Since making waves with his run on Moon Knight with Warren Ellis, Declan Shalvey has become not just a superstar artist but a key figure in the comics world. He’s been one of the leaders of the #ArtCred movement and has a great mind for the process of making comics. I had a discussion with him about taking the reins on Return of Wolverine, what he’s learned from writing comics for other artists, and how online culture can get in the way of positive discourse.
You’ve taken on a lot more writing work lately. How do you fit that into the already intensive job of drawing comics?
I haven’t taken on that much, or have I…? Savage Town (an Irish crime graphic novel I wrote) was very much my own endeavor, but soon afterward I did write Deadpool vs. Old Man Logan for Marvel, and a James Bond one-shot for Dynamite. Wrote and drew a Venomverse short story too. It all seemed to happen in a short space of time compared to barely any writing work before, but I very much enjoyed it.
Fitting it into an already intensive job…? I have no idea, I just had to make it work. Well, I do have to credit Heather Antos at Marvel, she did a great job of scheduling the scripts and the drafts so that I was never ever totally stuck. If I had a drawing deadline around the same time, she was able to work it out for me and yet make sure I never kept Mike Henderson (the artist) waiting. Same with Wil Moss when I was trying to work Fury around Batman. Having Sebastian [Girner] help with Savage Town too, and Nate Cosby on Bond… I definitely think that having the support network of editors was what kept me sane around then. It is a lot to balance, the pitches, and various drafts on one project, workshopping layouts and illustrating covers on another, and of course the intensive work of illustrating 20-page comics. I’m trying to work out a more regular schedule for myself now, where I do writing work on Monday and some of Sunday, spend Tuesday-Friday drawing pages and take Saturday off. Inevitably, some things get in the way but ideally, I’d like to chip away at writing so that one project doesn’t drive a massive hole through another project.
Did anything surprise you about scripting comics for other artists to draw?
The things that get lost in translation and the things that develop from that loss. I think as an artist, I can write with a visual shorthand… but I’m not going to ask someone to draw something unless I can imagine drawing it myself. I think I know to avoid certain traps that can cause artists headaches, but regardless, there’s inevitably things that end up on the page that look just like I thought they would, and things that would look quite different, and it’s interesting to see which moments work out in those different ways. It all depends on the artist and their sensibilities and I like seeing that. There were definitely moments with Mike and PJ (Holden, on Bond) where I thought “huh.. I wouldn’t have done it that way” and others where I thought “YES, that’s EXACTLY what I was thinking.” My favourite thing to do is just leave them space in certain areas to do their own thing as I know that will result in more interesting results from them, and more personal investment for them. I’ve said before that drawing comics is like solving a puzzle. So is writing them… but it’s also like constructing a playhouse for the artist to enjoy moving around in.
I get the sense that artists-turned-writers frequently write faster than those who solely write. Would you agree that it’s a pattern?
I can’t say I’ve noticed that myself, to be honest. We’re not ALL Jeff Lemire! I mean, it may be that writer-artists pick up a certain rhythm over the years that carries over to their writing and it creates a level of efficiency. I feel that sometimes, but I’d imagine it really comes down to who they’re working with. Also, it could also just be a perception thing… some projects take months to come out, others take years, and sometimes they all come out at the same time. If anything, I’m more conscious these days of some creators over-saturating the market with too much of their work at one time. We’re all trained to take on all the work we can… it can be hard to know if you’re taking too much on but also if you’re just putting too much out for readers to follow.
I’m not sure how fast I am. Once I force myself to sit down and write, I think I’m pretty quick though I find that my scripts take exactly one day longer to write than the time I allow myself to write them. Sigh.
What are you able to accomplish as both the writer and artist of comics like your Nick Fury serial that would be impossible in a collaboration between multiple creators?
Certainly, that rhythm and efficiency I mentioned earlier is something that became very clear when I’ve written/drawn. I really felt on that Fury project, which is the longest project I’ve both written and drawn. There is a shorthand I can have in the writing that I know I’ll flesh out in the drawing, and a directness of idea-to-page that just doesn’t happen when you work exclusively on one craft or the other. I can have an idea, and just flesh it out on the page… or sometimes find easier solutions when drawing, as I don’t need to ask anyone what their intention was in the script. I feel with Fury, I was able to compress a lot of story into a shorter amount of pages and tell it with a sense of immediacy. I’m not sure it would have worked as well where I do have only been collaborating as a writer OR artist.
What made you decide to return to drawing comics at Marvel?
We had wrapped Volume 3 of Injection and were all a bit wrecked from it. Warren was pretty busy on other projects so he just gave me a heads up that he wouldn’t be able to start on Volume 4 for a little while. I considered maybe doing some work on a creator-owned thing to bridge the gap, but I just gave Marvel a heads up to let them know that if they were interested, I was available for something short. We had talked over the possibility of me writing and drawing something, but in the end, I agreed to do a mini-series with a writer I’m a big fan of. As I was starting it, unfortunately, I had some personal stuff happen just as I was starting that totally derailed me for a few months. Outside of some covers, I wasn’t really able to work. I got back to it but Marvel asked if I could work on a couple of other short projects, like the Two In One Annual, and the Return Of Wolverine issues and they were fun to do. The mini in question hasn’t been solicited or announced so we were able to work it around the more time-sensitive stuff. After the major hustle creator-owned work in 2017, I think switching off of that more mentally straining stuff (creator-owned is a LOT of work outside of making the actual comics) and doing some fun work for hire in 2018 is what I needed. I’m currently back on that original project for Marvel.
Was your approach to Return of Wolverine affected by the first issue being illustrated by Steve McNiven?
Not really… I mean I was surprised Marvel asked me as I look NOTHING like Steve McNiven… and I’m also miles away form what Steve has been doing on this project, with this kind of Barry Winsor Smith approach. So, with me being so different, I didn’t see the point in trying to ape Steve or anything like that, nor was I really interested in doing so. I just did my own thing and Marvel were totally cool with that. There were a couple of storytelling considerations that Charles had devised in the script and Steve had illustrated in Issue One. I didn’t copy it exactly, but I definitely tried to keep his approach in mind when I was breaking down the storytelling. I think it’ll be really interesting to see that book collected. The page count is split down the middle between us, and I’m sandwiched on both sides by Steve’s work. I just drew the Ol’ Canuckelhead the best I could, and had great fun doing it. Definitely made me want to take another stab (pun intended) at Wolvie, if I was able to do whole book and establish the look myself.
What’s the current status of Injection?
On hiatus, but back later this year. I’m starting to plan out the variant covers, at the moment.
As I mentioned above, Marvel were great to me during that personal wobble I had, so want to make good on that commitment before I get back to Injection. Also, creator owned comics are exhausting, not just to create, but to promote, manage, etc, so the switch to work for hire is what I needed. I wish the gap wasn’t as long is it will end up being but at the end of the day, not to sound dramatic but it’s what I needed to do for my own mental health, really. We put out a Deluxe Hardcover a couple of months ago, I’m hoping that will keep people going for now. Putting the book together was also a really great reminder as to how much I love the book and want to get back to what I feel is the greatest work of my career. Injection is uncompromising which is why no other project comes close in terms of personal satisfaction. I need to get back to it.
You’ve been very vocal about comics artists being recognized for their work. Have you seen improvement in regards to ArtCred over the past couple of years?
Yes and no. I think everyone is a little more conscious of it now, which is great. But I still see plenty of examples of people referring to artists as the primary (if not sole) creative source of a book, plenty of PR announcements that don’t mention the artist, plenty of media adaptations that don’t acknowledge the artist, etc. On the plus side, there was an editor at Marvel who told me that when announcing a new book, he realized the announcement only had the writer attached and because of what I’d been talking about re ArtCred, it helped him to made sure the artists were also announced. That felt great, to even know something I said made an impact like that.
Saying that, there’s still plenty of examples of artist’s contributions being ignored. Frustratingly, many only seem to see artists as creators until they stop drawing and start writing. Though, as someone who does what they can behind the scenes to link creators and push collaborations, getting the right artist for the right project is a very difficult and delicate process; artists can be flaky, undependable, or just not a good fit. There isn’t a perfect science to this but the important thing is to keep pushing and not become complacent.
A lot of these regressive habits have been due to the death of a thousand cuts, gotta start healing somewhere. I can see that the audience too WANT to see who the artists are, that they’ve noticed a devaluing, and want to see better work in the books they buy. I’ve picked up a certain lowering of enthusiasm on some books and I think switching up artists all the time is a big contributor to that. Treating artists completely interchangeably leads to weak work and the readers are picking up on that.
I’ll admit though, that I have backed off the ArtCred issue a bit. Not because I don’t still feel strongly about it (as I do still feel strongly about it) but because any time I would bring up an example of it, or point out some kind of negative practises, the Twittersphere would take it and twist it into some bullshit ‘writer vs artist debate’ which is completely unhelpful and a monumental waste of everyone’s time. Every time I’d bring something up, the ‘debate’ would spark again resulting in various people bickering at each other for days and I became very frustrated with the amount of overwhelming negativity produced in our little online circle. The whole point was to be constructive, but while I know it’s part of online culture and I myself had been guilty of such behaviour, but the callout culture we find ourselves in made it impossible to have rational discussions. Part of why people became aware of ArtCred is likely because I spoke about it with a sense of moral indignation, which I felt was justified (and still do) but I just think there is SO much of that activity now. I don’t want what is supposed to be an empowering argument for artists to be wrapped up in such toxicity. I’m hoping to find a better way to have the conversation… I did some panels which were great, but I’m also just one guy in Ireland… there’s only so much I can do. I’m hoping in the future I can use whatever influence I have or will have to employ better practises and lead by example.
How can writers help foster better collaborations with artists?
In general, remembering to mention them in interviews, crediting them whenever a book they work on is brought up. In the flurry of press, I get how those things can slip by but you gotta remind people that these are artistic collaborations. Importantly: don’t freeze them out of rights or ownership!
To be fair though, most writers DO foster good collaborations with artists, it depends on the two people working together on how that develops. Any writer with experience in the industry knows just how valuable artists are. Not just with telling the stories, but even how the audience perceives the writer and they’re writing. Every writer actually working in comics knows the right artist can knock a project into the stratosphere. It’s all about finding that proper alchemy. Some writers are even savvy enough to know that the right colourist can make a huge impact. In most cases, writers know the real value of a good artist. Some can be selfish and some can be forgetful, but I genuinely feel they’re very much in the minority. The most pushback I tend to see, are people who want to be writers but are not, who think that they’re some kind of expert yet have no idea how the industry works or have any actual work under their belts. The usual elements of toxic fandom.
It ultimately is NOT a writer and artists problem, it’s a publisher and media problem. There are publishing practises established made to maximize short term profits that do nothing to incentivize long term profits. You can build up a writer MUCH faster than an artist, which is fine, but there’s no reason to do one over the other, you can do both. Building up an artist takes more investment, so invest! There are practical necessities that cause further hurdles. We as creators need to help publishers and the audience (and how the audience digests the content) to understand the benefits of crediting the artist equally (and ultimately crediting the colourists and letterers accordingly). Sometimes we need to fight against them with solid arguments, and sometimes we need to work with them by showing them how.
You clearly have a passion for educating. Are you pursuing new ways to share what you know about making comics?
Well thanks for saying that, it’s nice to hear that comes across. But to be honest, no I’m taking a back seat on all that. I mean, I’ve taken on a couple of apprentices in the past and they’re both gone on to do great work and I’m really really proud of them (Elle Power illustrated a volume of Goldie Vance last year and Eoin Marron has done projects at Boom, Dynamite and recently did his first short story for Marvel). I’m currently writing something for an artist who was a student in a storytelling class I was teaching in Dublin a few years ago (remember my point about investing…?), which is great. Those were investments that certainly paid off, but they’re still investments in time and as a freelancer, time is gold-dust.
I had thoughts of setting up a studio and mentorship program in Dublin but after a while I realised that I had to look after myself and not other people, so I’m trying to get a better handle on having this career I love and am dedicated to, but also navigate a personal life of some kind. I may return to teaching or lecturing in future, but for the moment I’m trying to look after myself.