The Wake has been a wake-up call, both for readers and for series artist and co-creator Sean Murphy. For years Murphy has worked on Batman, John Constantine and a string of creator-owned projects, but this 10-issue series with friend and writer Scott Snyder looks to have cracked the code in terms of popular recognition of Snyder’s work by comics readers at large, and also given Murphy a new vantage point to comics. With the finale set to debut in June, Murphy’s already planned out his work for the next several years – working with big names, doing more creator-owned, and also giving back to the next generation of comics talent.
Earlier this year Mark Millar namedropped Murphy as a partner in an upcoming Image series, and as Murphy tells us that’s just the first of two Image projects he has planned when he finishes The Wake. In addition to that, Murphy recently completed teaching an intensive two-week apprenticeship he once referred to as “comics boot camp,” and is planning a second one for this summer. Murphy is well-regarded in professional comics circles as someone unafraid to speak out about business practices he and other comics professionals face, but in recent years his independent streak has been honed by experiences and the camaraderie he’s found with fellow comics creators like Snyder, Klaus Janson, and others.
2014 is a pivotal year for Murphy; in February he completed his six-year exclusive with DC, and has a bright horizon with the aforementioned creator-owned comics and his comics boot camp. Newsarama spoke frankly with Murphy about the state of things for him when it comes to comics, his perspective about the major publishers, as well as the difference in doing creator-owned work at DC and Marvel versus Image; his best analogy? Vikings. Read on to find out more.
Newsarama: Sean, before we get deep into this; tell me, what are you working on today?
Sean Murphy: I just drew Noah's ark into a page for The Wake #8. Scott had a montage with lots of historical/nautical stuff in it, so I added Noah and the Titanic to jazz it up even more. Scott loves it.
Nrama: Right now you’re in the final leg of your work on The Wake with Scott Snyder. There’re other interviews out there with you two talking about the book, but tell me this: how has doing it affected you and your views on comics? I know your last major creator-owned project with someone else, Joe the Barbarian, was a bit different internally.
Murphy: The difference between The Wake and Joe the Barbarian has to do with my relationship with Scott.
Scott and I are a lot alike. In a way, we're still in the stage of proving ourselves to the comics world. Neither of us is the type to assume that any successful streak is guaranteed to last forever--we both tend to think of each book possibly being our last because there's always the chance that the floor will fall out from under us. Whenever we enjoy a new success, it's never savored for long because we can't help thinking "what next?"
We both also go out of our way to secure relationships with people in the industry who really matter, and not just with other creators. Before PRJ, Scott was the one who suggested I get to know the administration side of DC--the sales team, the marketing team, and the numbers people--these people are a huge resource and often get overlooked by creators. They make all the difference.
I'm usually all ears when I hang out with Scott--the guy is a fountain of helpful information and knows a lot about behind-the-scenes politics. And because of his value to DC, having him on my side during Wake contract negotiations was really helpful.
We've become good friends over the years, and we always have each other’s back. I'm happy to be part of his circle with guys like Rafael Albuquerque, Greg Capullo, Jeff Lemire, Jock, Dustin Nguyen and Mark Doyle. It's like we have a mini-family inside of a larger family.
Nrama: Your six year exclusive with DC ended at the beginning of February; what’s that feel like to be back on your own, a fully untethered freelancer? And could you see yourself ever doing another exclusive?
Murphy: Until The Wake is over, I'll still feel exclusive. The book takes up almost all my time, so I haven't had the ability to say yes to the offers I'm getting from Marvel and other companies outside of comics.
DC took great care of me for many years--for a while I was baffled by it. It's no secret that my artwork doesn't fit into the stuff that DC normally publishes. At first, I think a lot of it had to do with Karen Berger fighting for me, and after that it was the buzz and the sales that kept them renewing my contract. Each exclusive I got felt like my last. But along the way I started to feel like part of a family: Dan Didio and Jim Lee reached out and made me feel welcome along with other DCU editors. And they were all well informed on what I was doing, and some of the other stuff I was involved with outside of DC, like my apprenticeship.
With my friend Mark Doyle at the helm on the Batman books, I'm told I have an open-door policy on Batman. Even if I want to write and draw it, they're very interested in making something happen in the future. But they're also not too aggressive about it, which is nice. Even though my exclusive is over, I'm sure I'll return. DC feels like my family.
Nrama: You’ve stated your next two books are both creator-owned projects, and we know one of them is something with Mark Millar. You’ve done creator-owned before, at Vertigo, Oni and even Dark Horse. From the inside, how do the contracts measure up?
Murphy: Pardon my analogy, but I've been watching a lot of Vikings lately...
Marvel and DC are the two big ships in the ocean – powerful, complex, and hard to sink. The second and third tier publishers are also impressive--they have ample resources and have survived many years of storms. All these ships have a thick chain of command and have spent decades doing things a certain way. And overall, it's served them well.
Image Comics is like a fleet of viking ships--quick, maneuverable, and each one independent. Because they're small and lean, they can adapt faster to changing tides. This is why Image is coming back strong--the current is shifting. If you're a do-it-yourself-er and want to keep more for yourself, then become a viking. It's higher risk and many will fail (for every one Image success we hear about, there are two that are sinking), but a guy like me is primed for that kind of boat.
That analogy says more than specific, contractual stuff I could get into.
Nrama: Roughly, what do you see the timeline as for your next two projects?
Murphy: After I'm finished drawing The Wake in May, I'll start on the first of twoImage books--the secret one I can't mention yet. When Millar is ready to roll in the summer, I'll put the secret book aside and focus on Millar, then return to the secret one once Millar is done with me. Image is aware of all of this and will make sure I'll be taken care of along the way.
Nrama: Can you tell us anything about the project with Mark Millar?
Murphy: I can't. I'm told that even if he tried to explain the book to me, it would probably change a dozen times between now and then.
Nrama: Is the second project you writing and drawing again, like Punk Rock Jesus?
Murphy: Not yet. It's a project with a big Marvel writer who won't be named for at least a year.
Nrama: On a podcast at Multiversity, you spoke about the possibility of writing more comics - -and doing it for other artists, like Café Racer has been. After being an artist for so long, how do you feel about writing for someone else?
Murphy: My goal one day is to start my "Hellboy": to do the first big story arch of a marketable, ongoing character, then hand the art duties over to other people for following arcs. That way I can own more IPs while helping talented artists who can't get a break.
Nrama:Speaking of Café Racer, where is that in terms of completion –and will it become available to non-Kickstarter pledgers?
Murphy: We're a few months out from getting it finished. Once it's done, you can buy it from my students and myself at shows, digitally, or you can order a hard copy online from Essential Sequential, my art dealer.
Nrama: You worked on Café Racer with a group of artists whom you apprenticed for two weeks in an intensive workshop program in your new house in Maine. What was that experience like for you?
Murphy: I've been offered professorship positions over the years, but I've been so busy working that I never had the time. And I get a dozen offers each year from students who are looking for an unpaid intern type situation, but I never had the space. My wife and I bought the house in Maine as in investment property which we originally planned on renting, but soon we cooked up the idea of starting the apprenticeship.
The idea was that we'd take five students for two weeks, have them stay in our guest rooms, and during the day I'd teach them everything I knew about comics. To that end, we put together a book called Café Racer (my wife is also a writer, Katana Collins), and handed each student a 5-page piece of the story. They'd each have their own set to design with a character that they owned, and at the end we'd print out a hard copy they could all have to sell. Our hope is that the buzz of the book--and the successful Kickstarter campaign-- would bring these students to the attention of publishers. I even drew 10 pages myself.
It was exhausting, but profoundly rewarding. We can't have children, so this scratched our need to imprint on some young people while giving back. And it wouldn't have been possible without my wife helping me manage. Who knows--maybe she'll start writing comics on her own.
Nrama: You had quite a who’swho of guest speakers: Klaus Janson, Fiona Staples, Scott Snyder and Becky Cloonan. What was the topics of discussion?
Murphy: I often get accused of not socializing enough in comics--which is probably true. I keep a small stable of friends, but those relationships are all very solid. And I'm lucky to have talented people such as Klaus, Fiona, Scott and Becky to help me out.
Klaus is like a father figure to me--I hope he's cool with me saying that. We flew him up from the city to teach and hang out with the students for a few days. We all got a ton out of his lectures, especially me. I've had many drinks with the guy, and I was stunned to know there was still a lot he knew about art that we'd never touched on. He even inked a sketch I'd done for Café Racer --I'm never selling that.
The rest of the "guests" were Skyped in. At the beginning of the week, I asked my students whom they wanted to Skype with, and I promised I'd do my best to try and get whomever they mentioned. Luckily, they mostly asked to Skype with friends of mine, so it wasn't hard. The topics ranged from writing tips, pitching tips, and long term survival in the comics biz.
Nrama: Could you see yourself repeating this comic artist boot camp again?
Murphy: Yes. My wife and I are doing another session in the summer. I'll be opening up applications again in a few months.
Nrama: Very earlier in your life, before you had a “career” so to speak, you apprenticed under painter and World War 2 U.S. Marine Leslie Swank for several years on and off as an adolescent and a teenager. I’ve never been able to find any of his work online, but I did find this video interviewing him about his military background. It was interesting to watch that and try to see any influence it had on your work, personality-wise. Can you talk about working under him?
Murphy: A lot of his stuff was New England landscapes. But he was a commercial artist as well--he'd take anything that would make him money. He was also the political cartoonist for the Salem Observer newspaper, so he had an appreciation for comics. A lot of art teachers don't.
Nrama: With this spring apprenticeship you organized, what was it like trying to fit it into two weeks and get a project at the end of it?
Murphy: Learning art from an ex-Marine has been invaluable. His no-nonsense, anti artsy-fartsy approach to commercial art has left a huge impression on me.
I tried hard to continue that tradition with my students, because it's not something they always teach in art school. Plus I have the connections most professors don't, while am also giving them a chance to be published alongside me. And I assure each of them and I'll always be there to help them in the future, whether it's for art, contracts, or comic politics.
I remember having too many beers one night and telling them, "I'll come down like a hammer on anyone who tries to mess with one of my guys (and girls)!"
You just don't get that paying 40k a year at SCAD.