Original short interviews with notable, rising or overlooked
figures from comics or the larger entertainment field by Bill Baker.
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BAKER'S DOZEN for 01/25/2006
Liam Sharp on drawing Testament
Perhaps you first encountered Liam Sharp's work way back, when he did Bloodseed and Death's Head series under the Marvel UK imprint in the mid-1980s. Maybe it during his stint drawing a nice hunk of Peter David's run on The Hulk, or Man-Thing for the House of Ideas in the 90s. Then again, it could easily have been his work on Spawn: The Dark Ages, Liam's rendition of Frank Frazetta's iconic Death Dealer for Verotik or, even more recently, The Possessed that first caught your eye and imagination. Regardless of the circumstances, once Liam Sharp's distinctive style has gotten your attention, it just won't let go.
I've been aware of Liam Sharp's work since the moment I saw an ad for Death's Head vol. 1 # 1. Something about both the character and cover designs, working in tandem with much more subtle body language and other physical traits really worked for me. Even better, the contents to reflect nicely what I found on the interior pages, save that it gave no real indication of just how good Sharp was, even then, at telling stories. And it had a whacked-out, often raven black sense of humor that still makes me grin when I think of specific scenes.
And ever since that first issue, I've followed Sharp's work and career through its many convolutions and transformations, including his creation of Mam Tor, his own publishing house. However, nothing I'd seen or read that Liam had previously done had really prepared me for the impact his work on Testament -- the new, quite brilliant and very thought-provoking ongoing series, which is written by Douglas Rushkoff and published by Vertigo -- would have on me.
If you haven't checked this book out yet, I'd like to suggest that you do so now. Just go do it. Now.
Yeah, Testament is that good.
We'll be here, ready to pick up our discussion, when you return. Honest.
Bill Baker: At the risk of sounding arch, and with all due respect to your earlier and other endeavors, your work on Testament strikes me as inspired. Truly. Am I reading too much into what I sense on the page, or has working on this book, or perhaps with Douglas Rushkoff, really helped push you to discover some new heights, artistically, on this project?
Liam Sharp: This is an interesting question as it has me completely stumped! It's funny, but every review I've had pretty much over the last six or seven years -- be it for The Possessed, or Superman: Where Is Thy Sting? Or more recently, the short Vampirella piece I wrote and provided art for, "Winter Rose" -- the line I read most often is "Liam Sharp has really improved"! [General laughter] Kind of a double-edged compliment don't you think? I read reviews about my Man-Thing work from nearly ten years ago that raved about the art on the book, but equally there have been plenty of detractors.
What I think about Testament, and this is just my guess, but this is an age where the writer's rule. And Doug [Rushkoff] is a damn fine writer; comics or books, he has just a great eye for dialogue, and we all know the guy's got a brain on him. Add to that Jamie Grant and Jim Devlin's amazing color work, and a story that actively allows for my eclectic, constantly evolving artistic practices, and maybe it's just the right mesh to show my work in its most positive light. Either way I've been utterly bowled over by the 99.9% positive response to my artwork as, honestly, I didn't think I was doing anything different!
BB: How are you describing this book to people, and what's the general reaction been?
LS: Yeah, not a book, it's been said, you can easily describe in a nice tight sound-bite! [More laughter] Well, Doug has ideas that the Bible should be an open-source, constantly evolving entity. That our fore-fathers had no right, as men, to cast it in iron and tell us exactly how we should read it. In fact he goes to the Biblical source material, the Torah, to present some fairly shocking details from the old stories that many of us might not have come across, like the giant Anakim race for instance, who he has worshipping the goddess Astarte. Then there's the incest, vestal virgins, battles between other ancient deities -- all good stuff! There's also this notion that the Bible continued to happen between the written stories - it didn't just stop as each chapter was concluded. Life went on in these biblical times, and naturally there were stories between these stories. This betweenness becomes a theme, as the gods in Testament operate between the panels, and between times. Doug takes the idea further still, that as there were stories between stories, our own story, and the stories of times to come are also biblical, the continued story unfolding. That these are living stories, and that they are repeated again and again in different guises - and if not, what moral strength would they truly have? So what we end up with in the comic are very lively interpretations of the Biblical stories as taken from the Torah and translated with hindsight and today's historical knowledge, juxtaposed with a near-future parallel tale in a terrifyingly believable, ultra-conservative big-brother-like US, in which the youth are all transplanted with RFID chips so they can be tracked, and -- we find out in issue # 2 -- controlled, or rather disabled at least! The future story has a small band of rebels cutting out their chips and fighting back from their disused swimming pool base using technology and shamanic rituals, out of body surveillance, all manner of unusual, exotic techniques!
But there's so much more than just that! [Laughter]
As for the general reception - it's been amazing. I'm just delighted people are enjoying it so much.
BB: So how'd you get involved with the series? And what was it about the proposal, and composition of the team working on the book, that lead to your signing on?
LS: Somebody showed Jonathan Vankin, our editor, my Possessed tpb, and he called me up. They wanted an artist that was diverse, illustrative and powerful, and it seems I fit the bill!
As for my signing up, one brief read of the proposal had me hooked! I'm a former Christian, now a cynical agnostic, with a passion for the roots and the origins of mythology and religion. I can think of a hundred reasons why men would invent God, but not one for why God would invent men! [General laughter] No, I love mythology - I was a student of classical civilizations at college, studying the Greek and Roman beliefs, and reading their discourses on philosophy, their comedies and dramas, their histories -- and their epic sagas. This led me to read books such as Gilgamesh, Beowulf, and to seek out this kind of material. I flirted with Buddhism for a while, and in everything I stumbled across, every faith I looked at, fabulous, interesting and passionate tales lay at their heart, and they were all believed with the same rigorous certainty as any modern Christian or Jew might believe the tales from the Bible now. And what Douglas asks is the same question I might ask --Why do we blindly believe these stories? Who told us to? Do we actually know the origins of the books we put our faith in, or did we just listen to our priest, our rabbi, because, well, he was our priest or rabbi? That's what I did -- I believed because we were taught there was a God at school. There was no question about it. But who told them, our teachers and priests? And the people before them?
Testament basically says don't believe stuff just because you're told to. Be your own guru, find out what makes your religion tick, what's genuinely at it's heart historically, and scientifically. Don't allow yourself to be blindly lead, use your brain - be discerning. I like that message very much, and in these times where things are getting frighteningly controlling by our governments, I think it's important that we all do think about things as much as possible, and don't blindly stumble on like sheep to the slaughter.
BB: Did you find any of it daunting, at first? I mean, drawing the variously interlocking meta narratives and reality shifts, not to mention portraying all those divine and otherwise supernatural beings -- making all that work by itself as well as meld with the everyday scenes, believably...
LS: Actually not at all. Like I said, it's my territory! The stuff I find hardest is the mundane modern stuff, like cars and kitchens - I have no passion for those things at all! [General laughter]
BB: Well, on paper it's gotta look a bit like drawing The Ten Commandments every month; challenging, fun, and rewarding, but exhausting. Not to mention, on the face of it, seemingly damn near impossible. Any qualms about that aspect?
LS: I have to say it's a surprisingly slooooooow process. I've spent longer on this book than any other, and it's not always the actual drawing that takes the time - it can be the research. A lot of what we're doing is only represented visually in the most basic relief carvings, so details of clothing from 2000 B.C. can be elusive to say the least! We've had to remove metal helmets, change swords, all kinds of things. Many visual interpretations are wildly inaccurate, particularly renaissance paintings -- so, yes, it can be tiresome and protracted, but it's always fascinating.
BB: Well, how's a typical issue of Testament put together, then? Is there any brainstorming with Doug before he drops a script on you, or is it more "He's writing, and I'm drawing" situation? Oh, I was also wondering what style of scripts you're using, the terse Marvel approach or a full script?
LS: Doug is waaaaaaaaay ahead of me with the scripts! Being Vertigo, it's full scripts, but there's always dialogue as we go through each issue, and certainly I've brought to bear some elements that were otherwise not there. The gods are very much mine visually for instance. Astarte has to represent Ishtar, Venus, all those love/death/life/war female deities, so I melded a romantic Victorian portrayal as seen in Rosetti's painting, with the blue skinned gods of India, with relief carvings from Babylon. She is sometimes seen walking on bones and her symbols are the morning star - Venus - a winged Lion and a Dove, and this has all come from my own research. Moloch I wanted to feel like a bull-headed deity but to be more bestial, less obvious. I will also speak up if ever I get an idea for how a scene might be interpreted in a different way, but for the most part I'm trying to tell Doug's story as clearly and as interestingly as I can. He's the real expert here, I'm just an enthusiastic amateur! [Laughter]
BB: What about the art? How do you approach doing an issue generally? Do you read it through carefully, maybe taking notes or doing some thumbnails in the margins, planning it out carefully, or do you find it's better for you to just sit down with the script and start drawing from page one?
LS: I vary wildly. Different scenes have different appeal, so I tend to wade straight into the sections that excite me the most and leave the ones that need more subtlety until later. I've had a little help with some of the breakdown thumbnails from Peter Gross too to help speed things along. He's done bits of the modern story while I concentrated on the gods, and the biblical sections. Vertigo are famously very hands on with their books editorially, and often the thumbnail stage can go through many many revisions. As I'm doing the covers and the inking having two of us at the thumbnail stage helps a lot!
BB: And what about the covers and pages? How do you typically create a storytelling page, and how might that differ from the way you'd approach a cover or even splash page, if at all?
LS: The covers either come from a directive from Vertigo, as in the first cover -- though it was my idea to have a biblical background. Or I get an idea, sketch it and run it past them. Issue # 2 went through something like seven or eight stages before we got to the final image. Initially it featured Jake and Miriam running away from Gomorrah.
As for how I approach pages, I do a rough pencil layout, go tighter on the faces to make sure I get the right emotional content, then I wade in with the inks. However this is becoming more and more interesting as the Old Testament and future sections dance around each other, sometimes almost merging. I've tried to keep the Old Testament sections highly rendered and illustrative, and the modern stuff more clean and open -- but this is less the case in # 3, where the two realities seem closer, so here there's a more unified technique. Actually # 3 is my favorite so far...
BB: And how long does each of those steps take, you think? For instance, how long does it take you to craft a typical cover for Testament at this point?
LS: I wish I had any idea! [Laughter] This job is so unlike any other I'm finding it impossible to put timescales on it! Typically a cover will take two or three days to execute, add on another for preliminary sketches.
BB Now, I know that you've got a number of other things going on, including running Mam Tor and overseeing as well as contributing to the ever-evolving Event Horizon anthology, so I was wondering what working on this particular book gives you, is giving you -- as an artist, and maybe even as a person -- that you might not find in all your other pursuits?
LS: Bill, if I'm honest I was at my wits end with the comic industry. I thought I'd had my day. Event Horizon was a last gasp for me at the start. It was a chance to do the things I always wanted, some writing in the guise of Roger M. Cormack, and Ralph Raims, some illustrative comic work in full color in "F**king Savages", written by Steve Niles, or some free-form subconscious channeling a la Moebius in "Lap of the Gods". I couldn't see that I had a style that would be saleable in today's industry, or who might want to use me. I'm not a superhero artist, not really. I'm very much a frustrated thinker and writer, and artists, it would seem, are currently playing second fiddle -- and that's not the industry I grew up loving! Generally reviews seemed ambivalent to my efforts, and I really didn't know what to do about it. So Testament has proven more than I ever hoped on every single level. It's intellectually engaging, it's diverse, it's ongoing -- and it's getting great reviews! I had no such hopes only a year ago!
BB: What do you hope this book does for its readers?
LS: I think I outlined that earlier when I spoke of the hope that it might encourage people to be open-minded, and to think for themselves. Anybody who thinks our book is critical of the source material is reading it entirely the wrong way. Certainly I'm allowing myself to be educated by it, but even if you're closed to that notion, it's a cracking good read with some innovative storytelling and a bunch of very likeable lead characters. It's pretty sexy too!
BB: Any other thoughts before I let you get back to it all?
LS: Yeah, I'd say look out for Event Horizon #3 in May. It's the last in that format and it's a cracker! Mam Tor is also making it's first film, a comedy rocumentary horror featuring Zombie Elvis and the Vikings, so any fans of The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Spinal Tap will love it. The band will be playing at Bristol during the con -- venue to be announced -- and the film will be screened twice over the weekend. Check www.mamtor.com for updates, and links to my mbs.
Meanwhile continue reading Testament as it gets lots more fun I promise you!
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