Artist Rosy Higgins and Ted Brandt debuted their unique collaborative style, encompassing all aspects of the comics page, in the pages of Princeless volume 3 in 2013. Following the success of that volume and its breakout character Raven, they along with writer Jeremy Whitley launched the spin-off series Raven: The Pirate Princess. It is a fast paced, high seas adventure detailing Raven’s journey to reclaim her birthright from her two conniving brothers. Not only is the first issue an excellent read, but it stands well on its own, with or without the context of Princeless.
Comics Bulletin critic Chase Magnett chatted with Higgins and Brandt about how they came to work on Princeless, their goals as artists, and what the future holds.
Chase Magnett for Comics Bulletin: How did you both first become aware of Princeless?
Ted Brandt: Well, it had been on my radar for quite some time in a peripheral way. I had known about it for a couple of years. Then I was following Jeremy [Whitley] on Tumblr and he was following me as well for some reason. Back when we were both in university, we did a course studying comics. I just became aware of it through that.
Rosy Higgins: And Ted told me about it. I am not as interesting of a story. It sounded fun.
Magnett: Did Jeremy reach out to you about working on the series?
Brandt: Oh, God, no.
Brandt: We were literally nobody. As I said I was following him on Tumblr. Then he posted at the start of last April saying that unfortunately the artist on the Princeless volume 3 had been forced to drop out due to personal issues. Mind you this was a comic that was supposed to be out three months later. He said it just isn’t happening now. We thought, “What the hell? It’s a good opportunity to at least pitch ourselves and see what happens.” We weren’t expecting to actually get it.
Higgins: No, it was a quite fraught couple of days while we waited for a response.
Magnett: Had you both already been working together and collaborating on comics art the way you are now? What kind of pitch did you send in?
Brandt: Nope. We’d literally never worked together before. We sent a couple of short comics things we had produced during our university course as evidence of what we had done to that point. I think the selling point for it was the fact that we asked for a sample script to do some pages that were very specific to the material. One thing Jeremy did say was we were the only people who reached out to do that. Everyone else only sent in what they had already done, but we offered to do something. By the time we had sent in the characters two days later, he was like, “Yup, you guys have got it.” Our sample stuff had gotten us to the final few, but then it was the willingness to start work immediately that got us the rest of the way.
Magnett: The fact that you reached out to him and asked to create those pages shows that you were engaged with the material and really interested in working on this comic. What is it about Princeless that engages you?
Higgins: The feminist element is really good. It’s getting better now, but there are not very many comics centered on women and women of color to inspire young girls. So that was a very good element that we enjoyed the sound of.
Brandt: Plus, it is a fun series. It’s an adventure series that is designed entirely around joyful fun. That is something that I think is really important, to make sure you’ve got something you can really connect with on an emotional level. We both really enjoy that kind of material. It is doing what it is doing and loves the fact that it is doing it.
Magnett: I think that’s something that comes across really well in the first issue because the first issue is almost entirely a chase scene. It is just a lot of fun to watch these two flickering throughout the city and all these great gags in the background.
Brandt: We did have a lot of fun putting all of the little Easter eggs of people in there. Did you catch all of them?
Magnett: I don’t know how many I caught. My favorite moment was when they are going across the dinner table and the people are like, “Oh, no, it’s fine. There are pirates everywhere. Keep going.”
Brandt: Yeah. I think my favorite little Easter egg that we put in was Matt Smith’s Doctor Who and Clara, in the background in the chase in the market scene, which was quite fun.
Higgins: I am not sure if it is Clara or Amy actually.
Brandt: No, it was Clara when we were putting her in. And I also recommend having a quick look and see if you can find the Winchester brothers from Supernatural as well.
Magnett: It looks like the Doctor’s companion has red hair.
Brandt: That’s Amy then. That’s my bad.
Higgins: Maybe when you drew it, it was meant to be Clara and then I didn’t color it correctly.
Brandt: God knows.
Magnett: I think that goes to show the level of collaboration involved with these pages where you go back and forth between every step of the process from layouts to letters. What’s the collaborative angle when it comes to how do we display this sort of scene?
Brandt: It’s pretty varied I guess.
Higgins: A lot of the time Ted puts in the layout and I might slightly adjust the angle to give it a bit more pop. It’s the same general angle, just a bit more dramatic. I tend to over angle stuff and make the perspective a bit more extreme in some cases.
Magnett: That reminds me of one panel at the start of the first issue when the thief bumps into Raven. When I read it, I thought it was overstated. Then two pages later when you find out her purse is gone, that clicks into place. You are like, “Oh! That felt off for a reason.”
Brandt: It was really difficult to get it because if we had gone a bit more subtle, the whole thing wouldn’t have landed. It was this really awkward gamut of trying to put in just enough exaggeration that it actually worked. Certainly, the fact that it looked a bit hammy and over egged was something quite a few people mentioned when it was in the preview. But then of course the pages directly after that, where you find out why it went down that way, weren’t in the previews. So those people were just going, “Who are these guys? They don’t know how to draw anything.”
Magnett: I am not going to lie; I saw it and I was questioning. But then you get the ah-ha moment, and I think it pays off really well.
Higgins: That’s a relief!
Brandt: So far on that scene, all we’ve heard is people saying, “God, these guys can’t even get that right.” So I am really glad somebody actually has said it pays off. That’s a big relief.
Magnett: When you’re prepping a scene like this and figuring out how to play it, what kind of scripts do you typically work off of?
Brandt: It’s all full script.
Higgins: We have to do a bit of rearranging to make it work best on the page, which Ted is very good at.
Brandt: Jeremy is pretty understanding about the idea that we might even merge panels or split them up. If he’s asked for a bit too much action in one panel or there is a bit too much focus, then he’s perfectly fine with us splitting it up so that we can showcase what it is he is asking for in the manner that we think is best. Generally, although he’s got a full script going, he trusts us to deliver the page he wants even if it is not necessarily the page he is asking for.
Magnett: When you are starting with layouts [Brandt] and then pass it on for pencils [Higgins], are you typically bouncing off one another at each level? Or is it fairly distinct in who is doing which bit?
Higgins: It overlaps quite a lot.
Brandt: Generally each of us takes the dominant first pass at each job that is in our purview. Then the other one will come in and say, “You’ve done that wrong, haven’t you?” And then that’s when we will collaborate. The bulk of the work on each thing will be done by the person whose job it is, and then the other one will come in and start tweaking.
Magnett: You mentioned this is the first time you two have collaborated like this on a series. How have you seen your work change as a result of the intense collaboration you are doing here?
Higgins: There have definitely been style changes. Before we started working together, I was quite a bit more cartoony. Wouldn’t you say, Ted?
Brandt: Yeah. A lot of that carried over onto Princeless volume 3, which is where we started off with Jeremy. But you really wouldn’t know it. If you look at the difference between Princeless volume 3 and Raven: The Pirate Princess, there is a massive style jump. We are trying to do another, albeit less radical, style jump now on the second volume. I think the best thing about it is because it is the pair of us, it is constantly forcing each of us to up our game.
Magnett: Looking at both your individual work, I think Raven compared to that work is very much a different beast. I think it’s more of a storytelling-focused style in that every panel serves a purpose. Do you think that’s fair?
Brandt: I hope so. On the comics side, one of our biggest influences, though it doesn’t really show up stylistically, is David Aja on things like Hawkeye or Secret Avengers. He’s really good at being completely flexible. Every panel has a purpose. He’ll do as many or as few as he needs to communicate the page. That’s what we are trying to do. Even if the work itself doesn’t look much like his, we are trying to take that inspiration from him of the utilitarianism of making sure that every part of the page is pulling its weight.
Magnett: That makes a lot of sense. I think a lot of people compare art purely in terms of style, but storytelling is just as significant when you are looking at who influences who.
Brandt: While I was at university, I was reading a French comic theorist called Thierry Groensteen. Like all French philosophy, it is incredibly dense and quite hard to read in places, but there were some really good ideas in there. The one take away bit that I got out of it and I try to put into everything now is he talked about the idea the comic page simply being a meta-panel. That informs the idea of page design, because once you start thinking of it as all completely connected and each page as a unit as well, that helps influence you. It gives you a very different appreciation of a comics page as a unit. Once you aware of it, you can see there are quite a few artists out there who are great; each panel is individually and beautifully rendered. But as a whole, they don’t all work in harmony together. That is something we try to do very consciously. Whether or not we succeed is another matter.
Higgins: We are very big on the reading line of the page. It is something we are always trying to make sure is working so that one thing leads into the next thing.
Magnett: I think that is something that is born out in the chase seen in Raven: The Pirate Princess #1. The key to those pages is where are people going and how am I following them.
Brandt: Ultimately, one of the big problem of accessibility for comics isn’t continuity; it’s the clarity of storytelling. Part of trying to draw in new readers is you have to make sure every comic is readable to someone who is new to the idea of reading comics. That doesn’t just mean do they know who Superman’s big foe in the mid-nineties was, but also are we making it easy for anybody to pick up this book and follow the page.
Magnett: This is a spin-off book, but on page four you get all of the background you need in five captions that follow several figures gliding down a rope. I think this is really accessible first issue even though it is tied into another series.
Brandt: That was absolutely the aim. Obviously Jeremy is hoping that he is going to draw in all of the regular Princeless readers for this. But that can’t enough because even if Princeless was selling what it ought to be selling, which would be hundreds of thousands of units, it is just not selling big numbers in the single issues. I know it does very well in trades, but you can’t look to your pre-existing market as being the only thing you should be aiming for.
Magnett: From the very beginning you both are presenting Raven as an interesting person and somebody who is likable. She is very expressive in how she moves and talks and responds to things. That’s what made me want to keep reading, even though I haven’t read Princeless yet, which I now realize is my fault.
Brandt: Well, luckily, it is all very cheap. I know our issues of Princeless volume 3 are dirt cheap on Comixology. That response is all we can ask for. That idea that even if you haven’t read anything else, it’s worth digging into. A new number one should always be completely accessible. That can often be a bit of a problem, especially in superhero comics.
Magnett: Looking ahead to future issues of Raven and whatever else follows that, what kind of goals do you have for yourselves in terms of developing both this series but also your own art and processes?
Brandt: We’ve already gotten the first arc done. They’ve all been sent off to publishing now. So they have all of volume one of Raven. After that, we’re mostly trying I’d say to tighten what we were doing there and get more comfortable with it. Now we are trying to take a leap forward before we start volume 2. Do you say that’s fair, Rosy?
Higgins: I’d say so. We’re just trying to up the game every time and up the speed. Make sure that storytelling is as clear as possible and make sure it is something people would want to pick up and have a look through.
Brandt: The speed is definitely a big thing because it is only the two of us doing the book. So we are doing a monthly book with roughly half the number of people who are usually involved with monthly books in the American market. The speed is always something we are really conscious of and something we still have a long way to go before we’ve picked up to where we’d like to be. As for the style thing, on an ongoing book that’s a really difficult thing to evolve. I know I’ve seen people, like Jamie McKelvie, talking about this in the past as well on Twitter. It’s that idea that you don’t want to change things within an arc. You want to change them between arcs. Otherwise, if someone is reading the trade, halfway through they’ll come across this different way of doing things. It just looks a bit dodgy. So even if we are learning things at the time, we are trying not to implement them until we get to the next volume so that each one is internally consistent.
Look out tomorrow for a companion piece detailing Higgins and Brandt’s process for creating a page taking it from layouts to pencils to inks to colors and, finally, to lettering.