Axel-In-Charge: "Secret Wars" Jam Session Talking "A-Force," "Ultimate End" and More
Declan Shalvey’s friendship with Stephen Mooney stretches back nearly a decade, to before either Irish creator was well known in the United States. So when the Moon Knight artist pitched ROBOT 6 the idea of interviewing Half Past Danger creator Mooney about the hardcover collection, arriving Jan. 29 from IDW Publishing, we didn’t hesitate to say yes, thinking the conversation would offer terrific insight into their relationship, their careers, the Irish comics scene and, of course, Mooney’s Nazis vs. dinosaurs adventure.
As it turns out, we were right.
Set in 1943, Half Past Danger finds Staff Sgt. Tommy “Irish” Flynn on a remote island in the South Pacific, where he teams with an enigmatic British agent, a U.S. Marine captain and a mysterious Japanese operative in a race against time involving an army of Nazis and, yes, dinosaurs.
Mooney will celebrate the collection’s release on Jan. 29 with a signing, along with colorist Jordie Bellaire, at The Big Bang Comics store in Dundrum, Dublin. Oh, and for those Half Past Danger fans who can’t wait to find out, in this interview Mooney acknowledges a sequel is in the works.[/caption]
Declan Shalvey: Stephen, you and I have known each other a long time. We first met at one of the Bristol shows, right? Maybe 2005? It was my second comic convention ever I think, and I remember being very, very jealous of how talented and successful you were. From my perspective at least. You were working on Freak Show at the time, right?
Stephen Mooney: Yep, I think you’re right. I remember our initial meeting; you were the one with the shaved head of a convict, the mouth of a sailor and the heart of fool’s gold.
I figured we’d get along right away.
I was indeed working on Freak Show, yeah. A small-press Irish comic book with decent production values and an actual budget, published by a great little company here in Ireland called Atomic Diner. A lot of the Irish pros like myself, Stephen Thompson, Will Sliney and yourself received our first paid work there. If I remember correctly, I was about to finish up on my stint as artist on the Freak Show book, and was looking at the portfolios of prospective replacements …
Shalvey: I didn’t know that at the time, though. As it turned out, the States were calling you, and you started working for IDW. Again, I was jealous. To be fair, I know you did recommend me for Freak Show, and therefore got me my first paying work, so I couldn’t be that jealous. Naturally, I assume you regret that now.
You would have been the first of our generation to get consistent American work, right? Killian Plunkett had already left comics, I think. Len O’Grady was certainly coloring a lot of American books, Thompson had done some work here and there, but I’d say you were one of the first Irish artists to get consistent American work month to month. Is that fair? In a couple of years, you got a lot of work under your belt at IDW.
Mooney: Hmm, I think Nick Roche actually started at IDW a month or two ahead of me, if I remember correctly. And Thompson had done a Star Wars story for Dark Horse. I very possibly did get more consistent monthly drawing assignments initially, all right, but that could be up for debate. Len was certainly plugging away there on the coloring side of things well before I or Nick arrived.
And trust me, your jealousy was wildly misplaced. Straight away looking at your samples I knew your basic storytelling and composition were bulletproof even then; innovative even.
Do I regret recommending that you be the artist to take over Freak Show? Yes and no. Yes, because you’re far more successful and respected than I’ll likely ever be, and that really fries my bacon. And no, because in fairness to you, ever since your big break a few years back at Marvel, you’ve done all you humanly could to drag the rest of us up with you. That said, before this turns into a mutual back-pat session, I’m still bitterly envious of your success and glamorous lifestyle. I should’ve torpedoed your budding career while I had the bloody chance.
How long were you on the Irish/U.K. small press books before Marvel came a-knocking? Or BOOM!, initially, I guess?
Shalvey: Oh, that’s right, Nick started before you, I forgot that.
And don’t worry: This won’t turn into a mutual back-pat session, as I don’t plan on complimenting you at all.
Em, I think Hero Killers was published in 2005, I started 28 Days Later at BOOM! in 2009, so there was about three or four years of me working on small-press titles and U.K. publications. I was on 28 Days Later for a year before I got Marvel work. Actually, the whole time I was working on 28 Days Later, I was living in your old house! That was great, actually. I had moved back to Ireland from Scotland, where I’d had a studio space. While I was over there. you and I get friendly over Skype and when I was itching to come home you offered me a space in your family home. That was great for me. Who knows why you did that, either. You did a good few series at IDW, CSI, The Mummy, A-Team, Angel, etc. Out of all those work-for-hire books, do any stand out in particular?
Mooney: Ha, I was even jealous of the fact that you got to live in my house and I didn’t! Christ, we’re petty, petty people. But I just wanted a tenant we could trust when we moved out after getting married. You proved to be that, despite a few inky incidents on the studio carpet. I remember while you lived there we had some great movie-watching sessions, where I introduced you to many a classic that you simply hadn’t had the time to watch before that point. Raiders of the Lost Ark, Jaws and the like. I enjoyed the heck outta those occasions. And on the flip side of that, you made me aware of many off-center and quirky comic books and creators that had flown under my radar. Dylan Dog, Massimo Carnevale and tons of others. Not to mention shows like Always Sunny in Philadelphia and Arrested Development. Of course, that’s not even touching the surface of your legendarily depraved stories. Good times!
As for my books at IDW, Angel stands out by a country mile. I had lobbied EIC Chris Ryall long and hard about getting a spot on their upcoming Sseason Six books, co-written by Joss Whedon and the brilliant Brian Lynch. That show meant so much more to me than all of the others, as I was a massive fan of both Buffy and Angel. Plus the fact that this was legitimate “what happened next” stuff. I was on various Angel projects for the guts of three years, and enjoyed it very much. Another standout was The Mummy series, since it was by far the closest to my own storytelling sensibilities, full of swashbuckling daring-do types in incredibly outlandish situations.
How about you? What were you standout moments in your early U.S. career?
Shalvey: Angel; yet another thing I was jealous of you for. (It seems a LOT of my motivation early in my career was jealousy!) I LOVED Angel; I loved Buffy, too, but Angel was my clear favorite of the two. That was a great gig; at that stage I think you were probably the most high-profile of us “Eclectic Micks.” As jealous as I was, I was really happy for you, especially as I thought you were doing a great job.
Standouts for me? I dunno, I really enjoyed working on 28 Days Later. It was a tough slog; it was my first time getting to do a monthly book, but after a year or so of doing classical adaptations for the U.K. market, it was great to do something contemporary-set, and highly dramatic. It really played to my strengths and I got to go pretty crazy drawing action and violence. I got to launch it, too, and work with a colorist I really liked, Nick Filardi, and was really well-written by Michael Alan Nelson. I have a real soft spot for that book, maybe because I got to launch it from scratch. Everything since then has been amazing: Thunderbolts with Jeff Parker, Venom with Cullen Bunn> I’ve gotten to play with so many toys at Marvel; I’ve been really lucky. I would have to say, both the Northlanders arc and Conan arc I did with Brian Wood, I’m particularly proud of. I think Brian has a way of telling stories that suits my own sensibilities more, but I didn’t realize it until I had the opportunity to do a comic like that.
Ah, those classic movie nights were great; for some reason I’d never seen a lot of them so it was great to get that introduction. Your comics taste ran a little more mainstream than mine — I mean, I liked a lot of mainstream guys, and we had a big crossover as regards to artists we both liked, but I was a little more into slightly more alternative stuff. Thompson was great for that too, actually. I think it shows in your work that the guys you love are artists who show a huge capacity for great draftsmanship: Travis Charest, Adam Hughes, Jim Lee, etc. I can see that approach for classic action-adventure, accomplished drawing, energetic layouts, etc., come from all those guys you grew up with; you really wear it on your sleeve. I think that’s why The Mummy suited you so well, you got to embrace all your influences and channel them into your comics. It was refreshing to see you really go for it on that series; must have given you a taste for what you really wanted to do. Cue Half Past Danger …
Mooney: Nicely teed up. Yeah, Half Past Danger began to germinate way back on those Mummy comics, absolutely. I really enjoyed the first Brendan Fraser mummy movie; like HPD it wore its heart on its sleeve and wasn’t afraid to acknowledge its Indiana Jones references and aspirations. It was back then that I started jotting down little ideas for prospective set pieces and character beats, I think. I had always been a massive fan growing up of that classic genre of action-adventure pulp storytelling evident in Saturday matinee-type fare, such as Indy or The Treasure of the Sierra Madre or The Rocketeer, alongside the old-school serials that inspired those movies: Flash Gordon and The Shadow and such. Those shows really informed my storytelling habits. Then there were all of the Tintin and Asterix comics I devoured ravenously as a kid; those globe-trotting adventures and overblown exploits all seeped into my tiny mind and took root.
Shalvey: So if that’s when the adventure spark was re-ignited for you, what made you take the jump to do Half Past Danger? I remember you took time off to write the whole thing and you must have been at least a year working on the art.
Mooney: I started writing Half Past Danger in earnest over two years ago. I had just finished work on a Teen Wolf miniseries for Top Cow/Image, and was really starting to have had enough with the whole ‘licensed property’ thing (a complete misnomer, in that pretty much every mainstream comic book character is a licensed property). More accurately, I’d had enough of the TV show/movie adaptation/continuation thing. It was really beginning to stifle and deaden my artwork in that every other character had to be based on an actor’s likeness, and also in that the deadlines were becoming increasingly untenable. Sometimes those books had to be delivered in two or three weeks per issue, and I just couldn’t be satisfied with the printed work at the end of the day. I began to ache for something on the stands that reflected my true sensibilities, and hopefully, by extension, abilities.
I decided to take my earnings for that entire Image miniseries (around 10 grand) and save them. I reasoned I could take a solid year out of my normal work schedule, and just spend that entire upcoming year turning down any work I may be offered, and focusing all of my efforts on writing, drawing, coloring and lettering a series of my own. Bloody ambitious(naive?), I know, and I realized as soon as I got into it just WHY there are numerous people on regular creative teams! It was an awful lot of work, and in the end it took more like 18 months to complete, but the net result was that every single line of writing and artwork in that book, for better or for worse, was my own. My editor on the book, Chris Ryall, was immense, in that he trusted me to deliver a fairly finished product, and only weighed in when he absolutely had to. He managed to get me every one of the 32 pages of each issue as story and bonus material pages, with no house ads whatsoever. Like many, many other things in life, it’s all who you know.
Shalvey: And you know me. And some others too who did variant covers for you.
Mooney: Yup. Alongside yourself, several high-profile friends/cover artists really helped me out by contributing beautiful alternate covers for each issue. The likes of Tommy Lee Edwards on Issue 1, you on Issue 2, Lee Bermejo on Issue 3 and Nick Runge, Nick Roche and Rebekah Isaacs on issues 4, 5 and 6, respectively. Those covers helped me generate some extra buzz for the book, which coupled with you guys and others helping get the word out there via the various social media, really helped my cause. I now owe many people many favors!
The biggest assist of all came from your A-list colorist of a lady-friend, Jordie Bellaire. When the workload simply got too much for me to complete on a reasonable schedule, she swooped in and saved my ass on the colors for issues 2-6. The control freak part of me wishes that I could’ve colored absolutely all of it and not just the covers and the first issue, but the other, more rational part of me realizes that Jordie did a far better job than I ever could have, and added an untold amount to the look and feel of the series.
Hey, speaking of, aren’t you and Jordie working on a massive new series together for the first time at Marvel right now..?
Shalvey: What a natural segue! Yeah, following on from our recent Deadpool run with Gerry Duggan and Brian Posehn, we’re launching a new Moon Knight series with someone called Warren Ellis. Never heard of him personally, but I hear he’s good. Can’t say too much about it, but it’s been a great experience so far. Getting to try out some new approaches and there’s some great storytelling in the script that lets me get more inventive. Trying something different with colour too, but naturally Jordie’s knocking it out of the park anyway. I’m so jaded by her relentless brilliance.
I dunno what it is exactly, but Jordie just adds a quality to the work that elevates it. She knows how to let each moment sing, what to push forward, pull back, how to vary each scene, etc. She adds a hundred subtle touches that enhance the work that you’d barely notice, yet she can take bold decisions that you’d never take that again; make the work better. If you give her the room to do her thing, she’ll hand your pages back and they’ll be way more interesting and impressive than they were before.
I have to say, I really liked that you had a variant for each cover; mainly, as each artist did a great job but it did seem to help promote the series a little without going mental with a million variants or anything. How have you found the reception? I was blown away with the traffic you got at NYCC when we sat together. Creator-owned books are going through something of a renaissance at the moment, particularly at Image, how did the project at happen at IDW? I’ve always been impressed with the production values of their books, and as you said, no ads.
Mooney: Couldn’t agree more about Jordie’s work. She’s got that inherent ability to take one look at any piece of inked artwork and just instantly gauge and assess what type of color scheme and palette would suit any given piece. People are always wondering how the hell she manages to color so many books to such a high standard, and for me the answer is simple. Speed. Speed of thought and speed of application. Jordie actually taught me many of my meager coloring skills at the beginning of HPD, and she’d get frustrated with me when I couldn’t keep up with what she was demonstrating to me! Mind-blowing stuff.
The reception for HPD far and away exceeded my wildest expectations. At shows like NYCC, many genuinely enthused and like-minded readers approached me just to enthuse about the book, and to ask for more! So very gratifying and relieving, in that I was bloody terrified going into the whole venture that nobody would give the book a second look!
As for how HPD ended up where it did, I had targeted what I saw as the biggest “indie” U.S. publishers: Image, IDW and Dark Horse. Three companies that each published quality creator-owned material, and had large audiences and resources. Of the three, IDW and Dark Horse were the most interested, but Dark Horse, while enthusiastic, were reluctant in one way to pursue it, since it was so close in tone to their already-established Indiana Jones license. That left IDW, and to be honest, I was delighted that they were prepared to take a chance on me. Chris knew I could meet a deadline, so dependability wasn’t in question, but they had no way whatsoever of knowing whether I could write.
You mention the production values they employ on their books; that was a big factor for me, too. Their trade/collection department are full of really capable people, and my endgame from day one was to see my story in their gorgeous hardcover format. Managed to strike that one off the bucket list at least!
I remember you talked to Chris/IDW at one point about a Deep Space Nine story, would’ve LOVED to see that happen, knowing what a massive Trek fan you are. I think their DS9 slate was full at that point, though. Was that why it never happened?
Shalvey: Well, to be fair I don’t know when I would have found the time to do it in the last few years, but I think it was mainly that the Abrams movies were coming out and the tie-in books they had were successful, which maybe took attention from the books based in the previous continuity. I think they had a window to do those books around the movie books and not be overshadowed, and there was no way that would work with my availability. It was all just talk though in fairness; it wasn’t a definite plan and there was no official offer, just a bit of wishful thinking on both our parts. Who knows, maybe if everyone lobbies IDW to let me do a DS9 series it’ll happen some day!
With Jordie, I work with her every day, so I see her in action. She does work on this other level of consciousness there she’s buzzing around on a higher speed setting. I think she also just has a natural instinct for great color choices. She has a great eye, very critical and cutthroat about her work (and mine if we’re being honest), and that really helps when she’s evaluating the work she’s doing. Man, I hope she doesn’t read this.
You mentioned the collection, which is the point of this whole conversation! The Half Past Danger hardcover, in stores Jan. 29th. Tell me, what can we expect in this volume? Is it a vanilla version, with just the story pages? I hate that. Please don’t tell me it’s that.
Mooney: It is the opposite of that. What’s the opposite of vanilla? Chocolate? It’s the chocolate version. About 50 pages of bonus material, including commentary, sketches, cover gallery, character designs and lots of other stuff, including one or two little surprises. Basically, this is the definitive version. It’s all in there. I couldn’t be happier with the job the design team at IDW did on this sucker; it’s gorgeous. I really hope people dig it, there seems to be a good bit of interest out there in any case, thankfully!
So, anything left for us to discuss? Wanna argue about the best Starfleet captain again? When’s Moon Knight launching?
Shalvey: Let’s not get into that old debate again *cough*Picard*cough*, but leave it at that. I’ll certainly be picking up the collection for what it’s worth, it’ll be great to see it after all the hard work you’ve put in. With this lovely new volume about to hit the stands, what’s next for Stephen Mooney? Half Past Danger 2: Half Past Danger-er?
Moon Knight #1 is out March 5, I believe. I do hope folk check it out.
Mooney: Who can say in this crazy world what’s next for ANY of us, Declan. Maybe tomorrow, I’ll wanna settle down. Until tomorrow, I’ll just keep movin’ on.
Hobo adventures aside, in my immediate future there’re a bunch of cover gigs I’m working on for IDW and Dynamite, and an upcoming Wolverine book for Marvel/Insight Editions. Half Past Danger 2 has also been green lit, so that’s most certainly on the horizon.
I genuinely can’t wait to pick up Moon Knight; having seen the artwork for the first three issues I can assure everybody that they should be setting their expectations very high. Thanks for the ridiculously self-indulgent chat, and thanks to the mighty ROBOT 6 for having us!