This week is the much anticipated release of Savage Town, published by Image Comics. Combining the talents of writer Declan Shalvey and artist Philip Barrett, with colours by Jordie Bellaire and letters by Clayton Cowles. Declan is best known for his artwork on Injection, a series with Warren Ellis and Jordie Bellaire. I had a chance to sit down with Declan in March 2017, after he announced the graphic novel at Emerald City Comic-Con. We discussed his writing process, as well as some of the details of Savage Town. These are the edited excerpts from that conversation.
Declan: It will be Fall, as you guys say here, we call it Autumn. I’m on the last half of righting it, and Phil is on chapter two at the moment. It will be solicited next month because it is a trade.
S: Is this something you have been working on for a while, how long has this been in the works?
D: I knew I wanted to write and draw an Irish-centric story sometime, cause everything I do is for the American market, and you know it’s great to work on Deadpool and Moon Knight, it’s work I’m really proud of, but it’s not Irish, and I just wanted to do something that was. I’ve had a very successful career, so to take a break and draw something that wouldn’t be as marketable, when I have very marketable projects on hand, it just seemed like I couldn’t stop what I was doing. Even Injection, which is creatively amazing, I don’t get everything out of that. Great attention, and working with Warren Ellis is amazing. I’ve even sprinkled a little bit of Irish stuff in there, cause I asked Warren if we could have an Irish character in it. It’s not that everything needs to be about Ireland, I just wanted something.
“I just love how he draws Irish scenes with a sense of authenticity.”
I think I asked Phil three years ago if he’d be up for it. I know Phil from the local comic scene in Dublin, and he was always just the best. He is an amazing story teller, he basically does his own zines, you can look up his work and he draws these little strips of where he’s living or the people around him. I just love how he draws Irish scenes with a sense of authenticity. From a narrators point of view you can draw the way things look, but to draw the way things feel is the difference. This is a very different quality, and Phil’s work is always so great. It drove me crazy that nobody knew who the fuck he was, outside of Ireland.
S: That is something I was interested in, during the announcements Image did at Emerald City Comic-Con, there are a lot of new artists that are being pulled from an illustration or fine art background, jumping into the comics industry.
D: I love how broadened it’s getting, especially from the announcements, no two books looked alike at all, y’know. I think that’s healthy for the industry, especially with Image. If you can do anything there, then you should be doing anything. I think that is something Eric [Stephenson, Image Comics Editor and Publisher] likes to see. Rather than just do another superhero book that you could be doing at another company.
I knew I probably wouldn’t have time to draw Savage Town. I wanted to write, but I was just too scared to do it, but this works out great for me, cause I feel I can draw a book with Warren Ellis, and I can write a book for another artist that people don’t necessarily know. Hopefully, whatever people I can bring to read that book will discover Phil’s work. In a way it is a portfolio piece for Phil, what he can do, but it is also something I’ve been tipping away on for years. I just needed the kick in the arse to actually do it.
S: That’s what I love about the Comic Community, the support that creators give to one another, it’s not so much of a competition. There is a business side to it, but everybody is writing different books, getting stories out there. It is nice to see the recognition, and bringing more people into the industry.
D: I know for myself, I like reading good books and it can be really tough for talented people to get good opportunities. I hate reading mediocre comics, I hate reading a story that’s narrative is “ehh”, or like an amazing artist who is working with a writer who totally doesn’t appreciate them. Like fuck that shit. Not to be just rah-rah Image all the time, but I think Image has changed the playing field because if you don’t have a company saying what is or isn’t okay, you can make new rules for yourself and lead by example. Most creators all live in little bubbles of our own, I think it is excellent when we all meet and share stories and experiences. We all want comics to be better then they are. Not that they’re bad now, just we all want the best. If a little bit of information I have helps you to do better work, then everybody wins.
“I think Image has changed the playing field because if you don’t have a company saying what is or isn’t okay, you can make new rules for yourself and lead by example.”
S: What is it like to write opposed to doing the art, do you still find that you still want to send images along with the scripts?
D: Not really. I wrote and drew a story for Marvel last summer, I had started writing Savage Town by then but I was dragging my heals a little, wasn’t quite sure what I was doing. But having to do the Nick Fury story, really gave me a kick in the ass. It was a proper deadline and it was for an editor that was my boss. It is different doing a creator owned [comic], because you’re the boss of the editor, you hired them. I wanted to make sure I was on time and professional, by doing that and writing for myself it gave me the kick I needed to write a proper script.
When writing for myself, I love doing layouts, I love taking a script and breaking it down, figuring out how it works visually. I was worried when I was writing Savage Town I wouldn’t get to do that, that the problem solving aspect was gone. What I discovered was, it wasn’t gone, it just moved to the writing stage. So I was doing all the problem solving on the scripted page rather than on the layouts. The layouts felt like a much more natural extension of the script. I had the moments in my head, I was just writing around those, it was really interesting.
It is different with Phil because I am writing for another artist. I think there was one page where I said ‘Splash page of Limerick city’, and I got it back from Phil and he had lads drinking outside the pub, he had another guy in the foreground with beer he bought, giving the finger to all these other guys, and this woman is pulling him away and her skirt is two sizes to small for her. Just oodles of character he put in that scene that I had not suggested, and all these background characters with interesting faces. I’ll structure what is in the page, how many panels there are, what happens in the dialogue, after that it’s all Phil. Whatever I get back from Phil is always more interesting than what I put on the page.
S: That reminds me a lot of the first arc on Moon Knight that you did [with Jordie Bellaire and Warren Ellis], there was a lot of minimal, great sequences and a little amount of dialogue.
D: What I loved about that is, people would complain that it only took two minutes to read. I remember thinking that “it may have taken two minutes to read, but I bet you’re going to read that book again”. It was the experience of the two minutes that was enthralling. I prefer an exciting two minute read, than to drag my eyes through a book with fuck loads of dialogue and needless exposition. I’ve read those books, and I don’t enjoy them. I like economy in storytelling basically. Warren gets verbose at times where characters need to be verbose. It’s not like Warren doesn’t know how to write, or write dialogue, or write any information that doesn’t need to be there. He knows it’s a visual medium, so work to the strength of the visual demands. Moon Knight was practically just a portfolio for me, it was amazing because I was basically able to show everything that I was able to do. Which I don’t really think I had got at Marvel at that stage. I had been there for years, but I was waiting until I could cut loose and do my thing given the opportunity, but I was always on secondary arcs. My running joke was that I better keep an eye on Tony Moore’s career, cause whatever book he does I end up following him. I followed him on Venom and Deadpool, so I better watch Tony, cause I might have his job in a while. Moon Knight really was an opportunity to cut loose, and I think Warren’s writing has definitely had a big impact on me. I’m not the fucking genius that he is, don’t get me wrong, but I feel strongly that economy storytelling is paramount.
S: Something you mentioned during the announcements at the Image Panel is that a bunch of Irish slang is going to be a big part of Savage Town, while using The Wire as reference – in that once you get use to reading it, it hopefully won’t seem so foreign?
D: It might have been the wrong choice of words, cause if you’re expecting The Wire, this will not be The Wire. That being said The Wire is a bit of inspiration here, not to get too into it, but the way David Simon treats Baltimore as “The American City”, I am very much taking Limerick as Ireland. A lot of it’s about the economic boom in Ireland at the time called the Celtic Tiger. We were making lots of money and everybody thought we were rich, and then the recession hit and we were all fucked. It was that time of economic boom which everybody always raves about. To me the story of a gang, similar to that of an economic boom and bust, is very much what the [story] arc is. Not that it’s going to be as sophisticated as The Wire, but it is definitely where I came from originally. The first page is very much a reference to the first scene in The Wire, where McNulty if talking to that guy about what The Wire is. I’ve done the same thing with the opening page.
Savage Town is going to be full of slang and whatnot. In Ireland there’s slang but we also talk in a way of phases. We use phrases to talk about things which don’t literally make sense if you take the words as given. So sometimes Jordie will be like “that sounds like he’ll have sex with his mother, but not that he knows his mother”. I don’t want to loose an audience, but at the same time I think that stuff is really engrossing. I get to write the way I talk, so instead of “your” it’s “yer”. I write emails the way I talk, so it feels really natural to just write scripts with all these accents. With another publisher I wouldn’t be able to do that, they would be like “oh, Americans aren’t going to be able to understand this, you have to make it easy for them”. I’m like fuck it, I won’t make it easy to read. If you buy the book, you’ve bought it, so you’re fucked, you might as well read it. I was originally thinking that it might be an ongoing series, that might have been more of a concern cause you might pick up the first issue and never return, but since it’s a graphic novel, you’ve already paid the money so its your problem.
In Limerick City, Jimmy “Hardy” Savage is a gangster on the rise, facing trouble from all sides. With the local cops, rival gangs, his best mate, and his mammy all out to stick a knife in him, will the bollocks live long enough to get to the top? More importantly, will he pay me back for that fiver I gave him last week?