Conversing on Comics with Declan Shalvey

A great artist can make readers stand up at attention, while a fast artist can make editors' lives a lot easier. Luckily for fans and publishers alike, Declan Shalvey is both.

Taking the artistic reins on Deadpool in August, Shalvey is in the middle of an epic upward-bound trajectory in comics, drawing books for Marvel and Dark Horse. His career began with a 28 Days Later comic for BOOM! Studios, but fans didn't really take notice of his work until he began alternating arcs of Thunderbolts with Kev Walker.

Despite its frantic biweekly shipping schedule, Thunderbolts was an ideal showcase for Shalvey's gritty, textured illustrations (with a bounce reminiscent of emotive newspaper cartoonists). After working on that title, and its successor Dark Avengers, for two years, the Irish artist was tapped to follow after Tony Moore on Venom. But stand back: Shalvey isn't just a superhero artist. While tackling those comics for Marvel, he also illustrated graphic novel adaptations of Frankenstein and Sweeney Todd for European publishers, and arcs of Vertigo's Northlanders and Dark Horse's Conan the Barbarian.

In the past year, he's drawn 16 issues and produced work for Marvel, Dark Horse, Image Comics and BOOM!. Last month at Chicago Comic & Entertainment Expo, he was announced as the next artist for Marvel's Deadpool, while also drawing an arc The Massive and a story for DC's digital-first Legends of the Dark Knight. And that's not counting the covers he's done for Winter Soldier, Planet of the Apes and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

Chris Arrant: What are you working on today, Declan?

Declan Shalvey: Today I am trying to wrap up a Legends of the Dark Knight short story, working on some cover concepts for the Spidey-office, taking a second pass at some Deadpool layouts (not satisfied with so I want to rework them), trying to reply to some unanswered post C2E2 e-mail, and partaking in this interview. Hope to have time to wash the dishes later.

News just came out at C2E2 that you’re jumping over to the X-titles, namely on Deadpool. CBR will probably be talking with you more in-depth about the book itself, but let me ask this: You’ve always seemed like the X-titles were the favorite part of the Marvel U for you as a fan, so what’s it like stepping in here?

It's really exciting; it's got my nerd-sense tingling. Since I started at Marvel (and before) I've wanted to work in the X-office so I'm delighted it's finally happened. I was already a fan of what Gerry Duggan and Brian Posehn were doing with Deadpool, but when I found out that Wolverine and Captain America were going to be in the series, and that the arc would be darker than the previous stories, I got really pumped. I'm especially happy too as I'm finally getting to work regularly with Jordie [Bellaire, his girlfriend and frequent colorist] on the book.

You’re coming in after Tony Moore and Mike Hawthorne, two guys who are well known for being able to inject humor into their action style. You do it, too. How does it feel to be recognized for that and to be put to use for this ability which many artists don’t really have?

Heh, after following Tony on Venom and now Deadpool, I guess I should keep a close eye on what he does next, as I'll probably end up following him on that, too! Thanks for saying you think I inject humor well; I'm not sure if it's my strong suit. I think I worked out my humor muscle working with Jeff Parker; he was so great to have funny stuff happening around all the action that I think it rubbed off on me. Even though that last arc of Thunderbolts we did was pretty dark, I ended up injecting more humor in the background, like Ghost's party hat and nearly everything Boomerang did. Saying that, I like it when humor plays in the the background rather than being the main player, and I was happy to hear that my first Deadpool arc will be a little more serious in tone than what's been in the book so far. Not that there's no humor (there very much is) but I like humor to punctual drama, rather than replace it, so I'm quite keen to see where Deadpool goes.

Your main work for the past couple months has been drawing Venom for Marvel. Venom’s a very cartoonish character visually, but adding the military approach Tony Moore did gives it a little more substance. Visually, art-wise, what’s it like drawing a character that you can do more with than a standard human body?

Venom has been a great book to work on, but the character specifically has been a real pleasure to draw. I think Tony designed an excellent costume that's a great mix of military gear, organic elements and that classic Venom still incorporated. I had a hard time getting my head around how to draw him at first, but then everything clicked together and now drawing him is like second nature. I think what I've done with him is stray a little from what Tony did, especially in the eyes. The goggle-eyes weren't working for me, so I wanted to make the eyes creepier, and because the costume itself is a living thing, I could incorporate small changes quite organically. The suit allowed me to be a lot more expressive with how I drew him. The panels where Flash loses control were great to draw because I could actually change his physical appearance to portray his emotions, which is a great tool to have and something you couldn't do with another masked character like Spider-Man for example. Balancing that grounded military look with the more cartoonish symbiotic elements was really interesting and satisfying.

 In 2012 you branched out and started doing more covers – for Venom, but also for Winter Soldier and elsewhere. Your covers are quite different from your interior work. It’s the same art style, of course, but it seems the planning or layout of is coming from an entirely different place. What’s it like being tasked to do more cover work?

I had actually started covers for Winter Soldier initially. The editor of the series, Lauren Sankovich, offered them to me as she was putting the new creative team together for that series and had seen some of the covers I had done for Planet of the Apes. I think she liked the design-y approach that still incorporated story elements and thought it would suit Winter Soldier. I'm very grateful for that opportunity, as I remain really happy with those covers; I think it's some of the best work I've ever done. I'm getting to do some Venom covers now and a couple of other covers here and there.

I really hope I can continue to work on more Marvel covers, as it scratches a completely different creative itch. With sequential work, you tell a story in a certain amount of pages. With a cover however, you have one single image to grab the reader's eye but still tell a story of some kind. I like to try and come up with an image that is very design-heavy and incorporate illustration elements into it. I find so many covers are essential multicolored images with superhero teams standing next to each other, and that look has become so generic. I think having a boldly designed cover will pop on the stands every time.

I should add, I got to work with my girlfriend color artist Jordie Bellaire on those covers, and because she's in the studio with me, I'd bounce ideas off her and vice versa. Whenever I get feedback from Jordie the cover always comes out better. Plus, I've learned to trust her instincts with color, so if she comes up with something different to what I was thinking of, most of the time I just let her go with it. I know when to capitalize on working with a fantastic colourist.

If I'm being honest, I had reasons to do covers other than creative ones. I've been working for Marvel for a few years now and I knew I was capable of doing good covers. As I see it, the cover sells the comic, and I really wanted my art to be on the cover as it truly represents what the comic looks like, which is what should also sell the book. In some cases, I felt I could represent the book better than some of the cover artists used. I wanted to have control over how my work was presented, and doing covers to my own issues is the best way to do that. Because of the practicalities of monthly comics, however, you don't often get to cover your own issues, so I'm still happy to do covers for other books. I've pretty much worked only on double-shipping comics, when that is the case fans can easily miss what you're working on. It's difficult to build a consistent audience on a book these days as while you are producing an issue every month, the books don't come out monthly, they come out for a couple of months, and they come out two weeks from each other. So, from the artists side he/she is working monthly but from the reader's perspective the artist is on the book then disappears for five or six issues. It means Marvel can tell more story, but it also means that artists are perceived as not being consistent. Doing covers is therefore a great way of keeping your work in the spotlight, in solicitations, on the web, etc., without having to see a month's work quickly disappear into obscurity when the next artist takes over, so I hope Marvel are open to have me do more covers in the future.

So ideally, would you like to do covers for all the books you illustrate?

Most definitely. Unless it's Massimo Carnevale, or JP Leon or someone of that caliber. Otherwise, I'd much prefer illustrate the covers to all my issues. As a reader, I prefer when the cover is by the interior artist, and as an artist, I prefer to represent myself on the cover. I like the challenge of telling a story in a single image (as a break from telling it in 20 pages) and getting to play with design in a different way is always a wonderful challenge.

Is it easier doing covers for a book you’re also drawing interiors for, in the example of Venom, versus Winter Soldier?

Yeah, definitely. Both are great to do but it's difficult regardless as you're probably having to do draw story element in a cover that haven't been designed yet. However, if it's your own book then you can design it in time for the cover. If the cover artist is different, they might just make up something for the cover that completely misrepresents what you spent a week designing. Important story-points can get mixed up if the artists are different. Saying that, the Winter Soldier covers were great to work on as I was allowed go a little more high-concept; I could imply the story in a more vague way without having to be too literal with story specifics, and knowing amazing artists like Jason Latour and Nic Klein were going to see them all, it really forced me to raise my game!

In addition to this, you’ve also continued your collaboration with Brian Wood by doing work on Conan the Barbarian and coming up on The Massive. It’s surprising to see an artist on such a high-profile Big Two book not being locked into an exclusive. Am I wrong for thinking that? Has the market changed?

I think it probably has changed. I mean, I don't really hear announcements of exclusives these days. Either they're not really "stories" any more, or no one is disclosing that information. I only really know of one writer and one artist that is exclusive with Marvel at the moment, and only one that I know of at DC.

Personally, I don't see the point unless there is some kind of huge financial benefit. I'm not American, so the whole health-benefits aspect (which is a huge appeal for American freelancers) isn't an issue for me. I like the freedom to do something fun for another company or a friend. By not being exclusive I was able to try out a different type of book and discover a direction I wanted to explore more. It wasn't until my girlfriend became a colorist that I saw how a lot of artists are really unreliable with their deadlines. so the way I see it; I hand in good work and I'm never late so I'd like to think Marvel are happy with me. It's all moot anyway, as I've never been offered an exclusive from Marvel.

I was offered Northlanders at a time when I realized I could take on more work outside of my Marvel commitments. Since then, I've been offered projects at the right time and decided to take advantage of those opportunities, with Conan the Barbarian and recently The Massive. It worked in my favor, as when I finished a Venom arc, my Conan the Barbarian work was released while the other artist was coming out on Venom, so I consistently had work come out for five months. It's all just a matter of carefully scheduling yourself.

I realize that I'm lucky. I haven't been stereotyped as an "indie" artist, and I haven't been stereotyped as a "superhero artist." I've been able to get the most from both worlds; have fun with the superhero work I really enjoy to a bigger audience, while also work on more mature and sophisticated stories with Brian.

However it happens, you’re doing it – and doing it with Brian Wood. Wood seems to attract artists to work with him repeatedly. What’s the allure for you to do this?

Brian writes the types of stories I like to read, and also, to draw. Working with him on Northlanders was a hugely rewarding experience, creatively, and it resulted in some of my most intellectually stimulating work. I got to repeat that with Conan the Barbarian recently and realized that this is the work that I'm happiest with. There's something in the way he constructs a story that totally suits my sensibilities; it all just comes more natural to me. I don't know why Brian is open to working with me, but I know why I work with him; I do my best work on a Brian Wood script. I really hope I can work with him again soon of that very reason.

I think in the course of this interview it's become clear that I totally over-think things! I think it's important to look ahead. I mean, I never could have anticipated actually getting to work on Thunderbolts with Jeff Parker, or working with Brian, etc., so you never really know what's going to happen. Having an aim to achieve a certain amount in a certain space of time is important as it motivates you to achieve far more than just plodding along aimlessly. As it stands I've gotten to work with some of my favorite creators on some of my favorite characters. I do probably obsess over what book would be a good book to get more of a profile on and thoughts to that effect, but that's when I have to remind myself that the whole point of me drawing comics is to be doing quality work. That's the real objective. It's still good to keep your ear to the ground though.

Now that I'm in a more stable place where creators I respect also would like to work with me means I now have to be very, very selective about what projects I take on, and what kind of creator I want to be.

Is there a certain creator, character or format that you’d jump at the chance to do? 

There's lots of writers who I'd love to work with: Jason Aaron, Scott Snyder, Garth Ennis, etc. I'd kill to work with Rick Remender on something longer than one issue. I'm really proud of the work I've done with Brian Wood, too, so I'd love to do more work with him.

I was talking to Marvel editor Steve Wacker recently and made it painfully clear that whenever Chris Samnee decides to end his run on Daredevil, I want it. But that's after Chris has drawn it for another five years or something, as he's doing exceptional work on that book. I'd love a proper go at Batman. Superman too, which might surprise some folk. Always wanted to work on an X-book, specifically Wolverine, so I'm chuffed I get to draw him in this upcoming Deadpool arc. I'd love more Wolvie, though. Other than those kinds of fanboy itches I really want to do a solid run on a creator-owned series at some point with a writer I really respect. All drawn by me. A huge part of what I love about comics is the authorship that comes with it and to really get that sense of satisfaction, I really wont to do a signature piece of work that I draw 100 percent of. I've hinted that it's a hard thing to achieve in mainstream comics these days, so it's something I'm going to have to make the time for someday. I have a black-and-white graphic novel I want to write and draw, too; I really want to write more, and I'm always told my work should be printed in black and white, so once I'm in a position where my career is more secure, I'd like to pursue that.

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