Declan Shalvey and Philip Barrett talk SAVAGE TOWN [Interview]

While he’s undoubtedly best know as the artist on the likes of Injection and Moon Knight, Declan Shalvey is turning his hand to the world of writing with Savage Town, an Image Comics original graphic novel featuring artwork from fellow Irishman Philip Barrett.

The graphic novel, featuring colours from Jordie Bellaire and lettering from Clayton Cowles, goes on sale next month, and we were thrilled to be able to sit down and have a chat with both Declan and Philip about how their collaboration came about, what they both love most about the story, and just how savage this town really is.

BIG COMIC PAGE: Thanks so much to both of you for taking the time to chat with us.  So firstly, for our readers who might not be aware, could you give us a quick taster of just what Savage Town is all about?

DECLAN SHALVEY: Savage Town is an Irish crime story, set in Limerick City. It follows the misadventures of small-time gangster Jimmy Savage as he fails his way up the criminal ladder.

BCP: Tell us a little bit about Jimmy. He’s perhaps not the most likeable character in the world, but he’s certainly an interesting protagonist for sure.

DECLAN: While Jimmy’s not obviously likeable, he has his charm. He’s the head of his own small gang and stays out of trouble with the bigger, nastier gangs that have control over crime in the city. We follow the story mainly from his perspective, seeing how he tries to avoid potential disaster around every corner.

PHILIP BARRETT: Jimmy relies very much on his animal-like instincts. He’s aware of his place in the criminal hierarchy but he’s patient enough to wait for opportunities and wily enough to wrangle the roadblocks fate throws in his path. And when those animal-instincts burst forth, they leave serious bite marks.

BCP: Declan, what was it about Phil’s style that you thought would be a great fit for this story?

DECLAN: I’ve been a fan of Phil’s for many years and as a fan, have often wanted to see him work on a bigger type of story. Once the concept of a crime book set in Limerick was forming in my mind, Phil was the first and only person I reached out to. Phil is first and foremost a pitch-perfect storyteller. He draws locations and characters that have an innate sense of place and personality which is surprisingly rare. I knew that if I was going to do a book set in Ireland, I wanted someone who would really nail that environment and the people who live in it. The devil is in the details and those details are what Phil excels at.

BCP: And likewise Phil, what was it about this story that appealed to you as an artist?

PHIL: The characters had a ring of authenticity and the story a real sense of place that you don’t get very often in a story set anywhere. It doesn’t trade in any of the Oirish stereotypes or back-patting and I love the way Declan’s use of the vernacular doesn’t hand-hold the reader in any way. All in all I just adored Declan’s vision and I was really excited to get to match the tone of the story in the artwork. Declan’s really an artist’s writer – he just knew how to put the story together to get me slavering at the bit to draw it!

BCP: Declan, you’re primarily known as an artist – was it easy for you to hand over the reins Phil on this one?

DECLAN: Ha, are you kidding? It was VERY easy…. it was so much work! Seriously though, it wasn’t that hard to step away… I was really just excited to see what Phil would do with the subject matter. The days when pages would come in would be the highlight of my month.

There were a few moments where I’d see Phil’s layouts and think they could be bumped up a bit… I was worried about suggesting as such, as I didn’t want to be one of those dickish creators who dictate to their collaborators. Thankfully, Phil welcomed the feedback and worked in the suggestions that suited. That was pretty rare though, for the most part I just let his do his thing. As pages came in, I’d see what he was drawing and it’d inspire me to come up with story points in the following chapter. It was a great experience, really.

PHIL: Being able to tap Declan’s years of knowledge was a pretty amazing learning experience for me. Declan’s got a razor-sharp eye and his input was just invaluable whenever I was wrestling with aspects of the artwork. Subtle reframings, slight shifts in the angles.

BCP: What does colourist Jordie Bellaire add to the story?

DECLAN: That’s such a hard question to answer. I mean, I LOVE Phil’s work in black and white, but Jodie adds so much atmosphere. She’s lived in Ireland for years, so she really understands the subtleties that make up these environments. She consistently makes them even more believable, yet knows how to evoke so much emotion with a simple colour change. I knew she would really sell all the small details, but also the emotional moments. In a book that has so much grim and grimy-ness, having a colourist like Jordie was invaluable, as she really knew when a more interesting cover could be utilized.

PHIL: It was such a buzz for me to see what Jordie did with the pages. Jordie is able to add a layer that brings the whole reading experience up a level. She has an unsurpassed understanding of atmosphere and mood and it’s uncanny how Jordie’s been able to tune right in to the vibe of the story – her work really makes the book. She also brings the consistency that hangs the book together as a whole.

BCP: What has the collaborative process been like between the three of you in pinning down the visual style of the book and the designs of the characters themselves?

DECLAN: Well we had a pretty solid idea from the original pitch we made. Phil spent a lot of time doing preparatory artwork once we were approved. It was really a back and forth between myself, Phil and the editor Sebastian Girner for the most part. Once we had a chunk of pages, Jordie came on board properly and played around with Phil’s work. She tried a few different approached until she came back to something like the original an approach. She just felt it really worked for Phil, and I think she nailed it.

PHIL: I felt like I had a very clear idea of what Declan had in mind. My style is somewhat cartoony naturally so there was a little bit of balancing that out with the realism I thought the story needed. It took me a while to get to the point where I was nailing that balance but Declan more or less let me do my thing until then. I would see Declan more akin to a producer/director than just a writer – he communicated his vision and let us get on with it.

BCP: The book is loosely based on real events in Limerick at the beginning of the century. How “loose” are we talking, and what kind of additional research – if any – did the pair of you have to do in order to make sure things felt authentic?

DECLAN: Well I lived in Limerick for like, 7 years, during the height of all that trouble. Saying that, I wasn’t very informed about the details, so it’s in the last few years I did more research to find out the particulars.

What is true is that there were gangs operating in Limerick at that time and it was a time of significant change in the country, and for gangland in Limerick. The rest is pretty fictionalized. I strayed away from comparisons to any particular real-life characters, and all the specific crimes have been changed. I didn’t want sensationalise any real crimes or any real people. It’s still pretty raw for Limerick people, so the only way to be free from a storytelling point of view was to come up with our own characters, and have them be horrible.

PHIL: As regards the look, that period on the cusp of the millennium is a tricky one get good setting specific reference material for. It was a few years before the internet was really mass-embraced and it’s difficult to find good photo reference. I did a lot of trawling through old photo books and newspaper archives to get a feel for the clothing and I was surprised with how grim and 80’s Ireland still was. As well as that the city has seen substantial redevelopment during the Celtic tiger ‘glass and steel’ era.

BCP: What prompted you to go down the graphic novel route as opposed to releasing Savage Town as a limited series?

DECLAN: Savage Town was originally proposed as an ongoing, but Eric Stephenson at Image suggested that we do it as an OGN. I think he thought Phil’s work would work better for that kind of audience. We’ll see what happens on that front when the book is out I guess, I sure hope that’s the case! To credit Eric though, I do have to say it was a smarter way to do this book. A lot of production stuff was cut out because of it. We only had ONE cover to solicit instead of 4 or 5, etc. As a new writer, there was also more time to look over pages and make sure everything was working cohesively.

BCP: Was there ever any concern about the broad Irish dialect used in the book and whether people would be able to understand, or was authenticity always the key factor for you?

DECLAN: Not really. I mean, for a hot second maybe, but I have faith in the comics reading audience. I mean, I’ve bought books with AWFUL writing just because I liked the art. This book has a good story and some fantastic art. Any Irish accent/slang stuff for me, was another way to make the book more of it’s own project, and not dumb it down for American audiences. I think audiences are sharper than that now and will appreciate a considered approach to storytelling from outside their continent.

BCP: It’s an unmistakably Irish story, but it never really sets out to glamourise the characters or the places they live. How much of the Ireland in the book reflects your own experience, and was it important for the pair of you to give it the ‘warts and all’ treatment here?

PHIL: There’s an aspect where we’re looking at the country through a ‘cool eye’ – observing the forces at work within and upon the characters with some detachment. The ‘warts and all’ approach was one of the major draws for me although personally I see them as beauty marks!

DECLAN: Yeah, ‘warts and all’ was definitely my approach. I wanted to show what I loved about Ireland in this book, but also show what I hated too. You can’t have it both ways, y’know? I wasn’t interested in making a twee depiction of the country, I wanted to see the wonderful charm, but yet the ugly underbelly. I wanted to show a different spin on racism, something unique to Ireland.

BCP: And finally, what would you each say to someone who was on the shelf about picking up Savage Town to convince them to give it a try?

PHIL: You really won’t believe how far Savage Town is from what yo imagine of a comic set in Ireland!

DECLAN: Pick up this book if you’re a fan of Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon’s Preacher. If you like films like The Guard. If you like slice-of-life comics and if you like crime ones too. If you like drama with a wry sense of humour, this is the book for you. So buy it!!!

SAVAGE TOWN OGN goes on sale in print and digital on Wednesday 20th September 2017.

ceejThe writer of this piece was: Craig Neilson-Adams (aka Ceej)
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