Sean Gordon Murphy has broken out as an artist in recent years, going from a respected penciler and inker (and sometimes writer) to one of comic’s artistic stars thanks to his work on the Vertigo miniseries “Joe the Barbarian,” “Hellblazer: City of Demons” and “American Vampire: Survival of the Fittest.”
His newest title is “Punk Rock Jesus,” a five-issue black and white miniseries published by Vertigo Comics that Murphy is both writing and drawing. A passion project years in the making, Murphy spoke with CBR News about the book and his process, his recent blog posts that have started conversations among fans and professionals, and offers a look at the miniseries.
CBR News: “Punk Rock Jesus” isn’t the first comic you’ve written, but I’m curious whether you want to write more going forward or whether that’s something you see yourself doing only occasionally like you’ve done.
Sean Gordon Murphy: I think it will depend on how well “Punk Rock Jesus” does. I enjoy doing a comic by myself, but it’s hard to justify the insane amount of extra labor if people don’t read it. So I’m hoping for the best.
I used to look down on artists who spent decades in comics and ended up owning nothing — entire careers spent perpetuating someone else’s IPs instead of their own. I used to think it was irresponsible and lazy to run a career that way, and maybe it still is, but after a few issues of “Punk Rock Jesus” I started to understand why most people don’t bother with something like OGNs: it’s just too damn hard.
Don’t get me wrong — I’ve never been more satisfied with anything else I’ve ever done. But it’s also taught me that being a writer/penciller/inker combo isn’t for everyone.
How has your process in working on the book differed from how you work when drawing a script by another writer?
The book means a lot to me, so I’m working extra hard on the art. Maybe part of me is afraid that people will think that the writing is no good, and by increasing the level of art I’m hoping to convince them I’m a better writer than I really am.
How has writing “Punk Rock Jesus” differed from earlier projects like “Off-Road” and “Outer Orbit?”
The biggest difference is that “Punk Rock Jesus” is a much more mature book with more complicated themes than anything I’ve done before. I think it reflects what I’ve learned in the years between these books, the things I’ve read, the influences I’ve discovered, etc. “Punk Rock Jesus” was in my head before “Off-Road” — the reason I put it aside was that I knew I wasn’t ready for a project that intense. Only in the last few years have I felt more like I’m in a better place to handle the task.
Is there anything you’ve learned or taken from other writers you’ve worked with in recent years that helped you when writing this book?
The Scott Snyder scripts taught me a lot, especially how to write for the reader and not for yourself. Scott’s scripts are very easy to get into and each issue has a clear payoff moment, so I tried to do that with “Punk Rock Jesus.” My book feels autobiographical at times, so putting the reader first helps me keep a healthy distance from the material.
How did working with editor Karen Berger help shape the book?
Not only did she get me my [DC exclusive] contract, but she helped streamline the plot by pointing out the unnecessary details in my scripts. We butted heads here and there, but I think we have a great relationship and a lot of respect for each other. Karen is exactly what an editor is supposed to be: firm but fair. And she gets away with being demanding because she’s equally demanding on herself. By far the most engaged editor I’ve ever had — I think she understands “Punk Rock Jesus” better than I do.
Why did you want to do this book in black and white and what do you think uncolored B&W line art can do?
I wanted “Punk Rock Jesus” in B&W because I felt it added an indy/underground quality to the book. There was discussion about color at one point, and perhaps we’ll end up doing a colored trade, but for now the B&W purists will have their way — myself included.
Has it been freeing to be able to finalize the look of the page while it’s still in your hands and have you done anything differently knowing that what your draw and hand off to editorial is the final product?
It’s probably less freeing because I end up putting more work into the art to make up for the lack of color. I used a lot of blacks in “American Vampire,” yet I would still end up having Dave Stewart add shadows, fill in night skies, and use color holds. With “Punk Rock Jesus” I’ve needed to find other solutions, and it often lead to heavy use of halftone effects a la “Ghost in the Shell.”
I’m curious, because you recently posted some thoughts on inking and why we might see inkers out of a job in comics in the near future, how putting together a B&W book played a role in how you articulated those thoughts.
I was scanning my inks one day and I remember thinking, “How much longer are publishers going to go along with paying for inks?” As much as I love inking, I’m a pragmatic guy and started to think about all the reasons why inking could be obsolete. Check out my journal if you’re interested.
I came to that opinion mainly because part of my paychecks are inking fees, and those numbers add up. Meanwhile, publishers are always looking ways to cut cost. I’m not sure if doing “Punk Rock Jesus” had anything to do with it, but who knows.
How autobiographical is the book?
Over my evolution from Catholic to atheist, I’ve inhabited a number of different outlooks, and many of the characters embody those roles. For example, there’s the uncompromising Catholic bodyguard. Then there’s the pure scientist who’s focused on logic. Then there’s Gwen, the girl who becomes the mother of the clone, and she’s an emotional victim through most of the story. There’s nothing overtly autobiographical, but it’s just under the surface.
Having these different characters also helps include people of different outlooks. If you’re a believer, then there’s someone in “Punk Rock Jesus” for you. If you’re into science, you’ll also be okay. Or if you just want to see some action and violence, you’ll have plenty to look at.
“Punk Rock Jesus” is about religion and the media in America. Were you trying to address two of the most contentious topics of the day? In an election year, no less.
Sarah Palin scared the shit out of me in 2007 — I was floored that someone that ignorant could come so close to being President. And a lot of her comments were about religion, politics, and the media. It made me want to take action, but I was just a comic book artist and I wasn’t sure what I could do.
So I started addressing my concerns about these three topics in “Punk Rock Jesus.” And I felt I really had something, but then Obama was elected and suddenly the need for “Punk Rock Jesus” was gone. I was an Obama fan, and I’m glad that Palin isn’t anywhere near the nuclear codes, but I felt that I’d missed a window where “Punk Rock Jesus” would be most relevant.
But this election has brought up all my old concerns, so suddenly “Punk Rock Jesus” feels relevant again.
I’d like to talk a little about the cover design. How much freedom did you have as far as the design and the color?
For the covers, I wanted a symbol for the book rather than an illustration. It’s not my most attractive cover, but I think it does a good job of being provocative while jumping out on the shelf.
You’ve written up some great posts on your deviantart page over the past year or so and you’ve had some great thoughts on needing to think of comics as business, and how some people take advantage of artists and writers — and they let themselves be taken advantage of — because they love comics. Is this something you’ve seen a lot of?
Thanks! I try to write mostly for students. A few miffed creators aside, most of the feedback has been great. A few times I’ve met artists who’ve changed their process or their outlook because of something I’d written, and that’s what makes it worthwhile.
To answer your question — yes, I do see a lot of creators being taken advantage of. Most newbies who approach this business do so in a very timid demeanor, something I’m trying to stop. And by pulling back the curtain and showing the actual process behind the magic tricks, I’m hoping it helps them see comics as a business and not as a hobby for celebrity artists.
It’s interesting you say artists need to see this “as a business and not as a hobby for celebrity artists.” I know that you were an apprentice to an artist before attending art school. Do you think that helped shape your thinking and eliminated any adolescent notion that some of us may have had about art?
I think so. The guy I apprenticed under was an ex-marine who still had shrapnel in his head from a battle in the Pacific. He was obviously a very no-nonsense type of guy. If I started acting like an art celebrity while blowing my deadlines as I flew from convention to convention acting like a prick, I’m pretty sure he would have kicked my ass.
Have you started thinking about the next project and what kinds of things you want to tackle going forward?
I’d like to do a sequel, but that will depend on how “Punk Rock Jesus” does. I have a list of things I’d like to work on in the course of my career: Punisher, Wolverine, Hellboy, Batman, Conan, and more “Star Trek.” Maybe I’ll take a year off and have a “bucket list” year.
Sean Murphy’s “Punk Rock Jesus” #1 (of 5) is on sale in July 11.