Stephen Mooney and Declan Shalvey have been making comic books for a long time, but they've been friends for even longer.
On September 20, both Shalvey's Savage Town (with artist Phillip Barrett) and Mooney's Half Past Danger II: Dead to Reichs will debut. For the occasion, the two creators sat down and instead of being interviewed by Newsarama, interviewed each other in a 'fireside chat' style conversation.
Declan Shalvey: Here we are again. Older and definitely not wiser. For those who don't know, when Stephen Mooney released the original Half Past Danger series, we both had a fireside chat of sorts, talking about the project.
So Stephen, cutting to present day, Half Past Danger was released in May of 2013 to great fanfare. The story of a washed up Irish soldier, shaken by the loss of his squad on a mysterious tropical island, returns to that island with a new team consisting of an American super-soldier, an enigmatic MI-5 agent and a secretive ninja. In retrospect, how do you now feel about that miniseries? How has it changed your career, or your approach as a creator?
Stephen Mooney: It's weird when you call me 'Stephen'.
It feels like a long time since 2013! When I look back, I feel nothing but warm, fuzzy feelings about Half Past Danger. For one thing, it's pretty much the only project I've worked on where I feel like I nailed it; or at least came as close as humanly possible to the kind of execution I was chasing. Now, let me add a caveat there - when I say I nailed it, I did the best possible job that I could do. Whether or not somebody else could have improved on it is moot, due to the lovely fact that it's creator-owned and only for me to attempt.
As to how I feel it affected my career? Well, massively. Before that book nobody knew who the hell I was! Now, a healthy smattering of folks are aware that I exist. It's certainly changed my career in that I'm in way more demand than I ever was beforehand and also in that I get to do exactly the type of work that I always aspired to do. As far as approach is concerned, not so much - only in the ways that I've hopefully improved as both a writer and an artist. I certainly still operate in exactly the same way today, perhaps with that little bit more knowhow and canniness.
Shalvey: Well I remember when you were telling me you were going to go for it and do this book... you had basically been a super-reliable, always hitting-the-deadline guy, but as a result, the bulk of projects offered to you were more of the same. If I recall, your time on The Mummy really lit the spark for the type of work you wanted to be doing. I'm not sure if I've said it privately or not, but I really respect that you really jumped into Half Past Danger with both feet, risked it all to do it exactly the way you wanted to.
Again, looking back at the first series, can you think of a moment when you realized "yes, this is everything I've wanted to do" and also, a moment where you feel you really learned something about yourself as a storyteller, either from a writing or illustrative point of view? Was there a point where you really felt like you had discovered something with the process of making this book, more than any work for hire book you hadn't done previously?
Mooney: That's essentially correct, yeah. The Mummy series, with a great writer called Josh Jabcuga, really lit the spark. It was far more in that swashbuckling action-adventure mold than anything I'd tackled previously, and essentially showed me that these types of books did exist and were an experience I could try to expand upon. I guess it was a bit of a risk alright, but to be honest I was getting very frustrated with some of the stuff I'd been working through previously and all I saw was an escape route.
As far as some sort of realization as I worked on it - that would mostly be as a fledgling writer. I had never before been so confident that I could write that story, and have it be good. I'd always intended to end up writing, but this was the point at which it clicked, really. I did a ton of research, asked a lot of really competent, far more talented people for their advice and went into it totally unafraid. I knew I could do it. I knew this stuff. Weirdly, I was *far* more confident about the story than the art, and I'd been drawing professionally for 7 years at that point!
In regards to me realizing "yes, this is everything I've wanted to do"; that was definitely the case just a few weeks into the process. I wanted to do everything on the book - write, draw, letter, color; everything. I almost succeeded too, but needed your good lady Miss Bellaire to step in and pull my ass outta the fire on the coloring side! As I go into the future I'm certainly planning on writing most of my own material. I feel like I'm more of a natural cartoonist or storyteller as opposed to 'just' an artist. That said, there are still many amazing writers I hope to work with some day!
What about you with Savage Town? Has it been festering in your brain since that long ago? I started writing Half Past Danger in 2011 - when was the genesis of your story? When did you first realize that you were ready to try writing?
Shalvey: I'd had the idea to write/draw a crime story set in Limerick many, many years ago, not long after I left Limerick probably, but that's all it really was; an idea to do it. You know what that's like, "Oh I'd love to do a war story sometime," something you'd like to do but then you move onto more practical matters... that pay actual money.
I think it was when I get to draw scenes from Dublin in Injection, it was weirdly satisfying to get to draw Ireland in a comic that would be seen worldwide, y'know? Made me want to do something that was more Irish-centric. Also, the experience of doing a creator owned series was hugely empowering. I became excited about being able to open a door for another artist the way Warren Ellis had done that for me. You and I were at Thought Bubble a couple of years ago and I threw out the idea to Phil Barrett and he was into it, so while working on Injection I decided to do research in to the particulars of what was going on in Limerick during the height of its gangland troubles and started coming up with a rough story.
I'm not sure what made me realize I wanted to have a crack at writing... it was the one part of comics I hadn't really tried my hand at, other than some short stories I had written and drawn... at that stage I had also written a short for an anthology that Ricardo Lopez Ortiz had drawn, so I think I was ready to try something a little more ambitious. Over the years I've developed a lot of confidence in drawing, but have very little when it comes to writing, I just think I've a strong sense of what I like and what I don't like. I'd have to admit, seeing you work so hard on Half Past Danger and how happy you were to tell your own story was something that made me thing about writing more. "I mean if Mooney can do it...” [Laughs]
Seriously though, you said you'd like to concentrate on writing/drawing your own work from now on... does that have anything to do with the work for hire projects you did after finishing the first Half Past Danger? I remember you were delighted to be doing DC work but after a while decided to turn down paying offers in order to concentrate on creator-owned work. What pushed you to make that decision? I do think that without Half Past Danger, the opportunities at DC wouldn't have opened up. It's just my opinion, but I think with Half Past Danger, you managed to change how the industry saw you, would you agree?
Mooney: Oh, absolutely - in that it saw me at all at that point! I felt fairly anonymous before then, even though I'd been working away on mainstream comics for about five years prior. But listen - it’s not like I'd done a tremendous amount to warrant any massive amount of attention! I feel like I did my best in the time given on every single one of those previous books, so I certainly don't discount them as 'less' than Half Past Dangerin any way. They were some really solid books, they just weren't mine.
There's no question whatsoever that I feel differently regarded now. Half Past Danger led directly to my opportunities at DC, in that Scott Snyder and Mark Doyle were fans of the book. It's 100% why I was offered work in the Batman office. A lot of very prominent editors know both my name and my work at this point, and I've started to foster some very fruitful relationships. Many of them introduced to me by you! Note to readers: Dec knows everybody in comics. Everybody. He's a gregarious fellow.
It's true that I turned down some pretty good offers to work on Half Past Danger II: Dead To Reichs, but it's not like DC was throwing the main Batman title at me or anything! The truth is that even though I hugely enjoyed my time playing with those toys, I was really missing Half Past Danger for much of it. I just have this innate need to tell my own stories that simply wasn't there before. But listen, a massive part of that is because I've now gotten to draw my favorite DC characters (Nightwing, Batman, Catwoman), and have that under my belt. The road was clear to return to Half Past Danger II. I wanted to get back to it before people stopped asking about a sequel!
(Also - I completely agree on the pleasures of sneaking Irish things into mainstream comic books. I still get a little giggle when Irish mutters some old-skool Gaelic expletive in Half Past Danger. There's something very mischievous about the whole thing that pleases me greatly. Explaining the term 'Chancer' to a foreign audience has perhaps been my greatest pleasure of all.)
What are your thoughts on all these new Irish talents kicking in doors around the comics world nowadays? You think the fact that they saw us, Will Sliney, Nick Roche, et al making a proper go of it inspired others to do the same? I mean, I'm not asking if ye think we're heroes or anything... but… do ye think we're heroes?
Shalvey: Heroes? No. Legends...? Possibly.
Ah it's hard to say but speaking from my own experience, when I was a kid and saw the Nordies like Garth Ennis and John McCrea make it big in U.S. comics, it made me realize that this mad medium might have a career in it. it would make sense that others younger than us saw all us 'Micks' do well in the industry and that showed them it could be done so pursued it. I guess if we could do it, anyone could, eh? It has been amazing to see people like Stephen Byrne, Nate Stockman, Ruth Redmond, and Chris O'Halloran make it at Marvel in recent years, and there's plenty of good talent coming up behind them.
With books like your Half Past Danger, and me doing Savage Town... 'Irish' stories but stories that are easily accessible worldwide... do you feel like we have a responsibility to put Irish material out there? We know there's a burgeoning scene in Ireland right now, but not many have access to big U.S, publishers like we do. Ireland has been doing great on the art front, as we were just saying, but I think that it's important that we see some Irish writers break through more. If that has to be us, so be it. [Laughs]
Also, now that you've drawn those big DC characters, do you feel you've 'scratched that itch'? Is Half Past Danger all you really want to do in future? Reading Half Past Danger II, it really does feel like you're writing for the artist, and the artist is drawing everything he wants to. Do you think you'd like to do any writing outside of work you're doing?
Mooney: Hmm. I don't know that we have a responsibility to put Irish stories out there... maybe a responsibility to produce quality books about characters and situations that actually reflect and represent what Ireland/Irish folk are really like? I mean there're plenty of shockingly misrepresentative Irish characters written by many great talents that aren't Irish, right? So yeah, it is a solid plus that we're at least writing our characters to be proper examples of what people here tend to genuinely be like, warts and all. I think your character roster in Savage Town especially contains many great examples of that, moreso maybe than just Tommy Flynn from Half Past Danger. Though he, to me, is possibly the most accurate portrayal of a Dubliner that I've read in mainstream comics. Jesus, I can't believe I'm even acknowledging that... Don't worry, I still think I'm shite!
On the DC front; yeah, I do feel that way to a certain extent. I grew up a massive fan of Bruce Wayne, Dick Grayson, and Selina Kyle et al, and now that I've gotten to play with those characters a little bit, I certainly feel like I've achieved something significant. That said, I'd still love to do more with them a little further down the line, Catwoman especially.
For the most part though, I want to be writing my own material. A larger part of it is not having to rely on anybody but myself, but also there's the simple fact that it just feels like a natural progression; the logical endpoint to the, as wankey as it sounds, ‘journey’ I've been on. I most certainly intend on writing several other books, both for myself to draw and also for others. I wrote a couple of books earlier this year for other artists (The Phantom and For Valour) and both experiences really did have something different to offer in terms of satisfaction and endeavor. I have my next couple of books that I'm writing for myself outlined already.
All that said - I still really wanna work with some writers that I've admired for years. My next big series is with Kyle Higgins, also from the Bat office, whom I'm really excited to be working with. Plus, you and I are discussing doing something together too at some point, which could be really cool.
Hows about you? You've recently branched out into mainstream writing for another artist - are you finding a whole new set of muscles you've to learn to flex or does it just come very naturally? Tell the truth #ArtCred - is writing 'easier' than drawing? Or at least, is it less taxing?
Shalvey: I have to say... I'm really enjoying it. I just wrote and drew a Venomverse short story for Marvel recently and I have to say, there's nothing quite like having the original idea and working it thought to the end on the page. But, working with Philip Barrett on Savage Town and now Mike Henderson on Deadpool vs. Old Man Logan, I really enjoy seeing what's found in translation. For example, I just saw some pages from Mike, where he took a funny scene but ramped up the comedy in subtle ways that made the scene much, much better. Similarly with Phil, I had written in a splash page for pacing and to show the location, but Phil added in all these characters in the environment that said so much more about the setting than just a straight-up location shot. If anything, these collaborations kinda remind me that I could be doing better in my own work. If I'm being honest, I'm struggling with my confidence when it comes to writing... I've built up a certain confidence with drawing that has informed my storytelling and I think that approach has carried into my writing... but the confidence hasn't. Thankfully, I've been working with great editors (Sebastian Girner on Savage Town and Heather Antos on Deadpool vs. Old Man Logan) who've helped me whip the stories into shape.
I've found that I really do like the process of writing. The idea, workshopping it and 'sculpting' it into a workable script. I always enjoyed the process of taking a script and breaking it down into layouts, but now I find I really enjoy taking an outline and breaking it down into script. It's like there's a whole new set of tools to tell a story. It isn't easy at all... it'll wreck your head. But yeah, it is still way easier than drawing.
And yeah, I love the idea of doing something together someday. We have different tastes but have a massive overlap in them too. Would be interesting to see what we would come up with.
So Half Past Danger 2; where do we find our beloved characters at the beginning of this story? Have you always known where this story was going, even when writing the original mini?
Mooney: I know what you mean about struggling more for confidence in the writing arena. I guess it's mostly down to the fact that as kids we were always inspired by artists first, and then more so by writers later as our story comprehension developed. I mean, I spent years and years learning to draw, and only ever really intended on becoming a professional artist. But what I feel has happened was that we so deeply mired in the storytelling disciplines of comics that the writing side simply infected us through a process of osmosis and sheer exposure, regardless of whether or not we were actually aware of it.
I personally believe that any strong comics artist has all of the required tools to be a strong cartoonist, i.e. a writer/artist. As you follow any script you're telling the story through your sequentials; all you need is a solid kernel of an idea of your own to take that to the next logical step. Now, that just covers the narrative aspects of writing - dialogue is another thing entirely. All the drawing skills in the world can't help you there!
It's funny - I remember dreading reading the first reviews for Half Past Danger due to the fact that I was terrified that the comics world at large would abhor my writing, and tell me to stick to the day job. Once all the ridiculously positive and glowing reviews for the story started to appear, I immediately convinced myself that I must be a terrible artist due to the fact that the writing was usually the focus of the reviews! I've since come to realize that that's more often than not the case in comic reviews though; critics just feel more comfortable picking apart the written material.
But sure listen - it's healthy to be terrified that we're shite, right? Otherwise we might actually start believing that we're good, and chaos that way lies...
So Half Past Danger 2! The first issue of the new series picks up around three or four months after the end of series one. Irish and John Noble are hunting Nazis throughout Europe in a bid to catch up with the rogue Agent Moss and attempt to recover the dinosaur materials she stole at the end of series one. They're about to hit a Nazi-held castle in the Austrian Alps. Ishi is AWOL.
I've known where the story was going since I wrote the entire series outline around five years ago. I have all of the major story beats nailed down, right until the end of the third series. I'm currently inking page five of the fifth issue of volume two, so I should be wrapping up the series just as issue one hits the stands September 20.
I'm pretty happy with how it's all turned out. the art has definitely come on a long way since series one, and anybody that's read the script for this new series reckons it’s as good or better than the first. So hopefully that's a solid indicator of the quality level.
There’s also the absolutely beautiful interior colors by our own Tríona Farrell, which being the one part I didn’t handle, are my favourite aspect!
Now that you're wrapped on Savage Town, which comes out the same week as Half Past Danger II #1 by the way, how are you feeling about it upon reflection? Is it what you envisioned it would be?
Shalvey: Ha, yeah it went to the printer a few days ago, just been looking over the review copy. It's weird, I've had this in my head for ages so it's so weird for it to be done. I mean, I think there's more story there, I'd like to flesh out some characters more, develop more themes, etc, so I'd like to do more books down the line. However, if this is the only Savage Town book I do... I think I can be happy with that. I'm too close to it to tell if it's a good story any more, but taking a step back and looking at the book, it's definitely 100% the book I wanted to make. I told the story I wanted, it shows a part of Ireland I wanted to show, characters I think are interesting and funny and it's a wonderful platform for Phil's work. Not to mention the gorgeous colors by Jordie, great letters by Clayton Cowles and the brilliant design work by Emma Price... it's objectively a beautiful book. No one can deny the quality of the book, this is the best people at their A-game. No matter what, I can be happy that the book turned out to be everything I hoped for, and that in itself is an accomplishment I am proud of.
Whether anyone actually buys it or not is another matter.... it is a bit of a hard sell; unproven writer (outside of a couple of short Marvel stories) and an unknown artist doing a book written in local dialect set in a city barely anyone has heard of... where's my Hollywood deal already!? Seriously though, you could argue it's an impossible sell, but I genuinely feel all those things is what makes Savage Town stand out. I think it's a fairly original book and the reader will enjoy it bore because of that. At least I bloody hope so. It's pretty interesting to release this as a straight-up graphic novel too, even though I've been doing mainstream comics for many years, releasing my own OGN has been an interesting experience. I've learned a lot.
It feels silly to say 'what next' on the verge of you releasing a new series, but I know you're currently drawing the last issue of the mini and you're clearly going to be focused on promoting it, etc, but you must know what you're working on next, right? Are you itching for work for hire again, or is solely telling your own stories what you want to be doing from now on?
Mooney: Ha - yeah. That's the thing, isn't it? Spend a full year working on a project, release it into the wild, and twenty minutes later yer answering all the 'so what's next?' questions. But that's an awful lot better than nobody being bothered enough to ask at all!
Next for me after Half Past Danger II is my first major European market work, a Cold War spy book with hints of Sci-fi called The Dead Hand. It's written by Kyle Higgins and drawn by me, with yer wonderful fiancée Jordie Bellaire on colors and the stellar Clayton Cowles lettering. It's basically Metal Gear Solid crossed with James Bond, and it's so far up my alley it's knocking on my back gate. That'll be released in album format initially through the major French publisher Glénat, with an English language version through an equally major U.S. label early next year. I couldn't be happier with it. It's so far away from Half Past Danger, but still chockablock with my own sensibilities. Working with that stellar team has been a phenomenal experience - three solid A-Listers and this guy draggin’ 'em all down.
And yerself? What's next on your plate, besides more Injection, of course?
Shalvey: Yeah, I've to wrap up the current arc of Injection, after that I'm not sure. I think we'll take another hiatus on the book and come back with volume four next year, I'm really excited about it, but schedule wise we're a bit all over the place. I'd prefer to get more issues in the can before we publish.
I'd like to do something short in between the volumes so I'm seeing what's available, drawing-wise. I've a couple of writing pitches in the air, but who knows what will happen there. Ideally, I'd like to maybe work away on writing a sequel to Savage Town, but it would be silly to do that before knowing if this OGN sells well. I really do like having a writing project alongside a drawing project, having that variety keeps my excitement lever high for both. For similar reasons it's also great to have a work for hire gig alongside a creator-owned gig. I'd like to write/draw something a bit longer too, but that'll prob have to wait until Injection is wrapped.
Well Stephen, thanks for joining me for this fireside chat, one side of me is awful hot from sitting here the last while, think I’ll go get another whiskey. Another for you? The usual?
Mooney: Ah, go on, so. Sure it'd be rude not to.