Sean Phillips may best best known for his dark, noirish work with books like Criminal, Incognito and his current series Fatale, but the path that brought him to this point took him to many other realms – and many more yet to come. And in the upcoming deluxe book The Art of Sean Phillips from Dynamite, we’re getting to see everything from the artist’s origins in British girls comics to his forays into the British mainstream, Vertigo and to his present work.
Set for release October 16, 2013 [Newsarama Note: We initiially had the erroneous date of November 2013 listed], The Art of Sean Phillips sees the artist partnering with British author Eddie Robson to cover his 35 year history as a working cartoonist going back to his first professional work when he was only twelve years old. The book covers everything from his earliest comics work to his coming of age in British comics, all the way through his part in Vertigo’s “British Invasion” to meeting up with a cartoonist-turned-writer named Ed Brubaker. Phillips acts as the artist and subject of this piece, with Robson interviewing him along with many of Phillips’ colleagues from Brubaker to Warren Ellis, Karen Berger, Dave Gibbons, Axel Alonso and even his school art teacher.
Newsarama: First question is an easy one, Sean – what’s on your drawing board today?
Sean Phillips: As usual for the last two years, it's an issue of Fatale.
Nrama: I reached out to interview you today to talk about the forthcoming Art of Sean Phillips book coming out from Dynamite in October. You’ve done art books before like the excellent Intersections with Duncan Fegredo, so what makes this one special for you and readers?
Phillips: Well, for me, it's been a great opportunity to look back over the thousands of comic pages I've drawn over the years and to see that I might not have wasted my life! Seriously though, it's been interesting to look back to the comics I drew for fun as a kid right through to Fatale and other recent work.
For the readers, hopefully this gives them some idea of the varied projects I've had the chance to work on and to show them plenty of stuff they might not have seen before.
Nrama: This seems like quite a big task putting this together: digging out this work, writing it and designing the whole thing yourself. What convinced you now was the time to do it, and what was your game plan starting this?
Phillips: I'm a big fan of these types of books and have always wanted to do my own, but never thought anyone would be that interested. When Nick Barrucci of Dynamite asked if I'd be interested in him publishing such a book about me, I was very flattered and jumped at the chance. My game plan was just to hopefully include my best work and produce the best looking book I could. Since Criminal, I've always designed my own books and wanted the chance to apply those design skills here. I had only two requests for Nick, to handle all the design work on the book, and to choose who would write it.
Nrama: And you chose Eddie Robson. Can you tell us where your work ends and his begins in terms of this project?
Phillips: Eddie is the writer of the book, he did all the interviews involved and made me especially sound more erudite and intelligent than I really am. He started with interviewing me face-to-face, and then set about interviewing most of the writers and some of the editors I've worked with over the years. He also interviewed the friends I made comics with for fun when I was a kid and my art teacher from back in school too. He then made all that into a compelling narrative and I chose the pictures to fit in with his words. It was like a massive jigsaw puzzle putting it all together and he did a great job. I've known Eddie socially for a few years anyway, he lives near me and is a well rounded writer. He's a journalist, comedy writer and writes comics too, so I knew he could handle this. He probably knows more about me than anyone else does now, so sorry about that Eddie!
Nrama: Flipping through the previews online, I see work in this book going back to your childhood. Some art books start with their college work or their first pro work, so showing this early work is quite revealing. Why was it important to include this aspect of your art career in the book?
Phillips: Well, my pro work did start when I was twelve, so that was definitely going to be included. Luckily a lot of my drawing from when I was a kid survives, so it seemed logical to include it. Along with two friends, Pete Doree and David Holman, we made hundreds of pages of comics starring ourselves in various adventures, mostly film and comic parodies. David has all this original art still, so I've included as much as I can. We started when I was about eleven or twelve and David and I had a weekly comic strip in our local paper when I was twelve. We got paid so that was my first pro work!
Nrama: You got your start in a very different place than you are now – not 2000AD or New Statesmen like most people think, but doing British girls comics. Can you tell us your view now on that work, that content, now, and if you could ever see yourself doing more of that with the right story and right deal?
Phillips: I started drawing for the British girls comics when I was fifteen, pencilling for a comic artist called Ken Houghton. I'd been attending his evening art class which taught cartooning at my school since I was thirteen, and after a couple of years Ken thought I was good enough to give me a chance. I penciled for him and he saved it with his inks. Back then in the early 80s there were plenty of weekly anthology comics aimed at girls of every age and they were always looking to fill their pages every week. Before I met Ken I was only interested in drawing superheroes and the work I did with him needed me to learn how to draw more realistically. I got to draw schoolgirls and ballerinas and normal people doing normal things. It's a lot more difficult to draw someone sitting in a chair than it is someone flying through the sky! It was great training for the sort of stuff I draw in comics nowadays. Unfortunately all those girls comics aren't around any more, but it would be fun to do that more soap opera stuff again sometime.
Nrama: After doing work on the UK scene, you swept into American comics with other British creators in 1990 and did work on Hellblazer. You worked on and off on that series during the 90s as your only American work, but getting to work with the likes of Jamie Delano, John Smith, Eddie Campbell and Paul Jenkins. Can you tell us about that time in your career, in those 1990s?
Phillips: Actually, I drew almost continuously for American comics in the 90s. I did over three years on Hellblazer, along with stints on Kid Eternity, The Heart Of The Beast, Shade The Changing Man, The Minx, Hell Eternal and The Invisibles and a few other things for Vertigo.
Nrama: Did you have any interest at that time of doing more American comics, like the superheroes at Marvel, DC or the then-upstart Image studios?
Phillips: I drew my first superhero comic, working for the much missed Archie Goodwin on Batman: Legends Of The Dark Knight in 1996, and then drew Supergirl and Superman for DC, Spider-man for Marvel, and Alien and Star Wars for Dark Horse by the end of the 90s. Up until then I'd been typecast as a Vertigo artist, but I was always a big superhero fan from childhood. Getting to draw Batman and Spider-man was a big thrill.
Nrama: Around 1999 you started doing more, beginning with Scene of the Crime with Ed Brubaker and Michael Lark. What got you in to do that gig?
Phillips: Michael had inked the first issue, but wanted a rougher look, so his editor Shelly Bond asked me of I'd be interested in inking his pencils on the remaining issues. I was already a big fan of his work, I had the time available so I was more than happy to help out. It turned out great, and Ed and I have worked together ever since.
Nrama: Speaking of inking, I noticed you almost always ink your own work, but you had Kent Williams ink over you for issues of Marvel’s The Brotherhood. What brought that about?
Phillips: Kent was already attached to the project when I was asked to pencil it. We'd worked together before on a short Minx story, and I love his work, so again, Marvel asked, I had the time and was really pleased with the result. It was so interesting to see what Kent did with my pencils. That's always the main reason for any artistic collaborations I do, to work with someone who's work I love and to see how it turns out. I always learn a lot from these projects.
Nrama: You made some great career choices in the 2000s, but I’m always intrigued by one project that stands away from your other work: Marvel Zombies with Robert Kirkman. Can you tell us about doing that project – what got you to do it, and what you got out of it in the long run?
Phillips: I did it because I was asked, and I didn't have any other work lined up at the time! Neither Robert or I were the first people to be asked and we had no idea it would be such a big hit. It turned me into an overnight success, even though I'd been drawing comics professionally for twenty years by then.
Nrama: Now 7 years since, how do you think Marvel Zombies affected your career? Do you still see some benefits or residuals from that?
Phillips: Ed and I hoped that all those readers of Marvel Zombies and his Captain America run would follow us over to Criminal and our other books but it doesn't seem to work like that. A lot more people saw my art thanks to Marvel Zombies and it definitely helped my career. And the money was good too! It helped finance Criminal and I still get some money from it now. Artistically, it gave me a chance to draw all those Marvel superheroes I grew up reading, even if they were all zombies...
Nrama: Now you’re best known for your work on Fatale, continuing that partnership with Ed Brubaker. As a businessman and artist, what’s it like being partners with someone for so long and working through DC, Wildstorm, Marvel’s Icon and now Image? Does business get in the way of comics sometime?
Phillips: No, for me it's always been all about the art. I've never chosen projects for the money or any other business related reasons. It's always been for whatever enjoyment I get out of the project, who I get to work with, and what the story or characters are.
I'm very lucky to work with someone who gives me everything I want out of my job. Ed's the first person who sees my pages and if he likes them that's all that matters. Obviously, it's nice that thousands of readers like what we do too, but we can't second guess what they'll like. We please each other first and the rest is a bonus.
Nrama: I scoured the back issue bins looking for any instances of you doing some writing in comics; the closest thing I found was you adapting a Ray Bradbury story once and doing some imaginative pin-ups for those Marvel Millenial Visions books back in the day. No offense to Ed here, but could you see yourself doing something on your own down the road at some point?
Phillips: Nope, I've never really felt the urge. When I was a kid writing and drawing my own comics, I'd always lose interest after a few pages. I really enjoy taking someone's story and making a comic from it. Drawing things I haven't chosen to draw keeps it interesting and a challenge.
Nrama: I really enjoyed the illustration you did for the Criterion release of Blast of Silence and the string of covers you’ve done for other people’s comics recently. Could you see yourself doing more for other projects, like this or the burdgeoning art-movie poster market?
Phillips: I've done four covers for Criterion and I'd love to do more. I've never gone looking for work outside of comics, but if an interesting project comes long and I've got the time, I try to fit in in. I've just hand-painted a poster for a film premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival, called We Gotta Get Out Of This Place, a low budget crime drama, which was a lot of fun to do. I've had a sketch approved for a Mondo film poster a year ago, but I haven't got round to doing the final art yet. All these comics seem to take all my time!
Nrama: Last question – crime comics. You and Ed have developed the moniker of being crime fiction guys. For research and inspiration, do you follow other crime fiction work or is it more the crimes itself – like reading the Police Beat section of the newspaper?
Phillips: I'm not that much of a crime fiction fan, but I've discovered a lot more since working with Ed. I've always read Ian Rankin's novels but not much else apart from that. Most crime movies pass me by but I sometimes look at some for research, usually on fast forward!