Supreme: Blue Rose is an intentionally confounding comic book. Based off a Superman analogue concept created by Rob Liefeld in the early ‘90s, this new incarnation flits between domesticity and the surreal, channeling more David Lynch than Richard Donner. The plot follows Diana Dane, a struggling journalist privately employed to investigate a man named Ethan Crane and his link to supernatural occurrences in a small town. Together, writer Warren Ellis and artist Tula Lotay have fashioned a trail of clues at once concrete and poetically open to interpretation. Lotay’s art adds to the mystery of Ellis’ scripts — but more importantly, it provides the reader with the emotional information to stay connected to the characters within the mystery. When a plot can be challenging and submerges the reader in a lost forest of metaphysics, Lotay draws us on with her expressive faces, unusual line work, added textures and haunting locales. We chatted with Lotay to discuss some of the less obvious visual methods the artist used throughout this sterling six-chapter miniseries, whose last issue launched yesterday.
The central protagonist, Diana Dane, stares straight off the cover of the first issue at the reader. “The thing I always find most fascinating in any story is the characters,” Lotay explains “They’re what draws me in, and they’re the things that can make or break the story. I wanted readers to really be able to empathize with the characters in Supreme.”
Diana has an open face, and we can read it even though her expressions are muted. Compared to the extreme strangeness unfolding around her, her expressions are easy to relate to, forming a proxy for the reader to enter this bizarre new world. The perspective often focuses on the space between Diana and whatever (or whomever) she’s engaging. Because of the character’s outward gaze, we respond to her as she responds to her surroundings. When Diana meets Reuben, a man with a head of ambiguous static and visual noise, we relate to the character’s sense of shock though her facial expressions. When Diana meets Doc Rocket, a scientific adventurer from a different version of reality, Lotay draws the pair both looking outward, and we can feel the warmth of Rocket’s personality through Lotay’s intuitive line work and the character’s hospitable smile. “Doc Rocket is highly intelligent and he’s happy-go-lucky. I needed his expressions to reflect that, just as Diana’s expressions often express her worry about what’s going on, and her not being able to understand what’s happening. Diana is often worried or confused, but she has this steely determination as well—she’s afraid of things but she does them anyway.”
Dynamic Blue Line Ambiance
Another way Lotay conveys Diana’s state of mind is through the blue lines that veer across the page; from the first page, the lines streak over and through the panels, running directly through the white gutters and off the edge of the page. “The way the story starts out, we’re inside Diana’s dreams and we don’t know what’s real and what’s not. She’s struggling with mental health issues — the more confused she feels in a situation, the more she feels that she’s losing her grip on reality, the more blue lines there are on the page.” When Diana meets Reuben, the blue lines are straight and harsh, cutting right across her face. When she meets Doc Rocket, the lines fade gently into the background and are more playful.
Several issues later, Diana starts to piece together the overarching mystery of Crane. The blue lines gradually disappear, communicating Diana’s clear state of mind. At the end of the sixth issue we see Diana angry for the first time, and the blue lines are gone, but the background in these panels are solid, flat blue fills with thick, lighter-blue brush strokes of texture.
Layers of Texture
Lotay does most of her illustration work digitally in Supreme: Blue Rose, but she also adds hand-painted layers. “I like the accidental marks of watercolors — a lot of digital work lacks those accidents,” she says. Lotay developed her use of color and texture as an illustrator, and has carried her process into comics. “I build it up as I go along. A lot of people might do the penciling and inking themselves and then have someone else do flats and color. I don’t use bold, heavy lines — I tend to build up the illustration by doing some initial line work, and then drop in colors and textures, and then I might do some more line work at the end. For example, I did this watercolor painting of a tree and I scanned it in. I keep these scanned watercolor layers on my desktop. Then when I have some flat colors laid down, I start dropping in the watercolor layers in Photoshop, just bringing them into my drawing. I’ll use the layer program to put them on a multiply or overlay setting and you get different colors coming up, but also the textures of the watercolor you scanned. I think it gives the artwork more of a traditional feel. I wasn’t aiming for that, but I kind of like it.”
In a scene of the character Probe standing on a shore, we can see how Lotay added two layers of watercolor after inking and coloring. One layer is contained within the panels, and the other ignores the panel borders and bleeds to the edge of the page. Probe is a character who hallucinates; the added color heightens the sense of her being alone with her thoughts and visions, some of which are terrifying.
The page of Probe looking out at the lake shows Lotay’s use of texture to accentuate mood, but it also accentuates how she creates a visceral sense of a place. She uses space and scale to make the characters smaller and more alone. Lotay photo-referenced myriad empty or abandoned places for Supreme: Blue Rose. “I wanted that eeriness to be fed back into the comic because the story is a strange one, and it fits into this ethereal setting as well. I wanted it to be a little unsettling.”
Lotay ramps up the sense of foreboding as Diana approaches a house at the end of the sixth issue. A limo slips through dark tree trunks in the snow. The light shining through the windows doesn’t convey comfort or hospitality. Lotay put it simply: “We don’t know if it’s a safe place for her to be.” She based the house on murderer Ed Gein’s house. “It’s really macabre — he used to wear people’s skin. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is partly based on his story. I just remembered seeing crime photographs of his house, those distance shots in the snow. It’s just strange, looking at it and knowing what happened there.”
This spooky house is also where Diana gets angry for the first time, and where the telltale blue lines are absent — it’s also where the story will pick back up in the issue that came out yesterday.
Lotay has only been working in comics for a couple of years, but the veteran illustrator has a natural storytelling instinct that shines through — both in her pages and in the way she describes her gorgeous work on Supreme: Blue Rose.