Crossing The Pond: Liam Sharp talks "Testament," "Red Sonja" and "Event Horizon"

Fri, October 7th, 2005 at 12:00am PDT

Comic Books
Arune Singh, Staff Writer

"Testament" #1
For most North American comic book fans, their first taste of U.K artist Liam Sharp's work came in the form of Wildstorm's "The Possessed" mini-series, just a few years back. But in that time, Sharp has made a name for himself with his self-published "Event Horizon" anthology and will be embarking on a new project with DC Comics/Vertigo entitled "Testament," debuting this winter along with best-selling writer Douglas Rushkoff (who recently spoke with CBR News). There's also his imminent "Red Sonja" one-shot with Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray, "One More Day." In between putting the finishing touches on the second issue of "Event Horizon," Sharp spoke with CBR News about his new projects.

For those unfamiliar with Rushkoff's work, he's the author of ten best selling books, a professor at New York University as well as a documentary writer and presenter who has contributed to the PBS television series "Frontline." "Douglas' work mainly focuses on the ways people, institutions, and cultures create, share, and influence each other's values-- media, and cyberspace, being the landscape wherein this interaction takes place-- and how we participate in that process," explained Sharp. "'Testament' riffs on some of these themes, the notion being that stories can influence and change the way we perceive reality. There's already been a little upset in the more traditional-- what Douglas calls fundamentalist-- camps because of his new interpretation of some ancient biblical tales that run parallel to the near-future action. They challenge the general preconceptions about the stories based on what he studied in the Torah, the actual Hebrew manuscripts, but I won't go into that too much as it's very much Douglas' territory.

"To me it's about open-mindedness, freedom of thought, and how we are controlled in ways we don't even see. The main characters are an eclectic gang with different backgrounds, and often conflicting beliefs. It's about an increasingly Big Brother-like state trying to impose even more control upon it's own people, and a tiny revolutionary gang who resist via cybernetic and shamanistic means. Outside of the two main timeframes is another realm occupied by the gods, Molloch and Astarte, amongst other ancient idols, who influence the action in both times simultaneously through subtle means, and for their own initially un-revealed reasons. It's an action story, a sci-fi fable and an intellectual debate all rolled into one-- with big robots!"

Sharp said agreeing to work on "Testament" was a no-brainer as he feels it's the kind of job a creator looks for, but only gets offered once in his career. "The comics industry, it seems to me, is 90% driven by the writers these days," said Sharp. "A poor artist can still find himself working on a classic if the writing is great. The same cannot be said the other way around. A crap story will lose readers no matter the beauty of the art. Testament is inspired, innovative, and vast, and it required somebody with a large range of styles. In short, it was a near perfect fit for me artistically, but I was also drawn to the message it contains. Think for yourself. Don't be dictated to. Don't let your society-- even cyberspace-- mold you."

"Testament's" subject matter has already divided many fans, with some saying that Rushkoff's writing is "left wing propaganda" and some hailing it as an "open minded view of religion." "Comics have ever been a home for controversy!" comments Sharp. "I don't think it worried me as such. I'd say I'm a cynical agnostic now, but I was once a practicing Christian, so the deeper themes of the book were certainly of interest to me. I was christened, or baptised, at 13, and then confirmed. But I lost my faith years back. I still think the New Testament contains a great message, that there was most likely a Jesus, and that he was a very great man. I love the Old Testament stories, too. I just can't buy into the concept of God any more. It doesn't make any sense to me. For instance, why would a super-powerful being do all this? When you look out of a plane window, even the greatest cities on the planet are practically flat. Space is incomprehensibly vast, and most likely teaming with life. Our insignificance is so painfully clear to me that it makes life seem incredibly fragile and precious. Why create all that, and set up two realms to punish or reward these tiny creatures for all eternity? It seems kind of like a kid with a magnifying glass burning ants."

Sharp's struggles with his faith began in the 1980s, during one of Billy Graham's "Mission England" crusades. After attending one, his faith was rocked even further, and his feelings on organized belief systems grew shakier. "The thing is I still so much wanted to believe in something. I remained on a personal spiritual quest for the remainder of my twenties. I looked at other faiths like Buddhism, and I flirted with meditation, attempted astral travel, all sorts of things in order to believe in something! I started to get into anthropology, the origins of faith in different cultures. I read a lot, kept my mind open. I listened to people. But the more I learned the more it seemed that God was an invention, created to justify our self-awareness and to give us a sense of purpose, of reason. To better validate our births and deaths. Sometimes to give us a moral code. Or sometimes the gods explained natural phenomena, like the weather, stars, the sun and moon, lightening, etc. There were lots of reasons for us to invent gods, but not so many reasons-- to me at least-- for a god to invent us.

"So this book is of interest to me on many levels, though I'm certainly not conflicted," continued Sharp. "I think in many ways I'm still looking for something, keeping my eyes open. Contrary to what people might think, I'm seeing this book as a means to learning more, not as an attack on any religion. I'm interested in new perspectives. I also have a great love of ancient mythology, classical tales. It's terrific stuff to draw, too.

"I retain the utmost respect for all religions that preach peace-- and that's at the core of most of them, though you'd hardly believe it sometimes! I almost envy people who have unflinching faith-- oh to be so secure! But I do believe it's incredibly important to question everything, and to not just take people's word for it. Not to blindly trust our wise and our elders, as they trusted theirs, just because they tell us to. I like Douglas' idea that we should be our own gurus. And as for it being controversial, I think it's a matter of perspective. Douglas Rushkoff is a spiritual man-- more so than me actually.

"He's a professor, a scholar, and a thinker. His studies of the Torah proved eye-opening to him, and when he put it into historical context, the story was not what he had come to understand it to be, almost the opposite in fact. In his opinion, it was a rebel faith that dared to challenge preconceptions, encourage freethinking and was all-inclusive. It had to adapt and be adaptable in a world that was perilous to the Jew. It had to be mobile, and the ancient messages in those stories, he found, clearly meant something different to the people of those times. Douglas isn't rewriting anything with these stories, just presenting alternative interpretations. And why shouldn't we constantly revise our understanding of such ancient works? Life is ever changing, people are ever changing, so why should faiths remain frozen in time at a point when some other men decided enough was enough, and that these works should change no more? I think it's all just incredibly interesting stuff!"

With that kind of passion invested in the series and the core concepts behind "Testament," it's no surprise that Sharp has added some subtleties and nuances to his work to convey that energy. "There's such a slow evolution in the kind of work I do that it's impossible to perceive as you're doing it, but I have been looking at some classical illustrators like Clement Cole for inspiration on the biblical sections. I wanted these to have a different texture and mood to the modern day sections, which owe more to artists like Glenn Fabry and Moebius. The guys at Vertigo work in a quite unique way, something I've not done before. Every step is considered in minutest detail, every stage looked over, so that's been interesting. I think it's making my storytelling much stronger and Douglas is bringing some of his film school training to bear on it, too. What's great, though, is the story's breadth and scope, which actually allows for differing styles as I mentioned earlier, so this gives me room to explore technique whilst remaining on a very tight leash."

Sharp's technique has been applied to a lot of "creepy" art, mostly horror pieces, and while he's known for that, "Testament" doesn't fit the mold. "[laughs] Funnily enough Testament might be a great many things, but I'm not sure creepy is one of them! No, the truth is you take whatever job you're offered-- it's an incredibly tough industry to be working in at this time-- and it just worked out that way over the last several years. You do one creepy job well, then you might get offered another, and before long it's what you're known for. At the start, I was more known for making super-hero stories a bit more brutal than the norm. Then I was known for my barbarians. Who knows what they'll be saying about me in the next few years! I try to be versatile, but truth be known the thing I find hardest is drawing reality. Sci-fi, fantasy, horror, I love it. Cars, buildings, modern interiors scare the hell out of me, but I'm rising to the challenge as there's lots of that kind of stuff in 'Testament,' too!"

Working with Rushkoff has proven to be a great experience for Sharp and he says that the relationship is based on, "Tremendous mutual respect. I enjoy reading his work, and I love the scripts. He's been hugely complimentary about my art, though he had not come across it before. I think there's synergy because I can respond to the requirements of the story. I can bring authenticity to the settings, and that was important. He didn't want the Old Testament sections to look sleek and mainstream, they had to be illustrative. I've worked in a very broad range of styles and techniques over the years, and clearly this gave me a great advantage when they came looking for an artist for the series, as for once it was an actual requirement! Personally I couldn't ask for more than that from a script."

As mentioned earlier, Sharp's other big project is "Event Horizon," from his Mam Tor company, and the artist is quite excited about the second volume hitting the stands. "'Event Horizon' is just unbelievably great. I can't put into words quite how wonderful it has being creating and putting it together, how fantastically generous people have been, and how plain astonishing the work proved to be. We created it to showcase some criminally over-looked talent and to allow name creators to cut loose and actually realize some of their artistic ambitions. It's really unique in the marketplace right now, and it's produced out of love for what's become an often cynical medium. There are no super heroes, but other than that pretty much anything goes.

"In many ways it's not unlike the original 'Metal Hurlant,' as set up by Moebius, Dionnet, and the other members of Les Humanoids. It's offspring, 'Heavy Metal' magazine, was certainly an inspiration. The first book, number one of a planned twelve, features work by Steve Niles, Glenn Fabry, Ash Wood, Brian Holguin, Chris Weston, myself, and a host of other creators, and it just rocks. Book two adds Simon Bisley, Greg Staples, Alan Grant, Ben Oliver and others to the list of creators, many of which have followed up their work from book one. Book one has already doubled in value online in some places, and there are precious few copies left now, even though we printed twice what the orders suggested our sales would be. It's a compendium of sci-fi, horror and fantasy work, with a splatter of humor in there too. We had very high production values, with glossy paper and spot varnish on the cover, and it just looks sexy.

"We've called it pulp fiction for the twenty first century as it also features some illustrated text stories, so there's stuff in there you can really get your teeth into," continued Sharp. "And already some of the unknown artists featured have started picking up work since it's publication. When we launched at the Bristol comic convention in May we just took over-- we were swamped for the whole show! All the pros lined up to buy copies, asked how they could be featured in future issues. It was like they had been yearning for something like it, something that came directly from the creators, from the heart. Something maybe a little bit renegade, with a kind of punk ethic, that saw creators producing work entirely different to what they do in the mainstream. We got great reviews in SFX magazine, Maxim US, among others. We confounded the experts who said nobody wanted anthologies, and they didn't sell. That people wouldn't buy this kind of subgenre fare. Yes, it's been a big success, and I'm sure it's going to grow, too. We have European editions starting to come out, and we're looking into figurines and other offshoot products."

The list of creators-- many of whom Sharp is keeping under wraps to create some speculation-- is far more diverse than many might expect and the reason they're flocking to "Event Horizon" is obvious to Sharp. "The appeal is simple. When you start working in comics at the outset you're filled up with enthusiasm and excitement. You have your heroes, you idea of what you wish to achieve, and the kind of stuff you'd really like to draw. If you're an artist you've often got a bunch of characters you've dreamed up, or a premise, or a concept, that you hope one day to explore. For me it was people like Richard Corben, Moebius, Liberatore, Bilal that really inspired me. They were auteurs, crafting their own visions with incredible passion and artist abandon, and I lapped it up. I wanted to do brave, provocative, adult, sexy, unflinching, cerebral work. I wanted to be an auteur myself! But the reality is entirely different. I thought I'd work in a European style doing fantasy and sci-fi stories that I had written, for magazine's like Epic Illustrated and the various continental equivalents, but I ended up working on superhero titles, and the magazines I yearned to work for no longer existed. My point is, you so rarely get the chance to do exactly what you wanted to do setting out, and we-- within reason-- offer that chance in 'Event Horizon.' What we won't do are superheroes, we don't want to compete with the mainstream companies. We want the stuff nobody else wants to publish because it's too adult, too weird, or just what's perceived as non-commercial."

Also onboard is CBR columnist Rich Johnston, made infamous by his "Lying In The Gutters" rumor column, and while you might assume Sharp would loathe Johnston (as some creators do), he has nothing but kind words for his fellow countryman. "Well for the most part he's been very kind about my work-- he gave me an incredible review for my artbook, "Sharpenings," and he's been very behind the whole concept of 'Event Horizon.' I really enjoyed his 'Chase Variant' scripts and found him to be flexible to work with. I even threw out his first submission as not being right for the book!"

For the foreseeable future, fans of Liam Sharp will no doubt rejoice as the U.K artist continues to invade the American comic book market, and he encourages new fans to check out his work. "'Testament' is a thoughtful, exciting, challenging epic by one of today's most renowned thinkers-- and me! It's incredibly colored, too, by Jamie Grant of 'WE3' fame. And Check out the Red Sonja one-shot, which should be out any moment now, too. There's some stuff in there I'm really bloody proud of.

"You really have to check out 'Event Horizon' though. It's unlike anything else on the shelves. It's beautiful, unique and I think it contains some genuine works of genius. Book 2 is also 60 pages larger than book one, but we're keeping the price the same. And impossible though it may seem, I actually think it's going to be even better! Imagine that!"

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