come back to these ladies and their stories?
Brian: I have such a soft spot for this book and these characters. Peers of mine seem surprised when I say that, but we put such a huge effort into the book and the characters themselves, how could we not? There is no hierarchy with my books… DMZ or whatever is no more important, or valid, or deserving of attention than anything else I do, even if it’s perceived as my biggest project. You read DV8, I hope you can see that how I wrote even that book showed a high level of attention and care.
Ryan: I was. I felt that there was a lot more to be explored with the characters, especially Lona and Merissa. We had begun a sub-plot with Lona that we never resolved and that gnawed at me. I felt from the very beginning that there was more to Merissa. There was more to her personal life that we don’t know about and we needed investigate that.
Kelly: It’s been over two and a half years since The New York Four came out…did the story change at all in the interim?
Brian: Hugely. Way back when, Book 2 of the series was meant to be Lona’s story in the way that Book 1 was Riley’s. So FIVE has Lona’s story, for sure, but its been pared down to allow for all the girls to have equal attention.
Ryan: For a long time after Minx dissolved, I didn’t know what The New York Five would be. For a while, I thought it would be a straight graphic novel, and we wrote and drew it as a 6-issue mini-series before we changed it to four issues.
Kelly: You two have worked together on The New York Four, Local, DMZ, Northlanders, and now The New York Five…is there something special that keeps the two of you coming back to each other to collaborate?
Brian: Ryan’s a terrific artist, the sort that any writer dreams of: prompt, skilled, respectful of the collaboration, of a similar temperament, and who shares the same likes. With LOCAL, he took a huge leap of faith in signing on to a series that no doubt sounded very strange and nebulous, and for not a lot of money. It paid off, for both of us, but I’ll never forget the trust he had in me.
Ryan: Haha, I think it’s the other way around. I think Brian “took a chance on me”, if I may steal a line from Abba. He definitely gave me my big break with LOCAL. I think every artist needs that “big break”. I’ve done a lot of work, but I’ll still only be known for drawing LOCAL.
Kelly: Can you explain the process of your collaboration a bit? And how might it differ from how you work with other writers and artists?
Brian: For me, it’s pretty much the staying-out-of-the-hair thing. I like to be pretty solitary in my work, so I’ll get the script to a place where I like it and then send it off, and let Ryan do his thing. I work in a very similar way with Becky Cloonan, and really all my artists to differing degrees. A book like DMZ, in the early years, required a lot of back and forth… that is an incredibly difficult book to draw and Riccardo Burchielli had never been to New York back then. NORTHLANDERS has me hands-on with the art due to the shifting roster of artists and the need to supply so much reference.
Ryan: I love collaborating, I feel it’s my strong suit. When working with other people, I just try to get it right the first time so I don’t put others in the awkward position of telling me to go back and do it again. Brian lets me do my thing and only chimes in when I screw up big time, haha. He’s a great artist and designer himself, so I respect his input.
Kelly: Though a lot of your work is political in nature and The New York Five is not – you’ve mentioned before that your books hit “themes of identity and friendships, family and loss” which I think The New York Five definitely fits into perfectly. Are all your stories this personal in some way or another? Where do you go inside yourself to find a story like this?
Brian: It’s not such a conscious thing. The constant strain of identity themes in all my work is totally subconscious and not easy for me to define or diagnose. I use my own history as a base, sure, and steal from friends of mine, mostly from my younger years.
Kelly: Does it take an emotional toll to tell them?
Brian: Not so much. A couple times, perhaps. Certain issues of DEMO and LOCAL, maybe, but nothing so dramatic.
Kelly: I heard a rumor, a couple years ago now, that Hollywood expressed some interest in The New York Four…any truth to that?
Brian: We had a brush with it becoming a TV show, but it fizzled out pretty early. That’s a really common thing: you get a lot of intense, initial interest but it rarely turns into anything real. We have something cooking with LOCAL that’s a little further along, but again, it’s not real until it’s real.
Kelly: If you could describe The New York Five to a new reader, how would you describe it?
Brian: I take it on a case-by-case basis. If I’m talking to people familiar with the comics Ryan and I have done, specifically LOCAL, I’ll describe it as a Brian-and-Ryan comic. Or if the person seems to be of a certain age, I’ve actually referenced the old JJ Abrams TV show Felicity “run through my filters”. Failing those, what the book really is, is what it’s like for an incoming college kid to “make it” in New York City. Whatever “make it” can mean to someone. Often times it’s literally just making it through the semester.
Kelly: I know it’s bad form to pick favorites but do either of you have a favorite character in the series…if so, who and why?
Brian: It is hard. Riley, probably, which is predictable since she’s the one that has the most story told, but she’s also the one who narrates the story and as such I’ve gotten into her head more than the others. I like Lona a lot, too, since she is such a neurotic mess and there’s nothing not fun about writing someone like that.
Ryan: Hmm, that’s impossible to answer. When I’m reading The New York Five, Riley is my favorite, I guess. I love to draw her too. Merissa might be my favorite. Lona’s great because things get weirder every time she’s around. Her unpredictability livens up any scene. I’ve never been able to get a “feel” for Ren. She’s just too cool for me!
Kelly: And lastly of course…the ever predictable “what are you up to next?” question. So, what can we expect in 2011 and beyond from you two? Anything you can talk about?
Brian: DMZ is ending, per the plan, at the end of 2011, and Northlanders is not an infinite series, so there is an ending to that on some horizon somewhere. Ryan and I have something cooking, of course, but that aside, there’s nothing I can say. I’m currently solidifying plans for what will be the next several years of my comics career.
Ryan: I have a lot of things in development right now. Maybe something with Brian Wood, which is always a treat. Probably something with a big, talented writer I’ve wanted to work with for a while, someone who wrote one of my favorite books from the past year; and there’s a couple other projects in the works that are being amazing. And in those gaps of time, I’ll work on my self-published comic, FUNRAMA, which I sell at conventions and on my blog. You should see a lot from me in the near future!
Kelly: Thanks so much to both of you for taking time out to talk to me – I hope you’ll both come back sometime!