Claire Connelly wears her influences on her sleeves. The young New Jersey based artist will have no hesitations pointing to artists like Mike Mignola or Jeff Lemiere as major influences on her work. It’s easy to see the similarities; her art also contains the bold lines and stylistic forms that stray away from realism to create big, stirring, and memorable images. While she may share similarities with her heroes, Claire’s art is wholly her own and without creative peer. Her dynamic art has given her an instantly recognizable style to match her passion and interest in the craft of comics.

CV: Why comics? What drew you to making comics in the first place?

Claire Connelly: Well, I think the interesting thing about me is I didn’t start making comics…I made them as a kid, and I did take a comics class as a child, but I didn’t really consider making comics until I was around 20 when I was in art school. I had a professor and I guess he really, really wanted someone to make comics. He was this punk rock guy; he was into zines and stuff.

CV: What class did he teach?

CC: He taught Illustration II. It was slightly an upper level illustration course. You’re usually in your second or third year by the time you take this one, so you kind of have a better definition of what you want to be as an artist because you kind of took all those remedial courses. Like I found out I didn’t want to be an oil painter or things like that, or a sculptor. So, he saw me using ink, and I always drew these really strange pictures, and I was making very strange paintings, and one day I came back from summer vacation and I showed him all my work and he just goes “Stop making this shit.”

CV: [Laughs]

CC: And I’m like “What?” He’s like “This stuff is dumb.” And I was like “Aw, man,” like I really thought I was getting my style together. And he goes “No, you need to make comics…You need to tell stories.” And I was like “Oh, okay.” So every week he’d bring me in a pile of books to read. So everyone else would be drawing and working on their class projects and I’d be sitting in class reading comics.

CLICK: Want more Indie Spotlight? Check out our interview with Joven Tolentino!

CV: What books did he bring in?

CC: He brought in a lot of the Drawn & Quarterly, Top Shelf, more alternative stuff. While I was in college, even in general, I was starting to get back into comics because I didn’t really have any friends, so I was looking at other things to eat up my time. I took up reading and I had a huge library on campus, so I used to go there and pick up art books and look through them and history books and just pick up [and say] “Oh I didn’t know Tolkien made a children’s book” and I’d go find Tolkien’s children’s books or something.

CV: What was it about your style that made your professor say you need to make comics?

CC: In comparison to most people, I guess, my age, I have a really loose style. Something that has a slightly alternative look to it in general because it’s not very refined. When I was in school a lot of people were more influenced by, like, manga and things like that, and I think my style was so opposite of that it would be more of an interesting piece to kind of sequentials, because I was considering becoming a storyboard artist because I draw really fast because my style is not so refined. Then I realized oh no, being a storyboarder sucks because you don’t really get to work on movies and animation, you work on mostly commercials and boring stuff. That’s not really things I was really interested in.

CV: So even though you came to comics kind of late, are there any people who you could point to as people you draw influence from?

CC: My biggest influences are Mike Mignola and Jeff Lemire. I like things that are super graphic and have a lot black in them. My sister [Paige Connelly], she was reading HELLBOY at the time and she gave me the first one, SEED OF DESTRUCTION, and I read it and…I liked the way it looked, I just wasn’t really interested in the subject matter, so I wasn’t really, like, the Nazi doctor thing. But then I got the third or fourth ones which were more about folklore and stuff, and got super interested in HELLBOY and now I have every HELLBOY comic known to man. Jeff Lemire, I discovered him kind of randomly. I always liked Skottie Young’s work, because he had more of a looser, alternative comic kind of style, but still worked for Marvel. And he made a post about ESSEX COUNTY [Jeff Lemire’s premiere graphic novel] and I was like “Oh, it’s ten, twenty dollars on Amazon, I’ll just get it.” And then I read it and I was like “Holy. Shit.” I was reading it and I was like “This is what I wanna do. These are the kind of things I wanna make.”

CV: You said already your art has a loose, brushwork style to it with a lot of negative space; is there any sort of imagery that appeals to you that you try to use as a starting point? Or do you just go with whatever you’re thinking about or imagining that day?

CC: I guess everyone has their own visual ticks, or whatever. When I was in school, this is a really random thing, but I always go back to it, in early Roman art they have these things called black figure and red figure pottery. And I always really liked it because it had this bold background and these black figures on it and when you spun around the thing itself it told a narrative, but it was done very graphically and simple about positive and negative space because it was only two colors. It’s always engraved in the front of my brain, thinking that way. I want to give you as much information as possible without overloading it with detail.

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CV: I never would have made that connection between your art and Roman pottery, but I totally see it.

CC: Yeah, it’s just one of those weird things that you’re forced to look at in school when you have to take that early art history course. And then I always really liked German painters, especially like German Expressionism and stuff like that. They play pretty heavily with using the brush strokes to convey volume and things like that. I really wanted to be a painter in school; I just don’t like oil paint, so you pretty much can’t be a painter then. I always liked drawing more, so I just took what I learned from painting and applied it to that.

CV: It’s funny you say you like drawing more because you write a lot of the books you draw. Would you qualify yourself a “writer” because your comics rarely have any dialogue in them? I don’t mean that in a bad way, I mean that I don’t know if you would define yourself that way because I don’t know if you actually sit down and write out panel-by-panel what it’s going to be or if you just start drawing and you know where the story is going in your head. What is your process?

CC: I don’t write it all. I don’t sit at my computer and write out a script or anything like that. I’m more interested in telling a story visually than writing it out. I’ve never been much of a writer. I don’t enjoy writing. When I add words to my story it’s to convey and make the narrative stronger. When I start a story the first thing I do is start drawing whatever is in my head and then eventually kind of like, with all these sketches, then I’ll have a looser idea of what I want. Like when I work for myself I just draw some really loose thumbnails and then I go straight to finals, because I don’t have to show anyone; if I don’t like the page, then I’ll just throw it away. When I work with a client, I do thumbnails, then layouts, then I’ll work on the final product because I do have to convey to them a better idea of what I’m planning, but generally for myself I go from very loose drawing and I’ll just start making the product because I want to put all of my energy into the final pages and I don’t want them to be really stiff looking, so the less I draw it the looser it’s gonna be because I’m not caught up in the technicality of drawing it, I’m just trying to get it on paper.

CV: What helps you to determine if one of your comics needs dialogue or narration?

CC: It usually grows pretty naturally while I’m working on the narrative. A few of my earlier comics that aren’t really on my website, like my really really early stuff, I felt like I had to use words. So they kinda felt like they were just glued on top of the narrative, like an afterthought. So when I do use language I try to make sure that it doesn’t feel like an afterthought because of my general process of not using it. It can easily feel like I’m just adding it just to be like what you think comics are supposed to be. Early on, especially with one of my professor’s, Chris Gash, guidance, I was like “Oh you have to start a comic with an establishing shot” and he’s like “No you don’t.” And I’m like “What do you mean no you don’t? Everything is supposed to start with an establishing shot” and he’s like “Don’t do that!” and I’d say “Okay.” So once I found out that I didn’t have to follow any rules, I could do what I want, it kinda made me feel a lot more comfortable with just doing exactly what I wanted, especially because I don’t really work for anyone else but myself.

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CV: The way you design your covers are, I feel, kind of like the establishing shot.

CC: Yeah, I completely agree with that. I really like covers that are really simple and iconic. My favorite superhero comics are always super simple and iconic, and you see them plastered everywhere; they’re always posters. Those are my favorite. People find it funny, but I like Greg Capullo, especially all his stuff on BATMAN. Everyone is like “Well, why do you like it?” Look at all his covers. They’re so simple, but they tell you what the narrative is on the inside. I hate when you pick up a comic and the cover doesn’t have anything to do with what’s on the inside. Like that doesn’t make sense.

CV: It’s false advertising.

CC: Yeah, it’s like when you pick up a book at the store and you’re like “Oh, that’s a really great cover” but it has nothing to do with what’s on the inside. I always find that really frustrating.

CV: Earlier you mentioned when you first started out you felt your comics had to have dialogue. When you look at old comic books, they’re often so dense in the writing, and it’s only recently that it seems like writers are comfortable letting the art tell the story. When you are an artist for a client, do you ever think “Stop with the words and let the art take over”?

CC: I’m pretty lucky that most writers that I’ve worked with they are open to my opinion. We’re collaborating; I’m not just executing their vision. I don’t work with writers where I’m just there to execute their vision because I’m not a robot. I’m gonna have opinions and sometimes you can write something, but it doesn’t really work visually. So I’m really lucky that the writers I get to work with want my opinion, they’re open to my opinion, and we start the project together. It’s an idea that they approach me with and we start collaborating together. I’ve worked with Eric Grissom and Erica Schultz and we have a very, very collaborative style where they come to me with a really loose idea and then we both build it up together. I’m working with a writer currently, Jamie Gambell, and he writes DEPARTMENT O, and that’s more of a series, so it’s slightly different because he comes to me with a script and I pretty much after that have full control over how I want to do the layouts and things like that. If I can’t really collaborate with someone then I’m not really interested in working with them because I have opinions, but they can have an opinion too of my artwork.

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CV: I often wonder when I read comics if the artist really gets enough credit as the creator of the story and I wonder if you feel the same way?

CC: I think in mainstream comics, as far as the Marvel and DC stuff, especially over the recent years, like the past ten, I think it’s more of a writer driven industry. I’m seeing things turn around with how Marvel is approaching their books and having much more stylized artists, but they seem to be trying to gather a larger demographic, like younger people, so they’re more open to having slightly more alternative styles. I think DC has more of, like, a house style where they’re still very much a little more old school in the way they approach things, but then they have Vertigo and these other imprints to kind experiment under. I think artists, even inkers and letterers, pretty much are always forgotten about, unless you have that kind of sweet spot where you think of Mike Mignola. Dave Stewart is probably one of the only colorists people can name off the top of their head.

CV: Even the role of the colorist is starting to become prominent. When I was in high school, I couldn’t name a colorist to save my life, but now I think of Dave Stewart, or Jordie Bellaire, or Matt Wilson.

CC: I think that stuff is coming a lot because of the Image work and Image books where the whole team is kind of identifiable and there’s a much stronger vision on each book because they’re made collaboratively. You’re not just hired to color SUPERMAN or whatever, Superdude #3. It’s more of a natural collaboration so I think when you have everyone who is working on something they really wanna create then it’s going to be good because they’re making exactly what they want.

CV: Have you ever been in a situation where you were trying to execute something visually but you just, for whatever reason, couldn’t figure it out?

CC: Yeah, I mean, that happens all the time.

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CV: How do you overcome that?

CC: It’s like workhorse. You just kind of have to sit there and keep trucking through it. I mean, I’m lucky because my sister is also an illustrator, so I can always go to her because it’s easier to admit I can’t do something with her and then she can give me feedback. I think the most important thing, for me, I don’t think I’m super good at drawing action scenes, so for me, those take a lot more time for me to execute versus like weird landscapes and things like that. I don’t necessarily draw in perspective. I very much draw out of perspective, but times call for me to draw in perfect perspective. So that’s when you kinda have to really sit down and have a realistic view of what your capabilities are and hopefully that gets the job down and you learn something from it. I think that’s thing I generally strive for. My things don’t always have to be perfect, but I want to always be learning.

CV: Part of the reason I wanted to interview you is I think that you are a good example of what an independent artist can accomplish if they have a really good work ethic. You said before that you work really fast, if you go to your website you can see a ton of comics you’ve worked on, but you also successfully funded a Kickstarter. What was your motivation to start a Kickstarter and how did you go about getting it funded?

CC: I just really wanted printed copies of my stuff, to be perfectly honest. You just feel a little more legit when you have printed copies of your work. You feel like you’re kind of doing something right versus staring at it on the screen. I love printed books. My room is mainly… like three quarters of it is covered artwork and every other nook and cranny is shoved with books. So I really wanted copies of my own work and people kept asking me “Where can I get a copy? Where can I get a copy?” and I was like “Well, nowhere.” I had done two Kickstarters, and I always do two books at a time because I find it’s more cost efficient to just print two books at a time for shipping as well, because then I can send it in one envelope versus having to do multiple Kickstarters and send out way more packages. I generally find when I get two books printed I get a better deal on printing, so I really just wanted to have printed copies. The way I went about it was I knew I had enough fanbase where I could probably get a thousand dollars. That’s not an extreme amount of money. I would still have a little bit of money leftover to, like, buy some art supplies or print some mini-comics. I really tried to have a realistic view about what I could realistically accomplish in my time frame. Like, I figured thirty days was long enough, if I didn’t make it in thirty days then it just wasn’t going to happen. And even when it came to budgeting time to send out the rewards, I figured oh I should just give myself extra time because if everyone gets everything early no one is going to complain, but if I deliver anything late then I’m gonna feel kinda like a jerk. So I budgeted…I always tell everyone to budget in an extra month because something is bound to go wrong.

CLICK: For more Indie Spotlight interviews, check out our discussion with Emily Reisbeck!

CV: So that would be the best advice you could give to someone who wants to start their own Kickstarter is budget their time and be realistic.

CC: Budget their time, and have a realistic view on how much money you need, and then ask for the minimum. That’s what I was doing. I was asking for just the month I needed to produce this book. I mean, I guess it’s different because I’m not trying to make a video game or something. I think the best advice is have the project done. My books were completely formatted and ready. Once I got the money I just had to email the printer and be like “Here’s your money.” I wanted to make sure I could realistically accomplish the task and then also deliver it. I didn’t want to take people’s money and then not deliver the product they’re asking for.

CV:  I’ve read plenty of horror stories where that’s happened to people through Kickstarter. You don’t wanna be one of those people.

CC: And now Kickstarter is really good where you have to give them something or they give the money back. Early Kickstarter there was kind of that grey area, but I think the best thing to do is have the project complete and ask for the correct budget, and also just know your fanbase. A lot of people like having my original art, so I just kind of included that in my Kickstarter.

CV: If you were to suggest one comic for whoever is reading this interview that you feel is a strong example of your work, which one would you recommend they check out?

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CC: Oh my gosh, that’s like trying to pick which one is your favorite child…I really like, it’s one of my more different pieces, but I just made a comic in the past year it’s called COME HOME. It’s about a little ghost character. It’s done with a pen versus my usual brush work. I’m just really happy with the way it turned out. I have a more, I feel like, a quieter story telling style where it’s kind of just about time passing, and I don’t know. I had a lot of fun drawing this ghost character in my sketchbook and I thought how weird would it be if a ghost decided to haunt something that was completely lame. Like not a house, what if he haunted a beer can? And that was his home, like, inside the beer can. So it’s this little ghost who’s tied to a beer can…and it’s about trying to find your little place in the world. It’s inspired by a Carl Sagan quote.

CV: I also like that one quite a bit.

CC: I made it in my sketchbook. It was a very different process for me from my normal work, so I think I just find it interesting how I approach something completely different from how I normally do. I really enjoy that one.

CV: Last question I want to ask: how would you assess the state of independent comics in comic culture right now?

CC:  I think they’re more culturally relevant than they’ve been since the 60’s maybe? I think with the rise of more alternative comics and seeing it more as a culturally valued form of art…the main thing is now is that there’s a demand for it, to be perfectly honest because of things like THE WALKING DEAD and things of that nature becoming more a part of pop culture. Like, graphic novels and comics are becoming more of a legit form of literature as before they were like oh, that one really interesting college course you took about, y’know? Or your English class, you read WATCHMEN  and maybe another Alan Moore story and then you read SUPERMAN: RED SON about communist Superman, or something. You read Morrison, you read ALL-STAR SUPERMAN and then compared the two in a really shitty paper no one wanted to read. So I think now it’s just more culturally relevant so it’s more important. Especially with the rise of the internet and the web comic and that people are using comics as more of a form of self expression versus…it’s not genre based anymore that’s the biggest thing. It’s no longer about superheroes. Yes, most movies are superhero movies, but people are using it as even forms of teaching children about science. So I think now there’s more demand for it so it’s more culturally relevant. One of the things I love about small press conventions it that it’s just about the comics. It’s not about video games, it’s not about trying to get a movie deal. It’s people making things because they were compelled to make them, versus having to execute people’s visions based on a corporate need, or like a monthly slot to fill.

CV: Those are the best kinds of comics: the ones that are purely a creative vision.

CC: Oh yeah. Those are my favorite. I love super weird shit. Whenever I go to something, if I find a comic I don’t understand and it’s like really weird that’s what I always buy. Like this makes no sense, it’s great! It’s so experimental! And everyone’s looking at me and I’m like “No it’s great! It’s just lots of color.” And they’re like “Okay, Claire” like no, it’s great!

CV: Well, I’ll say this, if you’re looking for something experimental but  still something give you a satisfying story, they should check out your work.

For more of Claire’s work, click here for her website, or follow her on twitter and tumblr.

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