Artist and writer Sean Murphy takes a seat in The Outhouse to talk about Punk Rock Jesus and his upcoming collaboration with Scott Snyder, The Wake.
Sean Murphy may seem like an overnight sensation, but he's been at it for the better part of a decade. He published his graphic novel Off Road at Oni Press in 2005, and knocked around the comics and video games industries before finding a home at Vertigo Comics, where's he worked with Grant Morrison on Joe the Barbarian and Scott Snyder on American Vampire: Survival of the Fittest. Vertigo just released the trade paperback edition of Punk Rock Jesus, the six issue limited series written and drawn by Murphy. It's a deeply personal work that deals heavily in the roles that religion and mass media play in the lives of modern Americans. With its dense page designs and heavy, dark inks, Punk Rock Jesus feels like a throwback to so many independent comics of the 1980's in its visual aesthetic as well as its narrative tone. Murphy's next project is The Wake, on which he's collaborating once again with Snyder. The Wake, which will also be published at Vertigo, is a ten-issue science fiction/horror series about the discovery of a civilization that lives underwater. Murphy recently spoke to The Outhouse about Punk Rock Jesus, The Wake, and why he fears for our future.
The Outhouse (OH): Punk Rock Jesus was a few years in the making, and is now available as a trade paperback. How do you reflect on the experience of creating it now that it's completed? Would you say the final product is close to what you initially conceived the project to be?
Sean Murphy (SM): Yes, I'm very proud of it. It contains everything I ever wanted in a story. I had to compromise a bit here and there with some of DC's edits, but overall it's what I was hoping for. We recently made #4 on the New York Times Best Seller list, as well as got a starred review in Publishers Weekly, so I really can't complain.
OH: You've talked extensively about how Punk Rock Jesus reflects some of your personal issues with religion, but the book also has a lot to say about living in a heavily mediated world, and comes off very pessimistic about it. How does Punk Rock Jesus reflect your thoughts about the state and reach of corporate media today?
SM: Punk Rock Jesus is mainly a criticism of two things: American mainstream media and religion, and their similarities. The most insulting aspect of modern television is how corporations view us as numbers, and some of the poorer programming really indicates their low opinion of viewers. The only thing worse than this is to find out that the corporations are often right: after a long day at work, a lot of people want to shut off and watch something mindless. I fear the long term effects of this brainless consumption, and how it will affect our education and our motivation in a world that's quickly running out of space and resources.
The problems our society will be facing in the coming decades are huge, and the solution lies in hard changes for us all. It's going to be hard to get people to act when they're distracted by politics, religion, and our incessant need for new gadgets.
OH: In terms of production, the Punk Rock Jesus trade had slightly different paper than the matte paper used in the singles issues. Was the paper stock a choice on your part? How do you think the two stocks worked with your art?
SM: DC hasn't printed a B&W book for many years, so we had to go with a new printer for PRJ. They ended up using that amazing paper stock for the issues--something we loved but hadn't seen before. I'm not sure why they went with regular paper stock for the trade. It doesn't matter much to me, as long as they didn't use glossy.
OH: In some of its page layouts and some elements you use in your art (such as speed lines, the treatment of onomatopoiea, white space), PRJ seems to exhibit some manga influence, as well as some underground comix aesthetic. What visual works would you say were particularly influential in how you approached Punk Rock Jesus?
SM: The work of Shirow and Otomo (Appleseed and Akira) is something I tried to infuse into my art--art least into the attention to technical aspects like cars, motorcycles, etc. Outside of them, I don't really read a lot of manga though. I think a lot of the quirks you're picking up are due to the fact that I don't read many comics, so my solutions to visual problems are a bit different than what mainstream readers are used to seeing.
OH: How formalized is your script for a comic that you're writing and drawing? Do you still utilize a detailed full script, or can your writing be a little looser for something you're drawing?
SM: I write very loosely with scripts, but I'm very deliberate with the overall plot of the book. I never make things up as I go along, rather I stick to a strict 3-act structure, much [like] screenplays do.
OH: How does your relationship to material that you're writing and drawing differ from work where you're collaborating with a writer?
SM: I care a lot more about my own stuff, of course. It probably motivates me to put extra effort into the art when I can.
OH: Switching gears to The Wake: how did this project get started, and how long has it been gestating?
SM: The Wake has been in the works for over 2 years.
OH: You worked with Scott Snyder before, on American Vampire: Survival of the Fittest. What is your collaborative process like? In what ways does his writing serve you as a storytelling artist?
SM: Scott is my favorite writer to work with. His scripts are clear, complete, and he even provides pictures that help me understand what kind of direction he wants me to take the design. It also helps that he's hugely popular, and I have no shame about riding his coattails in order to move my career forward.
OH: How has your collaborative process with Scott changed or evolved from American Vampire?
SM: Because he's more comfortable with me, and because he knows I'm a part-time writer, he's leaving more room in his scripts for me to invent my own panels instead of writing lengthy panel descriptions. On some pages, I'm just getting dialog, which is fine with me because it's more freeing.
OH: By all accounts, you and Snyder are friends. How does that relationship inform your collaboration?
SM: I think it's mostly about trust. With most books, the artist is a hired gun. But with the Wake, it's truly a collaborative, adaptive, and evolving effort. Readers will feel that when they pick it up, I bet.
OH: Snyder has said that The Wake is "one of the most ambitious things I've ever done." In what ways are you more ambitious, or differently ambitious, on this project?
SM: My role is probably less ambitious than it was on Punk Rock Jesus, but that's only because I was doing everything before, rather than being part of a team. However, The Wake is way more ambitious than Survival of the Fittest--there's a lot more world-building and a bigger scope with this book.
OH: What kind of research goes into designing new underwater civilizations? How difficult is it to create something wholly original and fictional that is still relatable to an audience?
SM: I've been inventing as much stuff as I can in this book, everything from submarines to helicopters. A lot of the underwater tech is based off real underwater tech, with a little bit of NASA tech thrown in there.
OH: Punk Rock Jesus was loaded with a lot of commentary on religion, culture, and society. In what ways does The Wake comment on our world?
SM: I'm not sure yet. We're still getting started, so it's hard for me to say what Scott has.
OH: The Wake is being advertised as a melding of horror and science fiction. What makes these genres appealing to you as an artist?
SM: I'm more a science fiction guy than horror, but I tend to thrive on horror as well with books like Hellblazer. Because I use a lot of black in my art, I tend to get sucked into dark and dirty books. Which is fine with me, but The Wake is more interesting because of the sci fi element.
OH: Is there any chance at all of you revisiting one of your earlier works, Off Road? Or any chance at doing more comedy in your future?
SM: I have no plans for another Off Road. I love that book, but I was 23 when I wrote it. And I have a lot more to say these days than a book like that is suited for. To the disappointment of your readers, my next project might very well be a PRJ sequel.