CREATOR INTERVIEW: Shawn Crystal
On Free Comic Book Day, I had the pleasure of meeting and sitting down with Shawn Crystal at Starbase 1552 Comics in Franklin, Tennessee.
For those who are unaware of Shawn, he is currently the penciller/inker for Mother Panic, but you may know him from some of his fantastic past work such as his work on various Deadpool books and Arkham Manor.
I must confess, I was only partially aware of his work prior to meeting him, but he has an extremely unique style characterized by what I might term “tattoo style.” It has its own fluidity and strength that stands apart from anything I’m seeing, elsewhere.
Shawn was gracious enough to sit down with me for a half hour to tell some great stories, talk art, nerd out and answer some questions for us, here, at ComicBookInvest.com.
It really was a pleasure to be able to get to know Shawn as he is not only talented, but also an extremely generous and down to earth guy (not to mention he did a really awesome Deadpool commission for me… see below). He was extremely candid and went in-depth on many great topics.
Anyhow, I’ll shut up and let Shawn speak for himself. Here we go!!!
MIKE M (Hereafter, “ME”): Thanks for chatting with me for a bit, Shawn. First question, I guess, is was comics your first art gig?
SHAWN CRYSTAL (Hereafter, “SHAWN”): No, no… comics is what I wanted to do, but my first illustration opportunities came from the music business. I was in the right place at the right time with the right bands.
I met people and worked with different bands and thought, oh, maybe this is what I’ll do. I still, of course, wanted to do comics, and then I realized, after a while, that all of these bands are promoting their own image. I remember I did a design for Reverend Horton Heat’s “It’s Martini Time.”
I was going to do the cover for that. Then, he called me and told me, “The record company wants me to go with a picture of me.” I was fine with it, but that happened a few times. I get it, I mean, you’ve got to promote yourself. You’re not out to promote me, so…
ME: Plus it’s not always up to them at the end of the day…
SHAWN: Yes, that’s true. So, I said, well this was fun, but it’s time to get back to focusing on the comic thing.
ME: So, then, what was your first foray into comics? How did you break in?
SHAWN: I tried to break in for a while. I was in graduate school at the time. I had just come back from Mega-Con in Orlando. While I was there, I met Lee Bermejo. He was fairly new on the scene and starting to get some heat.
At the time, our work was similar; we had similar influences. And I also met John Layman. They were both there from WildStorm. Lee was drawing a Resident Evil mini-series at the time. When he got back to San Diego, he got offered Superman/Gen13 and quit the Resident Evil project.
The editor [of the Resident Evil project] said, “Well, now I need someone to finish the mini-series who looks like you.” I mean, [Lee] had only done the first half of the first issue of a 4 issue mini, but they had already paid for it so they didn’t want to scrap what had already been done.
Lee said, “Well, I just met this guy…” (I happened to have given him copies of my work). So, Lee handed him a stack of copies of this work I had just done and the editor took it. He was also talking to John Layman whom I had also met in Orlando and asked him the same question.
John also mentioned me. So the Editor called me up and goes, “I have heard your name mentioned twice, today. So, apparently, you’re someone I need to talk to.”
ME: That’s really cool…
SHAWN: …and then I tried to talk him out of giving me the job.
ME: (Laughing) WHAT!?!?… Why would you do that?
SHAWN: (Laughing) I think I was just nervous. I don’t know. I’m like, my god, this is really happening. What have I done?!?!
ME: “I’m not good enough, man! This is exactly what I wanted… I don’t want it anymore.”
SHAWN: Oh, I definitely wanted it. I guess I was just nervous. I mean I still had to do a tryout. Capcom had to approve me. I didn’t get it right then and there. There were a few artists that he had try out, but I was the one Capcom ultimately chose. I worked on that until it ended. So, as it was ending, I was finishing graduate school. And I said, “Alright, this is it. I’M IN!!!” and … nothin’ … for 10 years.
ME: Woh! That’s a long wait.
SHAWN: Yeah, it was a rough one. So, I worked in animation a little bit, did some concept art and video game stuff. Still, I was constantly trying to get into comics. And then, ten years after that. Marvel called.
They were relaunching Deadpool. They had just released the first issue and it was a huge hit. They were looking to really expand it and Axel Alanso was like, “I think you’d be a really good fit.” So, for the next five years it was just Deadpool, Deadpool, Deadpool. Just constantly.
Every time a project would end, I had another one waiting. Deadpool MAX, Deadpool Main series, Deadpool Team-Ups, Deadpool short stories in Daedpool #900; a large collection of short stories.
ME: And you did the art for the Pirate Deadpool run, right? That’s where I really got to see your stuff, first.
SHAWN: Yep, well, I didn’t do the covers, but I did do the interior stuff. I think that’s where most people know me. A lot of people tell me those are some of their favorite Deadpool comics. This version was just straight comedy.
I remember, me and Axel spent a lot of time just getting the humor down. He was seeing moments in my thumbnails for me to just turn it up a little here and there a bit and go a little off script.
ME: How much input do you get to have in the scripting process?
SHAWN: As far as the story goes, not much. I remember Brian Stelfreeze, early on, told me, “Look at the script as made of clay, but the dialogue as made of stone.” So, you can massage and do what you need to do with the script, but that dialogue is there.
I always say that I want to stay true to the intention of the script, but the writer is not a visual storyteller. I will read through there and if there’s direction in there, I’ll think, “Is that what’s needed?” Nine times out of ten, that’s not necessarily the best way to go, visually.
So, me as a visual storyteller, has to do it the way I see it; the movie as I see it in my head, unfolding. So, I don’t stray from the script, entirely, but when it’s like, “Panel 1: close up, Panel 2:…” I’m like, “Ahhh, get out of my head.”
ME: Yeah, like, you trusted me to tell your story. Just let me tell your story.
SHAWN: Yes, exactly. I’m the storyteller. So, I just want to capture the intention of the script.
ME: Do you ever get a chance to be a part of that initial script creation process; sit down with whomever is writing it?
SHAWN: Not often, but the few times it’s happened, it’s been wonderful. Like on Arkham Manor, Gerry [Duggan] would show me stuff and talk to me and be like, “Hey, I’m trying to figure this out and what do you think?” and we’d talk a little bit.
That felt more collaborative and I enjoyed that. Mainly, the scripts are done way before you’re even hired. I really want to do creator-owned stuff, though, and the writer I’m working on that with, right now, we’re really collaborating heavily.
ME: When do expect that to be a thing we can see?
SHAWN: We’re pitching it in the next few weeks. We’re pitching it to everyone we can get it on front of and see what the best option is to go with. I do like what Image is doing.
Webtoon has me very interested, right now, with what they’re doing. I like the idea of comics being read on the phone. I know in Asia that’s really popular. I like the idea of the format of the phone being an infinite scrolling canvas and how you can deal with that in terms of design and storytelling challenges.
So that’s new and exciting.
ME: It may be Marvel’s platform that I saw that scrolls panel-to-panel and blows things up and focuses in on the dialogue. That’s really cool. It’s almost a movie and it’s fun. Although, I generally like the paper version in my hand better. The tactile experience is still better for me.
SHAWN: I do, too. I tried ComiXology for a while and I didn’t like it because it wasn’t formatted for that manner of reading. It was formatted for a book. I just did a job where I did an infinite scrolling comic and that is whole different reading experience. It’s made for a screen, so I’m interested in that.
ME: It’s definitely a possible way of the future. Especially for experimental projects which may not be mainstream or completely suited for the shelf in some way or other.
SHAWN: Yes, exactly. I’m hoping we can create something that can do both. That is created for a screen and can be printed as well.
ME: Do we get to know anything about the project or is that all under wraps?
SHAWN: Well, it’s funny, since it’s ours, we don’t have anyone telling us we can’t talk about it… It’s a horror story. It’s James Robinson and I. I worked with him on Scarlet Witch. I’m a fan of his. After working in comics for a while, now, there’s very few times where I get a script and am like, “This is really well done.” Deadpool MAX was incredible because [David] Lapham is Brilliant.
Stray Bullets is one of my favorite comics. So, his scripts weren’t work. So many scripts I have to take and figure out how to make them work. Whereas with Lapham and James Robinson, it works, so I can get into it artistically and how I’m going to tell it. I don’t have to make it just make sense. I can enhance it. I get to be a storyteller, now. So, when I got James’ script for Scarlet Witch, it was huge. I mean it’s a 20-page comic, but the script was like 50-something pages, which, normally, I’d be like, “What the F**K is this? But, it wasn’t! It was full of images and references like Salvador Dali images and so much visual material in there which just inspired me to be, “Oh my god!” I felt a real collaboration occurring. He was inspiring me to draw things and point me in directions. There were six pages in a row of layouts as reference like Ditko and Adams and it was just incredible.
I’ve always wanted to do creator-owned work, so when I decided to do it, I wanted to work with a writer that I can really form a relationship with because I want to do it long-term. So, I approached James and he really liked what I was turning in and wanted to do something longer.
I had an idea and I pitched it to him and he loved it and as we were putting it together we realized that this would be like a 7-year project (which is what I want). So, we decided, let’s do something small first and work out all of the kinks of working together, form this relationship, and then do something bigger.
This horror is the smaller one. The horror is a mini-series that might become two minis and could be continued and expanded, we are keeping it open for that option, but it’s separate[MM1] and has nothing to do with the big idea. The big idea is something really different; something I’m REALLY excited about.
It does not tie into the horror in any way shape or form.
ME: COOL! We will definitely look forward to those, man. A lot of the readers are huge horror fans and I think they’ll be really excited about that prospect.
SHAWN: COOL! Yeah, I just haven’t felt horror being done very well, very often, in American comics. The Japanese do it really well and we’re curious to explore that.
ME: So, for folks that don’t already, what are you currently working on so they can check out your stuff?
SHAWN: So, I’m working on Mother Panic and have been working on that for the past year or so, then I went and did The Riot Job and then I just got an email to do more work on Mother Panic. So, that’s what I’m currently knee-deep in, right now, but the way this business is, who knows (laughs).
It’s really all of that creator-owned stuff that I want to do, but what I don’t want to do (which is what I have been doing for the past three years) is say, “I’m going to do it,” and then not do it. The fact that I have an image done and the outline is almost done that we’re pitching, I have to not plan too far ahead which is weird for me.
I usually plan REALLY far ahead.
ME: But you also have to pay the bills.
SHAWN: Right! Right! That’s the trick.
ME: And stay relevant in a widely expanding market.
SHAWN: Yes, exactly! So, I’m doing a lot more conventions to try and make that an income stream, as well. Much more than it was in the past. I started with Emerald City. I said, I’m gonna’ do five original 11×17 Gotham villains, just on my own, and try to sell them at the show.
Before the show even happened, I’d already sold three of them. The last two sold fast once I got there. So, I try to do that for every convention where I try to take a theme and a series of characters and just sell ‘em.
ME: Do you have a deviantart or…
SHAWN: I don’t, but I do have Instagram, twitter, facebook page and they’re all under inkpulp [see links, below]. That’s where the original art started selling. I did a Harley Quinn, last week, just for fun.
I did the layout and posted it and I sold it right away and people kept asking me about it. I was like, “It isn’t even finished, yet. I haven’t even finished penciling it in, yet!!” Then, I decided I had to keep that going.
ME: Yeah, people are rabid for stuff like that.
SHAWN: Which is great, but I’d never had that experience, before. So, now, that’s kind of like the Universe saying, “You can make money doing this,” and, look, it takes much less time to do one of those than it does to do a comic book page and it’s paying me more. I don’t know how long that’ll last, but if it allows me to transition into the creator-owned thing, I’m going to try to figure that out. I also have a new Batman print coming out that Andrew Robinson colored that I’m really proud of. I thought, “Man, this should be a cover!”
Well… as it just so happens, let’s actually see what that might look like. As many of you already know, Comicbookinvest’s very own Skot Whitman does the “Wouldn’t That Be Great as a Cover” feature. He was gracious enough to fit-up Shawn Crystal’s new Batman print with DC Rebirth trade dress for this article. Thank you, Skot… check it out!!! It is beautiful.
ME: Man, that is a sweet piece of art. Thanks for sharing that with us. So I guess that leads me to this question, then. Is there anything you’ve done in the past that you’d wished you’d gotten more recognition for than you got? Something you were really, really proud of.
SHAWN: Everything! No, no… seriously. Arkham Manor. I think it’s some of my best and most inspired work I’ve ever done. I’m really proud of that series. The scripts were incredible. Dave colored it beautifully. It came out along with this new, huge batch of stuff like Gotham Academy and Batgirl and it wasn’t part of the main Snyder/Capullo Batman and I think it just got lost in the waves of that. It was a different concept and I’m different, stylistically. I know I’m not like a mainstream flavor.
ME: Well, that’s probably a good thing, right now.
SHAWN: Oh, yeah. I definitely like that about my style. So, the people that read it come up to me at conventions and say they loved that story. It’s not that it did poorly. I just wish it had done better. I thought that might throw me up into the stratosphere more. But I stand by the work. It was a great dream project.
ME: How about something that you did get well-known for that surprised you?
SHAWN: Oh, yeah. I did this Mr. Freeze piece for that Gotham Villains thing I mentioned and it just went nuts. I mean, I’m proud of it. It’s definitely some of my best work, but it’s Mr. Freeze!
ME: …and you were like, “How did I get famous for that?!?!”
SHAWN: Yeah, I just can’t decode it.
ME: I definitely understand that. In this hobby, I often can’t either. So, before we close this up, is there any other info you’d like to share with everyone?
SHAWN: Yes. For Phoenix Comic Fest, this year, I’ll be doing a set of Sinister Six originals. Those will be posted and available first on social media. So, look out for those. I also have a podcast called inkpulpaudio [see link, below] which is where I interview or converse with other creators and we’re up to episode #80, now. I also have a patreon for that which I’d love to gather more subscribers for. I just released, this week, Tommy Lee Edwards on the patreon and, on iTunes, which is always a month behind, I just released Donny Cates.
ME: That’s fantastic! What other conventions are you confirmed for, this season?
SHAWN: I’m doing that Phoenix Comic Fest, Heroes Con, Super Con in Fort Lauderdale and I may be doing one or two others.
ME: That’s excellent. I hope many people come by and see you, in-person, at those and experience your incredible work. That was a ton of great stuff for everyone. Thank you so much for your time. I really appreciate it and hope to see you soon both in person as well as on the page.
So, that’s that. Please, do yourselves the favor of visiting the following links for Shawn and his work as well as for his podcast and its associated patreon page:
Here is the Deadpool commission he did for me at Starbase 1552 Comics (visit Starbase’s Facebook page at facebook.com/starbase1552comics)
And this one he did for another customer…
I hope you enjoyed that and that you enjoy experiencing Shawn’s work as much as I did.
See you all around the interwebs!