Micheline Hess was one of the first women to work for Milestone Comics back in the '90s when Dwayne McDuffie, Denys Cowan, Michael Davis, and Derek T. Dingle first started the groundbreaking company, which began as a remedy to the utter lack of African-American and minority representation in comics. Hess began her career as a colorist, but has since expanded her repertoire to include writing and inking, making a name for herself creating children’s stories like Malice in Ovenland, a modern riff on Alice in Wonderland whose main character, Lily Brown, won the Best Female Character Award at the 2017 GLYPH Awards. This year she drew another children’s graphic novel for NotSoSuperComics called Gumgah and the Grumpledonk and currently she has another self-published work coming out, called Dayo's Diary.
Hess has a distinctive art style, and it's defined her accomplished career and the projects that she chooses to work on. SYFY WIRE took a little time to ask her about her inspiration, her process, and her opinion on the current opportunities for women of color in comics.
You were one of the few women who worked for Milestone. What was your role? How did that come about?
I was an assistant colorist, and I reported to Jason Scott Jones. He showed me how to properly paint for titles like Icon, Static, and Shadow Cabinet. I can’t remember how I found out they were looking for new hires, but upon hearing about it, I quit my job at the Guggenheim Gift Shop in SoHo, with no notice (not recommended), and put together a portfolio, which I then brought with me to the Milestone office. I was VERY persistent, and everyone who saw my work really liked it. When I look back on that time, I’m kind of amazed that I even did that.
You’ve won several awards for Ovenland. What was your inspiration for writing it?
I think the inspiration had been brewing for several years, actually. I had been suppressing ever starting with a lot of negative self-talk. I had convinced myself for a long time that no one would like what I did, that my writing wouldn’t be any good, that I would never finish because it seemed like such an insurmountable goal, that I’d never finish it; especially when I was already working full-time. However, I didn’t want to look back years down the line and find myself wondering, “What if?” So I started my journey.
I wanted young black girls to see themselves having the adventures I saw young white kids having in so many of the comics that I had read as a child. I felt like it needed to happen.
Your current work with NotSoSuperComics is Gumgah and the Grumpledonk. How did that come about?
Jacques Nyemb, the Founder of NotSoSuperComics, reached out to me in late spring of 2017 about illustrating a children’s book that he had written. I was unsure about taking it on, but he made a very convincing argument and when I read the script, I fell in love with it. It was almost as though it had been made for me to illustrate. Up until this point, I had only been doing my own projects and was reluctant to work on other people’s stuff because I had so many ideas I was dying to get out, and so little time to do it in. Jacques was very accommodating and was open to letting me do the illustrations on my iPad. He gave me total creative freedom, and that was a huge show of trust in my opinion, so I wanted to do the best job that I could… and I did!
With two children’s books under your belt, is that your niche?
At one point, I had envisioned myself as a children’s book illustrator, but at that time I had no body of work to show, so I stopped entertaining the idea. In many ways it comes easier to me, because I don’t have to use so many panels to accompany the text. This makes it much easier for me to control the pacing and narrative flow of the story. I’m still not sure, though, if it’s more my niche than adventure comics. I have another idea that I’ve got on the back burner, so maybe after I finish that I’ll have a better idea.
What is an existing character that you’d love to draw one day?
I’d love to draw the Knight Sabers from Bubblegum Crisis. At the time that I saw the first OVA, it was still very hard to get videos in either translated or untranslated form. This was one of the main reasons (along with an obsession with 16-bit, import video games) that made me start taking lessons in Japanese at a school that was in the same building that I worked in. At that time, I had to order bootleg tapes from a place in California if I wanted to see stuff I was reading about in the magazine Animag. Books Nippon was a store on 57th Street in New York City that sold translated tapes, but their inventory was very limited.
What is your process?
My process is a recursive one, meaning that I go over the same thing multiple times, adding something new each time. First I write out the framework of a story from beginning to end. Then I go back over it multiple times, making sure to fill in all the gaps and make everything more cohesive.
After that is complete, I start breaking the story out into a format that allows me to have each chunk have its own page. Then things need to be broken down again so that smaller chunks can be applied to each panel. At this time, I also try to take care to mind the pacing and flow of the story. One of the best things I learned from Scott McCloud is the importance of ending each page in a way that entices the reader to turn the page and find out what happens next. A sort of mini-cliffhanger, if you will.
What tools/tech do you use to create your work?
Once things are where I want them, I start making small thumbnails of each page. The composition of characters, text bubbles, and background elements is critically important here, as these things have a powerful effect on how the story comes across and can be much harder to change once you’re at the inking or coloring stage. I do these in a small notebook that I take with me everywhere. I may make larger thumbnails at a certain point if I’m having trouble solving the above-mentioned challenges, then I take a photo of them with my iPhone.
I import these snapshots into the app Procreate on my iPad and do sketches that are much more fleshed out and detailed. I’ll usually do 2 or three before I apply digital inks. Once all pages are inked, then I also color on the iPad. Because Procreate allows me to save in .PSD format, I’ll move all the colored pages to my desktop, where I use Illustrator or InDesign to lay out and compile the pages. I don’t add the actual dialogue until I’m lettering. I try to make sure I back up files all along the way to DropBox as well as an external drive. After that, it’s off to the printers for a proof!
Do you have a team or do you work solo?
I work solo. Very rarely do I collaborate with other people due to time constraints and an intense need to get my own ideas fully realized. In a way it’s a very comfortable way of working. The downside is that it takes me longer to get stuff out than if I say, had someone else handle coloring or lettering of one of my books. Going forward, it’s something that I think I may need to work on relaxing if I continue to work fulltime while making books.
Do you feel that there has been progress for women of color in the comic book industry?
I definitely do! Barriers to distribution, and attitudes that bring about things like ComicsGate, still pose many frustrating challenges to women of color getting their work out there. Additionally, these things can also have a powerful effect on the way black women are represented in comics. However, social media has made it possible for a lot more women of color to get their work seen by a greater number of people. Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter are all great platforms that allow us to expand our reach, and make people more aware of what we’re doing. Things like Google-Drive and DropBox enable a high degree of collaboration that facilitates working together on projects. Print on Demand services make it possible for us to get our work out there in a way that can be very cost effective. As independent publishers grow in number, there are also more options to get published while maintaining a higher degree of creative control over our product. Larger comics publishers seem to be recognizing the need for material that speaks to a black audience. I think there’s still a long way to go for women of color in comics, but there are a lot of things going on that give me hope for the future.
What is the most rewarding thing about creating your own work?
The most rewarding thing about creating my own work is, seeing a kid’s eyes light up as they move across the pages. Having parents contact me to tell me about how much their kid loved the book, or how fast they read through it, is extremely rewarding because it means that all the time I put into creating a story was worth it. They understand the language that I’m speaking to them, and this encourages me to work even harder at creating better, more immersive stories. I’m hoping my new comic, Dayo’s Diary, will be just as well received.