It’s St George’s Day today, so to celebrate here’s an interview with the only other person on known record to have slain a dragon – Emma Vieceli, writer/artist for a number of graphic novels including Vampire Academy, Dragon Heir, and Avalon Chronicles. She’s also responsible for the artwork in Bates Motel on A&E, and is currently working on the latest Alex Rider graphic novel adaptation, written by Antony Johnston. She’s worked with collaborators including Richelle Mead, Christina Weir and Nunzio DeFilippis, but has also self-published, tried her hand at web publishing, and contributed to a number of anthologies and other projects. Oh, and sometimes she jousts Becky Cloonan.
Busy times! Emma is one of the busiest people in comics, but luckily for us she was nice enough to talk to me about her work so far as a designer, as a writer, as a collaborator and as a self-publisher. We go through a range of her work, all of which you can find on her website. It’s St George’s Day! Hopefully this interview will inspire you to go off and vanquish a dragon too.
From Avalon Chronicles
Steve: You’ve recently been working on a whole load of different projects, from Vampire Academy to Avalon Chronicles, the Thought Bubble Anthology, and next onto the Alex Rider graphic adaptations. How do you decide what projects to take on? What kind of stories most attract you?
Emma: I think it all comes down to character appeal for me, really. Just like when I’m writing my own stories, the characters are the pivotal point, regardless of genre or setting. I especially adore strong or tested bonds between characters, be they siblings, lovers or comrades. Alex Rider is a slight departure for me in that it features very little in way of romance or camaraderie. Alex is very much a solo agent and that’s part of what makes him appealing.
While I normally lap up romantic tension, forbidden love and all that mushy goodness (and yes, that appealed to me massively for Vampire Academy, haha), it’s the action and the journey Alex himself goes through as a character that really appealed to me for Scorpia.
Steve: When you take on something like Alex Rider, how do you approach the original work? Do you try to match your work closely to the source material, or do you like to push away a little, and develop something a little bit different?
Emma: Alex Rider is a bit different to previous adaptations I’ve worked on in that, not only is it working from original source material, but my comics also follow a few existing GN titles. Because of that, my design work for the series is more about maturing and embellishing on already established characters in the comics, to keep continuity. That said, it’s been fun taking the existing starting points (which I really enjoyed) and then adding my own twists to that. But yes, in general I’ll always refer to the original work to keep characters looking accurate and moods in-keeping. You can miss a lot of subtext or foreshadowing if you don’t really know your original source material before drawing.
As well as the source, I take some time researching a title’s fandom before I start drawing. I immersed in the Vampire Academy community to get an idea of how the readers of Richelle’s work saw the characters. Then I combined the thoughts I gathered from the fandom together with Richelle’s descriptions and my own interpretation. The result was hopefully going to be something that a majority of readers would like – and I’ve been just over the moon about the reaction from the VA community, so I guess it worked! They’ve all been amazing!
You’re never going to manage an adaptation that hits everyone’s vision, but keeping the author pleased and the majority of the community around a project satisfied is key!
Steve: Alex Rider represents a distinct change in genre from Avalon Chronicles or Vampire Academy, from fantasy to spy stories. Have you found yourself approaching the story and characters differently, as a result?
Emma: The cast of AR is very different to any I’ve drawn before, for sure! Much less emphasis on romantic heroes, heroic knights or kickass vampires. I get to draw withered old men, rotund jolly scientists, and heads of MI6 with temples that would make Namor blush. Alex himself is great fun for me to draw, and I get to take him through some seriously dramatic scrapes and adventures. The setting has also been a change of pace for me as I’m suddenly drawing real places! So while I’m spared the design work of creating environments, I’m doing a lot more research to get locations correct.
Steve: How long do you typically spend on each page? How do you know when to step back and say that a page is, actually, finished? Is it hard to step back?
Emma: Oh it’s SO hard to step back. A page never feels done. We could rework forever, but deadlines wait for no artist…so it’s part of the job to train yourself to be able to shut the door on a page. How long I spend will always depend on schedules and contracts, rather than my own personal preference. In an ideal world I’d love to have a full day to work on each page…just to see what I could achieve! As it is, schedules rarely allow that kind of luxury, so you have to work to fit the timescale.
I think on average I aim to pencil/rough four or five pages a day when I’m on pencilling, and then I try to ink two or three pages a day once I move onto the inking stage. But, again, it’s all about what I need to achieve to be able to stay on schedule, more than what my personal preference would be.
Steve: Do you prefer long-form stories like these, where you spend more time with a character, to shorter, smaller projects?
Emma: I certainly like having time to get to know my characters, yeah! Though I’d quite like to work on something serialised that allows more regular releases. For long-form volumes, I’ll often beaver away for eight months or so, and then wait another year or so before the book’s actually out in the world…by which time I’m normally working on something new. This is perfectly normal with graphic novels, but it would be nice to see my work printed sooner after completion.
I had that a little when I was working with the DFC on Violet, and it was great fun to actually see reactions and be able to incorporate/use that enthusiasm as I carried on with the series. With a volume, you just have to hold your breath, wait for release, and hope that people like it when it’s out!
Steve: How do you think your artistic style has changed from your first work? Do you think it’s important to experiment with your design, sequencing, and storytelling?
Emma: Oh, my style has changed massively, I hope! Haha. It’s so important to evolve and grow, yes! I think we always do. I’d be very worried if I ever felt I’d hit where I wanted to be artistically and was totally satisfied. No one wants to plateau and grow stale. Of course, when you’re in long contracts, there’s only so much broad playing with style that you can do as you have to keep continuity within a title, but you can hopefully improve within those boundaries. Sharpen techniques, get braver.
I know that there are things I’ll see in scripts now that I’ll approach as a challenge, whereas a few years ago I’d have maybe found any way possible of avoiding drawing that thing XD I look forward to jumping to projects where I get to really mess around with the sort of ideas I wouldn’t test out within the confines of a continuing series.
Steve: A lot of your work has been wholeheartedly set in the world of high fantasy. What do you think is the key to telling a good fantasy story? Do you prefer stories grounded in a frame of reality, or stories where anything can happen at any time?
Emma: Again, I come back to characters. A fantastical world is no good if you don’t believe it. And key to that can be having your characters believe it, and to believe in their interactions and day-to-day lives. So yes, I guess I’d say I prefer some grounding in reality. My favourite sorts of fantasy stories as a consumer are titles like Bioware’s Dragon Age games, as they’re gritty, dirty and real. I had fun building the world of Dragon Heir as a teenager, but what made it the most real for me was the spirit sign system and the way the markings had become twisted into a form of societal subjugation.
I love the friction between certain characters in Avalon, and the dramatic irony the reader feels watching Captain Flint fighting bravely for the wrong side and believing he’s doing good. Tensions that we can empathise with like that make for a grounding in the most unreal of places! And of course I’m a sucker for emotions. Real emotions are the same no matter what world you’re on. If you believe a character is feeling something, you can believe they’re real.
Steve: Despite fantasy being one of the most popular genres in literature, do you still feel like there’s a little resistance between the fantasy genre and comics?
Emma: In some ways the majority of comics ARE fantasy, you know? Whether Snoopy is flying against the Red Baron in the skies, or Peter Parker is using spider-given powers to fight crime, it’s all fantasy…and I love it all! However, if you mean pure ‘high fantasy’ then yeah, I guess you do feel it a little. I know I’ve got friends and peers I admire and love who wouldn’t touch a ‘fantasy’ comic with a bargepole, despite reading or creating comics that are equally fantastical…but with less pointy ears or fangs, I guess ^_~ essentially it all comes down to good stories, in my book.
I don’t care what label is slapped on a comic, I just care how good a read it is. Maybe fantasy is just feeling oversaturated…which I can understand. But then, spandex shares have been soaring for years as well. (I say this with all love for spandex, you understand)
From Avalon Chronicles
Steve: When did you first start in comics? I believe you first started as part of Sweatdrop Studio?
Emma: I did indeed! Back in about 2000/2001, I think. It was very much for fun back then, with no plans of making comics as a job on the horizon at all. Sweatdrop was formed to share the load when running tables at conventions, and we couldn’t have predicted how much that group and its members would advance in the ten or so years I was there. It’s still going, of course! But I stepped down about a year ago now, so I can only comment on my time with them. ^_^
In my time with SD I feel I input a lot to growth in the UK independent scene, not least of all by creating the Comic Village at the MCM expo events and helping establish the Manga Jimann competition run by the Japanese embassy. I had a great time and, as a group, we would always push each other to take our comics a step further. By the time I decided to go it alone, the quality of the books and anthologies Sweatdrop were printing were miles ahead of what we’d started with. We all learned a lot together! I doubt I’d be making comics at all without Sweatdrop.
It was whilst in the group that I got my first professional gig for SelfMadeHero (Hamlet). That was the job that finally had me leave my dayjob and go freelance in 2007.
Steve: Dragon Heir, the series you write and draw, has been going on-and-off throughout your career, with you always returning eventually to that world. How rewarding has it been to keep that story going, as your own creator-owned work?
Emma: Massively! I only wish I had more time to pop back to it now. ;_; I have a fully formed story that is being verrrrry patient, as are the amazing people who ask me about the title at every convention! As a freelancer I can never complain about work, but I’ve found myself with a few years of very busy and continuous contracts that just haven’t allowed the time I’ve needed to get back to the Heirs, but their time will come! Knowing that I have that title makes me very happy. I love working with writers, especially when I get to input on story like in Avalon, but I also love to feel ownership over a story…and I definitely have that with Dragon Heir.
From Dragon Heir Reborn
Steve: Do you have any plans for other creator-owned projects in future?
Emma: Oooohhhh yes, Can’t wait! I just have to feel I’m in a safe enough place financially to get to them. I hope that my contracted work so far as an artist is helping get more people aware of what I do so that they’ll want to support my creator-owned work as well!
Steve: On top of the writing and illustrating and general non-stop creating, you also used to help organise the MCM Expo conventions around Britain – how important do you think the rise of the British comics community has been for creativity here?
Emma: I did spend a good five years helping the show out until I finally had to step down and focus on my own work. I installed a comic village and took it from ten tables to about one hundred and twenty. What I set out to do was create a space at a large, UK event, that saw creators of all walks of comics intermingling at a time when things felt so divided by labels. I would sit horror creators next to romance, webcomics next to marvel, independent comickers next to long-established children’s illustrators. I’d get people on stage to take part in games and generally have fun.
The idea was to make people from different sides of the same industry meet, chat and realise that we’re all essentially doing the same thing and that we can help each other. And the MCM event and organisers offered me a place to do that. It was open, had no dividing walls, and was in a show that now attracts around 70,000 people in a weekend. It was a fantastic opportunity to see comics mingle and cross-pollinate. I am proud of the work I put in, and prouder still when I see alliances and creator friendships that I know part-sprang from that event and the forum I provided. J
The comics community feels so strong in the UK now, and I love it! Twitter has allowed friendships forged at conventions to grow in strength online. It can be daunting, and it’s easy to feel left behind by the wave of creativity and enthusiasm, but the scene feels strong and vibrant!
Steve: What advice would you give for creators looking to break into the industry?
Emma: Oh gawd, all of the usual, haha. There is no one way to get into comics, and there’s no one way to be in comics. But the first way to make comics is to start making comics. ;) Get creating, get drawing, get a table at one of the UK’s myriad conventions, and get mingling. Don’t shy away from drawing things that are out of your comfort zone. Challenge yourself and improve. And know that you’ll always, always be learning.
From Vampire Academy
Steve: Finally, there’s one piece of comics folklore we should probably clear up — is it true that every year you joust Becky Cloonan at the Leeds Thought Bubble Festival?
Emma: Completely true. Yes. We don’t even wear armour because we’re that badass. In fact we don’t even ride horses. Or carry lances. We use pints of beer instead. And we start off closer together than in standard jousting. About a table’s width apart, I’d say. I guess you could say it looks uncannily like we’re just having a drink, but it’s actually a very modified version of the classic joust.
(of course, when we DO just go for a drink we take our steeds and lances and do it properly)
Many thanks to Emma for her time! You can find links to all her work on her website, as well as sketches, design pieces, and all sorts of other things on her Facebook page. You can also find her on The Twitters!