Exclusive: Greg Ruth on Alabaster: Wolves #1: The Making of a Cover
Caitlin R. Kiernan's Alabaster, featuring artwork by Steve Lieber and cover by Greg Ruth, first appeared in Dark Horse Presents #9, to be followed by an upcoming 5-issue miniseries Alabaster: Wolves. Ruth has generously written up a feature for us detailing the art process surrounding Issue #1.
Before we get to Greg's feature, though, here's a synopsis of the comic so you'll understand what he's referring to:
Alabaster is based on Caitlín R. Kiernan’s fan-favorite Dancy Flammarion stories, a dark fantasy series centered around a female teenage protagonist of striking appearance and hidden, terrible depths. For nearly as long as she can remember, seventeen-year-old Dancy Flammarion has fought monsters, cutting a bloody swath through the demons and dark things of the world, aimed like a weapon by a merciless seraph, more taskmaster than guardian.
Part continuation, part reimagining, the series begins with Dancy making and breaking an oath in the name of her seraph, who subsequently abandons her. Injured and alone, Dancy has to find her own way for the first time in her life — and the wolves are closing in.
Alabaster first appeared in Dark Horse Presents #9 (on sale February 22, 2012), followed by the five-issue miniseries Alabaster: Wolves, which throws readers into Dancy’s world with a bang, strips away her seraph, and introduces the two characters who will become her long-term supporting cast. Alabaster: Wolves #1 is on sale April 11, 2012.
Alabaster features artwork by Eisner Award–nominated artist Steve Lieber and cover art by Greg Ruth.
Now on to Greg's comments and sketches:
Covers are both delightfully fun and exceedingly tricky to do well- especially in comics. The cover is the vanguard of the marketing of a book, and the first issue cover is especially essential in getting the attention of a prospective reader, broadcasting what the core essence of the book and like as not, introducing right away the main character/s of the story inside. Comics covers overall are far more brightly colored and garish than any other genre of book cover, and one has to always remember the screaming rainbow of loudly crafted images, all facing out, on the shelves in a shop demanding the buyer's attention. That can mean less color and more isolated, graphically identifiable imagery can stand out over the technicolor mayhem that surrounds it. When a crowd is yelling at the top of their lungs, the quieter whisper in the middle of it can broadcast much more strongly.
In reading Caitlin's script, and going back and forth with editor Rachel Edidin, it was clear right away that whatever the cover looked like, it needed to feature both Dancy, the story's main protagonist, and her overseer/boss The Seraphim. I believe the best, most effective covers pick a single point and then stick to it- having two visually dynamic characters, totally different in their visual natures on the same single image would be a challenge to do well, especially as I wanted to communicate the strained relationship they would have on the outset of this story. Steve Lieber had already done a great series of sketches for the book, as did Ted Naifeh from a previous tale about Dancy, so we had a solid starting place as is in evidence here within the first pencil sketch.
While I think Dancy was more or less in a good place here, The Seraphim as expected was not at all. The sword had to go, the many faces rejiggered to work more effectively- essentially here she was all too passively stagnant for an ethereal vengeful, multi-headed supernatural creature. So on to the second sketch with new, more defined Serpahim heads and the beginning thoughts about how and where the title and logo would go. When doing a cover for comics, there are a few ready-made standards that will go on the front I like to keep in mind: The publisher logo at the top left, the UPC barcode at the bottom, issue number, date and price and writer/artist/colorer credits. If I'm lucky, a logo for the title bar is ready to go, but with a new standalone series that's rarely the case by the time we need to get the first issue out- but typically it lives in the uppermost quarter of the page. In this new iteration, while I was getting a better handle on Dancy's look and The Seraphim was better, we still weren't quite there. I still held to the idea that Dancy would be set up against The Seraphim's draping dress but was already certain we'd turn that to a pool of blood.
So I went on ahead, still feeling that we weren't quite there for The Seraphim yet, with the final drawing, leaving The Seraphim to be more floating and ethereal than before but still just not quite getting it. She looked as she would be displayed within the book, but I just simply wasn't feeling it. She had as a visual character no agency, and the wild hair was going to bring now a good deal of graphic difficulties with regard to the necessary text as well. What to do?
Well, taking the basic layout as gospel at this point, I worked up a bigger, better executed re-crafting of Dancy's head- especially the eyes- because it was decided this was the center of the cover. People as a species go to faces first every time they see one, and as such, it was essential to make sure Dancy looked correct and had the right emotion and character. The Seraphim was a growing crisis that was literally keeping me up at night. Turns out a winged creature with four heads is not exactly the easiest visual dynamic in the world to do well.
But then one of those nights she came to me, and hopping out of bed to write myself notes on the idea for the morning, I was certain I had won in my battle with her (inasmuch as my three am sleepy brain could be). So... upon awakening I drew up an entirely new approach to this foul creature, departing in many ways from how she appears inside. I didn't care- I had the fever and the fever told me I was right, even if a little cheating was afoot. I erased the previous Seraphim and dropped in, via the computer, this new creature; and voila, we were on track at long last. While the minor discontinuities of The Seraphim were clear to us all, the effectiveness of this new version happily overruled it all. Dropping in the new elements, tweaking some awkward areas, hair, eyes, hand, clothing. etc., it was time to get painting.
Right away the success of the new Seraphim was in evidence: Her black flowing hair wisps punched Dancy's albino skin tones and hair out perfectly. The ominous clawing overhead and Dancy's gaze off to the left of the image all broadcast the sense we wanted: that Dancy and The Seraphim were to go their separate ways, but they weren't done with each other yet... and there will be blood in the meantime.
After getting the basics down here, the graphic elements together in the drawing, despite my intention to take on the colorless spirit of the cover I did for Dark Horse's anthology Supernatural Noir, it was time to bring in the color and grime this image demanded. While I don't really think in color by default, seeing tone as is my want, I always like to baseline the final image with a sumi drawing that satisfies those strengths, and then later, add through sometimes dozens of separate layers, glazes of color, grime, and so forth where I can control and manage them in detail. The trick here was going to be bringing in color without overwhelming the graphic qualities of the ink drawing. And also blood. Lots and lots of blood. I don't generally like to color digitally, but rather paint colors on a separate piece of paper, scan and drop them in in transparent layers. This keeps the color as organic as the brushwork of the main drawing and still provides for the kind of happy accidents that no digital art-making can ever hope to achieve. So below you can see that splattery pool of blood, the drips and drizzles on her face she'd surely have if wielding a short knife and killing up close as she does. As essentially a homeless wanderer, Dancy had to be dirty, unkempt and unwashed as much as possible. While you can't smell comics the way you see them, I wanted to exude this sense that she would be ripe indeed from this lifestyle of hers. And it was important that as much as Dancy was grounded, dirty and downtrodden, The Seraphim needed to remain whispy and ethereal, so very little was done to her as a result. In the end it all came together as you see it here, the now white, but still shredded bat-like wings gave the title bar room to express itself, and all the rest of the cover's necessaries would be easily accounted for here.
Sometimes cover images come like a flash of lightening, and other times they are a titanic struggle from start to finish. This ended up being somewhere in the middle, but being given the freedom and liberty to find this cover on my own while decisive fretting and encouragement happened all around keeping me on track, made this all sing the right tune in the end. I rarely love or even like most work I do upon its completion, but I do very much enjoy this image. Perhaps it just mirrored Dancy's struggle with her Seraphim: In the beginning, mistakes and conflict resulting in a breaking up, but coming back together just in the nick of time at the end of things. And of course, blood and struggle and much in the middle of it all.
Many thanks to Greg Ruth and also to Aub Driver at Dark Horse for coordinating this with us.
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