October 08, 2007

Interview - Phil Shaw

I'm talking today to Phil Shaw, aka sacredbob from the Sacred Pie comic. Phil is a K-4 art teacher in New York where he and his wife both work. Phil thanks for taking time to talk with me today.

No problem- it's a pleasure.

You mentioned you've also done mural work for the city, what was that like both working on a large scale and working for the city?

I was the "team leader" for a group of six artists who worked on the murals under the direction of the principal artist, Jan Marie Spanard. (all of the work can been seen at www.albanymural.com ). It was a really great experience. Besides getting to make a living painting and do a lot of the work from a cherry picker(!), the murals were SO large that I worked 50+ hours a week just to finish it before Winter really set in.

It was cool working for the city itself- we met Mayor Jennings a half a dozen times. It's really a different world working at that scale and (to be honest) budget.

Were you doing this work while you were working on Sacred Pie?

Yeah- actually, I started illustrating and posting Sacred Pie within a few months of getting the mural painting gig. That was just about 8 years ago.

Did the mural painting, and later the teaching, have an effect on the comic?

Definitely. The teaching more than the mural painting even.

When I was doing the mural work, a lot of the focus was on light and shadow. trompe L'ioeil is French for "fool the eye", so the style needs to be able to look deceptively real. Comics (though they CAN be very naturalistically drawn/painted) are traditionally more stylized. Though the painting experience solidified my drawing and coloring abilities at a very formal level, it didn't help my comic-ing progress the way I wished it had.

After 2 1/2-3 years of mural painting, I started teaching art (I went to Grad. school, worked nights, blah, blah...). Once I started teaching concepts like contrast, emphasis, and movement, I started incorporating them into my comic work. I started noticing improvements.

Then, I started a comic-book club after school. To make sure I knew I what I was talking about, I started researching and (for the first time) came across Scott McCloud's books. Those changed the way I did everything. I won't get into how much I learned by trying to teach, because it would take me all day.

I'm sure your students would appreciate that.

Speaking of comics, where did you get the idea for Sacred Pie? I know the official background is about God and Lucifer and power. Is that how it started out?

Actually, no.

Sacred Pie started out as a "three mooks" comedy-esque comic (just set in a pseudo-religious-sci-fi universe). The three main characters (Roonas, Sid, and Bob) are based on myself and two of my pals from college (Roonas is still the official co-writer and comes up with, like, 65% of the really, really cool stuff.)

As the comic started to progress, though, we started to see the potential for bigger storylines and better ways to tell them. The aforementioned teaching experience and exposure to Scott McCloud being near the top of the list of influences (though Lucas's "The Power of Myth" essay, Asimov's "Foundation" series and Robert Jordan's "Wheel of Time" books helped with the writing aspects as well.

If you look at the earliest chapters of Sacred Pie and compare them to the most recent, you'll see a lot more elements that expand the world the characters live in- specifically the "religious" good and bad guys (respectively) Angels, Demons, God, Lucifer, etc.

Do you have a religious background that influences your work?

Yeah, I guess.

I was raised Catholic and still attend church. I'd like to feel that the ideas for Sacred Pie come more from the science-fiction realm than from the religious. I think that a lot of things that exist in religion can also exist in science. (Maybe the universe being created in "seven days" is possible, if you consider that a "day" to an immortal omniscient being is, literally, billions of years).

I like using the loose religious framework for the story, but I don't want to get caught up in the semantics involved with specifically quoting scripture, et al. I try to focus on the characters and the events in the story; the battle between God and Lucifer is too big for most of us to comprehend. Sacred Pie just focuses on some of the pawns in the game.

You mentioned your friend Roonas writes a lot of the comic, what's it been like working with someone for so long?

It's awesome. Roonas and I were friends before we started Sacred Pie, and it's definitely something that gives us an excuse to get together(despite our work/life schedules).

As far as the comic goes, though, having him as a co-writer is an invaluable resource. I can't tell you how many times he's saved the comic from a ridiculous idea or a staggering conflict in plotlines. I think anybody who creates a comic should have a co-writer or a collaborator of some sort; it's important to have someone who can look at it from a different angle. I don't think Sacred Pie would be what it is without Roonas's constant input.

Artistically, who has been an influence on you and has that changed over the years?

I think my biggest influences, artistically, have been fairly constant throughout the years. I learned the most early on (and still have traces in my artwork) from Captain Mark (Kistler), Ed Emberly, Jack Kirby (especially old Fantastic Four), and Bill Waterson (I loved how he could ride the line between cartoony figures and highly representational backgrounds(as well as the style of Calvin's daydreams).

Later on, I picked up influence by Drew Hayes (of Poison Elves), Jeff Smith, and Doug Tennapel, as well as online comic "peers" James Mason (Mase of Urban Shogun fame) and Amy Kim Ganter.

There's a lot of Waterson influence in others I've talked to. Was there ever a time you wanted to be a traditional comic strip artist?

Yeah. Like, all of seventh grade. I did a bunch of "Far Side" rip-off comics for the school newspaper and realized (after the first twenty or so ideas ran out) that I couldn't do "punchline" comics. I needed a narrative.

Sacred Pie is purely an online work and I know you guys want it that way. Do you think because of choices like that it's easier to be a successful artists today than say 20-30 years ago?

That's a "yes AND no" kind of answer.

I think it's much easier to get your work published (both online and in print) than it was even ten years ago. Because of the possibility of online comics, it's also much easier to expose your comic to a potential audience. There are only three places to get comics within a reasonable driving distance from my house- but every house on the block has internet access. And, you can pander to an international audience (many of my readers, for some reason, hail from Sweden and Denmark)

The downside, of course, is the flooding of the market If anyone CAN have an online comic- or in print- they will. And they do.

Well put.

I think this is an excellent idea, but the problem is you won't make any money from it. Not unless you're in that 95th percentile. As long as you go into it knowing that you won't get rich, and you're just doing it because you love it (or because 500 people reading your comic really IS enough for you), then you'll be fine.

I don't make a dime for Sacred Pie and I don't intend to. (Unless, of course, someone offered me tons of cash for an animated series or video game, but I'm not holding my breath.) I do it because I love it; and I want to see it through to the end of the story. If some people want to go along for the ride, more power to 'em.

Have you ever found that even though you're doing this because you love it that there are times when you feel you could be doing better?

Aye, that's the rub.

For the past 7 1/2 years, I've put pages up on every Sunday. It's anywhere from 1-5 pages (depending on schedule, work, vacation, etc.), but something ALWAYS goes up. If I could go back and fix all of the pages that I think I rushed through, or even (which is the case for too many pages) wish I could remove or replace, I would never get any further in the stroy. I try to do the best I can while still keeping my self-imposed deadline.

The death of so many online comics has been lack of updating. I've seen some really well written, beautifully drawn comics go under because they stopped making new material.

The pressures of work, real life, marriage, and kids (which I'll learn about soon enough) can bring a self-published comic down. My overall tendency is to get better as I go along, so I just keep going and updating (no matter what) and trust that the quality improves as I go.

Speaking of kids, are your students fans of your work?

Yes. The eldest of my students are (I won't mention the comic to the younger ones due to the violent content). A lot of them have even sent in fan art (or handed it to me in the hallways.)

I also (for the last 3 years) have done library lectures on comic creation for jr. high and high school students, as well as a weeklong class at a local college each summer. (Some of them I had hinted at submitting a piece for the 100 Artists Project, but I think they all chickened out).

I always end up picking up a new reader or three at these events (plus it helps me sharpen my own thinking about my comic work.)

That has to be heart warming to receive fan art from students.

It's awesome. Plus, they think I'm super-cool because I can talk (at length) about the X-Men, Spiderman, Venom, etc. They don't expect that kind of connection with a "grown up" most of the time.

You mentioned your wife also teaches, is she an artist as well? What does she think of your work?

No, she's a first grade teacher.

She loves Sacred Pie, though. She thinks it's neat that she gets to see the process from the planning stages (she's often about when Roonas and I plan), to the sketches, the drawings, coloring, etc.

Her whole family reads the comic now, too. (I even think a couple of them like it besides the fact that I did it, too)

I've kept you a while, do you have anything you'd like to say to your fans and fellow artists?

To the fans, I'd say- keep reading! Roonas and I have years and years of stuff we need to get to, and it'll keep getting better and better as we go along.

To my fellow artists, I say keep drawing! The more you do it the better you get. If you love it, keep going. Set a deadline for yourself and keep it; your fans will come if you're consistent.

Oh, and, uh, feel free to link to Sacred Pie (heh).


To see more of Phil’s work and to read a great comic go to http://www.sacredpie.com

No comments: