Interview: New Zealand Comics Creators THE SHEEHAN BROTHERS
The Sheehan Brothers:"I’d like for us to make the kind of work that inspires people to make their own work."
New Zealand has a vibrant comics scene. As a torchbearer, the folks at 3 Bad Monkeys Press have been publishing a bianual anthology called Faction highlighting some of the best Kiwi creators around. In issue 2, one of the comics featured was A Day at the Races by The Sheehan Brothers. It's an amazing piece of comics craft and it led me down the internet rabbit hole of wanting to know more about who The Sheehan Brothers were and what else they have created. The Brothers were kind enough to hook me up with their series The Inhabitants, the reading of which was a transformative experience for me and left me still wanting to know more. Kelly and Darren Sheehan agreed to talk we with me about their backgrounds, The Inhabitants, the power of influences, and what creating comics means to them.
Daniel Elkin for Comics Bulletin: Before we start getting into the themes and the processes behind The Inhabitants, let's let you introduce yourselves. Who are the Sheehan Brothers and what sparked you guys to start creating comics?
Kelly: I’m the eldest brother in a family with four siblings. Darren is just below me in the pecking order. We also have an older sister and a younger brother. We both live in Auckland, New Zealand.
I’m 44, work at the Auckland Central Library and am married to Sinead Mohally with whom I share a son, Seamus, who is six years old.
We’ve been making comics since around 1996/97. The process was sparked by Darren’s letters to me when he was traveling overseas. On most of them there were cool little psychedelic sketches which I found quite inspiring. I ended up sitting down one day and writing a script titled ‘The Long Man’ and sending it off to Darren. We have probably averaged about one comic a year since then.
Darren: I live in Auckland with my wife Fran and our son Finn. My day job is a Gallery Technician at the Auckland Art Gallery.
The Long Man title came from a tattoo in Hindi script, worn, in fact, by a long gentleman from Canada. He had acquired it on his travels. He was in residence in a backpacker's hostel I worked at in Galway Ireland for a while.
While I was traveling around, buses /trains /ferries etc, I was filling sketchbooks. So, I had some sketches worked out when I returned home and we knocked out the first issue of the Longman. The first one was published while Kelly was traveling in India and Nepal. It ended up being 5 issues, a black and white silent (as was the fashion of the time) comic. Kelly has since described it as a dub fairy tale. I have always liked that description.
Kelly: I seem to remember Darren telling me that said Canadian backpacker had ridden a motorcycle on the wall of death of an Indian circus, but maybe my memory is playing tricks on me. If it’s not true it should be.
CB: There's a long road between psychedelic sketches and a narrative. What made you think about making a comic in the first place? Were you guys avid comic book readers? And then, how did make the transition from inspiration to form? In other words, how did you figure out how to put together a comic book (especially a 5 issue series) in the first place? Did you guys have mentors or did you just DIY the whole thing and let it unfold on its own?
Kelly: We were both avid readers of comics. Any comics would do, though obviously we both had favorites. 2000AD, the English sci-fi weekly, being the primary preference. Reading that beast from when you are seven or eight years old does something to your head.
It wasn’t just comics, I read pretty much anything since our parents had thrown out the television in about 1976 or ’77.
If you have read comics all your life there must usually be a point where you wonder if you could do this. It is probably easier to find out if you can if your brother can draw really well, as was the case with myself. By the time I sat down to write my first script I was twenty-seven. I’d read a lot of comics. I’d read a lot of interviews with artists and writers. I was familiar enough with the format to write a script, so I had a go.
The nice thing about doing a ‘dub fairy tale’ is that no one can really tell you how to do it. There are not too many rules. We pretty much just did the DIY thing, put one foot in front of the other and saw where it took us.
All the time we were making the Longman comics we were selling them at the local comics/pop culture convention and getting good feedback from complete strangers. That served as a positive encouragement.
Darren: I had always drawn a lot and had made comics with my friend Mic Cole when I was younger so had experimented a bit with designing characters and lay outs of panels and pages.
As Kelly said we pretty much read anything. British weeklies, heaps of Marvel and DC and then the usual trajectory into alternative press of Love and Rockets, American Flagg, Warrior, Paul Pope's THB oversize stuff, Hate, Stray Bullets. Al Columbia's Biologic Show made quite an impression on me.
When I left school, I completed a graphic design degree with a major in illustration so had some grounding in processes but mostly it was trial and error. Most of the Longman was drawn with ball point on A4 then A3 paper. As the issues progressed I begun to experiment with brush and ink (I made the mistake of using vivid marker pens for a while for blocking in areas of black and now those pages are turning quite yellow as the ink degrades. So budding cartoonist beware – that is, of course, unless your into that Guy Debord auto destruction shtick).
At the local comic conventions I saw other people's works/ techniques so picked up some tips there. Dylan Horrocks introduced me to ivory board for example. I put to use when working on The Inhabitants.
The late Martin Edmond spoke to a group of students about his comics work when I was studying at AUT and the detailed beauty of his pages made quite an impression on me at the time.
CB: I was going to ask some more questions about what it's like being a Kiwi creator (like do you guys set up comic book death matches with Aussie creators and stuff like that), but since Darren just brought up The Inhabitants, I'd be a fool not to jump on that segue.
I was absolutely blown away by The Inhabitants. When I reviewed it, I was pretty much at a loss for words to fully describe not only my emotional response to what you guys had created, but also to what the very nature of the story is. I'd be interested to hear what each of you think The Inhabitants is “about” – what is the story you guys are trying to tell in this series?
Kelly: For me it's less about what it is "about" than what it "is". I hope that does not sound too wanky, it's just that I am wary of nailing The Inhabitants down to specifics. That is probably because I don't really know but also because it should be open enough for readers to make up their own mind.
Part of not being able to nail it down to specifics is that I don't really think my way through the process of making the comics. I don't start off with grand themes or extended storylines. Either something feels right or it doesn't. Sometimes this can get a bit awkward. About halfway through the process of making the series I decided the end that I had planned did not work. It took me at least another year and a half before a new ending kind of settled into the narrative in a satisfying manner. I spent a lot of time worrying this might not happen.
When we began the process of creating the series I was interested in creating a story but also an atmosphere. I think Darren felt the same way too. We were also interested in creating an environment. Those two things combined and that's what The Inhabitants "is", a kind of spooky playground in which we can tell all types of stories.
Darren: I might title this answer ' What are they cooking in there”. To further steal from Tom Waits, there is a quote I read where he talks about stirring the pot to see what will rise to the surface; a Leadbelly line, some Harry Patch dissonance, a little Old Blue Eyes perhaps, maybe even just an Eyeball Kid.
Kelly and I have been collectively throwing things in the pot for the last 20-30 years, consciously or not. The Inhabitantsis a chance to stir that pot and see what bubbles up; a touch of the Borriblesby Michael de Larrabeiti, a line from The Soft Bulletin by the Flaming lips, a bit of seasoning courtesy of England's Dreaming by Jon Savage. The Inhabitants is an urban gumbo. Hopefully it tastes good and you want to come back for more. I guess this is more about inspiration than what it is about but as Kelly said we’re aiming for a feel.
Kelly: The base for Darren’s urban gumbo should consist of a good-sized raw chunk of The Invisibles.
CB: And now you guys have made me incredibly hungry.
Food references aside, though, I've been talking to one of my fellow Comics Bulletin writers, Keith Silva, about what he calls the “anxiety of influences” – how we in this Modern Age are bombarded with pop-culture references and, as we use these to define the self, the tenuousness of this action causes us to be perpetually in a state of flux or non-being, which then makes it harder and harder for us to connect to others on a fundamental level. I get the sense from your answers to that last question, especially in your reference to “an urban gumbo,” that you guys, whether consciously or not, are exploring this sort of modern malaise in The Inhabitants; you're wearing your influences as an aesthetic and are being guided by that vision.
This is kind of an esoteric question, but would you say that The Inhabitants is more of an exploration of influences or is it more of a reaction to influences? And how would your answer help us understand the main plot conflict in the story?
Kelly: When you say 'main plot conflict' do you mean the conflict between the protagonists and the creature from the hungry universe or more in a metatextual, conflict of influences sort of way?
CB: Let's go creature from the hungry universe initially before we go metatextual.
Kelly: Influence is part and parcel of The Inhabitants.
One of the key components to the series was Zenith and Morrison's claim that everything in that series was sampled. That seemed like a pretty good idea, so we stole it. The series is full of 'borrowed' components; the broad plot structure, background characters lifted from local cartoonists work, buildings from inner city Auckland, graffiti, a real graffiti artist, local gig posters, phrases and lines from songs, characters from advertisements, pieces of New Zealand fine art. Hell, the general feel of the series is me trying to make a comic that reads like the Dimmer album I Believe You Are A Star sounds.
That said those influences, those components, come filtered through Darren and myself. We are not reacting against them. Instead, we are trying to produce a comic in cohesion with them, choose the ones that enhance and work best within our series. Do that right and hopefully they add up to something unique and your own, or, as you so elegantly say, a story guided by our vision.
In terms of how that relates to the plot conflict, I don't think it does. I'm not trying to tie the characters and the action with wider metatextual conceits or ideas. I think that makes things a little too top heavy and ungainly.
CB: I may be taking this on a much broader level then you are intending, but I have to ask if you are saying, then, that the role of the artist is to occupy a space of commentary on influences, serve up homages where they are due, and then flow with the inevitable fact that one's creative insight is the sum total of these influences? Is the creative act now one in which the individual(s) sift through all his/her/their cultural touchstones to generate something new?
Kelly: No I don't think I would agree with that.
With The Inhabitants we set out to create something in which influences, or samples, were included as a self-conscious part of the process of making that particular comic. Mostly we did it because it was fun. I don't think that is the only way of making a piece of art. In theory you could sit down and make something that was completely devoid of outside context/input and it would be fine. The sample/influence thing is just a strategy, one of many.
CB: Is this, then, one way to read what The Inhabitants is about? That the denizens of “There” are engaged in a struggle against the over-saturation of information and influences? Could the Darkness that is threatening their existence be the vampire tendrils of the digital plasticity that is creeping into our essential aesthetic? Or am I now reading way too much into it based on this discussion?
Kelly: You could read it like that and I'd be happy enough with it, but it was definitely not my intention to write that intoThe Inhabitants. As I said above I think placing that type of idea in a story makes for something ungainly. It's too specific. Hopefully, if your structure is not too cumbersome, then the result is flexible enough to allow for multiple readings. Or, it allows for the building of a structure in which there's room for more than just my limited intentions to dwell.
I've got a story mostly written which takes place inside the hungry universe that might make things a little clearer, in terms of the thoughts that initially guided me. One of these days...
CB: I believe that those in the business call that a “teaser” – well done, sir.
So you crafted The Inhabitants in a way that you hoped would allow for various interpretations, even ones as esoteric as the line of thinking I was just pursuing. As artists, though, you DO have a specific intent for why you create something. Have you failed if the message you hope to convey is lost on your audience, or have you succeed even more creatively by having your audience make their own meaning? Or is it somewhere in between these two absolutes that the greatest works of art lie?
Darren: I like to have an avenue to create stuff. The comics we make are that avenue, that intent. As I get older I think the rewarding part of making things is in the making. Sitting in my office/studio/room whatever you want to call it, listening to music, (at the moment Ned Rifle – Hal Hartley’s alter ego for soundtrack work, Kaputt by Destroyer and The Blue Nile, always the Blue Nile ), thinking my thoughts. Some kind of life of the mind outside of the day to day.
I suspect the audience we are trying to satisfy is each other. I know this has been said before but in our case we are working in a marginalised form at the edge of the globe. There is no industry here. I do not want to be ungrateful to the people that buy our work but I am under no illusions this is going to become a career. I make this stuff because I enjoy making it. I enjoy what that feels like. I like the place my mind goes when I read Kelly’s words.
CB: And I totally understand that. I get the sense that at its core, The Inhabitants is really a personal work. I see it as sort of a dialogue between the two of you, Kelly using words, Darren using images. It's the space you guys create in this back and forth that makes this story so compelling, because it is just at the edge of my understanding. It's like knowing only enough Russian to understand half of a conversation, but not enough to really know what is going on. In my review, I said that the series is “immersive, but in a manner that keeps you as a reader off-kilter, aware of the fiction of it, as if the hand that beckons you through the doorway has seven fingers” which I think sums that up pretty well. Given that, how has the reception to the series been and, somewhat related, how did you guys get hooked up with Damon Keen and Amie Maxwell, editors of the Faction anthology series, where you are currently continuing the world ofThe Inhabitants?
Kelly: The response from those that have seen it has been largely positive, of course not too many people have read it. New Zealand is a small place and is a long way from anywhere so the impact we would have has always been limited. A little of that is because promoting the series, while we were making it, was hard. It's difficult to foist yourself on people when you only release an issue a year of your magnum opus.
One response which made me happy was when we won the irregularly held New Zealand comics prize, (called theErics after cartoonist Eric Resetar), for best writing. While I have mixed feelings about the idea of myself being solely created with the writing, since in some ways the creative interaction between Darren and myself is quite seamless, (apart from the drawing), I was very, very happy that novelist Elizabeth Knox, who acted as one of the judges, seemed to really like the book. I'm a big fan of her work, particularly Black Oxen, which is my first-favourite-but-equal-with-one-other New Zealand novel, and to have her describe our books a 'beautiful' really made the time spent on producing it worthwhile.
In terms of making contact with Damon and Amie, well......New Zealand is a small place. Auckland is even smaller. Damon and I initially met years ago when I had the misfortune of working in Borders. One of my work colleagues knew this guy who was producing an epic sci-fi graphic novel and that was Damon. After that we would run into each other every now and again. Over that time Damon messed around with different creative projects including a short film that my youngest brother, Chris, helped produce some props for. Eventually we discovered that we shared other mutual friends. We would talk sometimes at parties. At some point Damon worked out that comics were a really good way of telling a story, especially compared with making films, and came up with the idea of Faction. He contacted me to discuss the idea and asked if Darren and I would be interested in contributing. We were.
I should add that working with Damon and Amie has been great. A Day at the Races is the first Inhabitants story which I have been able to refine to my own satisfaction. Often when we were working on the series there were small changes I wanted to make to the dialogue or the text and Darren was too over it by that stage to accommodate me. Damon changes these things in a couple of seconds. He also pushed Darren and I into working with colour and helped realise Darren's quite particular ideas about how to accomplish that to great effect.
Ben Stenbeck, (artist on Dark Horse’s Baltimore), has also been great in providing feedback and did an amazing job in colouring the covers for the original series. If I suddenly found a million dollars on the side of the road I would spend part of it on paying him to colour the whole series. He has an amazing instinct in terms of what works on the page. He’s a great pal.
CB: I would hope that inclusion in such a great anthology like Faction would help to get your work before the eyes of a larger audience outside of New Zealand (it certainly worked in my case –heh). What are the plans with A Day at the Races? How many parts will run in Faction, how does it tie into the larger Inhabitants story, and will it come out as a stand-alone at some point?
Kelly: Part of Damon’s vision with Faction is that the artists can kind of piggyback on each other’s audiences and expose their work to people that might not otherwise see it. I think that’s a great idea and hopefully we will see benefits from that. Obviously, as you pointed out, it has worked with you.
I don’t have detailed plans for a Day at the Races. I think it will be about five or six parts but really I won’t know until we finish. The next part, which will appear in the next issue of Faction, is a little bit of a sideways digression that, hopefully, will bear fruit in the following episode. I think it's kind of fun.
I’d like to collect it eventually but the colour component might present issues since it will make it a much more expensive…
In terms of how it ties into the rest of The Inhabitants, well, it is just part of the general exploration of the world that Darren and I have created. I tend to think of The Inhabitants as consisting of background, middle distance and foreground. Characters will come forward and recede back depending on the needs of the story. New characters and circumstances are always presenting themselves and begging for attention.
CB: So the world of The Inhabitants is going to be a world you guys are going to be living in for awhile longer then, which, selfishly, I'm pretty excited about. Ultimately, is there something that you hope your audience comes away with for having sojourned in this world alongside you guys, some message you hope to impart?
Kelly: I think we will carry on with Inhabitants stories for the foreseeable future. After A Day at the Races I have rough plans for a number of short stories. We'll have to see how it goes, it's always a balance in terms of time and family and responsibilities. We're also working on Into the Dark Woods, which, for some reason, feels a little closer to my heart. If I had to choose...
I don't really have a message, I just hope people enjoy our stories and have fun exploring our world.
Darren: I’d like for us to make the kind of work that inspires people to make their own work. For me that would be the best outcome of what we do.
If you want a copy of The Inhabitants (and trust me, you do) or anything else the Sheehan Brothers are creating, you can contact Kelly Sheehan in New Zealand directly at firstname.lastname@example.org