No Place for Daydreamers: Becky Cloonan’s DIY Comics

When the DC Universe-spanning “Court of Owls” event concluded in late 2012, award-winning comics creator Becky Cloonan helmed art duties on most of Batman Vol. 2, #12, the issue that immediately followed the Dark Knight’s face-off with Lincoln March. Scott Snyder, the writer behind the sprawling behemoth’s relaunch of their most popular character’s primary book, wrote a standalone story that Cloonan worked on. Inexplicably, it marked the first time that a woman’s name snatched the “Artist” credit in Batman. “The club of women who have written Batman books (as opposed to the broader set Batbooks which includes titles like Nightwing and Birds of Prey) is very small,” observed DC Women Kicking Ass back then.

Cloonan’s pages in Batman are haunting — a few sections of Snyder’s “Ghost in the Machine” center on jolting subterranean action that unravels in Gotham’s sewers, while others feature dim street corners in an unfriendly end of town called The Narrows, where a young Harper Row scouts out a method to “help” Batman remain undetected on his nightly beat. Large stretches of black space and mildewy stone walls are a snug fit for punkish hacker Row, who dons tattered tees and Manic Panic’d hair (non-conformist drifter types are a specialty of Cloonan’s — from the scrappy activists in Brian Wood’s Channel Zero prequel Jennie One to the stylish nomads she’s currently drawing for The True Lives of the Fabulous Killjoys). PopMatters Associate Comics Editor Michael Stewart highlighted Cloonan’s ability to “bring out the tenderness, brutality and emotion of the story” when Batman #12 hit shops.

Not long before she stepped in to help shape Harper Row’s backstory, Becky Cloonan had begun working with Brian Wood on his Conan the Barbarian series for Dark Horse. On her site at the time, there was also a simultaneous though understated promotion of the second entry in what would become Cloonan’s self-published trilogy.

The Mire, “dedicated to those of you with crushes on your characters,” as its creator put it, is a short black and white story that looks plucked from the era where her work on the Conan books takes place. There is a wealth of long scraggly beards, feather-tipped quills, swords and body armor, and a fearful passage through a dark wooded region for a young messenger. Indeed, The Mire‘s strikingly rendered forest — the branches of which, long and grotesquely bent, stretch off into multiple directions and threaten to cross into several panels on the page — unifies Cloonan’s brief narrative. It’s the mysterious swathe of land between a barbarian campground and Castle Ironwood, the birthplace of a gothic-styled tale of heartbreak.

The Mire followed 2011’s Wolves, first anthologized in Japan in 2009. Wolves is quite compact and slightly more chilling than its counterparts, but it’s also framed in forbidden love. The panels are rich with silhouettes of dead trees and it’s dotted with an intricately detailed battle sequence — a master swordsman and a frothing werewolf tussling in the forest, of course. “It is not the size that chills me,” says the hunter of his mark. “Not the teeth…or the claws. It’s the eyes.” There isn’t anything like it in Cloonan’s final chapter, a comic she called Demeter and self-published on June 19th.

Demeter is remarkably evocative, the stuff of Norton Literature collections. It’s the sort of bleak love story that Becky Cloonan came close to developing in Wolves and The Mire, but Demeter is a more fully fleshed-out piece. It’s a thriller that carries more narrative weight than its counterparts do. With limited text and a page count that stops short of 30, the very idea of pacing works against Cloonan, but she conjures a flood of mixed emotions that are sorted out in a resonant script and dynamically arranged pages.

For Demeter, we get the cliffside story of a wistful maiden’s romantic entanglement set against raging seas. There’s an unlikely supernatural layer that becomes as clear as Cloonan’s snow-white horizon and soft grey watercolor streaks, and the book’s love story is hardly where her work ends. She finds a suitable post script in the verses of Alfred Tennyson for the self-published trilogy’s final page. Cloonan cites lines from the British poet’s “The Sailor Boy.” Tennyson, who in 1849 wrote of voices calling from the sea, where “the sands and yeasty surges mix,” lived to see 83. Cruel assessments of his work rattled him, as the poet was said to have been overly sensitive to harsh criticism. Becky Cloonan should have no such difficulty. Sure, she’ll encounter an archaic editorial policy somewhere that prevents her from advancing in a manner that Tennyson never knew, but harshness for her work? Sharing an unpleasant word about a modern-comics literary gem like Cloonan’s Demeter seems as inconceivable as DC letting a woman draw Batman.

Becky Cloonan is a 2013 Harvey Award nominee in the “Best Single Issue or Story” category for both Batman and The Mire. Check out her work at her website.