For Sean Phillips, working on 7 Psychopaths wasn't so much an uphill battle as it was artistic insanity. But maybe that's what gave this book its charm.
Stretching his talents for the World War II epic, Phillips broke across a cultural divide working with French comics writer Fabien Nehlmann for their 2007 comic. A story that focuses on seven soldiers on a mission to kill Hitler, the comic is now slated to be printed in the U.S. by BOOM! Studios next month. We caught up with Phillips to talk about diving out of his element, what his process was in terms of design, and to tease just a little of what we'll see in the book.
Newsarama: Sean, can you tell us a little bit about how you first got involved with this project?
Sean Phillips: I was very kindly invited to a comic con in Barcelona a few years ago, and at dinner one day an editor from Delcourt, a French publisher asked if I'd ever considered drawing a French album. Of course, I'd thought about it but thought my style was too American for European audiences. I said I'd love to draw a book for them, so soon after I received a script and off I went.
Nrama: Often, you've been associated with street level noir, such as Criminal and Incognito -- and in that regard, a World War II epic seems a bit off the beaten path for you. How did you switch gears as an artist to get your head into this genre? And are there any stylistic tactics that you were able to incorporate from your noir titles into this new setting?
Phillips: I'd never drawn a WWII comic before, so there was a lot to learn. Apart from the subject matter, the story was paced very differently from a US comic. Most pages had two to three times the amount of panels I was used to, so even figuring out how to lay out the pages was a challenge. I didn't really approach the actual drawings any differently though, apart from having to draw a lot more backgrounds. There wasn't many panels where I could get away with just a headshot.
Nrama: It seems like a lot of today's comics writers are focusing on brevity and opportunities for real visual action shots. So we have to ask, was there any sort of culture shock by working with French comics writer Fabien Vehlmann? How does he differ from some of your other writer colleagues, like Ed Brubaker or Robert Kirkman?
Phillips: Like I said, the pages were a lot denser then US comics. Each panel took the story forward, there was little decompression. Not much different to how Ed writes Criminal really. Criminal is all about the characters rather than the car chases and shoot outs. Robert gave me plenty of action shots with splash pages and double page spreads in Marvel Zombies. There I had much more space to draw big things happening. Fabien was somewhere between the two, I had the space to devote to the action if I needed to. Seven Psychos was originally drawn, and published much bigger than an American comic book so fitting everything in was never a problem.
Nrama: Let's talk a little bit about process and how you approach a page. When you were working on 7 Psychopaths, what was the absolute first thing you had to do to get a page just right? Also, what sorts of tools were you using at the time? Were they different from what you use now?
Phillips: The most important thing with any page is to make sure the storytelling is clear. I'm not interested in nice detailed drawing for the sake of it, I'm much more about telling the story in a clear and hopefully interesting way. My tools for this story are the same as ever, a pale blue marker for 'pencilling' and fineliners and brushpens for the inking. I lettered the book as well, so that was the first thing I did for each page. Lettered on my Mac and then printed out in blueline onto the Bristol board and drawn around. Actually, the only difference with tools from Criminal was the paper. I used a much smoother paper, so there was less of the dry brush effects I get in Criminal.
Nrama: How about designing characters? Either then or now, what goes into designing a character, and giving them that sort of wordless personality that complements the writer's dialogue? Could you give us some examples of some of the characters from 7 Psychopaths, what you liked about them, and what you feel you added to the mix?
Phillips: As usual I designed the characters on the page as I went along. I hardly ever do any character sketches beforehand. I need to know how they are to act before I can decide what they look like. Here the characters were a lot different to your usual heroes. The main character, Joshua, is an old man in a mental hospital. It was fun to draw characters that didn't have that typical hero look. I almost always know exactly what they should look like from the writer's descriptions and Fabien was no different.
Nrama: Bouncing off an earlier question a bit -- for you, what do you like about World War II stories as a genre? What do you feel makes this era such a well for potent storytelling like Saving Private Ryan, Band of Brothers, or even recent hits like Inglorious Basterds?
Phillips: Actually, I'm not really interested in WWII stories as a genre. I've never seen any of those films, except for Inglorious Basterds. I only went to see that because it was Tarantino. I did this book because it was so different to what I'd drawn before and I thought it would be a challenge artistically. It was! Uniforms and tanks and planes are hard to draw!
Nrama: It's been almost three solid years since 7 Psychopaths originally came out -- looking back, what do you feel you learned from this experiment? How do you feel you've grown as an artist since? And do you feel there's anything you could have done differently?
Phillips: I've learnt how to draw uniforms and tanks and planes! Hopefully I learn something from each project I do, and this was no different. I learnt I like seeing my work in over sized hard cover books. I'm working with the same editor and colourist again at the moment on a sci-fi book for Delcourt. Another challenge drawing something I haven't tackled before. Every script seems impossible before I start drawing it, but they usually turn out OK.
Nrama: Finally, for those who aren't 100% convinced about 7 Psychopaths, what would you tell them to get them onboard? Any fun moments you can tease?
Phillips: This is probably the only chance you'll get to see me draw uniforms and tanks and planes. And a roomful of Hitler impersonators...