Conversing on Comics with Sean Murphy
Often when comic creators are asked about their dream job, most expect them to respond with a specific character they want to tackle, some fondly remembered superhero on which they hope to leave their mark. Of course, not all comic creators think that way.
Writer and artist Sean Murphy has made a name for himself working on almost everything but superheroes. Instead, he’s made readers take notice with the likes of Punk Rock Jesus and Joe the Barbarian. When he’s done work-for-hire, he’s mostly stayed clear of the usual suspects, with stints on former Vertigo stalwart Hellblazer and a spinoff book for Scott Snyder and Rafael Albuquerque’s American Vampire. His actual superhero output is few and far between, but well worth looking out for — from his Batman/Scarecrow: Year One miniseries to the delayed-but-finally released Teen Titans one-shot.
I’ve been lucky enough to know Murphy for almost a decade, meeting him just after the release of his debut book in 2003. He’s among comics’ most outside-the-box thinkers, and someone whose style has been so popular as to see it being cribbed in bits and pieces by countless artists in the past few years. For this interview, I wanted to move beyond the project-specific promotional topics; there’s more to talk about with Murphy, and far more he wants to talk about — including his plan to quit comics.
Chris Arrant: I’ve got a lot I want to ask you about, Sean, but let’s start off slow: What are you working on right this second – today, besides this interview, of course?
Sean Murphy: I’m polishing off an amazing cup of coffee. After that, I’m going to ink a megalodon for Issue 2 of The Wake.
How’d you prep for diving in to drawing megalodons and all manner of undersea stuff for The Wake?
I spend more time referencing than I do drawing. On the megalodon, for example, I’ll ref for maybe an hour, then do some sketches on the side to make sure I’m all warmed up before drawing on the final board. Because I’ve spent all morning doing this mental prep, drawing the final megalodon itself doesn’t take all that long. I think with a lot of the elements in the final art, there’s more effort off the page than there is on the page, if that makes sense.
Last month you had your release party for the collected edition of Punk Rock Jesus. How was that?
Great! I’m lucky to have really great readers and supporters, and the New York/Brooklyn community is really supportive of books like this. It’s hard to image a lot of people showing up if we held the event outside a major city.
Punk Rock Jesus is a book you worked on for two years, and carried around with you for almost 10. Is it cathartic to have completely finished, printed, serialized and now collected and out?
Yes. And last week it made No. 4 on The New York Times Best Seller list, so it’s rewarding to watch it have some success after all those years. There’s always the fear that a book like Punk Rock Jesus would confuse people, turn them off, and quickly disappear into the abyss of failed creator-owned projects. But so far it looks like it has some wings.
It’s taught me a lot about how my readers are different than the readers of most other books. And it allows me to relax and take chances that other pros might not take, like meeting readers (whom you’ve never met) at a pub and hanging out for a while. But I’ve never been disappointed: Most people are respectful, engaging and interested in the same topics that I am. Even when a reader has different political or religious beliefs, I manage to still have a lot in common with them.
Coming back to what we started talking about, The Wake is your next book, re-teaming you with Scott Snyder. It might seem off for people to see you delve into a horror book with apparently a lot of underwater scenes, but I feel like you would really enjoy that unexplored-frontier element of the sea and the science fiction potential. What specifically makes The Wake interesting for you?
I’m attracted to books that allow for a lot of world-building, especially new books that a company has no preconceptions for (because it makes the job extremely hassle-free). The Wake is a perfect example. As you said, the underwater setting allows for a wide variety of drawing challenges that I haven’t really tackled before.
After writing for yourself, is it hard to go back to working with another writer to do a comic?
No, it’s much easier. I’m glad that I don’t have to worry about scripting and all the other odd jobs that come along with creator-owned comics. It’s like a vacation for me.
Do you have ideas for another comic you want to write down the road?
Yes, I have a few ideas percolating, including a sequel to Punk Rock Jesus. Now it’s just a matter of time before I find the proper window.
In addition to this, you’re also taking over doing covers for DC’s Batman Beyond series. I know you have a real love for the animated Batman, especially Bruce Timm’s touches on it, so was this a project you sought out?
I get less and less DCU offers these days, so when the Beyond stuff was offered to me, I was surprised and delighted. I made sure they understood that I wasn’t going to draw like Bruce Timm, so once I began trusting the team involved, the covers started going more smoothly. It’s a blast to dip into that world, because it’s such a huge part of what made me get into storytelling.
As a reader and fan, your art style seems ideal to draw Batman – more so than other heroes like Superman or Wonder Woman, or even Spider-man or something. But is that the way you feel? Are you drawn more to darker heroes like Batman when you do think about superheroes, or is your own views different than how others see your style?
I think my view of myself is probably pretty close to how readers view me — the DeviantArt journals might even help that a bit. Yes, I definitely see myself as more of a Batman guy than someone who’d be appropriate for the more colorful superhero books. But even so, I’d rather spend 12 issues on my own book than 12 issues on a corporately owned character. The independent stuff is a lot more satisfying to me. Punk Rock Jesus has shown me that I’m now on a path toward Miller/Millar/Mignola than anyone else.
Although you’ve done company-owned characters before like Batman, Scarecrow and some great Avengers covers, seeing you regularly on Batman is a bit surprising. You’re even doing a Batman statue. What’s the appeal to you there?
For me, those Batman statues are coming-of-age milestones for people in the biz. It’s when you know you’ve arrived. It’s not for forever, of course. Anyone who doesn’t continue having work on the shelves every year is in danger of being forgotten, but it’s nice to know you’ve managed some sort of following and have a sense of appreciation for my artistry from DC.
The hard part is coming up with something new, because almost every pose has been done.
On your DA blog you’re very open about the business of comics and being a comic artists. I’m recalling that great write-up on how to handle original art sales, for example. What leads you to share what you’ve learned, and why do you think it’s been relatively a backroom kind of knowledge in comics before?
The lack of business understanding and etiquette in comics is horrifying, I think. How many creators do we have to read about getting shafted due to shady contracts, murky deals and lack of foresight? Few people are willing to discuss these things in an intelligent manner because of the flack that you end up taking–for most people, comics is a parade, and if you do anything other than cheer, you’re ruining the show.
I had a few mentors, yes. Some writers and some artists. Whenever I meet someone who has more expertise in something I can assimilate business-wise, I’m on them like a sponge.
I don’t mind bearing some of the brunt for discussing tumultuous issues on my DeviantArt page, because I know it helps students and a lot of younger people coming up through the ranks. Yes, artists are notoriously introverted and bad at handling business matters, and part of me knows it’s a futile effort. But if I can help a handful of young people, then I’m happy to address those subjects.
I’ve noticed that from time to time you return to your alma mater SCAD to do talks for the comics department there. Now that you’re well into your career as a comics professional, what advice would you give to someone like you if they were in their senior year of SCAD now looking to come into comics?
My friend Shawn Crystal heads up the department at SCAD Atlanta, a different campus with even more qualified teachers than the campus I attended in Savannah (I’ve never been officially invited back to Savannah). Usually I’ll stress the newer avenues of publication that didn’t exist when I was a student: webcomics, Kickstarters and digital distribution. I try to get new artists to consider becoming “Do-It-Yourselfers” rather than following the antiquated submission process that’s been the staple of comics for over 50 years.
I like movies, but I hate the complicated process that creates them. Comics scratches the same itch, uses less resources, and creates quicker payoffs.
Do you see yourself doing comics for the rest of your life?
No. I think most creators have a window of about five years of “peaking” before they inevitably start to get left behind. Even though I’ve been published for 10 years, most people only think I’ve been around for two. So I think after another few years I’ll give some thought to stepping away from comics, at least for a while. I’d like to do what Bill Watterson did and leave when I’m at the top of my game, rather than be pushed out of slowly left behind. I never want to be in a position where I’ll have to take a lesser book just to get by. Better to leave on my own terms.
Do you think comics is, pardon the phrase, a “young man’s game”?
I think it probably helps to be young, not only because you have more energy, but it means you probably have less real-world responsibilities like a mortgage or children (I certainly wouldn’t have had the luxury of doing Punk Rock Jesus if I had two kids to feed). Going to conventions, staying out late and hobnobbing certainly isn’t as fun as it was when I was in my 20s.
If you’re not going to be doing comics, what will you be doing?
I’d like to get involved with video game design or something with animation. I think I’d assertive enough to make a decent art director somewhere.
Three more years doesn’t sound like a lot of time. Do you have a rough plan of what you want to do in the next three?
If I have only a few years left in my “peak,” then I’d like to spend it working on new projects I own, whether it’s going through Image a la Saga, or publishing books in Europe (then bringing them into the United States afterwards). I’m happy to write my own stuff, but I’m also interested in working with big writers like Snyder and Millar. We’ll see.
But if you’re asking me if I’d be interested in working on a Batman or X-Men book, I think the chances of that are unlikely. Unless if paid a whole lot of money, of course.