Image’s upcoming graphic novel Bog Bodies reads like the kind of crime flick that’s missing from our screens, capturing what we love about them through deft comic book storytelling. Declan Shalvey’s sharp writing combined with Gavin Fullterton’s expressive linework and Rebecca Nalty’s impressionistic colors creates an emotionally intense, character-driven, thrilling drama. I had the opportunity to interview both Declan and Gavin about the development of Bog Bodies and what they learned in the process of making the graphic novel.
Declan, did you always know you wanted to make a crime comic set in Ireland or did everything come together when you considered bog bodies as a story element?
Declan: This is actually my second time doing an Irish crime book. I previously wrote another OGN called Savage Town, co-created with Philip Barrett. When that book was coming together at Image, I also had this idea for a more singular story. I soon got busy with Savage Town and this moved to the side. The idea stuck with me though, I live near the Dublin mountains, I can see them from my apartment, so I’d often be reminded of the core of that story. Savage Town was a very rewarding experience, I would have liked to have continued the story by id didn’t make financial sense. I thought it would be an easier sell to try and promote something brand new, but still keep it in the same ‘world.’ So, I decided to pursue it further. I had learned a lot in the process of putting Savage Town together so I wanted to try something similar, but experiment more with the storytelling.
How did both of your Irish backgrounds enrichen the material?
Gavin: I grew up in rural Ireland, in hills very similar to where most of the story is set. So I was very familiar with that kind of landscape. Being connected to the place that your story is set allows you to add details and tone that you just can’t get if you are looking at Google maps or images. Not that those things aren’t super helpful but they can’t really capture what it’s like to experience a place first hand. Similarly with people, when you can walk down the street and see how people dress and act, the way they carry themselves, to observe all that first hand and to put it in the book just makes the story feel more immersive I think.
What was your collaborative process like? How did it compare to past experiences?
Declan: Well I’m more used to being the artist and have only been a writer on a handful of projects. I seem to have found a certain process in how I’m writing that has worked for me.
With Bog Bodies, I approached Gavin with the initial idea which he liked. We met up in person and talked things over, I made some notes based on his thoughts and fleshed out some of the subtext. I left Gavin off to work on the character designs and started working on the overall story, with feedback from our editor, Heather Antos. She helped me whip the outline into shape, I’d run it by Gavin for his feedback and then would start writing. We did it chapter by chapter, so I was writing a chapter ahead as Gavin was handing in pages, and I would try to finish the script before he ran out of pages. It was probably a bit more stressful to work that way, but I’m glad that’s how it panned out, as I found my writing shifted based on the art that was coming in. The character of Gerry, for example, was always a bad guy, but seeing how Gavin drew him really informed how I wrote that character, so there was a nice flow back and forth between us, I feel. It was similar to how I worked with Phil on Savage Town, and also with Mike Henderson on Deadpool vs. Old Man Logan, which Heather also edited.
Having worked primarily as an artist, I really enjoy seeing what artists like Gavin add to the story and try to give them the room to do so. I know I’ve felt more invested in a project when that opportunity has been given to me in the past.
Gavin: It was really straight forward, I think. With Dec also being an artist it was great to have that perspective and it was easy to communicate any visual ideas and talk them over. We were really both on the same page when it came to the kind of book we were trying to make. At the start of the book, there was an issue we were having with screen direction. We basically had the same idea but just the opposite way around. I think after that we were both more on top of what we were thinking and communicating the decisions we were making as we went.
Both of you drew comics at BOOM! early in your careers. Is the publisher a good place to hone your talent?
Declan: I think it’s a good place to start. Boom is very very good at finding new talent. It’s a good place to get a book, get some exposure and then move on to better-paying gigs, or work that you totally own.
Gavin: I had a really nice experience working with Boom! The editors I worked with were incredibly helpful and supportive. I feel Boom tends to take a risk and publish a lot of first-time creators with really diverse styles and getting that first publishing credit when you’re starting out is such a huge boost.
In recent years I feel like we’ve seen a move to more impressionistic rather than realistic coloring, like Rebecca’s wonderful colors for Bog Bodies. Why do you think comics have trended towards that style?
Declan: I think the technology is just now in a place where colourists can nearly 100% anticipate how something will translate from screen to print. As a result, a lot more experimentation has happened. On top of that, I think colourists tend to have a broader range of influences, so contribute ideas that are more left of field. With Bog Bodies, I think some of the more impressionistic choices by Rebecca were informed by the environment of the story setting. I knew I wanted the book to be primarily one colour, one mood, but knew that we’d need to break it up in places, which gave me the idea for that cabin, for example. I really like how any form of artificial light in the book is jarring, as if our eyes have adjusted to the night light. I think Rebecca did a great job of taking the limitations of the book’s location and managed to make them a strength.
Gavin: I tend to use a lot of black and aim for a really graphic approach. I think having a tonne of different gradients and tones and effects in there just wouldn’t work as well with my style and just wouldn’t be right for the book. Rebecca really understood what we were going for and brought her own sensibilities to the story. It was always amazing to get pages back from her and just see the artwork go to the next level. Perhaps more comics are trending towards that style because it’s so effective at creating a strong mood and really opens up what colour can do as a major component of the storytelling. It’s one of the advantages of the medium I think. You’re not bound by reality even for realistic stories.
Declan, you had just one image with which to sum up the graphic novel. How challenging was it to design a cover for Bog Bodies that you felt captured the story as a whole?
Declan: Not too challenging concept-wise… it kind of just clicked for me early on. One of the very first things I did was draw a rough for the cover, I had something very particular in mind, and the final cover is nearly exactly what I came up with in that sketch. The design of the cover is one of the first things I really nailed down, even before the story. It was a good exercise to figure out the aesthetic for the story, even before any script had been properly written. After the pitch script had been written and Gavin and co did the pitch art, and the book had been approved, I sat down at the beginning of last year and spent a week working on the cover. The colouring especially I really worked on, but it was also informed by Rebecca’s pitch colours.
One of the more challenging aspects wasn’t the illustration per se, but fine-tuning all the logo and text work, I’d never done that on a project before and wanted to use this project as an exercise in practicing those skills. Even though I drew the cover over a year ago, I was fine-tuning the design elements here and there right up until the book went to print.
A graphic novel is no small endeavor, especially for an artist. Gavin, did you notice yourself growing as an artist over the course of drawing Bog Bodies?
Gavin: Yeah, absolutely. At least I’d like to think it was growth, I certainly changed during the course of it. I think creating the right tone or vibe is incredibly important and as the book goes on I found that there were approaches to inking that felt more like the tone I was going for. It’s a bit of a balancing act. I think sometimes I might have gone too far and things got a little too loose. A few people have mentioned that the book starts with a cleaner inking style and gets progressively rougher and grittier as it goes on. Which might serve the story to an extent but I probably could have pulled back a bit. However, there are moments at the end that I feel have the real stark sense of horror I wanted that I just couldn’t get with a cleaner line. Looking back there’s always things you want to change or think could have been better but overall I’m really happy with how the book turned out.
There aren’t many comics in the American market set in Ireland. Do you hope Bog Bodies helps change that?
Gavin: I hope so. There’s so many great Irish artists, colourists and writers here who want to tell their own stories set in their own communities. There’s a really flourishing comics scene here and having access to the American market would really allow people to get their books out there and make a sustainable living.
Declan: Absolutely not! I’ve carved out my little niche, so everyone else better back off!
Seriously though, I was inspired to do these stories from my love of the crime genre, but also the earlier work of Garth Ennis, where you might see stories set in Ireland from time to time. I wanted to see more of that, so I decided to make them. I know other Irish creators who definitely have stories in them that come from a more geographically personal place. I’d be more than happy to see books like Bog Bodies help open the door to more Irish set stories in years to come.
You can follow Gavin on Twitter @GavinFullerton1 and Declan @declanshalvey. Since Diamond ceased distribution of new product their graphic novel Bog Bodies no longer has a release date, but keep an eye out for the book once it resumes.