Original short interviews with notable, rising or overlooked
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BAKER'S DOZEN for 05/19/2004
Colleen Doran on Scenes from the Small Press: Colleen Doran
To the casual observer, it might appear that Colleen Doran has lead a charmed life. Armed with her poise, eloquence, intelligence, and artistic gifts -- not to slight her substantial determination -- how could she not succeed, right? So what would make her the perfect subject for a biographical film?
Well, the truth of the matter is something else entirely. Nearly from the moment she entered the field at the truly tender age of 15, Doran was assailed and even assaulted in almost every conceivable manner by series of publishers, editors, fans ... and even by her own peers for having the audacity to speak out on the subject of sexual harassment. Through it all she's prevailed and continued to hone her skills while working on her own and company owned projects, and lived to both tell and laugh about it all.
Bill Baker: How did you get involved with Rich Henn's Scenes from the Small Press project, and why did you agree to be involved so directly with it?
Colleen Doran: Well, I have known Rich for a while now and he just approached me at a show and asked if he could interview me.
BB: You share quite a bit with the Rich and the audience during the course of the film, revealing not only a lot about your self as an artist and a person, but also some pretty harrowing and creepy experiences that you've endured over the years since entering comics professionally at 15. Why talk about *all* of this now ... and why talk about the bad stuff at all? Is this a case of payback, as some might have it, or is there more behind your decision than that?
CD: I am talking about my professional experience. Some of that experience was good, some of it was not. I talk about self publishing, A Distant Soil, Orbiter, conventions, you name it. Am I supposed to edit out the bad experiences because they make people uncomfortable to hear them?
And as for payback -- how so? If no one is named, then they have nothing to worry about except the grappling they have to do with their own consciences.
There is no way I can discuss my life in comics without discussing these issues. Anything less would be half the story.
BB: I don't mean to harp on the subject, but if you're going to talk about all these terrible things people have tried to do, or actually done do you, why *not* name them?
CD: Did Jack Kirby name every editor who ripped him off? Every person who stole his art? Every client who paid late? Did John Romita, Jr. name everyone at Marvel Comics who told him he was a no-talent who was only getting jobs because of nepotism?
The only reason people want me to name names is because of the spicy edge sexual harassment brings to the story. If my editor had just yelled at me and told me I was ugly and stupid, no one would care. But because my editor offered me jobs in exchange for sexual favors, that's good gossip. Men in comics get robbed, abused, swindled and bludgeoned every day and no one doubts their sincerity or motivation when they choose discretion.
I have always been candid about my professional experiences. I spoke about some of these same incidents in the book Comic Book Rebels by Steve Bissette. I was interviewed for an article about sexism in comics about a dozen years ago by CBR magazine. And, of course, I spoke quite candidly to The Comics Journal over ten years ago and did name a few names.
The response from the industry at large was the sound of chirping crickets. They couldn't have cared less about sexual harassment then and didn't really seem to think my story was very interesting until now, which I can only attribute to the fact that the [Comics] Journal has finally come forward with the story for which I was interviewed over a decade ago and now people know one of the men about whom I was speaking. I mean really, no one seemed to care before. My story hasn't changed but you put the name of a beloved comic book editor on it and suddenly it is news.
When you name names, people forget the message and start choosing sides. That's not productive. I don't want the message to get lost while fanboys get involved in screaming matches about how they just know how so-and-so could never have done such a thing because he edited their favorite superhero comic and talked to them at a convention, as if editing comics is some sort of reliable barometer of human character.
I have no doubt that no fanboys ever had a problem with this guy because this guy's interest was in groping young girls. That's a simple equation.
In my case, the people with whom I had problems are either dead, out of commission or have been dealt with. Just because you didn't hear about it doesn't mean my lawyer didn't work on it. That doesn't mean I didn't call the police. But anyone who would think that in the 1980's (When I had my problems) The Comic Buyers Guide and their ilk would be reporting this sort of story is off their rocker. There was no Internet and there really wasn't any mechanism for talking about this stuff publicly if the few comics magazines that were out there didn't roll the story.
I was a teenager and a nobody. I was making $5,000 a year. I had no credibility and no one cared about what I was going through at all. I talked and screamed and shouted from the rooftops and was ignored. The reason you are paying attention now is because the spotlight is on.
BB: So why aren't you -- and the rest of the victims who are surely out there -- doing something about this behavior legally ... en mass? Is this kind of behavior supposed to be tolerated because you work in comics?
CD: You're incorporating a lot of assumptions. I am relating incidents that go back to the 1980's. Exactly, what would you like me to do about them now? I handled them already.
I went to the police and got legal counsel. I know for a fact that other women sued in other cases. We did our best to handle these matters. Just because you didn't hear about them doesn't mean they didn't happen.
You are also incorporating the assumption that the comic book industry is some sort of monolithic entity and if all us girls get together and get a nice lawyer he will take our case and make those big bad publishers play nice.
I honestly don't know what other women are dealing with in comics these days. Since I am not a party to any recent action, you would have to go and find some women who are dealing with a current incident to pursue this. I discuss my past experiences in comics, and have made it very clear that I really haven't had any serious problems in years.
In the 1980's, most people had never even heard of sexual harassment. They didn't even know what the laws were regarding this kind of behavior. Stalking wasn't against the law in the 1980's. A man could follow you around, show up on your doorstep, call you at all hours of the day and night and there wasn't a thing you could do. I had a couple of experiences along these lines and I couldn't get any help from the police until the laws changed. When the laws changed, the police acted responsibly and the problem was dealt with.
The stories that I relate in the film also refer almost entirely to my experiences in the small press. The EEOC rules that apply to a small business do not necessarily apply to these small publishers. You do not have the same legal protections with a small business as you do when you work for a large one. A woman freelancer is not an employee. She is an independent contractor. An independent contractor does not have the same legal rights as an employee.
Since freelancers often live far away from their publishers, pursuing a legal case across state lines is extremely difficult and expensive. This also applies to criminal cases. Lawyers are very reluctant to pursue a criminal case over a groping incident. That would be dismissed as a civil matter because it is sexual harassment and sexual harassment isn't criminal. A lawyer is going to want thousands of dollars to be on retainer to pursue such a case.
People have been misled by the outrageous stories they hear of lawsuits involving celebrities. They think that every woman who gets pinched by a basketball player gets a million dollar settlement. That's just not reality and that is so far from the reality of the comics industry in the 1980's that they are not even on the same dimensional plane.
When I was having to deal with this years ago, one company with whom I was having problems was a small press. Since it was a small company, no lawyer would take the case without a retainer. If it had been a major company, they probably would have, but a small company is a risk for a lawyer. So, I had to come up with a retainer that was exactly $500 less than my annual income. And then, this small press knowing they would lose just folded up shop, transferred all their assets and started up again under another name. There was nothing left of my original publisher to get.
I didn't react to an occasional pinch or off color joke. That stuff doesn't even register on my radar. I was subjected to a long campaign of harassment and abuse and it took a heck of a lot of serious provocation before I even lifted a finger to stand up for myself.
And in all of that, I never asked for a penny from any of these people as compensation for their illegal acts. I didn't go around looking for big settlements from fat, rich old men. I filed the appropriate complaints and got back to work. If my checks were withheld in retaliation, I demanded my moneys due. If my contract was violated, I demanded to be released from my contract. I never went looking for a payday that was earned by anything but from the actual sale of my books and art.
BB: Would it be safe to say that this process has been a bit cathartic for you? I mean, it's not all doom and gloom, is it? I don't mean to be presumptuous, but I don't get the impression that things are going too badly these days for you.
CD: I am getting exactly what I was afraid of getting all those years ago when I was a kid, afraid of what people were going to say about me because I had the gall to complain that married men old enough to be my parents or grandparents were trying to take advantage of me. People are making stupid comments about how I dress, how they saw me "flirt" with someone five years ago, how I am ugly, how I am pretty and ought to expect it, how I deserve it, yadda yadda. It makes you sick to your stomach to see this crap. In a way, I am glad I didn't have to go through this publicly all those years ago. I could never have stood up to this when I was a kid. This isn't a catharsis, this is reliving an ugly experience.
Sure I am doing well in my career now. But I am not at all happy I had to pay this kind of price to draw comic books. This shouldn't happen to anyone.
BB: All these experiences have had a real impact on your work in general, and upon A Distant Soil in particular, haven't they?
CD: Yes, they have. I spent many years coming to terms with this. I got very little support from the industry, so I internalized things and really let them get to me. I went to motivational trainers and literally spent thousands of dollars learning to get my self esteem and self confidence back. I attended seminars that taught skydiving and firewalking. I figured if I could walk ten feet across a bed of hot coals, I could certainly endure the disapproval of people whose respect I shouldn't consider worth having anyway.
Ultimately, I incorporated a lot of my experiences into A Distant Soil itself. There are entire conversations in the book that I actually had. I turned the story into a metaphor about the nature of exploitation, especially exploitation of young people.
BB: Was the act of transforming and adapting your own painful experiences into your art a conscious decision, or was it more of a natural process, something that just seemed to happen of its own accord and logic? And do you think it made for a better comic ... and, if so, why?
CD: It was a natural process. I didn't realize what I was doing at first. But as I began to see myself reliving and working through the experiences in A Distant Soil, then I began to consciously pursue that angle. I began reading my diaries and going over letters from some of the people with whom I had worked, reliving what had happened. The book is heavily character-oriented and many of these villains are complex and manipulative. Without a frame of reference, without having actually dealt with people of this kind, I don't know if I could have written them. I think it gives the work an air of verisimilitude that it wouldn't have otherwise.
I often get letters from young men and women who were abused as teens and children that relate strongly with what I have written. And I have also become friends with people who were child actors who went through a good many experiences that were similar to mine, so at least I have someone to talk to!
BB: What are you working on these days, and what have you got coming up that you can tell us about at this point, and when will we be seeing all of it?
CD: Well, I finished up Reign of the Zodiac, and am working hard on a new project with Warren Ellis called Stealth Tribes which we hope to have out later this year. I am already a third complete with the pencils and inks! It is radically different from anything I have done before. I was very happy with the work I had done on Orbiter and Reign of the Zodiac, but this is about ten steps up. It is an incredibly cool and challenging work. People are going to be very surprised by it and especially surprised to see this sort of work from me!
BB: You know, I just gotta ask, and it'll get us back on the topic of films, so: How the hell did you get invites to go to all those cool Oscar parties and such, and do you need an assistant to help you at next year's gala events?
CD: I could use a makeup artist and hairstylist who will travel with me, but I don't think that's you!
Actually, I know a lot of people out in Hollywood, but I am also a major Lord of the Rings fan and a lot of the people who run those events have been very kind to me and have made sure that I got to attend some of the parties and meet some of the great people involved in making the films. It is fun, but there is nothing that will make a girl feel more insecure than being in a town surrounded by the most glamorous women in the world! They wear dresses that cost more than I make in a year.
BB: Well, jumping back to the main topic of our conversation, what do you see as the ultimate purpose of SftSP: Colleen Doran the film being? Is it a turning point in your career, simply a document about a certain individual at a specific time and place, a feminist tract ... or is it all that and more?
CD: Well, "a feminist tract" it isn't. It's the story of the life of a cartoonist, and there has been virtually no focus on the lives of women comic book artists. Even the very important works of Trina Robbins only relate biographical information of early, seminal comic strip women cartoonists. Almost nothing is said of the lives of people like Ramona Fradon or Marie Severin or June Brigman.
Since some yahoo is always piping up with a rant about why women can't draw comics, maybe this will also go a little way toward explaining why women haven't drawn comics for many years. It was such a difficult, unwelcoming business for women. The industry ganged up and drove them away. I have a file full of letters from aspiring women creators who were so discouraged by the way they were treated at conventions and so forth, they just got other commercial art jobs rather than put up for the often low-paying, less prestigious comic art field. You've really got to love comics to run the gauntlet I ran! And I really, truly love comics, even if some of the people weren't very good to me in the past.
BB: What else might your participation in this project have given you, or done for you, be it expected or not? And how does the reality compare with any expectations you might have harbored?
CD: I really don't know what to expect from it, except that people will have an opportunity to hear a story they would otherwise never hear. Women are often not believed when they tell their stories about this sort of treatment, but when you have to look in my face and see me right there in front of you telling you what this did to me on a completely personal level, I hope that people will come to understand me a little better, and maybe to understand a side of the history of this industry a lot of people have tried to keep quiet.
It's amazes me when I contrast how I was treated then and how I am treated now. Male professionals are so good to me and so respectful. I am very lucky I got through it all. When you are young and vulnerable, the people that are attracted to you first are the predators. And when they have finished feeding or can't chase the prey anymore, you have an opportunity to meet the really good people who are out there in this industry.
When I used to hang out with the self publisher crowd, those guys were always on the lookout for my welfare. They never let anyone get out of hand with me. Jim Valentino once told me they would have killed anyone who laid a finger on me.
And Frank Miller has been known to walk me out of events when he thought there might be trouble or if he thought I was tired and should be home. He takes me by the hand, puts me in a cab, makes sure I have cab fare! These guys are so good to me and so helpful. They really care about me and they are genuinely kind. There are a lot of wonderful people in comics. I am glad I stuck around long enough to meet them.
BB: What do you hope that viewers of the film get from their experience of watching it?
CD: I hope they are inspired to pursue their dreams and to not let anyone get in the way of their personal truth. No one can destroy you unless you enable them. If you learn to change the meaning of things that happen to you, then their power over you changes as well. I used to feel weak and hopeless. Now, I feel like I can accomplish anything. I know that if I can get through all of that, I am a strong person who can do whatever I want to do with my life. That's the message I hope people get from the film.
Any other thoughts you'd like to leave us with?
CD: Well, I am working on updating my websites www.adistantsoil.com and www.colleendoran.com. They have been sitting fallow forever! And www.flightsofimagination.com will be handling my sales and mail order so I can concentrate on my work more. I am discussing several major Hollywood projects, already talking to people about what books I will do after Stealth Tribes which is the most exciting and challenging thing I have ever done. I illustrated the book The Essential JRR Tolkien Sourcebook and some of my art from that will be in a traveling exhibit of Lord of the Rings art that is going through all of Europe. I am so proud to have my work in the same exhibit as the works of John Howe and Alan Lee! I am hard at work on the new issue of A Distant Soil which ships in June and I hope to get two more issues out this year. I am also renovating a cottage in the Blue Ridge Mountains so I will now have a studio in the woods next to a mountain stream. It's beautiful. I have a great life.
There's little that Bill has to add at this point, aside from a fervent wish that the terrible behaviors that Colleen -- and thousands of other women, as well as some men -- have had forced upon them at work will one day be seen as the abhorrent abuse it really is ...
And to suggest that you all head over to Rich Henn's site via www.timespell.com/colleen.html and grab a copy of his moving, fascinating, enlightening, informative and ultimately uplifting film, Scenes from the Small Press: Colleen Doran. It's money and time well spent.
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