With ‘Punisher,’ ‘Gotham Academy,’ Austinite making name in comics world

In an industry where artists struggle to find an audience and women have only recently begun to break through in decent numbers, comics writer and artist Becky Cloonan is having a tremendous year.

The second season of “Southern Cross” (Image Comics), the science-fiction noir that the Austin creator is scripting with art by Andy Belanger, kicks off Sept. 14. Cloonan often draws the covers.

She’s also writing, with Brenden Fletcher, the critically feted “Gotham Academy,” about the mystery-investigating young ladies at a boarding school in the city patrolled by the Batman, for DC Comics.

And she’s the first woman creator to write Marvel’s “The Punisher.” That ongoing series features art by Steve Dillon, who penciled some of the book’s definitive run by Garth Ennis.

This is in addition to any drawing of her own she might be doing, including posters for the Alamo Drafthouse’s merchandise arm, Mondo.

So, as we sit drinking iced coffee at Epoch, the East Austin coffee shop at which Cloonan can often be found typing and drawing, we determine that Cloonan is in a good place.

“My plate is pretty full,” Cloonan says, “I don’t think I could take anything else on.”

It’s hard to emphasize how rare that is for comics professionals. Like most freelance work, making comics involves near-constant hustle, often for next to no money.

Scripting comics is a bit like writing, directing, blocking and acting a TV show every month, with an unlimited effects budget, usually by yourself or with one or two creative partners at the very most. Drawing comics is an art form that is still very much done by hand, on paper or a computer tablet, moment to moment.

These days, however, Cloonan scripts comics for others as much or more than she draws her own.

“I was really burnt out on drawing comics,” Cloonan says. “It’s so labor intensive that when the payout isn’t there, it’s suddenly, ‘What did I spend the last year of my life working on?’”

Secret origin

Cloonan was raised in New Hampshire. Her father was a comics fan. “’Silver Surfer’, ‘Fantastic Four,’ the spacey, psychedelic stuff,” Cloonan says of her father’s taste in comics. “That’s what I grew up reading.”

She is also an enthusiastic, hardcore fantasy nerd from way back. Her gateway book was “The Black Unicorn” by Terry Brooks. “I was in fourth or fifth grade,” Cloonan says. “I saw it at the library, it’s got a black unicorn on the cover and I’m like, ‘That is awesome.’” She soon devoured any heroic fantasy she could find. Mercedes Lackey and Piers Anthony were favorites.

Much as she loved comics and fantasy, Cloonan went to the School of Visual Arts in New York for animation. Animation was going to be her day job while she created comics on the side.

It’s hard to believe now, what with the recent blockbuster movies and being owned by Disney and all, but Marvel filed for bankruptcy at the end of 1996. The comics industry in general was in lousy shape, a bust after an early ’90s boom.

There was also a serious lack of role models. “I didn’t know any women who were in comics,” Cloonan says. “And at the time, animation was booming.”

But two things happened to derail her animation job plans.

First, the bottom dropped out of the traditional animation market. “Right after my second year of school, Disney stopped doing 2-D,” Cloonan says, in favor of 3-D, Pixar style.

Second, she hated it. “Hated it,” she says. “Even after doing a minute of the worst animation of my life in school, I was like ‘Nope.’”

On to comics

Cloonan started doing minicomics in school. In 2003, she did her first major work, illustrating writer Brian Wood’s one-shot “Channel Zero: Jennie One”; the following year, she drew for Wood on the twelve-issue series “Demo,” a book that was nominated for two Eisner Awards, which are sort of the Oscars of comics.

Cloonan, a longtime manga fan, released her first solo graphic novel, “East Coast Rising Vol.1” with the upstart manga publisher Tokyopop in 2006.

Artistically, it was a watershed experience. Business-wise? Not completely.

“You know, my advance was really good,” Cloonan says. “It was the most money I had ever made on comics until that point. But I didn’t own the book, and royalties were nonexistent. You go into it knowing the risks, but you never think, ‘Well, the company will pull the plug on itself and still have all of my intellectual property.’” Which is exactly what happened to Tokyopop; “Vol. 2” was completed but never published.

“It’s still sitting in a FedEx box somewhere,” Cloonan says. “It was both a good learning experience and a bummer. I learned how to draw better and I got paid, so I can’t really look at it in a bad way.”

Cloonan worked in Toronto for several years in a studio with other creators and began racking up credits left and right. She drew the DC/Vertigo book “American Virgin,” written by Steven T. Seagle from 2006 to 2008, and another volume of “Demo” in 2010, picking up two- and three-issue jobs for all sorts of publishers here and there.

She scripted her first story — a Buffy the Vampire Slayer piece called the “The Thrill,” with art by Vasilis Lolos, in 2009. “I just realized I had to teach myself to write for other people,” Cloonan says.

She didn’t stop drawing, mind you — Cloonan illustrated the well-regarded “The True Lives of the Fabulous Killjoys,” written by My Chemical Romance singer and current DC Comics editor Gerard Way, in 2013, and self-published several short stories that were collected as “By Chance or Providence: Stories by Becky Cloonan” in 2014. But she was ready to try her hand at just scripting.

New worlds

Around the same time, Mark Doyle, her old Vertigo editor, became head of the Batman line at DC. He asked Cloonan to pitch him something Batman related.

Immediately, she said, “Gotham Academy.”

“It just popped out,” Cloonan said. “It clearly fit the Harry Potter-shaped hole in my heart.” The first issue shipped in October 2014.

“Gotham Academy” is Harry Potter, Scooby Doo and “Batman: The Animated Series” all at once, following the adventures of Olive Silverlock, a student at the titular boarding school whose mother, a villain named Calamity, was put into Arkham Asylum by the Batman.

Olive and her pals Maps, Kyle and others go to class, solve mysteries and, you know, get attacked by Jokers and Draculas now and then. It is one of the canniest series DC is putting out. The book just relaunched with a new first issue after an 18-issue run.

“We don’t do all that well issue-to-issue, but the collections do great,” Cloonan says. “Our audience skews a little younger, so we do well at book festivals and libraries. So DC keeps us around.”

“Southern Cross,” on the other hand, is sci-fi with murders. “Agatha Christie in space,” as Cloonan puts it. The artist on that book, Belanger, also happens to be her former fiance.

“Andy had all these designs and had started to build this world,” Cloonan says. She was able to craft a story around it, a mystery on the Southern Cross, a tanker headed to the outer solar system. A young woman named Alex Braith is on board trying to find her sister, a sibling who has died on the refinery moon Titan. Then folks start vanishing.

It’s an ongoing series, but the first six issues, which have just been collected, are a self-contained story, “just in case our working relationship ended in murder/suicide or something,” Cloonan says.

It didn’t. Issue No. 7 hits stores Sept. 14 and, as Cloonan puts it, “Andy’s still my best friend; he is as much of a writer on it as I am, I just happen to be typing the scripts.”

As for “The Punisher,” which has the potential to be Cloonan’s highest-profile gig so far — well, she has no idea how she got it.

“None whatsoever,” Cloonan says. “They called me and asked me to pitch. I did it for fun. Never thought it a million years I would get it. And having Steve Dillon on it made me genuinely nervous. That guy is a legend.”

Cloonan read issues here and there but didn’t want to learn too much backstory. “I feel like I know about as much about Punisher as anyone wearing a Punisher shirt,” she says. “Once I started writing the guy, you see that skull everywhere.”

There’s a reason for that. Not only has the Punisher had a few movies made about him, but he’s currently a supporting player on the Netflix shows “Daredevil,” “Jessica Jones” and (probably) the upcoming “Luke Cage” series. The exchange between comics folks and TV folks feels like it is at an all-time high.

But Cloonan doesn’t think too much of comics that read more like movie pitches. “It would be disingenuous of me as a creator to do something and not consider the medium of comics first,” Cloonan says. “You can do things with comics that you can’t do in any other medium, and to not take advantage of that seems silly.”

Then again, it helps when you have proven that you can do almost anything with the medium, as Cloonan has. “So many different things go into comics,” she says.

“You have to be a good actor so readers feel what the characters are feeling. You have to be a good writer, you have to layout the page well, character designs have to be good. You becomes a jack of all trades when you do comics.”

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