Talking with "Hellblazer" Artist Sean Murphy

Thu, January 29th, 2009 at 9:58am PST | Updated: January 29th, 2009 at 10:03am

Comic Books
Alex Dueben, Staff Writer

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Artwork by Sean Murphy

Sean Murphy has been working in comics for years now, illustrating books for Dark Horse, IDW Publishing and DC Comics. He wrote and illustrated the graphic novel “Off Road” for Oni Press, co-wrote and helped illustrate “Outer Orbit” for Dark Horse. He’s currently under an exclusive contract at DC, and having just completed a two-issue arc on “Hellblazer,” written by Jason Aaron, Murphy is now finishing up another six-issue run of the long-running Vertigo series before moving onto other Vertigo projects with Grant Morrison and Brian Wood, projects that he isn’t allowed to talk about!

However, Murphy did talk to CBR News about how he works, the essays on art and comics he’s been publishing on DeviantArt, and his post-Vertigo plans -- including "Punk Rock Jesus."

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CBR: Your earlier work like “Crush” employed a different style than that of “Hellblazer” or other recent projects. What is that led you to change?

Sean Murphy: Haha. Oh man, please don't mention “Crush.” That was back when I inked with a micron and a French curve. As soon as the book came out, I was unhappy with it. There was only one time when a person came up to me at a con to have me sign “Crush,” and I spent ten minutes telling her why the art was bad and how she should feel bad for liking it.

What a prick I was. But these days I'm much better about playing it cool. Then again, I did just write that previous paragraph.

"Hellblazer" artwork by Sean Murphy

The thing that made me change was the same thing that changes any working artist who is very self-critical. With artistic growth, I find there's a pattern: expand beyond your comfort into your new influences, then tighten them into your own style. Expand, tighten, expand, tighten (insert sex joke here). When I expand, I feel uncertain and unhappy with my art, but then I tighten it up and things get better. And then I discover even more artists and styles that I want to incorporate. And that starts the cycle again.

CBR: You signed an exclusive with DC a while back. Some projects didn't quite work out. How did you end up working on “Hellblazer” and what about the gig appealed to you?

[Vertigo Executive Editor] Karen Berger is the one that got me my exclusive and I'm very grateful to her. I just want to write that down in case she's reading this.

When I got the exclusive contract, there were a couple projects that ended up on my desk. I picked two that I thought would be up my alley, but they both got delayed. So Karen found me a two-part arc I could work on in the meantime, “Hellblazer” #245 and 246 in summer 2008.

At first, I hated “Hellblazer.” The gruesome nature of the book turned me off, particularly a panel where I had to draw a guy banging the body of a dead dog in issues #245 and #246. After that, I told the editor, Casey Seijas, that I didn't ever want to do “Hellblazer” again. The scripts I was waiting on still weren't done even after I finished “Hellblazer” #246, so Karen tailored up another arc of “Hellblazer” for me.

Artwork by Sean Murphy

I took a day to think about it. I'm not a fan of horror, but drawing a guy in a jacket smoking a cig is pretty easy. And the book has a lot of black, something I used often when I'm inking. I decided that I could, in fact, get into “Hellblazer.” I made him more of my own and now I'm having a blast.

What's the hardest part of a project like “Hellblazer.” Is it fan expectations, worries about style, nailing those British locations and details you wouldn't necessarily be aware of?

The thing I love about cult books is that although they're not read by many, those that follow them are venomously protective. And it's great that people are like that because it shows that they're paying attention. If there was no fan moderation then anything would go, and for a book like “Hellblazer,” not everything should go.

But fans should also be realistic. If they're surrounding their favorite franchise by standing shoulder to shoulder then it's hard for an outsider to look into their circle. John Constantine is the anti-hero. He's against the norm. The last thing he deserves is to look like the typical "male lead" that we see in comics so often. I wanted him to be attractive, but not obviously attractive. I feel that giving him something simple like a pointy nose would really make him stand out. People with bigger noses aren't immediately seen as attractive, but on a second or third glance they might start to grow on you. In a way you have to look harder to see the beauty of the character, which I think is the nature of “Hellblazer.” He's in a dark world that might turn people off, but if you look past that then the beauty might reveal itself to you.

It's difficult for me when those hardcore fans totally miss the point. No matter how hard I work on backgrounds, casting shadows and creating each page to stand out as individual pieces of illustration, some people get tripped up on stupid shit like his pointy nose and the black jacket.

Artwork by Sean Murphy

Books like “Hellblazer” only sell 6,000-8,000 copies a month. It's not “Final Crisis” or a flagship moneymaker for DC, so in turn there's not a lot of coordinated attention on “Hellblazer.” There are only a handful of people that handle “Hellblazer,” and they're working on a dozen other things at the same time. When a book like “Hellblazer” gives you a gem it's most likely that the writer or artist took special interest in making it stand out. And that's what I think I'm doing.

Most people seem to like it, so I'm not worried. Jae Lee and Dave Johnson wrote me out of the blue to tell me that they like my stuff, so I'm doing something right. Eventually I'll convert the hardcore fans with the pointy nose, you wait and see.

Was there anything that influenced your take on Constantine or the way you drew the book? Reading the uncolored pages online, it looks as though you've really tried to combine the expressiveness of your more cartoony early work with the detail and realism you've worked on more recently.

The influences on “Hellblazer” are the same influences that I have when I'm on other stories, too. I think my main three influences are Bill Watterson, Jorge Zaffino and Sergio Toppi. I used to be really self conscious when people called me cartoony, but then I got an email from a pro who told me that all comics are, in essence, cartoons. So now I embrace it. I have some panels that look like photos and some panels have John with black dots for eyes. I want to get as big a range as I can because it's important for me to have the darkness of “Hellblazer” balanced out with some humor. No story should be just one thing.

On something like “Off Road,” it's you alone in a room. With Vertigo, it's a different kind of project and a different process. Are we going to see more solo books from you in the future?

Artwork by Sean Murphy

I very much want to be a 100% in-house storyteller one day. Like Frank Miller or Paul Pope. The money on “Hellblazer” is going into a bank account which I'm not touching until I'm done with my DC contract. Then I'll spend it on rent while I draw my next OGN. If no one pays me to do it, then I'll self publish. Hopefully “Hellblazer” will get enough hype where publishers will want to let me be my own machine.

You seem to have avoided superheroes, largely. Is that because you're not interested, because you're not offered them, what?

I'm not interested in superheroes. And superheroes have also avoided me. I just don't get those offers these days. I come at comic book art from a very different way than an artist on “Teen Titans” would. So unless it's something dark like Batman, Wolverine or Daredevil, a superhero book probably isn't in my future. I'd be open if the suits would let me screw with all the characters, but those characters are usually guarded.

When I signed with DC, I had to walk away from a Dr. Strange book where he was out of his costume and without super powers. I'd love to tackle that someday if Marvel is still willing.

Who are the creators and what are the comics you're really into at the moment?

Other than Zaffino, Toppi and Watterson, I end up studying a lot of Ashley Wood, Tomm Coker, Chris Brunner and maybe only a few others that I can't think of. I follow artists, not titles. Mostly I read non-fiction books about science, history and politics.

What's next for you and how do they play into your plans and ambitions?

Lately, I've been writing these long journals/essays on my DeviantArt page regarding art theory, evolution, and how it pertains to design. And it's not coffee house drivel. Everything I put down is data that I'm reading or hearing in documentaries. I'm just reporting. The information about art is out there we aren't getting enough of it. One of my long-term goals is to raise consciousness about the potential of comic books by getting creators (artists and writers) to think differently about their medium. Most of the comics out there, I feel, are doing us a disservice by perpetuating stories that don't have a lot of truth. It might have truth to a comic book reader, but if it had as much truth as “Shawshank Redemption” then people might start giving us more credit. I'd like to see more Art Spiegelmans and Paul Popes out there. I'd like the US comic book industry to be more like Europe's.

"Punk Rock Jesus" artwork by Sean Murphy

But I'm not known as a writer yet. Hopefully that'll change. When I'm done with “Hellblazer,” I'll do whichever DC script is ready to go. After that, I plan on doing my next OGN titled “Punk Rock Jesus.” After that I'll find other stories and scripts that lead me to my long term goals.

Have you gotten a good response from the DeviantArt community about your ideas?

Since DA has a journal feature, I try to use it in a way that gets people’s heads into gear. I try to post things that might be helpful to people who are looking for more information of the business of comics, comic theory, and the aesthetics of art and how it’s actually math. I try to keep opinion out and only write things that are based on fact and science. I’m just a reporter, really.

I don’t just want comics to survive, I want comics to get better and to command more respect. And if artist are out there working without knowing that design is based on math and that story is based on truth, then comics are going to continue to suck. Most of us haven’t taken the medium to it’s full potential and it’s not going to happen unless people are going to be smarter about it. Everything I’ll ever draw, write or say is hopefully pushing toward these goals. Through words or by example.

The feedback is great on DA. The people who comment do so intelligently and respectfully. I’ve been called out once or twice on something offensive, and I’m sure I’ll never be asked to speak at [Savannah College of Art and Design,] but overall it’s been a positive undertaking.

What is “Punk Rock Jesus?”

It’ll be a black-and-white book, over 150 pages and I’m going to start without a publisher. When I’m a good chunk in I’ll take it around and find it a home. Maybe Vertigo or Dark Horse but that might be wishful thinking. I’ve described the story a bit for Newsarama, so instead of repeating that I’ll just say this: “PRJ” has everything I’ve ever wanted to say and draw in a story. It encompasses terrorism, politics, media and religion in the American era that is quickly approaching as we speed ahead toward overpopulation, mass flooding and the battle between science and gods. But it’ll also have some cool action, guns and a motorcycle.

Other than the upcoming six-issue arc of “Hellblazer,” can you talk about what you're working on next? We’ve heard Grant Morrison’s “Warcop” may not happen?

There are a couple books on the table after “Hellblazer” is done. I think that “Warcop” is on hold, but there’s another Morrison script in the works. There’s also a Brian Wood script that looks ready to go, so I’m up for that as well.

In my experience, I’ve found that things change from day to day and week to week, so who knows what I’ll actually end up doing. Whatever Karen Berger decides. And I’m happy to do it.

 

TAGS:  sean murphy, hellblazer, punk rock jesus, vertigo, off road

 
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