Artist Alley: Sean Phillips and the Dark Side of Hollywood in “The Fade Out” [Interview]

Variant cover to The Fade Out #1

Today brings the arrival of the latest entry into Sean Phillips and Ed Brubaker’s growing library of stunning collaborations, as “The Fade Out” debuts at Image Comics. This title, which is a murder mystery (in a way) set in the glittery facade and shady corners of 1940’s Hollywood, is an absolute thrill, and maybe their finest first issue yet. A big part of that is Phillips’ art, who combines with colorist Elizabeth Breitweiser to paint an engrossing, inviting picture into this often dark world, and he does a phenomenal job of really making us feel like we’re part of this world during the reading experience.

Thanks to Image, we’re going to take you inside the book with Phillips in Artist Alley, as he shares the firsts this series brings for him, his favorite parts of the comic world, Breitweiser’s brilliance, and much more. We’re very pleased to feature him for the first time, and thanks to Sean for chatting with us about “The Fade Out” #1.

Of course, there is one featured page that could be spoilery by nature, so if that’s something that may bother you, wait to read the comic first.

You’ve been working with Ed for a very long time now, and there’s assuredly a lot of trust and familiarity there between the two of you. For you as an artist, how does that help you make sure you bring your best work to the table? What are the inherent advantages you have when working with a long time collaborator like Ed?

Sean Phillips: The biggest advantage is that I know I’m going to get a good story to draw. Even though I never know what’s going to happen past the script pages I’ve got, I can trust that Ed knows what he’s doing and he’ll deliver a good story. I try to do my best with every job I do, but doing creator-owned books makes it that much more personal, and I’m drawing something I’ve chosen to do and I’m suited to. With company-owned comics I’ve always tried to pick projects I’m interested in too, but sometimes you just have to take what comes along…naming no names of course!

The Fade Out is a period piece, through and through, and you guys hired a researcher in Amy Condit to help improve accuracy in your visual representation of the time. As an artist, do you like projects where you get to dig into a real time and place? What have you enjoyed the most so far about this project versus others with Ed in the past?

SP: I much prefer drawing stories set in the real world. I’ve never been that interested in designing sci-fi or fantasy environments, it’s so difficult to come up with something that hasn’t been done before in those genres. Having said that, 1948 Hollywood might as well be sci-fi for me. Being in the UK, even drawing drawing modern-day America is difficult enough, so yes, we’re lucky to get some help with picture research. I like doing the research, but on a monthly comic, there’s never really the time to do as much as I’d like.

So far, I’ve enjoyed the fact that The Fade Out is a new project. It’s always exciting to start something new, but then it gets a little routine, and then there’s a renewed vigour when the end is in sight. It’s always been like that for me, so at the moment I’m still in the first exciting phase!

From what I understand, you’re a tremendously fast artist (that’s what Ed said at least). I know a lot of artists have found efficiencies with digital tools streamlining the process a bit, but are you one of them? Are you still a traditional artist, digital heavy, or some combination of both?

SP: The Fade Out is my first completely digital comic, and so far it’s taking me a lot longer to produce a page of finished art compared to when I worked on paper. Hopefully things will get quicker when I’m more used to drawing digitally. I first started making digital over fifteen years ago, but usually starting with real pencilled pages scanned and then digitally coloured or painted. Since I got myself a Wacom Cintiq and Manga Studio software last year, I don’t need anything on paper anymore. I’m sure my original art dealer will have a fit when he finds out…

Cover to The Fade Out #1

You’ve been nominated multiple times in the past for the Eisner Award for Best Cover Artist, for your work on “Sleeper”, “Criminal” and “Fatale.” Everyone has a different opinion on this, but to you, what makes a great comic book cover?

SP: A cover’s job is to sell the book, and to do that, it needs something to make it stand out on the racks. Strong composition and readable typography. Keep it simple!

When it came to all of your covers for “Fatale”, each cover was framed with a white border that did a wonderful job of emphasizing the central image. It was a great unifying factor to your entire run on that book. On “The Fade Out”, from what we’ve seen there’s another continuing theme, and that’s that white space moving in on the page to really emphasize the repeated titling element and a singular image. I love it, and it makes for some beautiful, unique looking covers. What’s your process for developing a cover theme like this one or Fatale’s? How many iterations of a cover design did you go through before settling on this one, and what made it the winner?

SP: I’d already used the white border back on Sleeper, and I thought it was time to bring it back. You could pick it out on the shelves from thirty feet away, no matter what the picture was.

With The Fade Out, we needed something to show for when our exclusive 5-year deal with Image was announced back in January, and Ed suggested a typewriter and some blood and a dead body’s hands. I simplified that down to just the typewriter and the blood incorporated into the logo. I photographed a vintage typewriter I have and threw the photo together with some type pretty quickly for the announcement. When it came to do the actual first cover, we used the same elements but I did a digital painting of the typewriter instead. The white backgrounds on the subsequent covers came about accidentally after finishing the first cover and deciding that starkness looked good.

It was my first and last idea, although the type did have some fine tuning. The fonts used for the title and credits are also used again in the interiors for the title page, the text pages and any words that aren’t dialogue or captions in the story.

The Cast of The Fade Out #1

I honestly can’t remember seeing a page introducing the cast of one of your projects with Ed before, but I loved it, and it helped me keep things straight as I read the first issue. For you, why was it important to add a page like this, and will it be a recurring theme in the book going forward?

SP: It will be in every issue I think, with new characters added as we introduce them. It will help me keep the characters on-model I hope. The main reason though is that we needed the story to start on a right hand page so we had to put something there!

Page 4 to The Fade Out #1

We talked about the research involved with the project, given its reality based setting and time, and this page gave us the first significant opportunity for a specific place being depicted in the book in the form of the Hollywood Brown Derby. A quick photo search shows that you’re pretty damn spot on with this. As an artist, how rigorous are you in making sure something like that landmark is represented accurately? When it comes to working on a reality based panel like that, are you more focused on best conveying the story or the locale, or do you really just strive for the best of both worlds?

SP: Best of both worlds I hope. Apparently there were a few different Brown Derby around LA, so mostly I jus thad to make sure it was the right one. I enjoy trying to get things accurate though, it definitely helps with keeping you into the story.

Elizabeth Breitweiser’s someone you and Ed first started working with midway through “Fatale”, and her colors fit the aesthetic you guys are going to a T I feel. She adds a ton to the setting and feel of this page with her work, but to you, what makes her such a fantastic collaborator, and what do you think makes her such a great fit for “The Fade Out”?

SP: Bettie’s a great fit for any project. The stuff she does on Outcast and Velvet is just great. If only she could make my stuff look as great as Paul Azaceta…

Bettie always surprises me with her colour choices and does stuff I’d never think of doing and that’s what I always like in a collaborator.

Page 8 to The Fade Out #1

One thing I didn’t really realize before this endeavor is how strictly you stay to page layouts that are three rows of panels of equal height, with this being one of the few in this issue that breaks from that. Why is that? What is it about that page structure that helps you better tell a story?

SP: I first started using the three-tier grid back on Criminal as a reaction to the free-form, cascading layouts I’d used on my first book with Ed, Sleeper. Partly just to change it up, but mostly to make it easy to read. With Criminal we had the perhaps naive idea we might attract crime-fiction-reading, non-comic readers and wanted to make it as easy as possible for them to follow our stories without trying to figure out how to actually read the thing.

I like the rhythm the three tiers sets up on the page, how I can control how quickly panels and pages are read by varying size and placement of the pictures on a tier.

When it comes to this project, and other projects you’ve done with Ed, how do the two of you work? Are his scripts pretty specific when it comes to page layout, or are they more loose and he trusts you to make the visuals tell the story the way it needs to?

SP: We trust each other to do our jobs properly, so Ed’s scripts leave almost all of the visuals up to me. Some times he might suggest a panel be full-tier, or close-up, but usually I get to choose. He does describe actions, a shake of the head or punch or whatever else the characters need to be doing but how to frame that is up to me.

Page 22 to The Fade Out #1

I’ve always loved the way you convey a character’s emotional state, and when it comes to Charlie here, he’s really feeling it, but you’re never overt in making his emotions obvious. I know you’re more interested in stories set in the real world, but would you say that heavy character work like this is something more specifically of interest to you?

SP: Yeah, for me it’s all about the acting, how the characters react to what’s happening to them. Back when I was drawing super-heroes I always thought I was faking it. I grew wanting to draw nothing but Spider-man, but then found the way I draw doesn’t necessarily suit those sorts of comics.

I love the way the art juxtaposes Charlie’s internal shame about his complicity with Hollywood’s rather sketchy behavior against some of its more idyllic, iconic historical images. It’s the only time in this issue that backgrounds are used to convey anything but what’s really going on there. I’m curious, what emotions were you looking to trigger in readers with the pairing of those fore and background images?

SP: The filmic background images are there to contrast the fantasy of Hollywood’s product with the behind the truth reality of what it takes to make movies. At least I think that’s what that page does, you’ll have to ask Ed!

About The AuthorDavid HarperDavid Harper mainly focuses on original content, interviews, co-hosting our 4 Color News and Brews video podcast, and being half of the Mignolaversity and Valiant (Re)visions team. He runs Multiversity's Twitter and Facebook pages, and personally tweets (rarely) @slicedfriedgold. By day, he works in an ad agency in Anchorage, Alaska, and he loves his wife, traveling and biscuits & gravy (ordered most to least, which is still a lot).

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