The Animated Life: Meet Brooklyn Comic Artist Colleen Lynne Cox

Colleen Lynne Cox is a Brooklyn-based animator, comic artist, and illustrator who we suspect may also have super powers (particularly the ability to live without sleep). Part of the Whiteboard Animation Studio team, in recent months Cox has also contributed to the Kickstarter campaign for Ralph Bakshi’s newest animated feature, and created a music video for musician Maine Damage. That’s on top of drawing her own short comics and working on her dystopic graphic novel Vore Club. Bustle recently hopped on the phone with Cox to hear about her artwork, what it’s like to be an animator, and why the ultimate response to “comics are for dudes” isn’t WHAM or POW but JAPAN.

BUSTLE: When did you know you wanted to be an animator?

COLLEEN LYNNE COX: As a kid I loved to write, draw, and tell stories. Yvonne Anderson’s book Make Your Own Animated Movies and Videotapes was hugely influential for me. In the '70s she taught animation to children, and she made a series of books that were available at my public library. They described in basic terms how to do everything from simple cell drawing to matte painting to more advanced visual effects. I inhaled them as a kid — I might have stolen one of the books from the library for a bit. So beyond just liking cartoons, I was drawn to the technical stuff — how do they do they make the magic happen? It satisfied my urge to problem solve.

Who are your artistic influences?

Growing up, Hiroaki Samura’s Blade of the Immortal was my favorite manga (the protagonist can get chopped up and put his body parts back on). Then there’s Jean Giraud (aka Moebius), Jim Woodring, and of course, Yayoi Kusama. I was 12 and visiting my aunt in New York when I first saw an exhibition of hers. I don’t build installations myself, but I think I make cartoons and animations out of the impulse to be a world builder — here’s this universe, here are the characters in the universe — and she was touching on that, but it was actually real! To me that was magical. I didn’t understand all the phallic symbolism at the time, so I poked and squeezed everything.

Speaking of magical worlds, did you ever consider working for a big animation firm like Disney?

When you work for a large company like Pixar, you can end up working six days a week, and there’s overtime as well, so there’s little time left to do your own work. It’s also kind of scary, to be honest. For example, Disney just shut down their 2D animation division. People that had been working for them for 30 years are just gone. I think it’s great experience to go work for those companies, but I wanted to try to find another way to do it. The choice is different for each animator.

How long does it take to animate a four to five-minute film like the ones on your site?

It depends, if I’m doing it quickly, only a couple of weeks. Maine Damage’s music video took nine months, but that’s largely a factor of having a day job. But I’m still trying to find ways to work faster.

What are the different considerations when creating a comic or animation?

Comics can be long, or very brief. To make an animated film requires thousands of drawings. So with comics you can move through a story faster. An animation, though it can be a lonesome endeavor, is still a collaboration like any movie. If there’s dialogue you need actors, musicians, sound effects, all kinds of people with various skills to make the movie come to life.

The weird thing now is that if the power goes out, my animation is gone into the ether. Comics are a real physical object that you can still hold in your hand and don’t need a machine to work, so it’s nice to have the artifact. At the same time, as long as there’s power, I can take my animation anywhere, which is a wonderful thing that didn’t used to be possible.

Tell us a bit about working for the Atavist on an animated introduction to their nonfiction piece Baghdad Country Club.

It’s was really fun working with the Atavist, because aside from them trusting me to create something from the ground up, its fascinating to combine a fantasy-oriented thing like animation with a nonfiction story and try to make it seamless with the writing style.

All animation is stylized, but for Baghdad Country Club, it also had to be accurate to contemporary Iraq. For example, when drawing the plane terminal, I had to make sure I was actually referencing pictures of the airport. In Iraq, like any place, there’s a particular orange of the sunrise, or green of the trees. So I drew the palate from photographs of the area but then hyper exaggerated them.

Can you share a bit about Vore Club as well?

I’ve been working on Vore Club for three years, and it’s over 200 pages. Eventually my goal is to self-publish. I wanted to create something gutsy (pun intended), something pulpy you might find if you were digging through the long boxes in a dingy comic store and found this weird comic in the back and you opened it up and were like: “What’s this? Oh God.”

My protagonist, John 6 (shown bellow), is a government-raised soldier and my Wile E. Coyote. I subject him to horrible stuff in this dystopic world and he’s just terrified for the first hundred pages. The villain of the story, The Surgeon, is this creepy little boy character I’ve been drawing since I was 13. Almost everyone in the story has had some kind of genetic modification of their bodies because technology The Surgeon has created.

Changing tack, are the issues we hear about every year at Comic-Con — absence of women panelists, lack of women protagonists, dismissing women fans as “fan girls,” etc. — prevalent in animation too?

Sadly, yes. Like any other industry where originally only men were employed, animation was historically difficult to penetrate as a woman. There’s a letter making the rounds from Walt Disney Studios in the mid 1930s, a response to a young woman who was applying to be an animator. She was told they didn’t hire woman animators, that she could only paint cells.

Things have changed a lot for the better, though. I don’t even think it occurs to the guys I work with at Whiteboard to have a problem. But I’ve been in situations at other companies where I was the only woman in a group of men. No one is ever cruel, they appreciate what I do, but when work is over, they aren’t necessarily going to invite me to go have drinks, form friendships, and talk about, “Hey, what if we do our own project.” It’s not conscious, it’s just outside their comfort zone. In places like that, I just didn’t stick around and I went seeking environments where that doesn’t happen. And you can find them. But if you tend to hire mostly guys, you’re going to wind up with a situation where they’re like a brotherhood, and sometimes they’ll reach out, but the opposite can and does happen.

And then there’s the tired idea that comics are all about male fantasy…

Historically, that notion was so deeply rooted in what was created that as a woman, you had to be someone who was interest in depicting male fantasy, or could just keep a low profile and work really intensely. Now there’s much more of a push against that. There are definitely camps, if you talk alternative comics, where it’s pretty free and open, and that’s the world I love. But with mainstream comics, its still pretty much the world of male fantasy. There are a handful of people inside mainstream comics who do some cool work, but there should be more.

That’s also, I should state, more the case for Western comics and animation. In Japan, for example, a lot of comics are made for women. One of the wealthiest comic artists in the world and among the richest individuals in Japan is Rumiko Takahashi, the author of Ranma ½, InuYasha, and Maison Ikkoku.

That’s one of the reasons I was drawn to anime as a kid. There seemed to be nothing for comics-loving girls in the US at the time, but in Japan there was tons. There’s even beefcake stuff for girls; the shounen-ai/yaoi manga are often about two cute guys falling in love and having a lot of romantic tension. It’s this fantasy of a gay male romance for girls. It was really cool for me, as a young girl, to see that those niches existed.

Are there any benefits to being a woman in comics?

A major benefit is that for now, we’re less common. Many people were excited to find out I was a woman who wanted to make comics and animation just because it’s a newer thing. I think that’s a wonderful attitude that, sadly, didn’t exist in the '70s.

What goals do you have for the future?

I want to start making small things. A series of ten-second animations or loops, a way of creating work that doesn’t involved sitting on one big project forever, because I’ve done that too many times and it’s where I’m comfortable. I’ll tell a big crazy story and that’ll make the drawings acceptable. It’s harder to make one drawing that’s strong enough to stand on its own.