Fiona Staples: "The universe of Saga is very much an amplified cartoon version of our reality"A comics interview article by: Chase Magnett
Fiona Staples is a rising star in comics. Her name became instantly recognizable after the debut of Saga two years ago and neither her work nor Saga itself have lost any of their luster. While at Denver Comic Con, Fiona was able to spend a little time discussing her designs and artwork for the series in addition to her experience as an artist in Calgary.
Chase Magnett for Comics Bulletin: Saga is a very well-paced comic that makes very good use of space in both dialogue and action-driven sequences. Can you describe your scripting process? Do you work from a full script or are their collaborative elements?
Fiona Staples: Brian gives me a full script where he breaks it down into pages and panels. Most of it is in the script. The only time I might tweak the layout or pacing is during a fight scene. It’s usually during action where he gives me a little more leeway to direct the flow of the action and the panel breakdown.
CB: Another standout element of the series is its character design. What is the process that goes into developing how certain races, characters, or creatures will look?
Staples: Brian will usually give me a description of each character, just a sentence or so describing their basic features. Some are more detailed and some are less. I generally have a lot of freedom with it. The Will, for instance, in the script was just a bald guy with a cape and he had work boots. Also, he has a giant cat, a space cat. The line for Lying Cat in the script is just “big, space cat”. I got total freedom to do whatever I wanted with that.
CB: The fauna in Saga reminds me of Avatar: The Last Airbender because you see familiar elements from our world, like a Walrus, but they are recombined to make something new and interesting. Are there certain stories or artists you draw inspiration from when designing the world of Saga?
Staples: I take most of my inspiration from the real world. There are lots of other comics and media I like, like video games. My biggest influences are real world locations because I do want them to feel fantastical, yet be grounded at the same time. Whenever I’m designing an environment I’ll look at real world architecture, and ancient ruins, and modern architecture, and furniture design, then put a slight spin on it. The universe of Saga is very much based on our own. It’s very much an amplified cartoon version of our reality.
I try to give everything a basis in Earth stuff. At the same time, I’m really into a lot of cartoons like Studio Ghibli stuff and video games like Final Fantasy. I like things that combine the real world, science fantasy, and fiction.
CB: When you’re looking for those real world inspirations, how much time do you put into research on architecture, biology, and design elements?
Staples: Because of our monthly schedule, I’ve never really put as much time into research as I would like to. If I was doing Saga as a standalone graphic novel, it would look very different than it does an ongoing, monthly series. I always have to keep in mind that I’m working on a tight schedule. I’ll do as much research as I can and look at a bunch of Google image searches or browse Pinterest before I just go with it.
CB: The most obvious visual motifs are characters with horns and wings. They represent the two sides of the driving conflict in addition to being associated with the two primary protagonists. All of the horns and wings are very diverse in appearance though, ranging from the bug wings to bat wings to those of a bird. Did you design each character’s unique features reflect something about them?
Staples: That mostly comes from Brian. For any of the named characters in the book, he will typically say what type of wings or what type of horns they have. That was basically my only reaction for Marko was that he should have ram’s horns, but then do whatever.
CB: We’re starting to see Hazel grow up some. Do you know what the ultimate appearance of her horns and wings will be?
Staples: I do, but it’s a surprise.
CB: One major theme of Saga that comes through in the visuals is the dichotomy of love and war, where love is very much about sexuality. In a medium that generally treats sex as something taboo or titillating, both you and Brian have been very frank in how you present sexuality and the human body. How have you approached the depiction of sex and nudity in a mainstream comic?
Staples: I try to approach sex the same way we approach everything else in the comic, which is just treating it as another aspect of life. Saga has a lot of breadth to it. It covers a lot of different themes and topics. We see action and violence in a lot of comics. We see sex in a lot of comics. In ours I think it’s presented in the context of this family’s journey, their life story. I wanted it to feel grounded in terms of what the characters are going through.
CB: There are a wide variety of ways in which artists approach covers, whether it’s to invoke a mood or portray some aspect of the story inside. Your cover work has received a lot of attention and is very well received. What is your philosophy when designing a cover for Saga?
Staples: They very rarely reflect the story inside and that’s not my intention. I do the covers months before I read the script for the issue. Brian will usually tell me which characters to feature or just tell me to do whatever I want. Sometimes he has a more specific idea, like for the latest one shown in Previews. It is Marko’s mom Klara, Isabel and their walrus pet. The idea was to just have Klara sitting like a gangster with the walrus and Isabel behind her.
For the one I just finished for issue 24, I have no idea what this issue is going to be about. Brian hasn’t written the script yet, but he said we should put The Brand and Sweet Boy on the cover and just have them doing something cool.
CB: So you don’t read the scripts until Brian has them completed. Do you avoid reading future scripts when drawing each issue?
Staples: Yeah. I don’t read the next script until I’ve finished the last issue. I don’t want to get ahead of myself.
CB: Do you think that affects your artwork and how you present certain scenes and characters?
Staples: I think that keeps it fresh for me. That’s the reason I do it. When I read through the script for the first time and I have an emotional reaction to what’s happening, I want to remember those moments. I want them to be fresh in my mind when I’m drawing it, so I can pass that same reaction along to the audience. If the issue ends on a huge cliffhanger, I want them to feel it. I don’t want to read ahead to the next issue and see how it gets resolved. I want to be on pins and needles myself when I draw it.
CB: That’s an impressive amount of self-control.
Staples: Yeah. I’m also afraid that if I read too far ahead then I’ll be bored with the issue I’m drawing and just want to do the next one.
CB: You do all your own colors. How do you develop your palettes for the diverse planets and cultures in Saga, moving between a bright, poppy pink planet like Sextillion to an earthen, brown one like Quietus?
Staples: I want each location to be easy to identify, so I try to give them each their own unique palette. Then I think what kind of atmosphere and mood we need to create for each scene. Like for Heist’s lighthouse on Quietus, it’s supposed to feel very remote and desolate and misty. So it’s very grey on the outside and a little bit cozier on the inside. Then Sextillion is just a crazy, twisted party, so lots of brights there. I just try to think about what’s appropriate for the scene and what the characters are doing there.
CB: I wanted to talk with you about comics in Canada a little , specifically Calgary. There’s a very cool comics scene there with a great diversity of talent. Are you associated with many other artists at home and has the city helped develop you as an artist?
Staples: There’s a really cool comics scene in Calgary. There are a lot of professionals and independent comic artists in Alberta.
CB: The Calgary Expo was a few months back, right?
Staples: Yeah, that was in April. It’s sort of an annual gathering of all of the artists. Riley Rossmo is from Calgary. We went to art school together. He does a bunch of Image books like Proof, Green Wake, and Drumhellar. Tyler Jenkins, the artist on Peter Panzerfaust also went to college with us. Simon Roy who has worked on Prophet also went to ACAD (Alberta College of Art and Design).
CB: That’s a great selection of artists, all producing really great work right now. I had no idea that you all went to school together.
Staples: A lot of the ACAD alumni went on to do Image comics for some reason. There are also a lot of people doing their own thing, like self-publishing and doing indie books. Ryan Ferrier runs Challenger Comics, which is a web-based comics imprint. He hosts people’s books for them. It’s sort of a hub for new creators. He’s probably best know for Tiger Lawyer, but he’s also writing for Boom and Dark Horse. Curt Pires is also doing a Dark Horse book right now called Pop. He’s also from Calgary. He’s a very young, but already very prolific writer, just crazy ideas. Another Dark Horse artist Chris Peterson did Bee Vixens with Alex de Campi, sort of a grindhouse book.
There’s a ton of local talent and everyone is sort of focused on doing their own thing. We get together and hang out. There’s sort of a local drink and draw at a pub that we go to. It’s a really good scene and they’ve always given me a lot of support when I decided I wanted to start doing comics.
CB: You have a very supportive community at home. How has the experience been working with a major publisher like Image who has a very unique model?
Staples: Image has been amazing to work with. It’s been a really easy, smooth experience. Their approach is very hands off. They support Brian and I in anything we want to do and will never say no to anything we want to put in the book. They’ve been just wonderful to work with.
CB: Saga blew up with its very first issue and really hasn’t gone away since. It’s still the book everyone is talking about. How has that experience been for you?
Staples: It’s kind of weird feeling a lot of eyes on me, knowing a lot of people are going to see what I draw. It hasn’t really changed how I work. When I’m actually drawing the comic, I feel like I’m drawing it for Brian. His scripts and my finished pages are a dialogue between the two of us. I’m drawing it for the team on the book: Brian, Eric Stephenson, and our letterer Steven (Finch).