Friday afternoon at Comic-Con International in San Diego, Sean Phillips, artist of "Marvel Zombies," "Criminal" and "Sleepers" and old friend Duncan Fegredo, artist on "Hellboy" and "Jay and Silent Bob," sat down in a room full of fans to take a look at Phillips' long and storied career.
Best know for his work on "Criminal" with Ed Brubaker and "Marvel Zombies" with Robert Kirkman, Phillips has been working in the comics industry since the '70s. He gained fame early in his career illustrating books such as "2000AD" and "Hellblazer" before having runs on books like "Uncanny X-Men" and "WildCATS."
Phillips and Fegredo began the panel by letting the crowd know how they first came to be friends. Over 20 years ago, they met at a launch party for a "2000AD" spin-off comic book named "Crisis." "That was back in the day when they would have launch parties for comics," said Phillips.
Phillips then began a long retrospective on his career, which began while he was still a teenager.
"I first started drawing comics professionally when I was 15. This was late 70s, early 80s."
At the time , comics in the UK were generally weekly anthologies, which each comic focusing on a different topic, like war, sci-fi or sports. Phillips worked on "girl comics," which were anthology style comics that focused on topics little girls would enjoy, such as ponies, gymnasts and boyfriends.
"I had already had 8 years of this before I met Duncan," said Phillips.
"That's Sean's secret origin," exclaimed Fegredo.
"At the time, I was only interested in superheroes and Conan," said Phillips. "I didn't even know there were girls comics...it was good training, I had to draw school girls, people walking and tables. I had to draw bloody horses, which is still pretty tricky...I didn't see it as a real job, just kind of a hobby. Other kids get a paper route or work at the burger bar - I drew comics instead."
"Crisis," where Phillips got his first big break, was special because it was one of the earliest color British comic books.
"I think we both wanted to do '2000AD,' didn't we, really?" asked Fegredo.
Simon Bisley, Dave McKean and Bill Sienkiewicz, all employing revolutionary art styles in the 80s, were big influences on Phillips during the middle part of his career. Phillips kept a piece of Fegredo's, done in a similar revolutionary art style, hanging on his wall when he would draw, at the time. Phillips would look up at it often and compare it to his own style, eventually making the decision to change his artistic approach.
"I'd obviously been doing it totally wrong, I should be doing it like this," said Phillips. "Trying anything out, there's a lot of scratchy lines, there's a lot of ink and paints, whatever got the job done. What I was doing before seemed very stiff and staid compared to that. It inspired me to change my style."
"I had no idea what I was doing; I thought I was doing it wrong!" said Fegredo.
"I started taking photos of myself as photo reference," said Phillips. He found that to do more painted, stylized work, he couldn't work from his imagination alone.
Eventually, Phillips was able to get a job drawing Judge Dread for "2000AD," but he still needed to draw girl comics to make money, often drawing both during the same periods.
When he started on Judge Dredd, Phillips was told to paint his comics like Simon Bisley. Phillips became popular enough that he was allowed to come up with his own stories based in Megacity One, the fictional universe Judge Dredd inhabits, including a tale titled "Swimming with Blood."
"There was lots of dismemberment and blood swimming about the page," Phillips recalled. "Around this time, all the stuff I did was painted. I stopped doing the black and white comics. I stopped doing the girls comics, which were also in black and white. I had worked out how to do painted stuff. When I started drawing in the US, on "Hellblazer," I'd had no idea how to draw in black and white anymore. It was a massive shock."
Phillip's first US work was "Hellblazer" #31. "It took a while to sort of establish what I wanted my work to look like," Phillips said. "It wasn't until I went on to "Hellblazer" that I threw away the tools I had been using. It all got very smooth and slick. I think I did about ten years of work only for Vertigo."
Phillip's first love was still superheroes, and he finally got his chance to draw them when he met Archie Goodwin, an editor at DC Comics, during a a comic book convention breakfast. He told Goodwin he would love to draw Batman, and Goodwin told Phillips he would see what he could do. A week later, Phillip was assigned his first Batman story.
"[Sean] was finally doing the stuff he wanted to do in the first place!" said Fegredo.
Sean began working on DC and Wildstorm books, making a name for himself on "WildCATS" in particular, with Joe Casey writing. "It was great, it got me much more visible," said Phillips.
"You might have gathered at this stage, by the sheer amount of things mentioned in a very short time, that he's done an absurd amount of work," said Fegredo.
"I have been putting out 16 or 17 books a year. Even when I'm working on a book, I stupidly take on other things," added Phillips.
During this period, Phillips also began working on "Star Wars" material, producing posters and comic covers. A Chewbacca poster from a miniseries Phillips drew is hanging in his ten year old son's bedroom.
"It's the only thing I've ever done that he thinks is quite cool."
"I'd still like to do "Star Trek," though. It'd be quite fun to draw it," Phillips told the audience.
In the early 2000s, he returned to Marvel's mutant fold when he became the penciller on Joe Casey's "Uncanny X-Men" run.
"But no one knows that, because no one read it!" joked Phillips.
"Ron Garney was the main guy, but he couldn't manage a monthly book. I ended up drawing more issues than anyone else, I was the unofficial 'X-Men' artist. It was really weird, I didn't get to draw any fighting. They hardly ever used their powers," Phillips said. "They just stood around talking a lot."
In 2001, he co-created "Sleeper" with Ed Brubaker. "It was set in the Wildstorm universe and it had a few of their characters, but it was mostly new stuff."
Artistically, Phillips returned to a smoother, cleaner style for "Sleeper," partly in response to so many people imitating his scratchy line work on books like "Hellblazer."
"People were ripping me off and I was pissed off."
Phillips helped design the "Sleeper" and "Criminal" hardcovers. In art college, he barely did any drawing at all, just graphic design work. This was before computers, so they had to test paper stock and hand cut and paste everything. He still keeps this in mind when he designs covers, layouts and logos for his comics.
"It was all metal type and cutting up bits of paper and pasting them down. So I always know how things print and I always have that in the back of my mind."
He next drew an Avengers sample piece in an attempt to land a gig illustrating Joe Casey's "Earth's Mightiest Heroes" for Marvel Comics. He didn't get assigned the miniseries, but that piece, along with an unused splash page he did for an unpublished "28 Days Later" comic, helped him end up on "Marvel Zombies" with Robert Kirkman, a comic that would invigorate Phillips' career.
"I showed [the piece] to Marvel and said, 'Yeah, I can draw zombies,'" recalled Phillips. "I loved drawing 'Marvel Zombies.' It was so much fun! The reason they were all in their 1960s outfits was because I could draw those out of my head, I remembered them from when I was a kid and I didn't have to look up how they look now. And also, the Iron Man costume is too complicated."
"It was a weird thing, I was sort of like an overnight success from this, even though I had been drawing stuff for like 25 years by then, to all the 15 people who read Vertigo books," Phillips continued. "All of a sudden, this sold a stupid amount. It was Marvel's biggest selling book of the year."
"I thought it was the dumbest thing I had ever read in my life," said Fegredo.
"Volume two was the dumbest thing ever, but volume one was really good fun," said Phillips.
The money Phillips made off of "Marvel Zombies" allowed his next project to be possible, since he would have to do it without any up front payment. The project: "Criminal," which reunited the artist with Ed Brubaker.
"Criminal" was published through the Icon Comics imprint for Marvel Comics. Icon works by giving creators a share of profits after the comic goes on sale, which means the artist and writer have to work for free to create the initial work.
"I had to sell every piece of artwork I had, just to wait for maybe the "Criminal" money to come in."
It paid off, though, and the team had another hit on their hands, with the comic selling especially well in Europe, where they had French, Spanish and German versions published.
Next up for Phillips is a painted "Conan" book for Dark Horse Comics. He is also working on a French science fiction book. Fegredo than asked if there was time for a Q+A, but unfortunately their time was up, although they did stay slightly longer to answer fan's individual questions up beside the stage after the panel.