Artist Sean Murphy has steadily been rising through the ranks of comic creators. He's worked on everything from Star Wars to Spike and creator-owned to Big Two super-heroes but he seems to have found his home in the auspices of DC Comics' bastion of original comics, Vertigo. It's been a long road for Murphy – sometimes even going Off Road -- but Murphy's finally found a smooth stretch of asphalt where he's been able to let his art shine. Under Vertigo's umbrella, Murphy's been working on issues of Hellblazer and his recent miniseries Joe the Barbarian with writer Grant Morrison. With the finale of Joe several months ago, Sean has returned to comic shelves with his next project: a spinoff miniseries to the popular vampire period piece American Vampire.
The first issue on shelves now, the five-issue American Vampire: Survival of the Fittest puts Murphy with creator/writer Scott Snyder to tell the WW2-era story of two vampire hunters on trail of a rumored cure for vampirism. The erstwhile team of Felicia Book and Cash McCogan are delving into war-torn Europe with the secretive group called the Vassals of the Morningstar, but their connection to renown vampire Skinner Sweet is putting them in harm’s way more than any normal excursion into Nazi-controlled territory would be.
We spoke with the artist about his work on the new series, why he’s a good fit, and why this was its own mini-series.
Newsarama: Let’s give you a softball question first, Sean – what’s on your drawing board today?
Sean Murphy: I just finished page 15 for American Vampire: Survival of the Fittest #2. To the side is a stack of notes for my next Vertigo project, some warm up sketches I did of Vogue ads, and a cold cup of coffee. I've been using the same table since I was 10 and have no plans to upgrade.
Nrama: You’re coming on this project right after finishing up Joe The Barbarian – but how did you come to know Scott and agree to work with him for this book?
Murphy: I wasn't sure that I was going to re-sign with DC, so at first I turned Scott down. And it broke my heart to do it: I don't read a lot of comics but American Vampire was the best one I read last year. The artist/writer connection on that book was very strong and it's exactly the type of book I would seek out. But after Joe, my only goal was to find a home for a book that’s been brewing in me for years, so I turned it down. A few weeks later Vertigo agreed to publish my next project as long as I did American Vampire as well. I was thrilled at the deal and called Scott right away to tell him I was on board. We've since become friends and NYC drinking buddies. We'll often get together and compare notes on the inner workings of DC.
The thing I respect most about Scott is his no-nonsense attitude. A lot of things that happen behind the curtain in comics can be very frustrating. Many people have a lot to complain about, but few will bother because they're afraid to rock the boat and get blacklisted or something. Scott and I love comics, but we're not blinded by the glitter because in the end we see it as a job. And if something isn't working, we're not afraid to hop into a cab and storm the DC office. 99% of pros will never do that.
Nrama: This project is an intriguing compliment to your first major series, Crush, which was also based in vampire territory. What’s it like to come back at this, with years of experience behind you as well as working on a pre-defined universe?
Murphy: I didn't even realize that until you pointed it out! I'm not normally a vampire fan, but I guess vampires feel differently about me.
The universe they created for the American west was so solid that it was a breeze for me to imagine it in the 1940s. I love history and doing research, so drawing things like New York, Romanian castles and Nazi armor is a welcome change from other books I've been involved with. I refer to Rafael's work a lot when I'm interpreting his characters, but for the most part the Survival of the Fittest plot is separate enough from the ongoing that I feel comfortable making it my own.
Nrama: You’ve worked on pre-set universes before such as Batman/Scarecrow: Year One, but American Vampire is smaller --- just a handful of issues before you. What’s it like to jump on a project that’s already got the world somewhat laid out but not to
the extent of the super-hero books or say licensed titles?
Murphy: Each book I've been involved with over the last few years has led to me reworking a lot of the pre-set designs. At first it wasn't on purpose, but now it's very much a conscious effort. I don't think I'd take on a book where editorial would deny me the pleasure of reworking some of the designs to ad the “Murphy” flare. Vertigo books like American Vampire are probably more open to interpretations than most DCU books. Which is why I love it.
I reread the series before starting Survival of the Fittest and paid special attention to Cash and Felicia in the Vegas storyline. Scott did a great job filling me in on each of their motivations. For Felicia, he told me that she was very aggressive—like a female Wolverine. To match that, I shortened her hair and gave her thicker eyebrows. And because she's more empowered than other women of her time, I have her in pants ala Katharine Hepburn instead of a typical house-dress and heels. Later on she's forced to wear a dress, and she barely knows how to put it on.
For Cash, Scott envisioned a Robert Redford type. I gave him a low sitting NY-Irish style hat to hide his eyes. Because his son is suffering from vampirism, hiding Cash's eyes is a way to visually reflect his mourning—like a veil. There's also a secret he's is going to reveal toward the end of the series, and at that time I'll remove the hat so he'll have proper eye contact with the reader. These are small things, but stuff like this is often overlooked when it comes to storytelling.
Nrama: This isn’t just another issue of American Vampire – it’s a period piece set on the European front of World War 2. Was the setting, and all those accouterments that come with it, part of the draw for you?
Murphy: Hell yes! For example, I thought the Nazis would all be wearing white due to the snowy surroundings of the Romanian mountains. But in 1939 they hadn't designed white uniforms yet (they were still wearing the typical drab green of the SS). To blend into the snow better, the soldiers would take white bedsheets and re-purpose it into their uniforms. It's the kind of small detail that I love to think about even though most people won't notice.
Not only are Scott's scripts clear, complete, and on time, they're also malleable enough for him to add things we might come up with later. So when I asked for a motorcycle chase scene, he threw it in without a second thought. So by issue 5 I should be neck deep in Nazi style BMWs with machine gun-mounted side cars—totally looking forward to that. This book is becoming a clear nod to Indiana Jones I'd say.
Nrama: Starting with your work on Hellblazer you began experimenting more with your artwork on the page – playing with format, page design, and even some texture. How would you describe what you’re doing on this series?
Murphy: Before starting this book, I went back and studied my old Hellblazer work because I wanted to rid myself of the style I used on Joe the Barbarian. Like Hellblazer, American Vampire: Survival of the Fittest is an adult book and requires a lot more realism and a lot more black, so I wanted the style of the books to look similar. I tend to think of Survival of the Fittest as my Hellblazer work, part 2.
One of the things I'm trying to stay away from is using too many cheap tricks to “wow” people—tons of bleed pages, floating panels, broken panel borders, etc. I was trying to prove myself with Hellblazer so I was willing to be more “90's Image” with the page designs. For Survival of the Fittest I want to be more purposeful with how I'm drawing things. Survival of the Fittest is more about storytelling and pacing I think. With Scott's scripts it's very easy to do because his beats are very clear.
Nrama: Rafael’s done some amazing work on American Vampire so far, and of all the artists doing work at Vertigo I see you and him as the most like one another. I know this interview’s about you, but I want to know what you think of Rafael’s work? His career has kind of followed a similar path as yours – independent work, then some superheroes, but really making a name for himself at Vertigo.
Murphy:Rafael and I are both fans of each others work. And not because we're both pros or because it's expected when it comes to these sorts of interviews. It might be too soon to tell, but I'm guessing we might have a bit of a bromance here. He's my spicy Brazilian man crush.
But all kidding aside, Rafael has turned American Vampire into an artist's book. Everyone involved has been an artist working at the top of his game. It must be something about Scott that attracts these guys. Maybe Scott's really a vampire and whenever he bites an artist's neck, he gains control over that artist's schedule.
Nrama: What’s it like sharing the universe with Rafael, and being able to stay true to your own style while still fitting in with what he’s done, especially with character design?
Murphy: Rafael and I are similar in our approach to comics I think. When I look at his stuff I can tell that he truly enjoys drawing. Most importantly, he can “bring it” with every page. He's also got an eye for cartooning while maintaining a commitment to dramatic emotion—especially with his women. I have a similar vision when I think about the kind of art I'd like to see in comics, so I think we're a natural pair to handle the current epic in Vampire.
Nrama: Now that you’ve already completed an issue or so of the book, what’s surprised you? Is there something that came out different than you planned, or something you enjoyed more once you drew it as opposed to when you just heard about it from Scott or in the script?
Murphy: I startled myself when I drew the first cover to Survival of the Fittest. For weeks I'd been hearing about the ideas that Scott wanted to talk about: Romania, Nazis, Tesla technology, etc. But for some dumb reason I still was thinking of it as a western. But that all changed when I started research on the first cover.
I wanted Cash to have a gun, so my first thought was Tommy gun. But if he was undercover and surrounded by Hitler's army, there's no way he'd be able to smuggle in a Tommy gun. So I started looking at German machine guns instead. And the coolest looking one I found was the Wehrmach MG-52. But I ignored it at first because the cover was beginning to look nothing like American Vampire. Eventually I started understanding that the visuals of this book were going to look nothing like what Rafael had done so far. It wasn't until I began thinking about Survival of the Fittest as a 1940s-style-Matrix-meets-Men-in-Black that things became clear to me.
When I was done, I sent it off to Vertigo thinking they were going to hate it because it didn't look like American Vampire at all. But they loved it. And that was the green light to make Survival of the Fittest my own.
Nrama: I know you treat each page pretty special, and when I see your original work for sale the prices are always a bit different. Is there a specific page or scene that you think stands out opposed to the rest in issue #1?
Murphy: I'm not sure what you mean by the prices—my dealer and I price them out depending on the content, whether or not it's a splash, etc. Often times the one I love the most is the least valuable in sales. But I do find that I sell a lot of stuff to fellow artists, and often times they like the same pages I do—not necessarily the splashes and the action pages.
My favorite set of pages in issue one of Felicia walking through the empty Museum of Natural History in New York. Not only are there a ton of cool exhibits in the sequence, but we also get to see the levels beneath the museum—the stuff closed to the public. This is the Men in Black moment where we get to see the headquarters of the Vassals and there was a ton of great stuff to draw. I even found a caricature of Darwin as a monkey and stuck it into the background on a shelf. There are a lot of Easter eggs for people who are science savvy.
Nrama: People got their first taste of what to expect from this when you did a variant cover for the main American Vampire series, but now that we’ve seen the covers to the first two issues of Survival of the Fittest you’ve really given people something to sink their teeth into. When you’re getting down to covers, what are you trying to covey – and how is that different than laying out an interior page?
Murphy: I only started getting better at covers once I did the Hellblazer set. I drew those when I was waiting for a Joe script, so I had plenty of time for the “what kind of cover artist do I want to be seen as” questions. In other words, I knew myself as an interior artist, but not as a cover artist.
The Hellblazer, Joe the Barbarian (the final issues) and American Vampire covers are when I started to find myself. They're heavily inspired by Toppi and some poster designs from the 60s (guys like Peak). I like working with a lot of different visual elements that ask the reader to look closer and for a longer period. I think they can be enjoyed more on the second and third viewing more than most covers, but are maybe a little overwhelming on the first. Either way, by this point people are probably aware that their eyes are going to get a workout when looking at my stuff.