Growing up, everyone has a favourite comic book hero. While most kids don’t end up drawing them, illustrator Nicola Scott did.
‘I knew superheroes through TV shows and films. I was a big fan of Wonder Woman when I was a little kid. She was the first superhero I saw and it really made an impact on me,’ she said.
Growing up in Sydney in the 1970s, it’s likely Scott was glued to Lynda Carter’s star-spangled incarnation of the Amazonian superhero on her TV screen. While that was weekly fare, the comics from where Diana Prince sprung from weren’t. Though she’s now illustrated Wonder Woman professionally, there was a time when she didn’t ‘understand what [she] was looking at’.
‘It wasn’t until my late teens in the 80s that I started to understand exactly what comics were, and that they have these greater universes and these two great big companies owned all the superheroes.’
More than two decades later, Scott works for one of those great big companies – DC Comics, the home of Superman, Batman, The Flash, Green Arrow and of course, Wonder Woman. Spiderman, Captain America and the X-Men all belong to that other cultural behemoth, Marvel.
Prior to picking a side in the ultimate fanboy battle, Scott dabbled in modelling and acting before turning her artistic skills to comics. The latest generation in a line of artists that stretched back to her grandmother, she was attending life-drawing classes by the age of four and perpetually surrounded by ‘paints and paper’.
Still, ending up in comics wasn’t destined. It wasn’t until the career dablings in her twenties didn’t turn out that Scott considered becoming a comic book illustrator. ‘I decided to box that career,’ she said of acting, ‘and think what other creative things I cold do, and it really came down to this epiphany I had on a Sunday morning.
‘I was considering career options available with drawing as a skill and nothing was ringing my bell. Then I thought, if I had to draw the same thing all day everyday, what could it be?’
The answer was Wonder Woman.
‘I was like Oh my god! That’s a job that someone in the world right now has; their job is to draw Wonder Woman every day—I should draw comics! Holy shit! How have I not known this before?’
From there it wasn’t simply a case of rocking up to DC Comics, knocking on the door and demanding to draw one of their most iconic characters. Like all artistic endeavours it was a lot of hard work, which started with practice.
Inspired by the superhero paintings of Alex Ross, who painted the revered covers for DC’s Kingdom Come story arc, Scott started covering canvases in Wonder Woman. Once she’d amassed a folio of paintings she asked the guy at her local comic book store if he knew anyone involved in the industry. Luckily for Scott, she was asking Doug Holgate, a freelance illustrator who had worked with Image Comics and Mad Magazine.
‘He said, “I’ve got a table at the next convention and you should come along with your portfolio”.’
Scott took his advice and Holgate quickly realised she was talented. Though she wasn’t exactly sure what the next step was, she started asking if any Australians worked in American comics – where Wonder Woman waited.
What she found out was that few if any Australians worked in the American industry. The reason was simple; you had to be in America. ‘I was like, okay I’m buying a ticket to America,’ she said. ‘So I’d go to Comic-Con every year and it just continued to flow from there.’
Of course getting discovered at comic book conventions like Comic-Con is about as rare as an actor landing their first audition. At least actors have an idea what they’re in for. Scott contends that 95% of people who go to conventions with a folio don’t really have any idea what they’re doing. While she was one of them, that Sunday morning revelation to work in the industry inspired a superhuman determination in her.
‘When the inspiration came it was so clear and obvious, it was such a mission statement that made so much sense straight away. At the age of 28 I had this determination that I’d never really had for anything before and I think that really propelled everything else.’
Like bulletproof skin, Scott’s determination made her impervious to the criticism that sidelined a lot of fellow comic industry hopefuls.
‘It can be really devastating so people only try once or twice but I wasn’t emotionally invested, I was just determined, I was finding encouragement out of every piece of criticism. I was telling people to tell me what I was doing wrong and I was listening to every piece of advice.’
Scott combined this advice with a book more powerful than the Lasso of Truth – Scott McCleod’s Understanding Comics. ‘That explained sequential storytelling to me in sequential storytelling. It just really taught me the rules and helped me to understand the art that can exist in sequential storytelling and so I was reading that over and over again.’
Gifted with this new knowledge, Scott kept at it, ‘making every contact’ she could make while doing ‘little side projects’ that eventually evolved into web comics, which then turned into little short stories for publishers, some of which became one shot issues that lead to her involvement on short story arcs and finally, her regular gig at DC.
‘It grew from there because I was always asking questions and trying to get better.’
Along the way to becoming the illustrator on DC’s Justice Society of America (the world’s very first superhero team), Scott applied her skills to titles at Top Cow Comics and Dark Horse Comics before swooping into DC to work with writer Gail Simone on Birds of Prey and Secret Six.
So still, it wasn’t a case of getting to DC and getting her hands on Wonder Woman. That’s a serious title to be the illustrator on and it’s a coveted position. Comic books are an industry, and like all industries you’ve got to pay your dues, but it also pays to know the right people.
‘Gail [Simone] left Birds of Prey to join Wonder Woman and she’d asked me to go with her, but they wouldn’t let me because I was too green, but she knew I was a big Wonder Woman fan and said “I’ll write her into Secret Six”.’
So what was it like to finally get to draw her childhood idol?
‘Pretty fucking exciting!’
The excitement didn’t stop at a story in Secret Six, if anything it reached epic proportions when she worked with Greg Rucka on the Blackest Night: Wonder Woman spin-off.
‘He was my favourite Wonder Woman writer and I figured I had no chance of getting that job but I was at San Diego [Comic-Con] one year and I was talking about really wanting to work on it and an editor said, “Why don’t you ask for that job? You never know – just ask”.’
Like most things in life, you won’t get it if you don’t ask and there’s always the possibility of someone saying yes, which in Scott’s case, they did.
‘That was the biggest buzz to me, getting to work on my favourite character with my favourite writer – it was my first taste of a big mainstream book.’
Wonder Woman and Nicola Scott share more than just panels on a page. They’re both women in a highly masculine world. The depiction of females has been, and continues to be, the topic of a lot of debate in the comic world, from enlarged appendages to the their often brutal demise.
When asked how the debate is travelling in the 21st century, Scott said:
‘I think because of the Internet, web comics and the amount of independent publishers and small presses, women do quite well. There are actually a lot of women working across the field in the industry, a lot of writers and artists and colourists, but when you get down to the numbers working in classic American superhero comics, those numbers get smaller – but it does seem to be slowly but surely increasing.’
Scott believes that women often make up larger number in secondary roles, ‘like associate editors and inkers and colourers’, but even the primary creative team – the writer and the penciller – ‘those numbers are also increasing’.
But then there’s the representation of women in comics. With mostly male illustrators, breasts have a tendency to get bigger, waistlines thinner and clothes skimpier. Of course, the issue isn’t black and white, it’s as vibrant as any of Scott’s painted comic book covers and she believes there are characters that warrant sexual representations.
‘I’ve always thought that Catwoman should be someone that is aggressive and sexual, but she’s someone that the girls should find sexy as well as the boys, but it shouldn’t be across the board. Catwoman and Supergirl shouldn’t be drawn the same way.’
After all, Supergirl is a teenager. To Scott, it’s alarming when teenage girls are illustrated in the same style as mature and sexually aggressive characters. ‘There’s quite a lot not being said there that is a little uncomfortable. For some characters it makes sense for them to be sexual, others should be cute.’
So then what about Wonder Woman?
‘It’s odd when Wonder Woman is depicted sexually, even though she’s got the most revealing costume – she’s a sensual character but I don’t think she’s a sexual character. She’s too earthy, she’s like a European girl, she’s comfortable with her sexuality and at the same time kind of oblivious. She’s not a pin-up.’
Still, there’s inevitably going to be a bunch of female characters popping up and popping out in comics, but it’s not what it used to be. ‘As the female readership grows and the female creator percentage grows, which I think will happen now that geek culture is mainstream – there’s almost as many geek boys as girls – I feel that balance is going to restore itself.’
The Internet has contributed to the ability for misogynistic tendencies in comics to be called out. ‘Geek girls were few and far between but now that they can have some solidarity online they’re way more comfortable to speak up and out against things they find offensive.’
In fact, Gail Simone, Scott’s Birds of Prey pal started much of the backlash against representation of women in comics, which isn’t just brought up because of breasts, but their often grisly demise. In Green Lantern #54 (1994), titular hero Kyle Rayner returns home to find his girlfriend Alex DeWitt murdered and stuffed in his refrigerator.
Noting this particularly gruesome end to the character, Simone made Women in Refrigerators, a website that lists female comic book characters who have been killed, injured or disempowered as a plot device, and attempts to analyse why such plots are used disproportionately on women in comics.
‘That debate, coupled with the Internet and the growing female readership and female fandom active and vocal online has galvanised this group of fans that might have felt isolated pre-Internet,’ she explained.
‘We’re going through a phase now where anytime there’s what is considered misogynistic imagery, it’s getting called out quite publicly and people are becoming aware of the boundaries.’
In her new role as illustrator on JSA, Scott won’t be penning Wonder Woman regularly, but she will be working on some of the most revered characters not only in the DC Universe, but also the entire comic cosmos.
She also won’t be the only Australian in charge of America’s oldest superhero team. Recently it’s been announced that she’ll be joined by on the title by Tom Taylor, an Australian writer who will replace departing scribe James Robinson.
Both Taylor and Scott will be appearing at Oz Comic-Con this weekend, where they’ll share their industry insights with those hoping to follow in their footsteps. Aside from tips on how to crack the comic industry, Scott says that the panels are often a lot of fun.
‘I love the unexpected. We get up there, introduce ourselves and ask the audience to ask the questions – they can be really interesting and tricky and tend to be a lot of fun. All kinds of stuff comes up that shouldn’t.’
Originally published on artsHub July 1 2013.