By Jason Thibault
Late last year Newsarama had a feature on rising stars in comics. Artist Sean Gordon Murphy was one of the featured creators. I stopped dead in my tracks as soon as I saw his art. I read the interview twice, sought out his website and just knew that I’d have to track him down for more Q&A’s. Seven months later I give you this interview. Let’s get to it.
What inspired you to first start drawing? Did you struggle in your formative years or did it come easy to you?
Drawing came easier to me than it did to the other kids in my kindergarten class. I remember one day when the teacher asked us to draw self portraits, so I did mine and then looked around at the other kids’ drawings: they were awful. I couldn’t understand why they couldn’t see that the nose was located between the eyes and mouth, not underneath mouth. Or why they thought people had four fingers instead of five. Like with most talents, I think being a good artist starts with having a knack for it.
First professional work (piece / year) and maybe a quick story behind it.
My first pro work was for Tidal Wave doing a comic called Zack Raven. I never got paid. From what I can tell the owner has published that stuff illegally and is continuing to burn people under a new name, Bluewater. I think they’re with Alias Comics or something like that.
But shortly after that I got my first PAID gig with Dark Horse doing a Star Wars Tales 8 pager with Scott Lobdell. The Tales stories were a lot of fun.
Were you self-taught or formally educated? (or mixture of both, mentors etc…)
Both. I had a master/apprentice type of thing with an artist named Leslie Swank who was a WWII vet and a great illustrator. He put a brush in my hands at an early age, and as much as I hated it, eventually the brush made sense. But I stupidly switched to microns and sharpies for a while. It wasn’t until I was inking a Zach Howard (Aliens, Shaun of the Dead) on a Vertigo project that I picked up the brush and quill again. It was a little like riding a bike.
I also went to MassArt and SCAD, but formal art education is a little overrated. We all spend a TON of time in a room alone, working from scripts, analyzing lines and messing with perspective that I think it’s safe to say that we’re ALL mostly self taught. Every time you draw something you’re giving yourself another lesson in art.
Tools of the trade: Taking a quick glance over at your pens, brushes etc…what tools have you mainly been using over the last few years?
Mainly brushes: Da Vinci sable hair #1-#3, also a 102 crow quill nibs and calligraphy nibs. I use rough 500lbs Bristol and speedball ink. For mistakes I use Pro White mixed with some water. I rarely use microns except for quick fixes.
Which artists or creators do you return to for a quick boost of inspiration? Who are the masters of ink?
The three guys whom I keep going back to are Sergio Toppi, Jorge Zaffino and Bill Watterson. I’m basically a blend of those three guys, but dressed up a bit to hide the fact that I’m ripping them off. I think “normal” American comic styles are stale, so I tend to seek out the guys who have a more interesting take on style and storytelling. Sloppy styles are grabbing me more lately because a) they have more energy, b) they’re illusively easy but hard to master, and c) they’re more organic and natural.
I have nothing against mainstream styles at all, in fact I’m glad they exist because they fuel 80% comic book sales. Without mainstream styles, the indy styles would have zero funding. Plus they’d have nothing to revolt against.
Once a client has handed off an illustration job to you, how do you first tackle the job. Could you give us a quick overview of your process?
First I’ll try to read the client. Is he picky? Does he know what he wants, or is he allowing me to just be myself on the project? Then I’ll operate accordingly, doing my best to be thorough and ask lots of questions. I think clients like to be let in on the process as much as you can allow them. Sometimes I’ll specifically ask them for references or other questions just to keep them busy while I get to work. If a client is unreasonable or wants to make me into a monkey, I’ll usually sense it quickly and then decide not to do the project.
After the project is done I’ll explain what I did and why I did it. Usually the client is happier knowing that you gave his project a lot of thought, and throwing him nuggets about this or that is like him watching the “extra features” on a DVD. He can go back to his meeting with the “inside scoop” and feels more involved with the process.
But not all clients need to be handled like that. Comics are great because usually the editors don’t really care. As long as you’re on time and follow the script, they’ll leave you alone.
What’s currently sitting in your mp3 / CD player / turntable?
I’ve been listening to a lot of Clutch lately.
What’s hanging on your walls and what is your favorite piece of art that you own (not created by you)?
I own a Rocketeer print signed by Dave Stevens. I bought it from Golden Apple in LA when they were switching locations a few years ago. It was only $200, framed and everything. I don’t own a lot of original art, and I have even less comic book “stuff”, so it’s weird that my favorite thing is a Rocketeer poster. But it’s nice reminder of an artist who was wildly talented and widely unappreciated. But maybe some of that is Stevens’ fault. Some people don’t want the limelight of comics and I respect that.
What’s the last novel you read and last movie that you saw that you’d recommend? Which movies and books do you always return to?
Last book I read was Demon Haunted World by Carl Sagan. The last movie I saw in the theater was Moon with Sam Rockwell. I recommend both.
Current and upcoming projects?
Right now I’m penciling and inking issue 2 (of 6) of a Grant Morrison book called Joe the Barbarian. I’m also waiting for my Hellblazer work to finally be scheduled. But after my exclusive contract with DC is up I plan on working on my next OGN.
What would you tell an aspiring artist who is working his ass off but still needs and wants to break through to the next level?
To pull off being a self-supporting professional artist, it’s not enough to just want it. You have to be smart about it, constantly analyze your work and your business plan, utilized new technology like Deviant Art and have a website on the side, plus you need to reach out to other artists who you have something in common with. I think people should be as creative with their 5-year plan as they are with their art.
To an artist who’s still struggling after many years, I might ask, “what could you be doing wrong? Is it your artistic ability or are you not hustling enough on the side?” Some might say that they’ve had bad luck, and that I understand because I had bad luck for a long time, too. But you can defeat luck by creating opportunity, and you create opportunity by continuing to hustle and though brutal scrutiny of every line that you’re putting down. It’s important to find that next gig, but I think it’s also important to think about your entire career as a legacy. Legacy is a strong word but what’s the harm in taking your life that seriously?