Murphy Revisits "Hellblazer"

When Sean Murphy spoke with CBR News early last year, he was coming off a two issue run on "Hellblazer" written by Jason Aaron. And while the artist was well-respected among his peers, he didn't have a very high profile when it came to comic book fandom at large. Fast forward to this year, and if there was any doubt that a single project can change everything, "Joe the Barbarian" has shattered it. Writer Grant Morrison called Murphy one of the best artists he'd ever worked with, and it's hard to imagine the book being drawn by anyone else.

Murphy recently returned to the world of Constantine with "Hellblazer: City of Demons," a five issue miniseries written by Si Spencer, the final issue of which comes out this week. The artist spoke with CBR about his second go-round with Vertigo's flagship character, the new edition of his creator owned graphic novel "Off Road" coming out in January from IDW and what fans can expect from him once "Joe the Barbarian" wraps. Plus, an exclusive look at the mini's final issue.

Sean, when we spoke last year, you were coming off a two issue run on "Hellblazer" written by Jason Aaron. You mentioned you were not a fan of horror and were honestly a little turned off by how gruesome the story was. Bearing that in mind, what made you say yes to another run with John Constantine?

Sean Murphy: I love Jason Aaron's writing. Books like "Scalped" are why I'm interested in comics. He's obviously one of the best and I'm really proud of the work we did considering we were two Yankees handling a British story. I just meant that I wasn't a fan of the horror genre in general, but then again, I didn't understand a lot about it. Jason, if you're reading this, I hope you know that you're one of my favorite writers in comics.

When I was offered a chance to do more [Constantine], my first thought was to turn it down because of the horror thing. But then I realized that horror was a great genre to explore using a lot of blacks. Plus my small run with Aaron had sparked my interest in Constantine as a character. After reevaluating, I decided that I had more to say about John and began to develop a more specific look for him. "City of Demons," in my opinion, is my best work to date.

Artistically speaking, what have you been doing differently this time around, with the character and the book?

I started pushing the blacks as much as I could. Because John's a very dark character, I began projecting an impossible amount of shadows onto his face-shadows that physically would never exist. I also started to tamper with the shadows and perspective of the backgrounds a lot to match the "unease" of John's world. The more I worked on the book, the more I learned on how to take advantage of London's darker side.

Of course, the biggest change that's happened in the past year and a half is that you became the artist of "Joe the Barbarian" which really feels like it's taken you to another level. Not just in terms of the art, but in terms of your profile in the industry. From your standpoint, does it seem like anything has changed? Is there a feeling of pressure on you for the next big project?

It feels like a lot has changed, indeed, and I owe that to Grant. I have readers all over Europe who write me now - something I've never experienced before. I think the biggest change is that I don't have to worry about paying my bills. For a while, I was struggling, but now my future seems more stable. As long as I stick to the craft of what I'm doing, my sense is that I'll be okay. The stress of, "What's this guy going to do next" is nothing next to my past stress of "how am I going to pay my bills".

A lot of people think that my next project is the current mini "Hellblazer: City of Demons," something that's been completed for a while now. It's funny when I hear stuff like, "Sean's gotten a lot better since 'Joe the Barbarian,'" which suggests I'm going backwards. I understand that, because the art in "City of Demons" is less connected to mainstream styles, I'm bound to lose some readers. The thing that saves my ego is that most artists are drawn to "Hellblazer" and not to "Joe."

My next project to hit the shelves isn't announced yet, but it's a 5-issue mini with one of Vertigo's best writers. I think people will be happy when it's announced - I know I am. It's not so much a book I'm being handed, but one that I would go out of my way to get hired on because I believe in the writer so much. And there's going to be a lot of room for black.

You do use a lot of black in your work, and inking seems like a really key part of your process. Looking at your inked pages, it really feels like you're crafting it so that it doesn't need color. Is that a fair assumption? Do you ever feel the coloring will detract from the artwork?

Yes, I draw for black and white and not for color. I'm not drawn to styles that require being colored-in my eyes it's not complete if another person needs to fill everything in.

I've had difficulty with color in the past-I don't think that many colorists know how to handle art that isn't begging to be colored. Often times their jobs are to fill in cast shadows and add lighting to faces, things that I've already taken care of in my art. Working with Stewart has been great because he's re-ignited my love of color. I've given him things that I didn't think could be colored and he's proven me wrong. Recently I've offered to pay him extra out of my own pocket in order to keep him around.

Having worked with Dave Stewart on "Joe the Barbarian" and now "City of Demons," what do you like about his coloring and what does he bring to the table and add to your style, specifically?

My favorite thing about Dave's work is that it doesn't disrupt the blacks. Often times a colorist will light a face differently than how the artist lights it. With Dave, that never happens. He seems to look at the blacks very carefully before going to work. With the "Hellblazer" mini, I asked him to be as flat as possible and it looks great. Dave proves you don't need to use filters or airbrushes to make something look great in comics.

You recently re-upped your exclusive contract with DC Comics for another two years beyond your initial deal. Obviously a lot of stuff is still under wraps or in development, but can you tell us what it was that made you stay on with them and what can we expect to see from you in the next couple years?

My only goal was to do my next OGN, "Punk Rock Jesus." I wasn't expecting DC to be interested, so for the past few months I'd gotten comfortable with the idea that I wouldn't be signed for a while. I thought perhaps I'd be doing small Marvel gigs while working on my book, but Karen Berger at Vertigo swooped in and made me an amazing offer. She even helped me out during a lot of the delays with "Joe," so I have nothing but appreciation for my new relationship with Vertigo.

I know "Punk Rock Jesus" is a project dear to your heart, having seen you talk about it in the past. Is there anything you want to or can say about the book and when it's coming out from Vertigo?

I won't say a lot because DC wants to make the announcement (plus I haven't officially signed a new contract yet and I always fear that something might fall through), but I'll say this as a teaser:

I was told that Vertigo has steered away from the subject of religion for a while - ever since "Preacher," you might say. Now that there are changes happening at the company, they seem more willing to take a chance with this touchy subject. By no means will I ever be the writer that Garth Ennis is, but I'm hoping to push some of the same buttons he pushed and really explore the limits of that adult label that Vertigo wears. Not so much with sex and violence, but with ideas. Here's hoping I don't fuck it up!

Finally, there's a new edition of your book "Off Road" coming out from IDW in January - what can you tell us about that?

"Off Road" has been sold out for a few years now. I contacted Oni a couple of times about doing another edition, but they weren't interested. From what I remember, they weren't sure that they could make money on the cost of printing another. So when I got the rights back, I went to my old editor/friend Bob Schreck, who had just landed at IDW, and asked about putting it out through them. One email was pretty much all it took. To this day, I still don't understand why IDW knows how to make money off of it and Oni doesn't. 

"Off Road" did more for me then I ever could have imagined. For some reason, no other books I've done seems to have reached people like that book. I did "Batman/Scarecrow: Year One," yet I still here more about "Off Road!"  People still show up at cons and ask me where they can get a copy. Whenever I teach at various schools, there are usually a couple of students who carry around tattered copies - a major compliment in my eyes. Prices for it on Amazon have gone as high as $150 for a used copy. So if you're reading this and you have a copy, keep it. You'll soon be holding a first edition.

The main difference with the new edition is the cover. I also removed the cartoon strips from the back because I've lost the digital files - my fault, not IDWs. To be honest, I don't really care about making money on another edition. I'm just tired of people overpaying for it on Amazon.

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