Five Stars: How Declan Shalvey Went From ‘Hero Killers’ to Writing Nick Fury
Five Stars is a new interview feature in which Steve Morris looks back over an artist's career by discussing five of their milestone works. We kick off the series with an interview with Declan Shalvey.
For an artist who started off with a comic called Hero Killers, Declan Shalvey has spent a lot of time bringing heroes to life. Coming out of a small Irish comics scene, which he has since taken part in developing and expanding, he started with a series of studio-press comics in the UK before making the move to US publishers like Dark Horse, Boom Studios, and Vertigo. His work shifted and grew in ways that built up his character-focused style, bringing out a more experimental storyteller whose use of blank space and perspective played into the way his characters viewed their worlds.
His subsequent work on Marvel's Deadpool and Thunderbolts led to a star-making turn on Moon Knight with Warren Ellis and Jordie Bellaire, acclaimed for the work of all three creators. After six issues of experimental, weird, and symbiotic storytelling, the team launched a new series at Image, Injection. Now almost halfway through a proposed twenty-five-issue run, the series offers a stark shift away from the expected tenor of an Image Comics series, and has created a tone and world which feel singular and new.
Shalvey has announced several additional projects for the rest of 2016: the first is a turn as writer/artist for a serialised short that runs through Marvel's Civil War 2: Choosing Sides anthology. The second is a guest artist role as part of All-Star Batman with Scott Snyder, which will be published later in the year.
Throughout his career, Shalvey has chosen his projects carefully, and moved between creator-owned projects and work-for-hire in a way that has made him one of the most impressive and prolific artists of his generation.
Written by Andy Winter, drawn by Declan Shalvey.
Published by Moonface Press in 2006.
ComicsAlliance: Your first published work was Hero Killers. When did you first start entertaining the idea of making comics as an artist? What was your artistic background coming onto the book?
Declan Shalvey: I've always wanted to do it, as long as I can remember. My main problem was that I had absolutely no idea how to do it. After I finished secondary school I went to an art college that was reasonably close to my home, as I didn't really know what else to do. I was self-taught up until that point really. I ended up getting a degree in Fine Art Printmaking, and while that didn't help me get into comics in any way shape or form, I did have a lot more knowledge when it came to the study of art; of techniques; and accepting the idea of being an artist, which is something that's hard to really embrace where I'm from.
For a long time I felt I had wasted my time there, but in retrospect I think it helped me be a better artist.
CA: Every artist has to decide on their first big project; what led you to choose Hero Killers as the one for you?
DS: By the time I met Andy, I had been to a couple of UK shows, so had brought a portfolio that was pretty solid. Andy liked my stuff a lot, but couldn't afford to pay an artist, so we agreed that if I could draw a story he wrote, that he'd pay to publish it. I had no money, but I had time, so it worked out for both of us!
When I showed Andy my portfolio, I had good reason to believe he'd publish it as he had published a lot of material previously --- in fact the year previous I had bought some graphic novels that Andy had written, so I knew he was legit and I liked his writing. If you're going to spend a lot of time drawing something for somebody, you should try do as much research on them as possible. Especially if you decide to do it for free.
CA: The Irish comics scene is very close-knit. How important was that community as you first started out? Were there were fellow artists you could reach out to for advice on work, contracts, process and the like?
DS: To be honest, it wasn't that important to me, as it was pretty non-existent to me back then. I didn't know of a scene outside of myself and Will Sliney, who's from Cork. I wasn't from Dublin, so was totally unaware of what had been going on in the previous years in the indie scene. After Hero Killers, I started working on an Irish indie book called Freak Show and had gotten to know some of the Irish guys who were going to shows in the UK.
I slowly made contact with other Irish artists who were making comics and we all formed a blog called Eclectic Micks. We kept that blog going quite a while, and having guys I could talk to about all the business-y stuff, had experience with US publishers, and I could go to shows with, talk shop with, etc., made such a difference.
Things have changed substantially since. The community has grown massively and maybe because we're such a small community, it's also quite close knit, as you say. Seeing how far it's come means I really care about how it continues to grow and develop. It's why I take an interest in the next generation of artists coming from the country, I want to see it build even more.
28 Days Later
Written by Michael Alan Nelson, drawn by Declan Shalvey.
Published by Boom Studios in 2009
CA: I believe your first licensed work was over at Boom Studios, as artist on their comic tie-in to the zombie film 28 Days Later. How did Boom find out about you? Were you actively pitching at this point, requesting portfolio reviews, attending conventions and looking for work?
DS: I had been working on a Frankenstein graphic novel for the UK market when I got an invitation to try out for the series by the editor Ian Brill. I believe he had seen a short story I wrote and drew for Tripwire magazine and liked my work. Previous to that, I had met Matt Gagnon (another editor at Boom) as I was pitching a series to him with Si Spurrier. The pitch didn't go anywhere, but I think maybe the two editors at the company were aware of me, so I got to try out.
And actually, I didn't get the job! It originally went to another artist, but he left the book to work at Marvel, so I got offered it again. Second place!
Saying all the above, I had been going to every show I could, posting pieces online, etc. I did everything I could to be seen by editors in the States, all while honing my craft on the UK graphic novels. I had joined another sketch blog called Comic Twart that had a lot of great artists (who seem to all be working on great projects) and became quite popular. I don't think I can overestimate how much that blog probably got my name in front of people.
CA: How difficult is it to move from doing studio press books like Hero Killers across to a book like 28 Days Later? You have to go from a relative freedom where you’re designing something from scratch; across to an adaptation where you’re drawing likenesses of actors from the film and you’re trying to match a particular tone.
DS: Well the graphic novels I had worked in the interim were great... I felt like I got paid to learn on those books. They were also closer to the horror genre, so it wasn't that huge a leap aesthetically from then to 28 Days Later. The main thing was that it was set in modern times, which was a huge plus as I was so sick of drawing Victorian/Georgian costumes and architecture. I was ready to draw some crummy everyday stuff.
Also, there was really only one likeness from the film I had to worry about. As far as licensed properties go, it wasn't too reference heavy, and set in new locations, so I had a lot of freedom in how/what I drew. I think the atmosphere I aimed for fit the tone established in the film well. It wasn't so much that I had to transition to something alien --- the book fit me like a glove. And boy, was I ready to do a book that would be released in the American market.
Written by Warren Ellis, drawn by Declan Shalvey - and colors by Jordie Bellaire.
Published by Marvel Comics in 2014
CA: What do you think have been the most striking on-page developments and changes in your work? 28 Days Later was a big change in tone, and then you had runs on bold superhero books like Thunderbolts, Deadpool, before switching gears again on Moon Knight.
DS: Between each project, I can see big jumps in quality. There's obvious draftsmanship developments, like when I got better at drawing women, and where my figure drawing improved, but they're all gradual things that happen over time. I think the biggest thing for me was confidence. The jump from 28 Days Later to Marvel was astronomical for me. It did wonders for believing in my own ability, and with that, the confidence to continue to experiment and develop my own 'voice.'
I think maybe when you start on a new book, the excitement level is so high that it forces you to bring your absolute best. I think from project to project, I developed more of a sense of what worked for me as a storyteller.
Weirdly, I think the period where I was doing superhero work on Marvel books and on the side I was doing non-superhero stuff with Brian Wood [such as The Massive at Dark Horse] was pretty transformative for me. Working on stories with a different sensibility really informed my own tastes. A lot of the approaches I developed on the non-Marvel stuff were approaches I brought with me to Moon Knight and have continued to work with since.
CA: This is the first of the comics in this list to have coloring from Jordie Bellaire, somebody who has obviously been hugely important to you. How has your creative partnership developed over the years? When working on Moon Knight, how closely do you work together on the concepts and ideas for how the book should look and be colored?
DS: I'd been trying to get Jordie on my Marvel books for ages, but was having no luck (though she did get Marvel work and lots of it --- just not with me)!
After finally managing it on Deadpool, I had been offered Moon Knight by Steve Wacker, and one of my conditions was that Jordie come on to the book with me. We followed a different art team on Deadpool, so we just kinda did the best we could to carry the baton with that book. With Moon Knight, it was finally an opportunity to really show what we could creatively bring to a series.
We really wanted to make a book that stood out. Maybe I was more passionate about it, as Jordie already has projects she was passionate about, but I knew that we could both make a really great looking book with a visual identity all its own. Having Warren in our corner really gave us carte blanche to do what we wanted too.
If Jordie and I work too close, that's when arguments happen. Also, since she has so many projects, it's impossible to nail her down too long. I run general ideas by her and see what she thinks --- in the end though, it really comes down to her looking over the finished art, asking me what I was thinking, and then seeing what she comes up with. There may be specific things I want, and she'll accommodate me, but in general I trust her decisions, even if they're in contrast with mine.
With Moon Knight, we actually disagreed with the use of pure white on MK. That's something I wanted and Jordie initially argued against. In the end, she respected what I was going for --- and not only that, made it work.
It's one thing for me to have an idea, but Jordie is the one how has to figure our how it works on the page, which is no small feat. I'm also more prepared for Jordie to be more intrusive at times, changing gutters from white to black, and doing things that I think should typically be my call. I'd never let anyone else do that, but Jordie has proven time and time again that her instincts are reliable. I trust her, and she knows I really value her, and I think that's what really helps make a great artistic partnership.
I think Jordie and I gel on the page really, really well. An editor friend of ours said to me once that Jordie and I "sharpen each other's swords," as in we both push each other to do our best work, and I think he was dead right. After arguing so long to get Jordie on my work, now I think we're in a place where people just naturally expect that if you hire me, you get Jordie too, which is just fine with me.
CA: Warren tends to write out full script for his comics. As an artist, what do you want from a script? Do you tend to find that things work better when you’re given a lot of detail for what’s on each page, or do you try to deviate and experiment with the storytelling?
DS: I like full script, personally. I have no problem if an artist likes looser scripts but when I get a script, I like to know that a writer has at least considered what is involved visually, and how it might fit on the page.
Saying that, I don't need or want stage direction or elaborate details --- that stuff just handcuffs me. Warren's scripts are full script, but they're also quite lean. Like with my favorite scripts, there's enough detail for me to know what's going in there, but not too much to get in the way of telling the story. There's plenty of room for me to contribute my own approach/sensibilities.
I like jokes, too. Sometimes in Warren's scripts he'll make jokes that never see the page, and make me chuckle. Jeff Parker was brilliant for that too; he'd write jokes in the script that only the creative team would read. Stuff like that really helps when you're slaving on a script for weeks.
Again, regarding Warren, he gives me enough space to play around without ignoring how a comic works, which is a magic trick. Now and then he'll have a specific visual idea of his own, which I'm happy to accommodate, as it would be stupid to ignore a Warren Ellis idea.
I concentrate on the storytelling, and I don't f--- around with the story.
Written by Warren Ellis, drawn by Declan Shalvey, colored by Jordie Bellaire
Published by Image Comics in 2015
CA: The Moon Knight team moved to Image with Injection, a projected 25-issue creator-owned series. There’s no editor on the book, which must make this feel like a return to the time of Hero Killers? Do you feel there’s a greater creative freedom for you now, back on a creator-owned title you can shape any way you like?
DS: Well, with Moon Knight, our editors were very hands-off so in a lot of ways, it felt like a creator owned book. After having that kind of creative control I wanted more, not less. To work with Warren and Jordie on a creator-owned book just felt like a natural move for us as a team. We didn't really seem to need an editor as we worked really well together.
In retrospect, I do kinda wish we'd hired an editor, not for story reasons but just for the nuts-and-bolts of keeping a book running. For getting scripts in on schedule; getting art in on schedule; keeping track of FOC dates, when previews are needed, when solicits are needed; etc. Image are really good for letting you know when stuff is needed, but it always ends up being a scramble to get material together, especially when you're trying to keep a monthly book shipping on time.
I think a lot of creators can take editors for granted, and the time I've spent as a kind of a sub-editor on the book has given me a huge appreciation for what they do, and I know I don't really want to do it! But, we've made our bed now... gotta lie in it.
CA: Was it difficult to follow Warren and Jordie across to Image, or were you ready to return to creator-owned material?
DS: I was definitely ready for creator owned after years of work for hire. I'd seen how happy Jordie was working on books like Nowhere Men and Pretty Deadly, and it was clear how they were both creatively and financially rewarding. They were empowering for her too... I was jealous! I was considering an offer I had from Vertigo while on Moon Knight, but was reticent, as I knew it wouldn't be the best possible deal for Jordie.
At the time DC weren't giving colorists cover credit, so Jordie wouldn't get as much of a percentage, etc... it just wouldn't be something I could offer her in good faith, knowing she deserved better. I happened to mention the Vertigo offer to Warren, which is when he asked if I'd like to do something at Image with him.
I just couldn't say no to that. It gave me everything I could want for both myself and Jordie, and the time was right.
CA: Is there more security in being a for-hire artist at a big company Marvel; or in being the artist on a creator-owned Image book with Warren Ellis?
DS: Weirdly, there was a lot more security in doing creator owned. Injection was pitched as a 25 issue series, and we're ten issues in with fifteen to go, so that'll probably keep me busy for two more years after the year and a bit I've already put in. That's way longer than any commitment I was ever given at Marvel!
To be fair though, I am aware that I'm in a very fortunate position; Warren is an established writer and an audience is guaranteed for any of his work. The security is really based on the size of that/his audience. If I were doing a book that was just me, I'm sure I'd be a lot less secure. Considering how well we worked together on Moon Knight and that we knew that with working with Warren, we'd sell well enough to keep the book going for a while. It really felt like the most logical move to make and I'm so glad we did it.
Civil War 2: Choosing Sides [Nick Fury]
Written and drawn by Declan Shalvey
Published by Marvel Comics in 2016
CA: Whilst drawing Injection, you’re doing covers for titles like Punisher, but also debuting at Marvel as writer for an anthology piece in Civil War 2: Choosing Sides. How did you get involved in writing a story for Marvel, as opposed to pencilling?
DS: As you say, I've still been doing covers for Marvel while working on Injection. I love Marvel and the editors working there are great. Covers have been a nice way to keep contacts there and still scratch that superhero itch. Mainly, it's nice to be asked, but also it doesn't hurt having your work out on mainstream covers while working on what is essentially an indie book.
There's the added bonus of being able to draw some iconic images of various characters that I've never had a chance to draw before. I did a Black Panther cover recently --- it was great to have an opportunity to do a nice Black Panther piece. Same goes for this current Punisher cover gig. Doing covers scratches a whole other set of artistic muscles and I really enjoy taking a day here and there to work on them.
Regarding writing for Marvel: that was really an out-of-the-blue offer from editor Wil Moss. I had mentioned at the start of the year on Twitter that I'd like to do a short mainstream one-shot at some stage, and he reached out to me asking what characters I'd like to work on. We chatted a bit but I didn't expect anything solid to come from it. Then a few months ago, he asked about this Fury story. Wil's asked about short projects before, but I was always too busy with Injection.
I suspect he knew it'd be hard to lock me down, so he offered me the chance to write the story too... which made the gig impossible to turn down! I've always wanted to write and draw my own stuff some day, but never expected my first big shot would be at Marvel! I'm not really sure why Wil thought I'd be able to do the job, but I'm very grateful for the opportunity. I've been knocking around some writing of my own, so this project has been the kick in the arse I needed to move things forward.
CA: While this Nick Fury story isn’t your first time writing, it’s certainly your most high-profile written work to date. Is this a direction you want to pursue more, going forward --- perhaps for your next few projects to have you in the writer/artist role?
DS: Yeah, I've written some short stories that are floating around the place, but nothing as substantial as this. I definitely would like to write more. I've spent the last couple of years really refining my craft, and now I'm at a stage where I'd like to spend more time on my pages. While it's great to keep up a certain level of quality, it also unfortunately means I can only tell so many stories in a year. I'd like to write more so I can tell more stories without having to wait for the weeks it takes for me to draw them. I have a couple of upcoming projects where I'm just writing, not drawing.
Drawing-wise I'm gonna work on Choosing Sides and All-Star Batman; really give them 100%; and then do the same when I get back to Injection in a few months. I wouldn't really have much time to write/draw with all that on my plate. If I was a little established as a writer by the time Injection wraps up, I think I'd more than likely follow it up with a project I could write and draw.
Once you work with Warren Ellis... who do you follow that up with, y'know? Might as well do my own stuff for a bit.
CA: How much of an eye do you keep to the long-term career of a comics artist? How important do you view it for artists to balance for-hire paid material with creator-owned work, which receives ongoing royalties, and plan their career with that in mind?
DS: Ah, it's really impossible to know. Artists become popular, and then unpopular. Jordie sometimes asks, "How long do you think this will last?" but I can't help but feel optimistic, as I feel I've been quite fortunate in my career so far. Also, I'd argue that comics really never have been better than they are right now. There's more opportunity than ever before and more ways to have a career with companies while also still keeping some autonomy. Image Comics are a huge part of that.
Doing Injection was partly a practical move for me. After five straight years of doing work-for-hire comics, I realised I'd been investing in Marvel for years, and while I still enjoyed working there, I felt the time was right to invest in myself. No matter what happens, Injection is my project and always will be. It was my chance to do a long series with no fill-ins, shipped monthly, and collected as I liked. I wanted to bring out a b+w edition of my work, and those decisions aren't up to you when you're doing work for hire.
Like what's happened for Jordie, it has empowered me as a creator.
Personally, I think the perfect balance is to bounce from work-for-hire to creator owned, then back to work-for-hire. Working in one field can keep up your appreciation for the other and vice versa. It keeps your work visible in the mainstream market, and then hopefully a large enough chunk of that readership will support the creator owned work, where you get to own your ideas. In a perfect world, that's what I'd like to do. I think if you're a freelance artist, you kinda have to do something creator owned, just to have something of your own under your belt.
So I don't really know what's going to shake loose in the future, but I feel more secure now than ever before. For this year I'm excited to have a couple of high-profile mainstream projects this summer, and to maybe even bring some readers back to Injection with me. If that works out, I imagine I'll aim to do that back-and-forth. I couldn't have predicted how well the last year has gone, so I can't predict what may yet come.
Although I guess I can always just retire early and be Jordie's manservant. That's my plan B.
Declan Shalvey is the artist of Injection at Image Comics, as well as a member of the artistic team on the upcoming All-Star Batman from DC. He is currently writing and drawing a serialised Nick Fury story in Civil War 2: Choosing Sides, and can be found on Tumblr as well as on Twitter @declanshalvey.