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INTERVIEW: Shalvey & Barrett Climb the Criminal Ladder to Savage Town

by  in Comic News Comment
INTERVIEW: Shalvey & Barrett Climb the Criminal Ladder to Savage Town

Down in Savage Town, the gangs of Limerick gather on pub doorsteps and side streets. Spitting, scratching and slurring in a constant struggle to try and become the new top dog, their form of gang warfare might not be Tommy Guns and fedoras — but the consequences are just as permanent.

This is the world introduced by Declan Shalvey, Philip Barrett, Jordie Bellaire and Clayton Cowles in the pages of the new graphic novel Savage Town at Image Comics, releasing this September. It isn’t glamorous, but it sure is gritty, with a distinctly Irish approach to the crime saga. Following Jimmy “Hardy” Savage out for himself in a town where even his mates are now after him, the book is a wickedly sharp take on low-level street criminals, and their ability to create the worst out of a bad situation.

And with the book only one month away from publication, CBR decided to brave the streets and talk to Barrett and Shalvey about their distinctive graphic novel.

CBR: You don’t tend to associate Image with graphic novels — what prompted you to release Savage Town as a whole, complete piece rather than serializing it?

Declan Shalvey: To be honest, my original pitch was to do it as an ongoing series. It was actually Eric Stephenson who suggested we do it as a graphic novel instead. I was thinking of a serialized episodic comic, as that’s what I’m used to doing. I talked to Phil about it and he wanted to do it as an OGN too. Phil is more of an OGN guy anyway and sure in the end, Eric was willing to publish it so I took what I could get!

In retrospect, doing it in this format has worked out way better. Less solicitations to make, less covers to do, etc. Way less administration, all things considered and it gave us the time to look everything over a lot, to make sure it was all flowed cohesively.

In the end, the story took a couple of twists and turns that I hadn’t expected, and it’s all because of the format we ended up doing with. I also thing because of the accents, etc, you’ll stick with reading the whole story. If it were a serialized monthly, a reader might check out after #1. But after 30 pages (rather than a 20 page issue) I think we really suck you into this world.

How did you come together for the story? You’ve both a part of the Irish comics/convention scene, right?

Philip Barrett: I’ve known Declan from a time when everyone doing comics in Ireland knew each other — which is a few years ago now! I’ve always been a fan of his artwork and really admired his storytelling approach. I think even though we might have started at different ends of the spectrum in that I began with very much a self-publishing focus on small stories, he recognized a similar emphasis on storytelling in my work. Declan also saw a certain authenticity in how I was depicting Ireland in my comics and when he approached me about potentially doing the art for an Irish crime story he had in mind I immediately said a resounding “yes”… not really quite believing anything would come of it.

But Declan is a man of his word and sure enough he followed up. He had a strong vision for the tone of the book above and beyond the particulars of the story and it was the chance to realize that vision and add to it that really drew me in. Working with Declan and being able to learn from him was a major plus for me. If I needed any opinion or insight on the art he was a huge help.

Shalvey: Phil used to run the Dublin Comics Jam when I first moved to Dublin so we used to mess around with on-the-spot comics and traded come comics, too. I soon got too busy to attend but we’d always say hi at shows and stuff. Phil is just a lovely man, a real pleasant fella to talk to — he’s like the Patron Saint of Irish Comics. Anyone worth their salt in the country knows Phil’s stuff, yet he always managed to hide under the radar.

I’d been thinking about doing a crime story set in Limerick but I couldn’t see how I’d find the time to draw it. Doing a creator-owned book like Injection at Image was also a hugely empowering experience. I was very excited about helping someone else having that kind of experience. So, one year at the Thought Bubble Festival, I just asked Phil if he’d have any interest in drawing a comic that I wrote. He didn’t immediately shoot down the idea, so that was good! Once I had a more solid idea, he called round to my place and I gave him the hard pitch.

More and more you’ve been writing projects, both for hire and for yourself. What interests you most in pursuing this side of the creative process? Do you think working as a writer has changed the way you think about comics as collaboration?

Shalvey: The short answer to your second question is: no. I certainly have more appreciation for the work that goes into the writing side, but if anything it’s become more obvious how much the artist brings to a project. I had ideas and an approach to this book, but it’s been Phil who has repeatedly offered great contribution after great contribution. His art has influenced how I’m writing the book, he’s made what were very basic location captions into panels that are amazingly engrossing. With a different artist this would be a fundamentally different book.

As to what interests me about this side of the process — well, it seems prudent to invest in another idea I own, and as an artist, that’s something I can’t do without compromising my other project or compromising the quality of the work. I can’t work on another book as an artist, like writers and colorists and letterers can in their professions. I also liked the idea of build something from the ground up, having a sandbox to play with characters and experiment with writing, and also giving a spotlight to another artist who I felt deserved a lot more recognition.

With Jordie Bellaire on colors, this is a comic which knows how to paint an authentic Ireland. How important is that particular setting to the story as a whole — the characters, and the sense of humor?

Shalvey: Oh I cannot stress how important that was. That was a huge part of what Phil brought to the book. It was very important that the book showed us a real, tangible world and Jordie took that and added even more nuance. I was talking with Phil on a panel yesterday, and he praised how Jordie, while being from sunny Florida, was able to capture the soggy, muddy feel that sits over us, especially in the West of the country. We grew up with that, we understand it. It goes to show how attuned Jordie is to pick up on that and depict it so well with Phil’s art.

Jordie’s lived with me in Ireland for the past few years, so she understands a lot of these environments, and has seen these types of characters… and certainly gets their charm. I’m very fortunate that we have such an amazing colorist on the book, but also one who understands the material so well, and even more so, can integrate such subtle details to the work.

Barrett: I’d say the setting is essential to the story. The characters are products of their environment to a large extent — where they live in a small city on the western edge of Europe, the layers of history around them embedded in the streets of that city and their position on the economic ladder and place in the wider social structure. And then there’s the malevolent and ever present Irish climate… It’s a setting about as far as you could imagine from Jordie’s native Floridian one and a testament to her skills in nailing it so well. She’s managed to get that sense of dampness in the air and the particular tones of light at night — it’s freakishly spot on and really adds to the atmosphere.

Phil, what did you want to bring out from the script? You’re working on a story set in the real world, but using these larger-than-life characters. Was there a balance you had to walk between realism and cartooning?

Barrett: I wanted the look of the book to reflect the tone of the script — these felt like typical Irish characters in the way they talked and acted and all set in a realistic and typical Irish place. Even though they get up to some pretty nasty stuff, the reader should never feel that far removed from their carry on. There’s no airbrushing and definitely no glamour.

There was definitely a tricky balance between the realism and cartooning in the style but I think getting that “feel” right was more important than nailing specific locations or references and we used “feel” as our main guide. There’s an Irish expression “it’s only a bit of craic” that can be used to justify some quite unpleasant behavior. We wanted any violence to be quite, stark, fast and brutal and as unglorified as possible — there are some subtle color cues in there as well that reinforce that depiction. In the more humorous scenes we pushed the expressions and cartooniness that extra notch. Hopefully that contrast jars a little and leaves you feeling a bit queasy.

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