INTERVIEW: Liam Sharp
I want to represent an interview I recently carried out for my 5 Minutes With… column over on ComicRelated.com that I carried out with honorary Irish man Liam Sharp. Liam has been a long time attendee to many an Irish con down the years and has been an absolute gent to talk to on several occasions. So I wanted to share this long interview that Liam was kind enough to grant with me where we talk about many aspects of his career and he shared some excellent stories including the legendary furore where he inadvertently drew Betty Ross’ hand a bit too near Bruce Banner’s crotch. We also discussed his hard time working with Todd McFarlane and I got his thoughts on the direct market. Read on…
David O’Leary: Hi Liam, thanks for taking the time to talk with us today.
Liam Sharp: Very much my pleasure!
DO’L: You are about ten years or so removed from the main superhero side of Marvel and DC. You went in a direction where you allowed yourself a lot of creative freedom. Had you reached a point where you wanted to move away from the corporate direction to work on your own ideas for any particular reason?
LS: Not really. Freelancers have to take the work they are offered, and I think time had revealed that I had a particular strength in more adult-themed work. And also that I was perhaps of a more adventurous, maverick bent than most mainstream artists – which meant that I tended to get offered jobs with those kind of themes. It is true that I’ve long pursued personal projects, but they can take a long time to get off the ground!
Honestly, though, I’d love to do the odd mainstream job from time to time. In 2007 I did Lord Havok and the Extremists, and that was a brief return to that kind of work. I also had a cover for that inked by Scott Williams, which was a real dream come true. Ultimately I like a great many genres and have tried – though perhaps not entirely succeeded – to make myself rounded enough to handle a wide variety of work.
DO’L: On your work at Marvel UK, you were working at a time when there was a huge amount of work coming out from the publisher in the UK. With Deaths Head II, you struck lucky that it got you work stateside right before Marvel UK stopped publishing in the high numbers they were. Did you see that as a stroke of luck at the time that you were going to be working stateside before many books were cancelled?
LS: DHII was right at the start of Marvel UK getting big – it opened those doors. Before that the sales were tiny, but the US saw that we were adapting to their aesthetic, becoming more commercial but with a dark UK under-current. It was my success with that title that woke the US publishers up to my work. So in that sense I owe my entire US career to Marvel UK, without which I would never have been seen. By the time I was properly working on US titles, though, everything was starting to crumble dramatically. Marvel UK was just one of the first casualties.
DO’L: I want to ask you about Testament. Douglas Ruskoff has said that he never set out to cause controversy, just tell a good story. But before the first issue even saw print the religious right were up in arms about the book calling it blasphemous etc. Did that kind of negative view of it affect you in any way on your time on the book?
LS: You will always upset somebody, no matter what you do. I had Hulk fans calling for me to be fired at one point over an entirely innocent image that was misinterpreted. My liberal views have been hung out try dry online for being apparently at odds with the violence in my art. It’s something we have to try to get used to.
I’m fascinated by anthropology, the origins of mythology and religion are pet subjects I’ve been a lay student of since my teens. I was born of non-religious parents, found Christianity at school – primarily because I was taught it as fact, and trusted my teachers to be telling me the truth. Then I made a mental leap in my late teens along the lines of – hang on, surely this is all down to an accident of birth isn’t it? If I’d been born in the Middle East I’d be a Muslim, or if it had been India I’d most likely be a Hindu. We can’t all be right! I started looking at history, archaeology, anthropology, and all the other religions, and in the end I just thought the only thing that makes any rational sense to me is that there couldn’t fairly be any gods. There didn’t seem to be a need – other than to explain the universe to our younger evolving selves back in more unenlightened times. I became agnostic, then finally an atheist.
Rushkoff’s story chimed with those themes – the notion that we, as humans, write the universe. We create our own world, based on what we are taught, and what we choose to believe. The truth is, though, Testament was far gentler and wiser than many other books that ask questions. It’s not an outright attack, it’s a request that we at least try to think for ourselves – independently of tradition and the ingrained memes of many generations. It’s just asking that we all be ourselves, not what others wish us to be. I think that’s a good thing. But naturally, and until the end of time, there will be those that strongly disagree with me!
DO’L: When Mam Tor was set up to publish Sharpenings, had you intended on the company to expand it’s publishing horizons beyond Sharpenings or was it to be a one book thing?
LS: I had no plan. Times had been a bit rough on the work front, so Sharpenings was created to sell at the San Diego comic convention, and hopefully remind a few editors what I was capable of. But I guess I got the publishing bug!
DO’L: Event Horizon was unique in that it gave no editorial direction to those involved in its creation. Where did the idea for Event Horizon genesis from?
LS: Well we did have SOME editorial. Not everything submitted was published, just the best stuff. But I’ve long felt writers and artists should be trusted to do their jobs, and not be micro-managed, which often kills the creativity. The idea for the book evolved out of my message board at the time, also called Sharpenings, and myself and John Bamber (a friend and art collector) had the same idea at a get together of board members at the Bristol comic Expo: Let’s showcase this talent that isn’t being seen, and put it along side some work by name pros. Very exciting. It launched a few careers, and I got to really see what it was like the other side of the desk.
DO’L: Now that the book is award winning, how much satisfaction do you gain knowing that the efforts in making it were recognised?
LS: Well it was award-winning, but only ran to two issues. We simply didn’t have the funds to advertise, and it made a big loss. None of the books made any money at all, but they did open doors – so in that sense they were worth it. We tried, we had a go, we were acknowledged, and that counts for something. I’m extremely proud of what we achieved.
DO’L: Spawn: The Dark Ages was a book that you reportedly left after Todd Mc Farlane disagreed with the continuing use of magic in the book. Not only was the book not set in the Dark Ages but a Spawn without some kind of magical element also seemed off centre. Was there at some stage some about turn in the direction of the book that made working on it untenable?
LS: I probably shouldn’t say, but it was awful. The book was meant to be the origin of Medieval Spawn – which you can plainly see on the first cover. It’s the Medieval Spawn costume in an early incarnation. I liked the idea it was fresh out of hell, organic and still setting, still seeking it’s final form.
At some point Todd decided it would be ongoing, and would be Spawn: the Dark Ages – which didn’t fit, as clearly Brian Holguin and I had set it in Medieval times. Then he wanted it to be like “Braveheart Braveheart Braveheart”, which was impossible as it featured a magic zombie from hell! He went nuts when we continued to keep magic in the comic, but we already had a few issues in the drawer so they were already done. We couldn’t change it until after those issues were published, and that obviously wasn’t good enough.
First the colourist changed unexpectedly, then I read online that Brian (Holguin) was off the book. I wrote a worried email to Image, asking if I’d hear online that I was off the book too. It went silent, then sure enough I got the call. I was fired, just before Christmas in the year 1999. The guy who told me the news said he didn’t know why, that I’d been a complete gentleman, and that he felt wretched doing it. He left himself soon after. My wife had just had a baby and was suffering a palsy that paralyzed half her face completely, and I went down with the mother of all flus, coughing blood and bed-ridden for weeks. I spent that Christmas jobless and alone at home while my wife, young daughter and new baby went down to Devon where the grandparents could help out.
The next year I hardly got any work at all. McFarlane went on to make figures of my covers and other figures that used my designs, for which I got nothing. They did relent and send me a few of them when I chased them up about it. The sad thing is I thought I was doing the best work of my career with the ‘Children’s Crusade’ storyline. I was completely shocked. Terrible terrible times. The worst in fact. Heartbreaking.
DO’L: You’ve mentioned before that you have gotten a fair bit of grief after your run on Hulk online. Can you tell us what that was all about?
LS: Oh man! It was all about a scene featuring Betty and Banner when he had the Hulk’s brain in the human body. Betty was calming him down, begging him to stop raging basically, and the angle I drew it at inadvertently looked like she achieved this by giving him a bit of – ahem – hand relief. It was so innocent. I think it says more about the people that read into it than me! The editor didn’t spot it either. Honestly, when it was pointed out to me I had to laugh! These are things you can never see coming, or ever prepare for. I think it was the first time I fully appreciated the wrath of the fans!
DO’L: Issue 1 of Gears of War reportedly sold a total of 450,000 copies, of which only 10% were through the direct market. Is that not a straight argument right there to get rid of the direct market and get comics back into regular shops like they were here (UK & Ireland) ten years ago or so?
LS: I absolutely think they should be on the newsstands, not just in specialist outlets. I didn’t even know about comic shops when I was a kid, and the big Derby comic shop recently shut down so there’s nothing here any more. I have to take a train ride if I want comics, which on a day to day basis I simply don’t have time to do. Comics should be there to be found. I found them. My whole generation found them! Lots of people still don’t like the idea of going in a comic shop – daft though that is. There’s room for both!
DO’L: As someone who dabbles in all aspects of creating comics, what is your favourite part of the creation process?
LS: I love writing. It’s definitely what I enjoy the most.
DO’L: Following on from your novel God Killers, would like to write more prose?
LS: Absolutely. But then I always write – I have a novella, and loads more prose work in the wings in various stages of completion. I’ve written three screenplays too, which I really enjoyed. We’ll see where that takes me – everything is a lottery! But yes, writing is a huge passion of mine. I love it.
DO’L: What is the likelihood that we will see you back on main stream Marvel or DC work again?
LS: I never have the slightest idea where things are leading, so anything is possible. Would LOVE to do the Hulk again one day. Or the X-Men. I loved working on those books. Stranger things have happened! I do miss Marvel. It was my home for quite a while back in the day.
DO’L: Liam, many thanks for your time. Take care.
LS: You too!