by Jarrod Jones. Elsa Charretier picked up a pencil one day and never stopped drawing.
That’s the essence of Elsa’s origin story, in a way, almost exactly how she began her career working in comics. She grabbed a pencil, some paper, a book called Drawing Characters for Dummies, and—after a chance meeting with The Walking Dead artist Charlie Adlard, after countless 10-hour drawing sessions, after years of poring over the various comics, animation, and artwork that had inspired her over the years (Darwyn Cooke was a huge influence)—Elsa Charretier became one of the most in-demand artists working in comics today.
After her first big-splash, The Infinite Loop (published by IDW Publishing with Pierrick Colinet), the industry discovered the strengths of her storytelling ability—and Elsa discovered that she loved the creative freedom that came with crowdfunding her own projects. (“I’d started out doing crowdfunding, and I’m fiercely attached to that independence,” she tells me.) Her latest project has Kickstarted, and you can check it out here.
That brings us to Elsa Charretier’s artbook. It’s a study in artistic growth, of inspiration, of process. A showcase of premium artwork and insight, the coffee table book equivalent of cracking open a Swiss watch and seeing how intricate the machinery is. Elsa, ever a ferocious learner, has much to impart to the novice, and as an established career artist, she now has a tome fit to take even the expert back to school.
“[I wanted] to give readers an inside look at what goes into creating… The thoughts, the process, the tips, things I love to read about as a fan. The nitty-gritty of comic-book storytelling, if you will. At least my experience of it.”
In the final week of her latest successful Kickstarter campaign (currently sitting at $45,535 from a near $10,000 goal), Elsa Charretier took time out of her schedule to speak with DoomRocket about this artbook, her ever-evolving process, and her latest comics project with writer Matt Fraction.
DoomRocket: Congratulations on the raging success of your latest Kickstarter, Elsa!
Elsa Charretier: Thank you so much! It’s been two incredible weeks.
1. Let’s talk about ‘Elsa Charretier’s artbook’. This is the ultimate form of an artist’s self-expression, a declaration of where one is in their career and how they’ve grown over time. Why did you decide to assemble your work into a comprehensive edition?
EC: I like the idea of a book as a statement of where you are as an artist. This is what I do now, what I can’t yet do, and what I’d like to be able to do. In the era of the instantaneous social media, I like the idea of something more permanent.
I also wanted to give readers an inside look at what goes into creating those pieces. The thoughts, the process, the tips, things I love to read about as a fan. The nitty-gritty of comic-book storytelling, if you will. At least my experience of it.
2. What has working on this book been like for you? What have you noticed about your own work during this experience?
Retracing your creative steps is not that easy, it turns out. A lot of what we do as artists is instinctive. Some of it has been learned at some point but is now so ingrained in the process that we can’t always tell why we made such and such decisions. And some of it is creative instinct. So I’ve had to question all the decisions I made on the pieces featured in the book, and pin down the theory behind it.
3. Your frequent collaborator, Pierrick Colinet, used to storyboard your pages. This was mostly during your time working on ‘The Infinite Loop’, right? What has evolved about your own personal sense of storytelling over these last few years?
I started doing my layouts on The Infinite Loop—Pierrick did them for the small French book we did before that—and that helped shape the story. We wanted something different, something inventive and bold, and I think having to come up with seriously bonkers ideas at the very beginning of my career helped shape my sense of storytelling. I like playful layouts, but I’ve also learned over the years that there’s also power in subtle, non-extravagant panels. I’m heavily influenced by movies and cinematography, and it’s showing more and more in my work. I try to get out of the way, let the characters shine on their own and provide visually clear and compelling storytelling.
4. One thing that stands out to me about your work is the way you draw faces. It’s a curious thing—on every cover you’ve done, regardless of the subject, the faces you draw actively pull the reader in. What is it about expression that makes you render it so vividly?
I love faces. I really, really do. Young, old, pretty, less pretty. There’s something about the anatomy of a face that fascinates me, and my main focus is always to bring life to it. A collection of shapes has zero interested if it’s not infused with something else, something that tells the reader “I have a story to tell.”
What about body language? You used to work as an actor, so how do you approach it? What are the nuances you look for in body language?
To me, stories are first and foremost about characters. And I apply the same philosophy of bringing shapes to life on body language. It may have to do with my training as an actor, like you said, but also probably my love for animation. I remember being so moved by Disney reels. Like, deeply moved. Seeing the movement is a thrill to me, it triggers something hard to describe. Comic-books by definition lack movement, so a lot of my work consist of creating that illusion.
What I’ve been trying to do more and more is add characterization to body language. As an artist, you have to find a balance between keeping your style and making sure not all characters move the same. It can be hard, whether we want it or it, we tend to have reflexes, basic postures that we use regularly. That’s partly why I chose to work less this past year—it’s hard to come up with new stuff when you’re constantly pressed for time.
5. You’ve said that the Kickstarter behind ‘artbook’ represents a new chapter in your career. What’s changed about your work? Was there something about the current state of your career that you felt needed changing?
I’d started out doing crowdfunding, and I’m fiercely attached to that independence. These past few years, I’ve been lucky to work with great publishers and editors. I’ve learned a lot. I was lucky enough to try my hands at wonderful characters and fantastic universes but I do feel a need to come back to a more DIY approach to publishing. Not that I don’t want to work with established publishers anymore, but I do feel the need for a little more balance between the two.
6. You’ve mentioned that you’re quite attached to the pen & paper approach to illustration. How are you drawing these days? Have you tried out some of the digital formats yet? If not, why?
I learned to draw and ink on paper but moved to digital for a few years. I gave me a lot of freedom to take risks without having to start over if I messed up. That’s to me one of the biggest advantages of digital: experimenting. When Matt Fraction and I decided to do November, I realized this book needed tooth, character. Ink and paper. I know wonderful artists who can do organic things on digital supports, but my approach has always been very clean, which was not appropriate for this new series. I asked around for advice and finally settled on Kuretake brush pens, and Canson paper. They are cheap, very easy to use, and the exact amount of “grittiness” I was looking for.
7. ‘artbook’ is, in a sense ‘Elsa Charretier, Vol. 1’, a showcase of your work from the last couple years to present day. What do you suppose a ‘Vol. 2’ might look like? Are there projects that you would like to work on or publishers that you would like to work for in the years to come?
As a former compulsive planner, I try to take life, and by extension, my career, one day/project at a time. To let room for surprise. Ultimately, my goal is to choose projects that 1) are not like anything I’ve done before, 2) allow me 100% creative freedom.
8. As I’ve enjoyed your work over the years, the one genre of comics I’ve felt you most excel at is crime, or noir comics. You have an uncanny knack for atmosphere, and you wield shadows like Darwyn Cooke used to in his ‘Parker’ novellas. From whose works did you study atmosphere and shadow?
Well, the Parker books, for one! I don’t think there’s anything else quite like it. It’s noir, but it’s also 100% Darwyn Cooke. It’s a lesson in basically everything I try to do with my work and I hope one day to be just a fraction of the talent he was. Eduardo Risso and Mazzucchelli are also big influences, both in their own way. Risso satisfies my love for abstract and surrealistic stuff, and Mazzucchelli’s Batman: Year One (or even City of Glass) is a study in what to keep in or out of panels. They have all successfully interpreted noir and crime in their own specific visual language. I find it fascinating to see the sheer diversity in a single genre.
You’ve said you’re a big fan of ‘Batman: The Animated Series’. How did that series change the way you look at comic storytelling?
It taught me that you can do a lot with very few lines.
9. You’ve launched a Kickstarter exclusive for a Commentary Edition of your upcoming project with Matt Fraction, ‘November’. What can you tell us about this project, and how has your experience been working with Fraction?
November is about the lives of three women intersecting in a dark criminal underground. You guessed it, it’s a noir, crime series of graphic novels. Matt and I wanted to do a book together for a while and I don’t think we could have picked a better story. He created the most incredible characters, and I’m having the time of my life drawing them.
The November: Commentary Edition reward on my Kickstarter campaign sprung from the wish to do an in-depth discussion about storytelling, and all the different ways you can apply concepts to a scene. The book will be the entire Volume 1 (60 pages of art) in black and white, with my thoughts handwritten straight on the page. I use arrows and other visual help to explain why such panel is done this way, and not differently. It’s been a lot of fun to do.
10. When you’re not busy drawing for work, what artists who are currently working are you checking out? Which artists continue to surprise you?
My entire Instagram feed is full of incredible artists whose work amazes me. J Bone, Francesco Francavilla (who is doing a collab poster for the Kickstarter campaign), Chris Bruner, Vanessa Del Rey, Nicoletta Baldari are just a few of them. I like lots of different things!
‘Elsa Charretier’s artbook’ is in its final week on Kickstarter. You can contribute to it by clicking this link.
Take a look at this Kickstarter video featuring Elsa Charretier’s artbook now:
More comics interviews to get those synapses firing…