Talking Comics with Tim: Sean Murphy

For several months, there's been a great amount of interest in Sean Murphy's work on Joe the Barbarian (the artist's latest project/eight-issue miniseries with writer Grant Morrison, the first issue of which goes on sale this Wednesday, January 20). I was looking forward to meeting Murphy at the late October 2009 SCAD event (covered here). After talking about his craft with him (and seeing his work first hand), I am genuinely enthused to see the release of the first issue. I truly relish Murphy's candor, as evidenced in this interview, and appreciate him giving me the opportunity to discuss Joe the Barbarian (as well as other topics).

Tim O'Shea: How did you come to be involved with Joe the Barbarian?

Sean Murphy: I’ve had a rough ride with DC for many years it seems. After Batman/Scarecrow: Year One I couldn’t get work there. My editor apparently pushed hard for me but the people in charge didn’t like my stuff and blacklisted me from the DCU. I’ve got a Teen Titans story that was never published because of how I reinvented Cyborg (shame on me for bringing him out of the 90s).

Then one day Karen Berger calls from Vertigo. She wanted me to work on this book they were doing with Neil Young called Greendale. Needing cash, I of course agreed. But there were a lot of delays for about a year. At one point I passed on Spider Man 1602 because I thought Greendale was almost ready. In the end Neil opted to go with another artist, so I started talking to Marvel about working there. When they offered me Dr. Strange, Karen countered with a Morrison book called Warcop. Soon they were both talking exclusives.

It was a rush. I remember thinking that I must have given the lord of comics a hand job in a past life or something.

Long story short, I signed with DC for two years to do Warcop and DV8 (with Wildstorm). Again, both scripts were delayed so Karen created some Hellblazer for me. When that was finished she offered me Joe the Barbarian because Grant was putting Warcop on hold. Of course I took it—it’s Grant Morrison and who wouldn’t?

The short version of all of this—it was a weird, rough ride but I’m glad to have the momentum now.

O'Shea: Have you been surprised at the amount of praise the book's received, well before its release?

Murphy: It’s hard to say. There’s been a ton of buzz that’s caught me off guard, so I’ve started assuming that “buzz” is part of the deal when it’s a Morrison creator-owned. Is this the normal amount of press a Morrison book gets?

O'Shea: Grant Morrison has worked with a hell of a lot of artists over the years, so when he says (as he did in this recent CBR interview): "He's one of the best artists I've ever worked with, and he's really pulling out the stops to create a world that's never been seen before. This book is worth it for the art alone, to be honest." It takes a great deal to impress Morrison--how intimidating or demanding has the dynamics of this project been for you?

Murphy: Haha. I just assumed that Grant is supposed to say things like that for a sound bite. But he seems happy so that makes me feel good. There are a lot of ways that an artist could interpret the details of the scripts so I’m glad to be given the freedom that he’s allowed.

But to answer your question, it’s been really demanding. I try using photo refs whenever I work, but with the book mostly taking place in a fantasy world there’s been very little I can shoot. Because of that my style’s gotten a little more cartoony—which has worked out fine because it’s nice seeing cleaner characters standing against these carefully rendered backgrounds. I reminds me a bit of how Calvin and Hobbes looked when Calvin was envisioning realistic dinosaurs. That’s my aim at least.

O'Shea: In terms of pulling out the stops, have there been any pages where you feared maybe you were too ambitious or carried things too far?

Murphy: Absolutely. There’s a two-page spread of Joe meeting an army of toys in his fantasy world. For two days I was inventing Transformers, GI Joes and other knock-offs of my own childhood playthings. It’s a detail heavy page with little regard to design—which drives me crazy. Sure, rendering is cool. But I more enjoy finding simple creative solutions that take me less time.

And there have been other places where I’ve dropped the ball. Issue 3 has an underground dwarf kingdom made of pipes (to mirror Joe’s journey near the bathroom sink). I got so into it that I ended up focusing more on the buildings, turning them into French-style villages. The pipe thing is still there but probably not to the degree that Grant wanted. There have been a lot of little errors like that.

O'Shea: How long did you have to read the script before you got into Joe's head and felt you had a grasp of what Morrison's goal was with the series?

Murphy: Haha. I still don’t really know his goals of the series.

Joe is a very surreal book—something I never considered myself to be good at. Grant’s scripts are loose and the dialog is incomplete, but they’re also filled with very particular details about the environment, some of which are suggestions and some of which have to go in. I feel like I’m in a batting cage with the pitching machine going wild. And even though I’m hitting 85% of the balls, some are still going by.

But again, Grant’s been kind when I’ve missed something or added something. Sometimes when I make mistakes, he’ll insist that I leave them in because he likes the new direction it’s taking the story. I can’t believe how little ego he has even after all these years.

O'Shea: Can you give folks a glimpse of how the miniseries expanded to an 8-part miniseries?

Murphy: When I signed on the series was 6 issues, but Grant realized he needed 8 to tell the whole story he had in mind.

Then I read on the Vertigo website that it was going to be 3. But that was a marketing tactic. In their minds, if they announced it going from 3 to 8 then they could get more publicity by reposting something like “we love this book so much that there will now be 8 issues instead!” I find the slap-happy business tactics we see in comics to be hilarious.

To be honest I’m probably not supposed to be pointing this stuff out, but whatever. I like arming people with the truth if I can, even if it’s a tiny detail.

O'Shea: You love to capitalize on the use of black, as evidenced by this cover for issue 3. How crucial is it to have a good colorist and inker when exploiting black space in your work?

Murphy: For anyone using a lot of spotted blacks—I feel it’s very important. Which is why I don’t trust inking to anyone other than me.   :)

And as far as colors, sometimes I think that spotting a lot of black makes life harder for a colorist. Most artists draw for color and leave a lot of open shapes. Guys like me tend to draw for black and white even though it’s a colored book. That leaves less choices a colorist can make. Even most artists who spot their blacks still leave open areas where color is obviously supposed to go. Very rarely do they go all the way and leave nothing for a colorist. And most of my influences leave nothing for colorists and that’s probably why I hate seeing their work in color: Toppi, Zaffino, Coker, Canete, and Zach Howard. Dustin Nguyen’s good at switching it up. Somehow he can adjust for his colorist when he’s getting colored. Still, his black and white published work is some of my favorite.

But we’ve got Dave Stewart coloring the book, and he’s exceptional of course. Dave is pulling out all the stops (that phrase is getting a lot of play with Joe is seems).

O'Shea: As you revealed at your website, you once did a Titans inventory story that was never published (due to a continuity error with the story). Of the project you note: "The style I used here marks the last time I tried a clean look with my art. From here on out it's no more compromise." What was the catalyst for abandoning the clean look?

Murphy: The catalyst was that I wasn’t getting hired for anything. And I finally hit a wall and said “why should I try to draw for these guys when these guys still won’t hire me?” And when I stopped trying to meet these weird, mainstream standards, that’s when I started to improve. I found that I had a lot more in me than feathering, cross-hatching and tick marks. And I was way happier with my work.

A lot of guys struggle for years—I did too. We all have bad luck. But when is it more than bad luck? When does an artist have to stop and really look at what he’s doing and realize that maybe the problem is him? After years of resistance I had to swallow the fact that my honed house-style-attempts weren’t good enough to get me work. So I abandoned them.

O'Shea: Back in September you wrote the following under a post called Controversy: "The power of the press plays a huge role in the system of checks and balances in our business. Every time you write an article, post a comment or hop on Twitter you essentially become the press. Artists occupy an important position in these networks because there are tons of people who are willing to listen. But I don’t understand why more professionals don’t call “bullshit” more often." What do you think it will take for more pros to call bullshit--and is there a backlash to situations where you have called "bullshit" on a situation?

Murphy: I have gotten a lot of comments on that post. And in person, people will tell me that I’m controversial—which I’m not. When I think of true controversy I think of MLK, Rickard Dawkins and Karl Marx. But I understand what they’re getting at. In the context of comics it is, for some reason, considered controversial for someone to blow the whistle when part of the industry isn’t working efficiently.

For younger guys, I can understand them being timid. They’re hitting cons and meeting their favorite creators—often times artist, editors and companies whom they grew up admiring. For a newbie to rock the boat is risky. But there are a lot of established guys who have really great styles which almost guarantees them work for as long as they want it. And I’ve sat among them at shows and heard them complaining, and I always wonder why they don’t make their thoughts public. Their readers are thirsty for information on how to become a professional, so why not give them a list of people, companies and situations to avoid?

Tommy Lee Edwards is a perfect example of a guy who actually does. He’s wildly talented and has the chops to call bullshit. He did a post a month or so ago about the downfall of movie poster designers. He had examples and even named names. I love seeing that. Tommy’s a guy who climbed the ladder, went through the ropes and made it to the top with his integrity, honesty and fearlessness intact. And bad artists should be afraid of his wraith because he’s untouchably good. Without his post I wouldn’t have noticed how awful a lot of new movie posters actually are.

The trick, I think, is to be fair and check your bias. And I think that goes for everyone, not just people in comics. In a world where everyone has their own website, their own voice, and 24 posts a day on Twitter, it’s too easy to mouth off. Humans type in the same voice that they’d speak, and you wouldn’t tell a crowd of thousands of people that so-and-so should be kicked off of X-men. And that’s what we’re doing with Twitter and blogging minus the confrontation.

And to answer your question, I’ve been guilty of it too. And I’ve been caught, called out and made to apologize. And I’m better for it. Now that people are reading my journals I find that I’m a lot more careful about what I say—which is exactly how the freedom of the press is supposed to work. Say what you want, but your peers might shame you. But if you’re fair and can defend what you’re saying, you’ll win more readers and respect.

What the leaches in this industry need is a good public shaming.

And as far as “the press” goes, you’re a perfect example of someone who’s doing it right. When I first met you, it was in Atlanta after an hour of telling a room full of students about my negative experiences with DC. I didn’t hold back at all, basically given everyone my hate-list of certain people at DC. So when you came up and told me you were at Robot 6 I thought, “great, now he’s gonna print all that shit I would have never said in an interview.” But then you told me that all that stuff would be off the record, which I of course appreciate. It’s more rare to find someone who takes it seriously and who genuinely wants what’s best for everyone. You could have easily gone for the ratings and the drama and spilled all the beans but you didn’t.

Sorry to go off on a few tangents there. These kinds of discussions really get me going.

O'Shea: You almost worked on a Vertigo project back in the mid-2000s (correct me if I'm wrong about the timing)--what is the story about Term Life, which you were going to ink? (skip this question if it delves into aspects you don't wish to discuss publicly)

Murphy: Nothing to avoid at all! I was living with Zach Howard and he got offered a gig with Vertigo called Term Life—which I was going to ink. After a few pages they decided that it wasn’t a book they wanted to more forward with. It sounded like it might have been DC politics, but who knows. Often times they won’t tell you the truth because they don’t want to offend.

It was probably the inks that killed it.

O'Shea: In looking over your website, I ran across this potential project, Punk Rock Genius. Is that book something that will be done in the near term--or has your creative instinct made you want to go in a different direction after you finish Joe?

Murphy: Punk Rock Jesus? Yeah that’s my next OGN which I put on hold because of my exclusive with DC. But rest assured that's my goal next year—even if I have to starve—to put that out. With the momentum of Joe and then Hellblazer (which is due out shortly after that), I should be able to afford some time away from the public eye so I can get it done. Doing my own stuff is my ultimate goal so I’ll probably be taking a financial hit for a while. But I find those ‘close to the heart” projects pay off in small ways in the future.

O'Shea: Is there anything you'd like to discuss that I neglected to ask you about?

Murphy: Yeah, I’m working on a series of pieces called the Wolverine ABCs, which you can view on my Deviant page. It’s basically Wolverine and some of his Marvel friends posing in the shapes of the letters in the alphabet.

Because I’m not allowed to post new pages of Joe, I wanted to find something fun and memorable that I could do on the side so I’d have something new to post. And because I talk a lot of idealistic propaganda (which not everyone is interested in), I thought having some alphabet fun would help lighten things ups.

If my page is the holocaust museum that becomes a little much after a while, then the ABCs is the waterslide in the lobby. (And before I get hate mail, let me tell you that I have a lot of Jewish friends who have laughed at that.)

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