Working alongside a handful of the most innovative writers in comic books, artist Sean Gordon Murphy has created more worlds than a pantheon of pagan gods. After writing and illustrating the 2011 slice-of-life graphic novel Off-Road, Murphy’s first mainstream project was a collaboration with post-modern icon Grant Morrison on Joe the Barbarian, the tale of a boy hero tripping into an ‘80s fantasy homage while suffering from diabetic shock. Other works would see the Brooklyn-based artist tackle post-apocalyptic flood favelas in The Wake with Scott Snyder, and ornate time-travel mischief in Chrononauts with Mark Millar. The only constant between the shifting genres is an obsessive eye for background detail and gorgeously choreographed action sequences. And as he proved on Punk Rock Jesus, Murphy can script careening plot twists as well as conjure devastating set pieces in his take-down of consumerism and organized religion.
That legacy culminates with Tokyo Ghost, a new exploration of technology-induced isolation and harrowing violence written by Rick Remender. Murphy illustrates the trials of constable Led Dent and his lover, Debbie Decay, as they patrol the streets of Los Angeles 2089. A gonzo William Gibson-ish nightmare, the neon-streaked dystopia harbors a population lost in binary dependency, divorced from their emotions and basic biology to receive an endless feed of digital entertainment. When Dent is tasked with hunting a mysterious figure in the tech-less haven of Tokyo, Decay uses it as a new opportunity to purge the couple of their former life.
With its first collection out this week from Image Comics, Tokyo Ghost shows Murphy’s transportive craft at its height. He channels heady ideologies into concussive action ballets (the man loves motorcycle chases) and sweeping vistas. Paste emailed with Murphy to discover his process for forming these intoxicating new landscapes.
Paste: Your work is so dynamic in how it establishes an environment in these sweeping architectural long shots, and then zooms in to show action and intimate character moments. That rhythm takes on a new meaning in Tokyo Ghost; Los Angeles is a world of isolation and autonomy, while Tokyo hosts a communal, agrarian ecosystem. Did location play a role in the rhythm and scope of your storytelling?
Sean Gordon Murphy: Rhythm especially—because comics don’t have sound, rhythm is created by the panels: the size, pattern, volume, etc. While LA is jammed with panels with very little room to breathe (like its citizens), Tokyo has less panels that allow sweeping vistas, atmospheric perspective and a lot more room to breathe. Hopefully readers will feel these decisions even if they’re not consciously aware of them.
Paste: How did you channel the concepts of technological isolation and organic compassion into your character designs? How were those themes hashed out with colorist Matt Hollingsworth?
Murphy: When Rick and I first planned Tokyo Ghost, it was going to be a basic samurai story. Eventually the entire thing shifted to a cyber-punk love story where we could also inject social commentary. But throughout every conversation, we agreed that the roots of the book would always be samurai, including the set and character designs in Japan.
Matt does a great job with his color technique in this book—the textures you’re seeing are based off Japanese woodblock print using (I think) rice paper. Matt’s been using this look on a few of our books now, and people really seem to enjoy it. Fittingly for Tokyo Ghost, we’re finally able to use it on a book with Japanese elements.
Paste: The backmatter includes a Power Glove as a reference for Davey Trauma’s arm gear, and LA definitely incorporates some sci-fi grindhouse ‘80s elements, especially with the neon purples and oranges. What resonated from that period with you to include in this story? In what ways did you deviate from it?
Murphy: The retro ‘80s stuff comes from my love of old Atari and Nintendo games—stuff I play in my spare time while the ink is drying. During that decade we also got some great movies like Blade Runner, which I (and everyone on the planet) like to use as reference. Blended together, it made for a nice “junk tech” style that was easy and fun for me to play with. I’m often told that my style looks like something out of the ‘70s, so I suppose that only reinforces the vibe everyone is getting from the book.
Paste: You’ve stated that Tokyo Ghost #1 is the hardest issue you’ve ever drawn. What made it so difficult?
Murphy: Characters having screens over their faces made issue one very hard to draw—I made everything on a separate layer which took a lot more time than I’d planned, and the end product is extremely cluttered (most of the gags I wrote into the screens can’t even be read due to the clashing of all the layers). Luckily, the cluttered effect fits the nature of New Los Angeles, so I’m still happy with the results. But never again will I use so many layers.
Tokyo Ghost is a genre comic from a major publisher that features sex that never strays into titillation. (And that’s a very honest depiction of male genitalia.) How do you approach straddling (no pun intended) that line between beauty and arousal? Is it even fair to say one exists?
Murphy: It starts with Rick’s dialogue—there’s a lot of lewd dialogue and dick jokes in the script, which I loved. So I added even more of that into the art (because I spend too much time alone in my studio and it’s easy to get carried away). Comics have a history of being sexually explicit toward women, so I figured I could balance the scales a bit with our book. There’s way more nudity for men than there is for women, so I think we’ll avoid any outrage.
Our book might have more penis close-ups than any mainstream U.S. book in history. I wonder what our award will look like…
Tokyo Ghost Interior Art by Sean Gordon Murphy
Paste: You’re back with motorcycles, man. Is this a coincidence after Punk Rock Jesus, or do you seek out motorcycle/vehicular combat? What appeals to you about the design, and more importantly: Indian, Harley Davidson, BMW or other?
Murphy: I love drawing bikes and cars whenever I can—I guess it’s becoming the thing I’m known for. The designs are influenced by everything: ‘70s Cafe Racer designs, modern BMWs, steampunk, etc. In a previous life I think I was a carburetor.
Tokyo Ghost resumes in April with issue #6. Are you going to be exploring any new visual themes, or is will future storylines explore the foundation you’ve already built?
Murphy: For the second part of the series we’re basically undoing everything we’ve built. The sets are the same, but the characters are divided. Our goal is to keep people guessing, so hopefully we’ll pull it off.