Tracking a Rising Star: Talking to Sean Murphy

Talking to Sean Murphy

Hellblazer, John Constantine by Sean Murphy

Artist Sean Murphy is a rising star in the ranks of comic artists, and with his recent signing of an exclusive with DC he's found his launchpad. Recently completing a stint on Hellblazer, the 28-year old artist's future includes collaborations with Grant Morrison and Brian Wood, as well as a return to John Constantine.

Murphy first made it onto the scene with the Dark Horse miniseries Crush, and followed that up with Batman/Scarecrow: Year One and his own graphic novel, Off Road. In 2007 he released his second OGN, Outer Orbit, and he fell into work with both Marvel and DC. In no short order, he was offered exclusives by both and made his home at DC Comics. Newsarama sits down with Murphy to talk about his career so far, the choices he's made, and the future he has in store

Newsarama: Sean, Let's begin with your most recent work. You're recently did a stint on DC/Vertigo series Hellblazer, and there's word of you returning in 2009. How'd you end up on this book?

SM: Earlier this year I was trying to balance projects between Marvel and DC. Both offered to make me exclusive and in the end I ended up going with Karen Berger at Vertigo/DC. She and I had been working on a book with Neil Young, which as it turned out, they moved me off of because of style conflicts.

After signing the DC deal there were a few delays with a few different scripts, one with Brian Wood and one with Grant Morrison. While I was waiting, Karen handed me issues #245 and #246 of Hellblazer, a book I knew nothing about. After all the style conflicts with the Neil Young book I was anxious to really try something dark and wild with my art and Hellblazer fit perfectly. She gave me six more issues when I was done. She’s a busy woman, so I’ll always be thankful to Karen for taking that time.

NRAMA: Those two Hellblazer issues you did this year shows you using a really loose and messy style that's like Bruce Timm meets Ashley Wood. How'd you decide upon going this route

SM: I spent a long time trying to fit the DC house style. Cutting myself off at the knees like that was driving me crazy and, to top it off, I still wasn’t getting a lot of gigs with them. After the Neil Young thing I simply said screw it and went with my new vision. Unusual styles always meet with resistance at first but I felt like if I could make it look good enough then people/editors would eventually break down and accept it. There are a million artists who have been on a million forgettable Bat-books, Spider-books and X-books. But no one will forget guys like Bisley, Mignola, and Keith

Style should never be forced, of course, so when an artist ends up having one (especially a distinct one), that style has an inherent amount of range that reflects the personality of the artist. Cartoon styles are very expressive but lack reality, and reality-based styles often lack expression and movement. With Hellblazer I wanted something that embraced everything. I wanted Constantine to have an unimaginable amount of darkness in his face, even when he was smiling. The book goes from horror to humor at times so I try and capture it with dark cartooning but also realism.

Hellblazer by Murphy

NRAMA: The writer of that two-issue story-arc was Jason Aaron. What's it like working from his script?

SM: It was fine. I didn’t have a lot of contact with him and didn’t get a lot of feedback from the editor at the time. I ended up making Constantine very much my own because no one gave me much direction (not that it’s Jason’s fault because he had just been signed to Marvel and was probably very busy). Jason wrote me two great scripts that I could really sink my teeth into.

But without direction I made some changes. A lot of people are upset that I draw John so old. But when I did my research I found out that he was based off of Sting. Plus the book started in the 80s when John was in his 20s (or 30s) so I figured John would be in his 40s or 50s these days--like Sting. I switched up the jacket a bit and gave him a different tie. The editor, Casey Seijas, said nothing. After two months of late nights, drawing my ass off and trying to give readers something gritty and different, the book came out and half the fans were mortified. No matter what the backgrounds looked like or how well the story flowed, all they noticed was how old he was and that his jacket was wrong.

I still continue to draw him old because, at this point, I think it’s funny when the purists get so bent out of shape. I gave John a punk shirt in a recent issue and after reading the boards I decided to go with a Misfits shirt instead of a UK-friendly Pistols shirt. Why? Because I’m an asshole.

NRAMA: Doesn't mean you're not doing good art. You talk about your image of Constantine – as Sting gone old. Tell us more

SM: Thanks for saying so, man.

Hellblazer by Murphy

Constantine has seen an unfathomable amount of terror and darkness that I imagine him showing the scars of that on his face. Even when he smiles I imagine darkness itself parting and showing you its teeth—if that makes sense. Because he’s like a warlock I’ve given his jacket a high popped-collared like Dracula’s cape. But he’s also sexy…like Gambit (complete with black eyes and light pupils). So I draw him like an older-scary-sexy-magical Gambit.

Which is probably redundant because Gambit is sexy and magical without having to point it out. Okay…I’ll stop before I ruin Gambit for someone.

NRAMA: Or start someone thinking of a new Gambit story.

How familiar were you with Hellblazer before you worked on the book, and what kind of research did you do for the book?

SM: I didn’t know anything about it, other than people were upset about the Keanu Reeves movie. I read some of what Jamie Delano wrote and found a few websites until I got the meat of it.

To me, the character is something of a cult hit that’s out of the mainstream, akin to The Crow and other gothic characters in horror-type books. I admit that I’m ignorant about a lot of the Hellblazer history and I get my fare share of comments from people who think I’m completely wrong for the book, but I started this off feeling like the title was stale and tired so my goal is to make the books feel fresh and updated. If people don’t like it, then fine. When I’m done the book can go back to being what it was.

I’ve been written by a few female fans who seem to like what I’m doing and tell me how hot they think my Constantine is. Those are the best compliments I get.

NRAMA: Working for DC you've had the opportunity to working under editor Bob Shreck, who you've said before you admire. What's it been like working for him?

SM: Bob’s a legend in his own right and he deserves to be. I challenge you to find someone who doesn’t like Bob. He’s the perfect business/gentleman and a rarity in this business. He’s charismatic, he’s honest, but most importantly he inspires loyalty and respect with the people around him. And he’s never too busy to call or respond to emails…which sounds simple enough but a lot of editors get shy when you need something.

Hellblazer by Murphy

Anyone who draws comics and works from home knows it’s a very lonely business. When I started off I got a lot of projects where I basically did them alone—very little contact with the editor, the colorist, the writer, etc. You get used to taking care of things on your own because only you are reliable like you need to be. And then I published my own books (Off Road and Outer Orbit) and, again, it’s just me in a room alone. I was startled when I went to the DC office and Schreck was there with a hug, telling me that he’s glad I was finally with him at DC and that he was sorry for how hard it had been.

I still work in a room alone but it feels good knowing Bob is out there fighting for me.

NRAMA: In researching for this interview, I discovered that your formal art education started as an apprentice. Who did you apprentice under, and what did you learn?

SM: When I was ages 8-16 I took private art lessons with a guy named Leslie Swank in Salem, NH.

He was a 75-year-old WWII vet and ex marine with a wicked sense of humor. But the best part about him was that he understood cartooning. I find that a lot of art teachers don’t respect comic books, but Leslie actually draws political strips for the local paper, as well as paints landscapes and makes his own bullets for hunting.

My college years didn’t teach me as much as Leslie did. Most high school/college teachers have to teach to the middle and if you’re ahead or behind then you don’t get as much out of the lessons. But by shadowing someone in their studio you learn ten times more than you will in any college. There’s a really intense injection of focus, thought, theory and practical application when you have a master/apprentice situation. I recommend it to everyone if you can find it.

NRAMA: Back in 2006 you did work on the video game Soldier of Fortune 3 that ultimately didn't end up in the game. Can you tell us about that?

SM: hat they wanted to do was make between-level movies by animating comic book art (see Metal Gear: Portable Ops). I was jazzed because it meant, not only could I pay my bills, but millions of gamers would be seeing my art. And how cool is it to have an entire studio take your art and animate it? After 3 months of complete hell, it got animated and put into the game. Then one night (I think it was the weekend before the game was going to the printer) the higher ups at Activision wanted the movies pulled. The game ended coming out with mediocre reviews and a plot that made no sense.

Concept work, in theory, sounds great. Think about it: you in a room alone with photos and character descriptions and a cup of coffee drawing things that millions of people are going to see around the world. Nothing sounds better.

Murphy's version of Batman

Until the company insists on approving every line you put down. Then they ask you to redraw half of everything. Then they change the script and expect you to work overtime to make the changes. Then the paychecks are late and you’re a month past deadline…blah blah blah. Same story with a lot of these gigs. It’s great being hired to be yourself, but it sucks when they hire you to be their bitch.

But it taught me a valuable lesson: charge by the day. That way when they want changes—great! Tack it onto the bill. Over the years I’ve become a bit of a prick when it comes to large companies. But if you don’t stand up for yourself then they’ll walk all over you. I wish it was only about being an artist but sometimes it’s about being an agent with a crash course in business.

The good news is that I sold off all the artwork at New York Comic Con the following year. It was in a $5 bin that brought in $1500 by the end of one day. I couldn’t believe it.

NRAMA: [laughs] I missed out on that. In addition to video games, you've also worked on some movies. Can you tell us about that?

SM: I lived in Hollywood twice in the past six years. The second time I went, it was specifically to get more movie work. My comic book career kept hitting dead ends and my bank account was quickly dropping, so I rolled the dice and gave LA another shot in hopes of doing storyboarding and concept work.

One time I went to Fox to see if they’d let me do Family Guy storyboards. I couldn’t stand the show, but I needed money and they paid well. The gig came with a packet that had a test script from a season two episode and a breakdown of how the characters should be drawn. So I did my best and finished it in three days. A couple days later I heard back.

They hated it. I didn’t draw the characters close enough to how they were supposed to look. I was shocked that they wanted it to be so precise. In the past it was always fine when I did my boards loosely. I’m a huge Futurama fan, and those boards are extremely loose. Usually this is fine because it gets the job done. Apparently, Family Guy boards had to be clean enough to be animated. Plus I’d drawn Peter’s head too thin (his head was 2.5 x the width of the eyes and I’d only draw it 2 times as wide—not joking).

Murphy takes on the Avengers

So I thanked Fox and asked them if they had any other cartoons that I could test out for. And luckily, they did! The lady on the phone told me about another show that I might have heard of that was also produced by Fox: American Dad.

Somehow I contained my laughter. The Family Guy gig wasn’t happening and there I was with Fox animation on the phone…so why not do the world a favor?

“Really? Family Guy is animated by different people than American Dad? What a shock. I figured you kind of spoke for both of them seeing as how it’s the same stupid show. I figured you did it all in the same cubical. Hell, I’m amazed that the production teams are separated by a single wall let alone an entire floor. Do the two teams ever meet up in the cafeteria and the same kind of jokes over and over?”

Just by looking at the boards, it makes sense to me why Futurama ends up being FUTURAMA and Family Guy ends up being Family Guy.

NRAMA: Your words, not mine. Let's turn to your own projects for a second: you've got something called Punk Rock Jesus; what's that?

SM: Punk Rock Jesus is about what would happen if ABC created a new reality show with a clone of Jesus Christ: religious people get up in arms, scientists debate whether or not it’s a scam, and politicians are worried that the clone will run for president. Eventually, after 16 years of a Truman Show type scenario, the corruption around him becomes too much of a burden so the clone escapes. He decides he’s an atheist and hits the streets to start a punk rock band, dedicating himself to the struggle of ridding America of the ignorance that corporate corruption has help breed. His bodyguard, an ex IRA terrorist and devote Catholic, bares witness to the entire epic as it unfolds in the not-so-distant American future.

I want to work on this so badly. It’s been years and the script is done and the whole thing is ready to go…and then I get an exclusive gig. In 2010 my stint with DC is up and I’m doing Punk Rock Jesus. IDW, Dark Horse, Vertigo, who knows. But I promise that I’m going to make this happen.

NRAMA: We'll hold you to that promise.

Although you've become an industry regular, by-and-large you've stayed out of the superhero end of the pool. Is this by choice, or just the assignments you're given?

SM:. The way I draw has evolved a lot over the years and I think that has kept me from getting work for a while. Whenever I do something it looks different than other books I’ve done, and I think that makes editors nervous. But no matter what “look” I’m playing with each month, none of the “looks” has ever been a superhero “look”. I don’t read superhero books and I think the superhero style is very tired here in America. But I’m glad they exist because they bring in a lot of money that helps us all.

The last time I got offered a superhero book was a Superman thing with Grant Morrison. I made it clear to the editor that I wasn’t going to do a “house style” and that they shouldn’t hire me if that’s what they wanted. Morrison apparently liked that I would give the book a different look for Superman, but DC didn’t. Not even Morrison could help me out.

But in my heart I feel like if I keep doing what I’m doing and make it look good, eventually I’ll turn doubters into converts.

Murphy's Dr. Strange

NRAMA: You're working with DC under an exclusive agreement, but before you signed it you were also offered a contract with Marvel. What made you choose to work with DC?

SM: DC had two scripts ready to go, one with Morrison and one with Wood. Marvel had a Dr. Strange story they wanted me to do. It was a tough call and a difficult week on the phone going back and forth. But DC had two things lined up and Marvel only had one. Plus Karen Berger had done a lot to help me get into Vertigo so there was some loyalty there.

NRAMA: You've got a lot going on, and a lot of decisions. How do you go about picking your assignments?

How do I pick things? Good question.

My goal is to be like Frank Miller. I want to write a script, and no matter what it is, I’ll find it a home and it’ll pay my bills. Whatever helps me reach that goal is stuff that I’m willing to do.

I’m willing to sell out a little to pay the bills, but I shy away from large projects that are very involved or too superhero-y. I always keep something of my own going on the side in hopes that I’ll one day be more like Frank.

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