Saturday, November 20, 2010

Ten Questions With Samurai Artist Donna Letterese

Hi All,
Welcome to the new feature "Ten Questions" on Samurai The Graphic Novel Blog. We are going to be running a series of interviews with the creators leading up to the release of book one of Samurai The Graphic Novel. Some of them chose more than ten questions so some of the interviews may run over with bonus Q&A material.

First up is the multi-talented Illustrator and Comic Artist Donna Letterese. Donna has developed a strong following in the L.A. underground art scene with her expressive and colorful style. I hope you enjoy her exclusive interview about her work on Samurai The Graphic Novel.

You can pre-order your copy of Samurai The Graphic Novel right now at: Samurai The Graphic Novel Pre-Order


1.  In two sentences what is your STGN story about?

Someone who is romantic, and perhaps desperate, enough to fight for love.  And someone who is willingly blind to the futility of that battle.

2.  Where did your STGN story come from? What were you trying to achieve with the art?

My story came from the idea, originally voiced by Oscar Wilde (and also by the girl in my story, "The Nightingale And The Warrior"), of: "What a silly thing love is.  It is not half as useful as logic, for it does not prove anything."  

People talk about how love has no logic, passion makes people mad, and all the rest of it.  Usually, that's discussed in a positive context.  Love can be beautiful, but I think it's interesting to explore the other side of it.  A lot of times, people do crazy things for love, but it's to their ultimate detriment.  Any time someone has to give up something for another person, make a grand gesture for someone else, or make a big change to prove said love, the person putting forth all that effort may not even not benefit from it.  Giving up one's career, or converting religions, are oft-cited examples, but there are tons of them.  

In any event, I don't think it's a good idea to give up a part of yourself for someone else.  But it happens all the time.  In Oscar Wilde's story, "The Nightingale And The Rose," the Nightingale is a perfect example of this.  As in my story (and the reason she tries to dissuade others from making the same mistake), she gave up her life for love.  And unfortunately, the person she gave up her life for didn't care.  She was giving her life for the idea of love.  I think it's equally powerful, and perhaps more painful, if a person does that not just on an idealistic basis, but for another individual.  That's where the girl and the boy part of my story comes in.

As far as the art goes, I wanted to show the emotions of the characters, as well as get the overall feel of the story.  I felt that the body language and facial expressions of the characters was important, not just with the human characters, but also with the Rose Tree and the Nightingale.  I think the expressions of the human characters and the Nightingale vary between hope, grief, and anger, although the Rose Tree is allowed a few evil smiles.  He does take a perverse pleasure in taunting the girl, even if he feels bad about it later.  But overall, I wanted to create a sense of foreboding, which is why there are distance shots, silhouettes, and the like with roses, thorns, and birds, up until the protagonist's descent to the underworld.  All that foreshadowing is also supposed to mirror the girl's own misgivings, since in her heart of hearts, she fears her mission is pretty much failed before it's begun.  Yet, she can't acknowledge that possibility to herself.  Ascetically, I loved playing with darks, lights, silhouettes, and the rose theme.   

3.  What was your process for creating your story for STGN? Describe it step by step.

I came up with a few outlines of different story ideas and sent them over to Karl, who organized a great deal of the project.  He gave me feedback and let me know which story idea he thought was the most interesting, which ended up being "The Nightingale And The Warrior."  

I did sketches of what the main character would look like, and did a lot of research as to different Samurai styles of dress, types of fabric used, etc.  Google (and, occasionally, Bing) was a helpful tool, and I also picked up some books.  One book was full of old Japanese illustrations, another was a contemporary illustration book of different Samurai costumes, as well as other costumes from that time period in Japan.  

I then alternately typed and hand-wrote out the script of what the text parts would say, as well as the character dialogue.  I made thumbnails of the story, and had to cut/rearrange some stuff as I went along, to fit it all in.  When I got to the final pages, I first laid everything out in pencil, then I inked over what needed inking, and hand-inked of the dialogue what I could. 

If you include inception, planning, initial sketches, and the end process of working on the final pages with penciling, inking, coloring, scanning, etc.,  I worked on the story from May through October, taking any days off I had to work on it.  I worked on it at home when I could, and sometimes would take my art pad out with me when I knew I'd have hours to kill, camping out at coffee shops to work on the story.  I even stayed in a hostel a few times just to shut myself away in a private room without any distractions whatsoever to get the pages done, working for ten to twelve hours straight, "The Shining" style-- without Cabin Fever, though, I promise!  But it was worth it, every moment of working on it was a great experience, and I learned a lot.

4.  How many years have you been creating art?

I've loved to draw and I have been drawing since I was a kid.  I've always studied art in school, including in high school and college where it was something I chose to focus on.  I became specifically interested in the comics and illustration side of art during my junior and senior year in college, and I've been focused on those from that point up until the present.

5.  What's your biggest influence artistically/story wise?

Great question.  I love many a novel, but I'm going to go with some plays I love, since they are slightly closer to the comics form.

I love plays which make you sit on the edge of your seat and focus on the characters-- even if it's to their fascinating demises.  Two plays that have inspired me, because of their tightly wound stories and intense characters, are Martin MacDonough's "The Pillowman," and Edward Albee's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"
As far as art goes, in terms of fine art/popular art, I've always loved Goya, Frida Kahlo, Alice Neel, and Camille Rose Garcia.  Leo Politi is a favorite children's book illustrator of mine.  With comics, I'm a big fan of dark yet cute/elegant, which Dame Darcy does to a T.  I love Lynda Barry, her drawings are great and she is hilarious (and I've met her, she is so nice; I'm a huge fangirl of hers).  I also admire Phoebe Gloeckner.  I love how she draws scenes and people, her intense black and white style, and how she pulls no punches with what she'll show and draw.  The first artists I got into when I seriously got into comics in college were Robert Crumb and the Hernandez Brothers.  I'm obsessed with line work, shading, and pens, so I could look at Crumb's comics or his art books for hours.  I love the stories in "Love and Rockets," and the character designs, scene depictions, and black and white images are also extremely well done.

Some people love only the extremes of black and white, and other people love only intense color.  For whatever reason, I love both and I work in both.  I think my love of both is also is reflected in the above artists whose works I am inspired by.

6.  If you were a Samurai what part of Bushido (The Samurai code) best describes you. Pick two: loyalty, honor, obedience, duty, honoring your elders/ancestors, and self-sacrifice.

I would like to say loyalty and duty, if I personally were a Samurai.  However, according to my story, it sure looks like loyalty and self-sacrifice would be the two chosen codes.  Concerning my story, if you want to argue that the main character is a dutiful Samurai (over it being her simply giving up on her lost battle), you could say she is familiar with Seppuku.

7.  The sword was the main weapon of the Samurai. What is your weapon of choice when it comes to art?

Pens, without a doubt.  I love color, but at least as a base, I do a lot of work with pens in black ink.  I definitely want to make a "pen is mightier than the sword" joke here, because I shamelessly love puns, but I will refrain.

8.  When you create an idea what's your first action? Write it out? Do layouts? Character designs?

It kind of depends on what I'm working on.  It's different for a single illustration than it is for a written story, or a sequential art story.  For comic stories, I usually type up a written outline of the story's basic framework, and then do a few character design sketches.  I find thumbnails and layouts extremely helpful, and I did quite a few of them for the Samurai Project.  Pretty much what I described about my exact process earlier.

9.  What do you hope readers will get out of your story in Samurai?

Good question.  That love is important, but not at the sake of one's safety or dignity.  That grief is what it is.  Nobody should take advantage of someone else because of that pain, and nor should a supportive person think that all the love in the world can fix it.  And, that the original "Nightingale And The Rose" story is a great one, along with Oscar Wilde's many other works.  Whether they are plays, stories, or books, check them out!  He has the gift of being both poignant and hilarious.

I will say that the choices of the main character in my story are not something to be emulated, and that love and respect of one's own self should, again, be above what others ask of you.  My story is not to glorify self-sacrifice in the least, particularly for parties that don't deserve it.  I do hope that men and women alike enjoy it.  I know there is a lot of pressure for female creators to create strong female characters, which I feel that my protagonist is up unto a fairly obvious point in the story.  However, I wrote the story from the point of view of a person-- people of all genders have been there, and anyone can react drastically to disappointment and heartbreak.  And hey, it's a fantastical enough story, she might just be able to come back.  Personally, I love a good resurrected Dark Phoenix kind of tale.

10.  What are your latest projects or projects you are going to be working on in the future?

 I have a lot of ideas for new sequential stories, and I also have old stories that I want to work on again.  It's an aim of mine to get back on that.  I'm working on some pieces for gallery shows.  I'm in the L.A. "roaming" show "Cannibal Flower," which goes up about every two months, and I'm involved with the shows put on by "Slum Circus," which is run by Dave Castro.  He's a great comic artist, as well as a horror artist, and is doing a lot of awesome stuff right now.  Info about "Slum Circus" can be found at the Blogspot,

In addition to comics and art stuff, I'm also spending a lot of time working on my cards.  I have a line of handmade greeting cards that I sell at Comic Cons and Art Fairs around (mostly Southern, but on occasion Northern) California, which are almost like one-panel comics in and of themselves-- except the pun/caption is on the inside of the card, and not on the outer illustration.  I'm working on those pretty steadily right now since the holidays are coming up, and I will also be working on them pretty steadily for the Valentine's Day Season.  

Basically, there's lots of stuff I want to write, draw, or write and draw, so I'm excited for every possible thing I have on the horizon.  Working on "The Samurai Project" has been a great creative endeavor, and I've met a lot of wonderful cartoonists slash human beings being part of the project.  So, I'm happy that the good vibes from this project may just tide over and push me forward towards whatever comes next.

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