Fun lovin’ Criminal – talking with Sean Phillips

Published On October 24, 2006 | By Joe Gordon | Comics, Interviews

FPI: Today we’re delighted to be talking with British artist Sean Phillips who has kindly taken some time from working on his new series with Ed Brubaker, Criminal. Hi, Sean and thanks very much for joining us. Like a number of British writers and artists you have come through that great proving ground that is 2000AD and the Judge Dredd Megazine, working with John Wagner, Warren Ellis and Garth Ennis among others. While British readers may be familiar with this others won’t, so could you tell us a bit about your days as an art droid for Tharg and how you first got into comics work?

Sean: Actually before working on 2000AD I’d already been working in comics for eight years, starting in 1980. I met someone who drew for the numerous weekly comics aimed at girls that were being published back then and apprenticed with him I suppose and had my first pencilled story which he inked published when I was 15. His name was Ken Houghton and we did quite a lot of work together until I left school at 18 to go to art college. I still drew a few stories while there for the same comics, but started inking myself then. While I was at college I showed my samples to Bryan Talbot who lived in the same town, who then got the 2000AD writer Pat Mills to look at them. Pat liked my work, but didn’t have anything for me then.

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FPI: You were also involved with another British comic from that era which may not have had the longevity of 2000AD but is still regarded fondly by many readers here, Crisis. Crisis always seemed to me like an attempt to do something different in Brit comics, aimed more at a more mature audience perhaps? How did you get into working for Crisis and how did you find your time there?

Sean: Well Pat remembered my work a couple of years later when he was writing for Crisis and they were looking for some people to help out the regular artists. Each story in Crisis had 12 or 14 painted pages every two weeks so the schedule was almost impossible to keep up. A few people including Disraeli and Duncan Fegredo started doing fill-ins on Crisis then as well. I stuck around for a few years painting various stories for Crisis until it was cancelled, as well as painting Judge Dredd and Devlin Waugh for 2000AD.

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FPI: Sometimes when artists from Blighty start working for the major US publishers like DC or Marvel we don’t see them doing so much work for UK titles anymore, but in your case you were back working on 2000AD later on in the 90s, notably with Dan Abnett with Sinister Dexter. What drew you back to 2000AD and would you be happy to do more work commissioned in the UK if it were available?

Sean: I went back to 2000AD because I was asked and had the time to do something for them. I would be happy to do more work for publishers outside of the States time permitting. In fact I’m almost finished with drawing an album for French publishers Delcourt.

FPI: Oh, that sounds intriguing – we’ll have to come back to you closer to publication on that one so you can tell us a bit about it. You’re now known to a much larger, international audience through your work for the likes of DC and Marvel, which of course takes in your new work with Ed Brubaker, Criminal. But Criminal isn’t your first time collaborating with Ed – care to tell us a bit about your previous works with Batman and the Eisner-nominated Sleeper?

Sean: I first worked with Ed inking Michael Lark’s pencils on Scene of the Crime. Ed and I then started on Batman Gotham Noir, an Elseworlds set in the ’40’s. I also pencilled an issue of Batman, #603, when Ed was the writer of the series. We liked working together and then I was offered Sleeper with Ed. With that book we really developed a good working relationship and decided we’d keep working together as much as possible from then on. Even though Sleeper was set in the Wildstorm universe and used a few established characters it felt like we were left to do what we wanted. Which turned out to be a creator owned book with no super-hero or fantasy trappings where we could really do whatever we wanted, called Criminal.

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FPI: Presumably the more you work together the more you can tune into each other’s wavelengths. Did you find that with Criminal the pair of you work together more easily now you are more familiar with each other’s rhythms? How does working on Criminal differ from your previous ventures with Ed?

Sean: With Criminal we get to decide everything from the logo to the story to the character designs to what back-up features we want. Because the book is published through Marvel’s Icon imprint, we have to turn in a complete book ready to print, and along with Val Staples on colour and general production duties we do that every month. As Ed and I own Criminal we feel that we have to get everything just right and are happy to do that to get the best book out there that we can. With the other books we did together we were playing with other people’s toys and as fun as that is, you have to give them back sometime. Ed and I both plan on producing Criminal as long as possible for years to come. Hopefully within two years Criminal will be all I’m doing in comics, leaving me some time to do more painting.

FPI: Crime fiction seems to be going through a resurgence in popularity in comics at the moment, with work like Gotham Central, Joe Pruett’s Untouchables and David Lloyd’s recent Kickback. Since this is a new series for readers, could you tell us a bit about the setup in Criminal and what it offers the reader which is different from other crime genre entries? And I believe this is a ‘straight’ crime tale with no superheroic elements thrown in, is that right?

Sean: That’s right, Criminal is a straight crime book. With Sleeper I always felt a bit restrained having the super-hero elements and now we have the chance to not have those. Ed has this to say about Criminal…

“Meet Leo, who can plan the perfect heist… but only if he can be convinced the job is safe enough. See, Leo is not a shoot-first think-later guy; Leo is a professional. But to some criminals, even professionals, the right payout is worth almost any risk. So when an old friend and a crooked cop approach with a plan to seize millions of dollars in contraband from an evidence transport van, Leo must make tough choices, knowing there’s nothing you can trust less in this world than a cop on the take.”

FPI: I know from my own experience as a bookseller that the crime fiction genre is an incredibly popular one with readers. What is it about the genre which draws in writers and artists do you think?

Sean: For me it’s mostly a chance to draw rain slicked shadowy streets and tortured, frowning anti-heroes. I like to draw people standing around talking in recognizable real world environments.

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FPI: One thing I have noticed in crime fiction is that it isn’t unusual to see influences from other works be they films, TV, books, or sometimes outright homages being incorporated – for instance David Lloyd mentioned the 70s classic Serpico as an influence for Kickback. Were there any crime films or books which influenced you in creating Criminal?

Sean: Ed’s the real crime buff. I’ve tried not to be influenced by other crime films or books, although I have watched a couple of films on fast forward looking for reference of particular things I’ve had to draw.

FPI: Criminal is coming from the Icon imprint, which I believe has quite a different setup from some of Marvel’s other imprints. What are the major differences for creators working under the Icon banner? Does it mean more creative freedom and control?

Sean: We have total creative freedom to tell whatever story we want to tell and to have it look exactly how I want. I get to draw the book and paint the cover and design the logo and the text pages and letter the story and do any illustrations and layouts for the backup features. It’s all our own fault if the book fails.

FPI: I recall reading a recent interview where you mentioned you wanted a more ‘European’ feel for Criminal, which I found interesting especially as the aforementioned Kickback was first published in France (where comics are generally afforded far more respect as an art form) before the English language edition. Do you follow some of the work coming out of Europe and are there any creators you’d especially recommend readers to have a look at?

Sean: As I said earlier, I’m currently drawing a WWII set album for French publisher Delcourt so I’ve been looking at quite a few European artists recently. I had the good fortune to meet Toppi last year and I’m a big fan of his work. Also I really like the work of Jean-Philippe Bramanti who draws a series called McCay in France. Great stuff, very Toth like.

FPI: I have to ask you about working on Black Widow: Things They Say About Her, not least because you were working with one of the best artists in comics, Bill Sienkiewicz and one of my favourite writers, Richard Morgan. How did you find working with them and how did you and Bill apportion out the art duties? What did you think of Richard’s reinterpretation of Natasha for contemporary readers?

Sean: Apart from Richard’s previous Black Widow book with Bill, I haven’t read anything else with her in, so I don’t really know much about the character apart from her being a former Russian spy. Richard did well giving her a good story in a post Cold War world. It was a big thrill to see what Bill did with my pencils. I knew going in that he would almost obliterate whatever I gave him so I was very pleased with what he did. I just made sure my stuff had all the storytelling it needed and let him go wild with his textures and stuff.

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FPI: From the genres of crime and the superspy thriller we move to another old favourite, the horror genre. Blimey, are you working your way through every major genre here, Sean? Are we going to see a Sean Philips Western, Romance and Musical after Criminal?!?!? Seriously, turning to horror and Marvel Zombies if we can, we find you paired up with another damned hot writer (and no stranger to the flesh-munching undead) Robert Kirkman. How did you find that gig? Reading it I was left with the distinct impression the pair of you were having a lot of fun with this concept and judging by the popularity of it so are a lot of the fans.

Sean: I got to do Marvel Zombies the same way I get most jobs, the editor asked me if I wanted to do it. Robert turned in such a dumb script (in a good way) that it was great fun to draw. None of us really thought it would do as well as it has, so that’s a plus. Hopefully some of those readers will follow me over to Criminal…

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FPI: That’s always the hope for any artist and writer; personally if I find a creator I really like I’ll tend to have a look at any title they go onto, regardless of the genre, because I like their work and want to see what they’re doing next.

You have quite an extensive website and your own blog, Sure Beats Working. Do you find them a good way to interact with fans and to illustrate (no pun intended) your work?

Sean: I started the blog when I redesigned my website. I thought it would be a lot easier keeping a blog updated than constantly changing my website. It was planned that I would post an example of what I’d been working on every day, even if it was just thumbnails or cover sketches. It’s been easier than I thought it would although some days I don’t have new stuff I can show so I post drawings I did as a kid or paintings or life drawings or whatever.

FPI: That’s the beauty of blogging, it is a very flexible format (says the long-time blogger). I find it interesting when artists with their own sites post examples of their work as it progresses, such as the pencilled work, then the inked version and so on rather than just the finished work which readers would normally see. Do you enjoy seeing this kind of exploration of the creative process yourself when looking at other artist’s sites and is it something you enjoy sharing with your own fans on your site?

Sean: I love seeing how other artists approach their work. I rarely buy comics these days but I devour all those books and magazines that Jon Morrow puts out like Jack Kirby Collector and Rough Stuff and the Modern Masters books. I love seeing behind the scenes. In fact I’m going to be in two books next year that show that sort of stuff, the next issue of Ash Wood’s book Swallow from IDW and a book called Studio Space by Joel Meadows and Gary Marshall.

FPI: That’s good to hear – something else for us to watch out for. Criminal is obviously going to be eating up a huge amount of your time right now, but can I ask if you have any idea what’s next for you after Criminal?

Sean: Well, also currently drawing the aforementioned Delcourt book called Seven Psychos, out next year, also drawing a Marvel Zombies prequel and putting the finishing touches to an art book of all new paintings and drawings with Duncan Fegredo out from Image next year too.

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FPI: I think we’re going to have an art book pleasure overload next year! Assuming you get any free time to read, which comics or books are on your bedside table at the moment?

Sean: Just finished the second Alan Bennett autobiography and I’ll be starting the Billy Bragg history of England next.

FPI: Sean Phillips, thank you very much for talking to us; Criminal has just begun its run from Marvel recently, with the first issue on the shelves now (go! buy!) and you can get updates, art and more on Sean’s site and blog.

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About The Author

Joe Gordon
Joe Gordon is ForbiddenPlanet.co.uk's chief blogger, which he set up in 2005. Previously, he was professional bookseller for over 12 years as well as a lifelong reader and reviewer, especially of comics and science fiction works.