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Interview with Liam Sharp
By Owen Jones (2005-11-14)Liam Sharp is a renowned English comic artist who has worked for all the major companies in the industry. He is currently working on his own anthology, Event Horizon.
1.) How did you intially become involved in comics?
Liam Sharp (LS): Happenstance and kismet I guess, much like it is for many people in any walk of life. I was very good at drawing as a child and urged by my teachers. I was presented to what was called 'the Gifted Children Society' when I was about ten and they managed to get an art scholarship created for me at a prep school down in Eastbourne. I understand it was the first of it's kind, but art scholars are thankfully quite common now. I liked fantastic stories, your epics such as Jason and the Argonaughts, George Pal and Ray Harryhausen movies, Jack the Giant Killer, Valley of the Gwangi and so on. Also horror and science fiction, Frankenstein, 2001, and of course I'm a Star Wars generation kid. So I'd draw on these things for artistic motivation. They were more interesting to me as subject matter than traditional landscapes, and so forth.
My background didn't have any dealings with modern or conceptual art, being a working class midlander from a small industrial town, so I was pretty closed to that early on. I just knew I didn't want to paint sheep or dry stone walls back then, and I thought that surely painting a believable dragon was more impressive than painting something you COULD see! I think there were always comics around. I loved them, but was never a fanboy collector, it wasn't possible to be, as the corner shop stocked such limited range! I'd flick through them and get the one that had the most exciting looking art in my limited estimation.
During my teens I grew out of drawing comics for a while and I really wanted to be a science fiction/fantasy illustrator. I discovered Frazetta, Syd Mead, Jim Burns, and that was it. I'd found my calling. But then I discover adult comics in the form of Epic Illustrated, and more importantly Heavy Metal Magazine, which was the US version of the classic French magazine Metal Hurlant. This presented me with comic auteurs of astonishing ability and fearlessness. Bilal, Moebius, Dionnet, Druillet, Corben, Liberatore, Manara, the list goes on. These were guys doing work worthy of the great science fiction and fantasy illustrators, but in comic form. It was a revelation, and again I knew what I really wanted to do. Then at 17 I fortuitously met the great late lamented Don Lawrence and became his assistant for a year. So that was it, I was in the comic business!
2.) How has the industry changed since your first started?
LS: Oh it's changed incredibly. In the 80's some amazing stuff was happening in the staid mainstream. It was begging for a writer like Alan Moore to come along. Frank Miller was already shaking stuff up, and then he did The Dark Knight Returns and changed everything. Bill Sienkewickz was breaking ground with his art on Moonknight, and it was all very exciting. The 70's had seen artists bringing about revolutions and change in the medium. The 80's had innovation from both writers and artists, but really the 90's and beyond has been the domain of the writer. I've been saying it a fair bit recently, but it's true that a great writer can make a star of an average artist. But a great artist's book will lose sales and go under if the writer is no good. There is an imbalance, and while the writers are doing some great and innovative work these days, the industry's audience and editors alike require quite traditional, clear comic art that has little or no innovation. It's somewhat homogenised right now and that's a shame.
And of course sales have literally plummeted, so the publishers are freaking out. Nobody knows why for sure, but I buy the argument that it's been killed by the computer games industry which can offer multiple storylines and player interaction, but which leaves very little change for comics. I also don't think that the comics industry has ever been able to shed its subculture kids and geeks image. The natural place for comics to be read is on trains, planes and buses but people STILL don't like being seen with a comic. They feel judged! I know people who won't be seen dead going into a comic shop! It's crazy!
3.) Do the big two of Marvel and DC prevent the industry from growing in your opinion? A lot of their titles have been around for years, even decades, and it seems hard for all but the most exceptional new titles to find a place in the industry, is this an accurate assessment?
LS: None of the big guys want competition, for sure! But the real problem is distribution, the retailers, and visibility. It's incredibly hard for new publishers to get their stuff seen because they don't have a billion other titles for in-house advertising. They don't have the huge print runs, and therefore the associated printing discounts. They don't have the lawyers, the big movie deals, the merchandising, or the cash to buy advertising slots in hugely expensive industry mags like Wizard. Really what happens is the billionaire boys club can all shake each other's hands and scratch each others backs and kind of perpetuate this inner-circle of top top names. They'll get the big features, the posters, the industry magazine covers, all the stuff that will bring you profile, and you simply can't get that without A LOT of cash. So then the retailers don't know you're there. And if they DO, they also know that the readers are only seeing what they themselves are seeing, and the readers want what they think is hot. As a result retailers are scared of taking chances on stuff that is untried and actually the readership these days has the same fear too. Ultimately it often comes down to budget, be it the shop or the buyer. New stuff has to scream out to be heard or seen. And the distributors again will look after the big boys first. They've been around forever, and they produce the most stock. Small independent publisher come and go.
Owen Jones © 2005