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Chasing the Grail: An Interview with Colleen Doran and Kim Munson on the Exhibit, ‘Colleen Doran Illustrates Neil Gaiman’

Artist Colleen Doran’s exquisite illustrated adaptations of Neil Gaiman works for Dark Horse Comics, like Snow Glass Apples, Norse Mythology, and the 2023 Eisner Award nominee Chivalry, are the basis for a new art exhibit at New York’s Society of Illustrators. Fanbase Press Contributor Kevin Sharp spoke with the artist, as well as curator Kim Munson (Comic Art in Museums), about “Colleen Doran Illustrates Neil Gaiman,” currently on display at the Society before moving to San Diego’s Comic-Con Museum later this year.

Kevin Sharp, Fanbase Press Contributor: Before we get into the project itself, how did the two of you meet? Had you collaborated professionally on anything before this?

Kim Munson: I was always impressed by Colleen’s work on superhero titles, notably the Wonder Woman: The Once and Future Story hardcover. In 2019 I was invited to organize a “Women in Comics” exhibit at the Society of Illustrators in New York. We showed 80 pieces by women cartoonists from the collection of Trina Robbins and work by 21 contemporary artists working in all genres of comics. I asked Colleen if she would like to participate, and I was thrilled when she said yes. The Society blew up a detail of her page for Wonder Woman #750 for a mural at the entrance to the exhibit.

Colleen Doran: We’ve never worked together before, and didn’t meet until the weekend of our panel at the MoCCA Arts Festival in New York. Kim generously included me in previous exhibits and when she approached me about staging a traveling solo exhibit, I was truly honored. She is dedicated to comics and comics as art, and I am deeply grateful for everything she is doing for the medium.

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KS: What was the genesis for this particular show?

KM: I had a meeting with the Society of Illustrators last year to plan future exhibits. Colleen had premiered the cover for Chivalry when “Women in Comics” toured to Rome, and then the Cartoon Art Museum in San Francisco showed 20 pages from it. I proposed a more extensive show, and Anelle Miller, the executive director of the Society, suggested that we focus on the adaptations of Neil Gaiman stories she’s been doing for Dark Horse.CD: The show at the Cartoon Art Museum was the catalyst, as Kim mentions, and she also told me how well some of my pages were received when exhibited in Rome. I’ve done a lot of work with Neil in recent years, so it just seemed like a good fit, as Chivalry had just come out fairly recently.

KS: Because fans may not be familiar with the mechanics of such an exhibit, can you give a brief overview of how something like this is put together? Are the contents of an exhibit determined by what original art can be tracked down?

CD: We’re very lucky my collectors are so generous, as some of them have agreed to loan the art for months and years in advance! I’d also written an extensive series of essays about Chivalry — how I approached the work, historical references, Arthurian research, and my nods to Pre-Raphaelite art, as well as my use of symbolism in the work, which is a feature of Pre-Raphaelite art. The painters of the day would publish pamphlets on their works explaining meaning and symbolism. I did the same. For example, I referenced one page of Chivalry from The Holkham Bible Picture Book, which is a 14th century illuminated manuscript which is, in my opinion, the closest thing to a true comic book in antiquity. I love that I was able to share these things with the readers. Because you can read Chivalry on a surface level, but the deep dive brings you a lot more than meets the eye.

KM: In this case, I already had the nucleus of the show together in San Francisco, so I went to see it several times. I’m an art historian, so I was very interested in all of the art references in the work because there were nods to famous paintings that I recognized. I knew I wanted to include some of the materials tests she did to figure out what illuminated manuscript techniques, inks, and types of gold would work for reproduction. When the original pages are lit correctly, her iridescent inks and gold glow on the walls.

Then, I read everything that was relevant. Snow Glass Apples, Troll Bridge, and her issues of American Gods, Norse Mythology, and Sandman. I looked for interviews with Colleen explaining the techniques she used on these books and her experience with them. I read academic papers about Neil’s short stories. I reached out to collectors on the Comic Art Fans site. Luckily, Colleen has a great relationship with her collectors, and everyone agreed to loan to us. Once I had a range of work from Colleen and a few collectors to choose from, I made thumbnails of the pages and moved them around until I had a selection that showed the best of Colleen’s work. Colleen is also a storyteller, so I wanted to show enough work from each project to allow visitors to follow her narrative.

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KS: And what about choices, like how the art is presented in person?

KM: The gallery at the Society that is dedicated to comics is a long hallway on the second floor. They can show a lot of work, but there are some space and design challenges. It’s easier to insure and ship work from a small group of collectors as opposed to one or two pieces from 50 people, so I focused on three collectors that had a lot of her prime pieces. Once I knew what work would be in the exhibit, I had to write different versions of the “story” of the show for promotion, wall labels, and presentations.

KS: Did that “story” develop before or after you knew exactly which pieces you’d have access to?

KM: When I talk about “writing the story,” in this case, I’m specifically talking about the wall labels, academic presentations, and other written materials that share what I’ve learned about Colleen’s art, influences, and process so visitors can have a deeper understanding while they are viewing the work. That doesn’t come until everything is lined up and I know exactly what we’ve got and how it’s going to fit in the gallery.

KS: Colleen, you’ve illustrated so many of Neil’s stories over the past few years. Do you remember the first time you encountered his work as a fan?

CD: Well, the first time was Black Orchid, which came out about the same time Sandman did. I bought Sandman because I’d enjoyed Black Orchid, and, of course, I thought Dave McKean was superhuman. I just thought Sandman was brilliant, and I rushed to the comic shop to get every issue.

KS: How about you, Kim?

KM: I’ve loved Neil’s stories for a long time. I think the first thing I bought was Neverwhere. Like Neil, I got hooked on sci-fi through the writings of Ray Bradbury, and I see his influence in a lot of Neil’s stories. Both of them aren’t shy about showing both dark things and beautiful moments of incredible invention and imagination. I’ve been blessed to see both Ray and Neil at San Diego Comic-Con several times.

One of the last times I saw Ray at SDCC, he was in a wheelchair and almost deaf. The room was always packed and it was a total love-fest. Someone in the audience asked, “Ray, how does it feel to have influenced all these creative people?” After the moderator yelled the question in his ear, he got the most beautiful smile on his face, held his arms out in blessing, and said, “Yes, yes, you are all my bastard children.” So, maybe Neil and I, and all creative people inspired by his work, are Ray’s bastard children, tied together by finding his work at key points in our lives.

KS: For both of you — Colleen, as objective as you can be — what do you think makes the Gaiman/Doran partnership click so well? Why is this art a good fit for these stories — and vice versa?

CD:  P. Craig Russell has been a long-time collaborator and adapter of Neil’s work and so has Charles Vess, for example. I always admired the beautiful work they did and wished that someday I would have the chance, as well, so I feel very lucky to be in their excellent company. I do my best work for Neil’s stories because I love them so much. I am not very good at hiding how I feel when I work on a project. If I don’t like it, I don’t do my best work. There are some artists that shine every time, but I don’t. However, whenever I get a book with Neil, I genuinely love it. I give it everything I have. It’s only late in my career that I’ve been able to turn away work I don’t think suits me and concentrate on work that does. I need to be connected to it emotionally, and I love Neil and his stories. I wear my art on my sleeve.KM: When I started thinking about topics for our panel at MoCCA Arts Festival, I began to learn how many visual arts references Colleen and Neil have in common and how it shaped the way that they talked about these stories. I think it contributes a lot to these projects that they can not only talk analytically about the story but also agree on the visual style of the world that the story is set in.

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KS: Kim, as the originator of this project, what would you like visitors to get from this exhibit? Fans could certainly enjoy the experience of “just” browsing the art, but is there something you personally hope stands out from all the work?

KM: When I started this project, I was mostly celebrating beauty, skill, and Colleen’s ability to keep reinventing herself over and over to bring Neil’s stories to life in the best possible way. Since then, AI art has exploded on the scene and I hope people that see Colleen’s work will appreciate her eye, her skill, and everything that goes into this high level of handmade artwork.Kim and Colleen, sponsored by the Society of Illustrators, will be speaking virtually via Zoom on June 20, 2023. For more information or to register for the free event, see this link.

Cover Photo by Marc Greenberg

Kevin Sharp, Fanbase Press Contributor


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