At the Chicago Comics and Entertainment Expo this year, I had the opportunity to meet Shawn and Matt Fillbach, who are best known for their eight-year run illustrating the Star Wars: The Clone Wars graphic novels for Dark Horse. They have since struck out on their own and have spent the past year writing and illustrating an impressive stack of books. The Fillbach Brothers aren’t twins, but as you’ll see from the interview, they act like it; they work together so closely they can’t really say who does what, and as Matt puts it, “We think with one brain.”
In Chicago, the brothers showed me the art for the graphic novel they had just finished, Macabro Demondio, which stars their character Jim Kowalski, paranormal trucker (first seen in their 2009 graphic novel Roadkill). Jim is the guy who cleans up after the big paranormal events; he follows the Department of Paranormal Experts and picks up the chupacabras, the artifacts, the space aliens, and brings them back to headquarters (there’s also a squad of gnomes that performs the site cleanup). “We were more interested in telling the story of the guy who isn’t the hero,” Shawn told me. “It’s very much inspired by stuff like Big Trouble in Little China.”
Since then, the Fillbachs have kept busy. They have six graphic novels either finished or in progress; all are slated to be published by First Comics, and they are giving Robot 6 readers an exclusive sneak peek.
Robot 6: Tell me about the graphic novels you have been working on this year: I know you have a new Jim Kowalski graphic novel done, plus a standalone graphic novel, Cadaver Dogs, and it was announced at San Diego you will be illustrating Larry Young’s Hemogoblin. Can you tell me briefly what each of these is about, as well as any other projects you are working on?
Matt: OK, let’s go chronologically from finished, to working on to coming up … First up is our second Jim Kowalski adventure …
Shawn: … called Macabro Demondio … and it is pretty awesome. Coming in at 127 pages, it is full of fun and fast action. Let’s say it’s in the PG/PG-13 area. If anyone has read Roadkill, the first Kowalski adventure, it’s a great continuation, and if you haven’t read it — and you like Demondio — go back and read Roadkill.
Matt: We still have more Kowalski in us but then we decided to bust out a quick sci-fi mini that evolved super-fast called Junky Star. (A lot of the time we are already outlining our next book when we are halfway through the last one.)
Shawn: Yup. It’s an 80-page (short for us) all-ages sci-fi book that is very much in the vein of all those digest Star Wars/Clone Wars books we did for Dark Horse and we thought, what the hey, let’s do our own Star Wars mini-space opera. We pay homage to Star Wars whilst still keeping it our own, but essentially it’s a space adventure about a motley crew on board a spaceship called the Junky Star.
Matt: And the book is done, and good … and has more potential for a future series than we had expected.
Shawn: Plus, it has a space bear. What can be better than that?!
Matt: Next is Cadaver Dogs. Cadaver Dogs is something that is very different from anything that has been previously published. It’s a very dark revenge tale — a tight 161 pages of pure vengeance. Here’s the story of how the book happened: We were in Chicago for C2E2, our first convention outside of Comic-Con with First Comics, and we had been tossing the rough idea around for a while. Whilst at dinner with Ken [Levin, First Comics publisher] we spilled the story to him.
Shawn: We? I was busy talking to Larry Young when you spilled it to Ken … wait, that didn’t sound right.
Matt: He’s right, it was all me. So after I made the pitch… Ken looked at me and said, “The whole revenge thing has been done.” It didn’t matter, I knew the story was there, so I pursued it and laid out the rest of the outline. Over that meal Ken ended up adding some really great ideas that are now in the completed story… So I guess Ken is now the third Fillbach Brother… He described it like we combined “Fargo with Breaking Bad.” Which pretty much sums up the look and the feel of it except it’s the story of Doc Cooper, a doctor in a small town. His daughter is found dead and he has to unravel what happened to her. The opening twenty pages are purely visual—absolutely no dialogue, just these sweeping cinematic layouts to set the tone. We love using that as a narrative tool—the silence takes on its own voice in a way.
Shawn: So these first three books are totally finished and pending production. We are currently working on Captain Freebird – An American Prayer… which we are in the middle of completing. A hundred pages of our oldest character, Captain Freebird, and this new book has been a long haul to get done. We first had Freebird published under the title Broken Heroes, where we discovered we have a loyal and amazing fan base — mainly war vets both young and old, which means a lot to us — essentially this story deals with a Marine who dies in the Middle East …
Matt: OK! For anyone who does not know who Freebird is … Long story short: Freebird is a Vietnam veteran that has the soul of a shaman, named Mojo Rising, living in his heart. Freebird is wanted by the FBI for a long list of reasons. He is also being hunted by a 110-year-old evil Native American crime lord named Laughing Bear who wants to eat Freebird’s heart to gain immortality.
Shawn: … and new story begins with Freebird escaping an institute for the criminally insane. … Because Freebird is, well … insane …
Matt: Then next we have Lives; it’s a 22-page one-shot that we’re doing the art for. It’s written by our friend Glenn Farrington, who writes for Disney’s Kickin’ It amongst other stuff for HBO. We don’t want to tell too much about this book. But so far it’s working out as a great collaboration. Glenn’s writing is awesome to work with. But enough said! We can’t really say anything more without giving it away. The last project is something we are super excited about because it means the return of a great writer and friend: Larry Young of AIT/Planet Lar. If you ask Larry what he has been doing for the past five years he breaks it down to one line …
Shawn: “I had a kid” … We really need to get him that shirt.
Matt: So … he just announced that after five years he is ready to get back in the saddle and we are doing the art for Hemogoblin, a vampire tale with a twist and Larry’s return to comics! Larry has a weird knack for biting into current pop-culture and writing a great read. The man knows comics.
Looking at the previews you sent me, I was impressed with the way you adjust your style to fit the subject matter— Cadaver Dogs had a different style of drawing and of storytelling than the Jim Kowalski one. How do you plan for a book, and how do you get that flexibility in your style?
Matt: We go into every book with a list of what we want to do. Where we want to go. How many pages. What we want to tell with the story. Every story has different criteria to us. We’ve been really working on stripping down our art. We can do the most detailed illustrated comic art you’ve ever seen, stuff like Tim Bradstreet and such, but we came to the conclusion, or more of to an Epiphany … “Do we want to be known as great artists, or do we want to be known as great storytellers?” … Storyteller trumps … always.
Jim Kowalski is a great character. Can you tell me a bit about what inspired him and how you came up with his companions?
Matt: We’re from Montana and we grew up during the whole Smokey and the Bandit time during the late ’70s to early ’80s, and there is a lot of that in our blood. And this is how we were able to combine the Bandit …
Shawn: … with Indiana Jones
Matt: YUP! And a talking dog named Geech and a crystal skull that acts as a supernatural GPS. AND, for the record, we created the crystal skull way before the last Indiana Jones film.
How has your work evolved and changed in the past few years?
Shawn: Our work is continually changing. Every day our work changes. Matty said earlier that we are getting better and stripping things down.
Matt: Yep. We spent a lot of time doing some REALLY detailed art like we said. And we thought that was the way to go for a while, but we kept hearing from everyone looking at our rough 12-pager proof-of-concepts that the quick line-work had more emotion to it. After a while we just started listening and then it just freed us up to do more and faster. It really fell to simplicity … self-editing the extra unnecessary lines. We’ve become obsessed with contrast, with shadows, and the pages are taking on a completely different graphic nature and we are really recognizing its strength. We got to show Charlie Adlard, from Walking Dead, our preview copy of Cadaver Dogs, and he went from flicking through it to pausing then going back and starting from the beginning slowly … I think we knew then we are finally hitting that groove. I also don’t think we can go back to working in color.
Shawn: We hate seeing our work in color now! Black-and-white and a good story … that be us!
What is your work day like? Is drawing graphic novels your sole job? What do you do to decompress and get away from it all?
Matt: We do this full-time. We work 10 to 12 hours a day, either at the art desk or walking and talking and creating. So a work day is just different from day to day, depending upon where we are at in the creative process. Writing and laying out are weird days where there isn’t the regimen of the “worktable.” But there are some days with lots of music and walking and talking … spitballing the ideas. Music is actually a big influence, we end up pretty much with a playlist for each project. And, I’m sure everyone around us can back this up … we really don’t stop creating — this is what we do. If we were forced to decompress we would end up writing a story about what a couple of germaphobe hitmen do to decompress and bust it out over the weekend.
Do you read comics for fun? If so, what are your favorites?
Shawn & Matt: Vaughn Bode! But basically we read old comics. Will Eisner, Jack Kirby, Al Williamson, Don Martin, Spain Rodriguez, R. Crumb, Bernie Wrightson, Richard Corben (he sent us our first rejection letter in 1988!), Wally Wood, Alex Toth, Dave Sheridan, Jean Giraud.
Thanks to Stephenny Godfrey for her help with this interview. Below is a portion of the silent intro to Cadaver Dogs.