You may not know the name Christopher Shy, but you definitely know the artist. Most comic artists work in pencils and inks: Shy works in miniatures, photography, tempura, and watercolors. Shy's distinctive art style can be seen not just in comics such as Ascend, but in film as a special effects and conceptual artist.
Shy took a moment out of his schedule to talk to us about his just-released prequel to Dead Space 3, Dead Space: Liberation, and what goes into his artwork.
Gamma Squad: You've taken a unique path through the industry: Only publishing complete graphic novels, working on films like Friday the 13th and building special effects miniatures at Studio Ronin, even working on tabletop gaming. How do you choose what jobs to take?
Shy: It always begins with finding material I can connect to and a relationship with someone who is like-minded. Graphic novels are a six month to a year of working intensely and closely with a writer and a client. In a lot of ways it is the same pressure cooker as working on a film, but for a much longer pre-prep and shoot time. If you’re not passionate about it, it can be very difficult. I don’t have any interest in breaking that narrative flow doing single issues. I have a passion for longer stories.
Gamma Squad: What first drew you to Dead Space as a gaming franchise?
Shy: Playing the first game, I was a fan before I had the chance to work on it. Originally I was brought in to examine another project. After talking to Cate Latchford at EA about it, I told her I wanted to work on Dead Space instead. I have to say, working with Visceral Games; they are one of the most supportive groups I have ever worked with. They truly care about your individual vision on a project, and I respect that.
Gamma Squad: As an artist, what's the challenge in using designs and ideas drafted by other people in your work?
Shy: Sometimes the challenge is just trying to compete with what is essentially better concept work. As a graphic novelist I have to draw everything in a novel, so I don’t get the same lead time as a concept artist to design my look and feel on every aspect of the universe. In the case of Dead Space, the creature designs, the Rig designs, the entire world was already perfect. There was no topping these artists. The challenge is to find a different way in, and construct a world that was mine, while honoring the artist who worked on it, and their outstanding work.
Gamma Squad: How do you approach horror as a genre in your work?
Shy: I love horror, and it is my favorite genre, but I wouldn’t say I approach it any differently than any other novel I have done. I still center on the characters first, and try and find that design voice and the artwork that will pull the whole thing together. When I worked on The North End of the World, I was immersed in Native American lore for a year, and traveled to an island in British Columbia to gather reference, and spend time on that reservation. It was important to try and understand the material I was going to spend a year on, and Dead Space was no different. I immersed myself in the game materials as much as possible, and made myself a giant pest to Chuck Beaver and Cate Latchford at Visceral asking a million questions, and looking over everything I could get my hands on.
I asked about the Marker, Unitology, why the characters were driven to madness, the relationship between the Marker, the original Marker signal, the Necromorphs, their entomology, etc. Visceral gave me a lot of trust going into their universe on this; I treated it like it was one of my own books. I had played the game, and then I went to school on it.
Gamma Squad: Walk us a bit through the process of building a panel. What techniques do you use?
Shy: Its mixed media for sure, tempera paint, watercolor, photography, sketches. For Dead Space: Salvage I built miniatures of all of the ships, so I could light them a certain way and shoot them at low angles. They are sitting in my studio. It always starts with breaking down the script with thumbnails, and plotting the basic page count, from there I scan everything in and start roughing. Anything I need to shoot I do at that time, and then some pages are outputted so I can paint over top, and some are painted strictly in Photoshop. Every novel is different, so it’s never the same process. Some things that look photographic can actually just be tempera matte paintings, something I do occasionally for film. In the end there is never enough time, and I am never satisfied, but hopefully I have pulled it off.
Gamma Squad: The lettering is an interesting choice. Did you make the decision to forgo word bubbles, was it a mutual agreement?
Shy: When I was learning this craft in my teens, I wanted to do every aspect of the process, and wanted to control how the lettering looked in my books. Word balloons seemed very unnecessary, and seemed to take away from the dramatic impact of the style I was struggling to find. The downside is it is a bit of an adjustment to get used to it. I see it as the same adjustment you make when watching a film with subtitles. The art of hand lettering is fast becoming lost. Placing the lettering on the page a certain way can greatly enhance dramatic impact, or placed wrongly, destroy the entire thing.
Gamma Squad: Any hints about what's next for you?
Shy: Right now I am working on a new one called I Sleep in Stone. I am almost done with the first book; a kind of American gothic meets Andrew Wyeth involving witchcraft. I will be going into editing soon on that one. I also just finished the above mentioned The North End of the World, available through Black Watch Comics, or via Amazon.
Thanks again to Christopher Shy for taking the time to speak with us. On the next few pages, you'll find a few samples from Dead Space: Liberation, courtesy of Titan Books.