Chasing his childhood dream of becoming a comic book artist, Sean Gordon Murphy loaded his belongings into his Honda CRX and drove across the country from Georgia to Los Angeles. A fresh graduate of Savannah College of Art Design reaching his mid-20s, Murphy hit a few roadblocks as he settled in the world’s entertainment capital. It was the early 2000s, and Murphy faced the uncertainty of making it in the comics business.
Born in Nashua, New Hampshire, Murphy’s most important influence growing up was cartoonist Bill Watterson, creator of America’s favorite newspaper comic strip, Calvin and Hobbes. His obsession with comics as a kid began when he rummaged through boxes at a yard sale and found a copy of Spider-Man. At the age of 12, he rushed home daily from school to watch Batman: The Animated Series (1992-95), and from then on, Murphy knew he wanted to become a comic book artist. To this day, Batman: The Animated Series remains his favorite show.
Starting with a range of projects for Dark Horse Comics, Murphy’s early break came in 2005 with the two-issue mini-series Batman/Scarecrow: Year One for DC Comics. But in addition to his love for comic books, Murphy has another passion: cars.
Widely known for notable comics—including Teen Titans, Joe the Barbarian, Batman: White Knight, and his critically acclaimed Punk Rock Jesus—Murphy’s first graphic novel, Off Road (2005), includes his other hobby. Off Road is about a young man who is gifted a brand-new yellow Jeep by his father, which he later takes on an off-road adventure with friends; it won an American Library Association Award. Next, with the help of a Kickstarter campaign, Murphy released his first art book featuring his 1978 Datsun 280Z, Under the Hood: An Artbook by Sean Gordon Murphy, in 2016.
Now living with his wife, author Katana Collins, in Portland, Maine, comic book artist and creator Murphy recently launched his third crowdfunding campaign on IndieGoGo for his upcoming comic book project, The Plot Holes. When he is not putting ink to paper in the studio, you will likely find him upgrading his Datsun 280Z, collecting die-cast model cars, or riding his custom 1976 Honda CB550 motorcycle (by café-racer builder Jim Voyles) on Maine backroads. We talked to him about his life in comics and cars.
Pursuing a career as a comic book artist comes with a higher risk of failure than other paths. When did you know you were a breakthrough success?
Sean Gordon Murphy: A breakthrough success for me means when you made it. I would say it came when my Batman: White Knight for DC Comics (2017-18) took me over this threshold where my income and notoriety changed, allowing me to choose my projects.
You are a fan of the underground comic scene, where you made a name for yourself early in your career. As an indie guy, what was the experience like transitioning to DC Comics?
SGM: It was tricky because there is a lot more money at stake with mainstream characters; several of them get turned into movies and video games. DC Comics is very careful about who they give the keys to, and the hardest part about transitioning from indie to mainstream was working in a more corporate environment. A major stressor for me, though, is getting the character right, and the way around that is to give readers something familiar but new; surprise them with something they weren’t expecting.
How do you describe your style of art?
SGM: I would describe my style of art as sketchier and organic. Most artists these days work digitally, and I still work on paper with just pen and ink. One benefit from this is that I can always sell the artwork later on as another form of income. I’m naturally an old-school type of guy who likes analog, and for things to be as simple as possible, which explains why I am into older cars.
For those who still enjoy flipping through the pages of an actual comic book, what reading material do you recommend on the process of making comics?
SGM: One of my go-to books is How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way (1978) by John Buscema and Stan Lee, which has been a staple since the mid-’80s. Other books on screenwriting that I highly recommend are Screenplay (1979) by Syd Field, and Robert McKee’s Story (1997).
You’ve got your dad to thank for instilling your interest in cars. Growing up in the 1980s, what do you remember about his Porsche 944?
SGM: Let me tell you, it is lonely being a car guy when you work in comics because no one is into cars. Cars are hard to draw, and comics usually don’t pay very well. My father worked as a headhunter in the 1980s, and he was quite successful. He and his friends would receive $500 a month to lease any car they wanted as a bonus, and my dad went for the 944 while both his friends chose a 911 Targa.
Everyone made fun of my dad for coming home with the wimpy Porsche, but my dad loved that car. They all got custom jumpsuits made and would drive up into the mountains of New Hampshire at like 4 a.m. My father was an artist, too; he was like a Bob Ross type of guy, and he used to draw cars for me. I would request a Lamborghini and stand there looking over his shoulder; I think that is when my fascination with cars was born.
Back then, I wish my dad had bought the 911; however, I now defend the 944 as a car that does not get the credit it deserves. I feel like Porsche could use a bit more variety again. If Porsche announced that it would be making a new 928, I would be so excited.
When did you begin to introduce cars into your comics, and how was the concept received?
SGM: In high school, I drove a Honda CRX, and my friend had an eight-cylinder Mustang, and I’d draw comic strips of us messing around with our cars. The first time where I had the opportunity to push a vehicle into one of my books was with my 2005 graphic novel Off Road. It is based on a real-life story about my friends and me, and when one of my friends first picked up his brand-new Jeep.
After that, I always managed to find comic books where I could sneak vehicles into the background, like a 1996 Honda Prelude, for example. Many of my readers began to take notice of the cars, and over the years, they figured out I was a car guy. When most artists draw a car in a comic book, they usually go with a Ford Mustang, and I sketch cars like an Alfa Romeo Montreal with a widebody, or a De Tomaso Mangusta.
For your collaboration with award-winning comic book writer and creator of the Kick-Ass series, Mark Millar, how did it come about to feature a De Tomaso Pantera on Chrononauts Vol. 1?
SGM: Mark Millar is a good friend of mine, and when I was talking to him early on about the kind of car we should use for what would be the equivalent of a star car like the DeLorean, he did not care what I chose. So then I proposed a De Tomaso Pantera, and he goes, “What’s that? I don’t care, whatever kid … just keep drawing.” I put it in the book, and I hoped that if he made the comic book into a movie, I could visit the set and maybe buy one of the Panteras used during filming.
How did you decide what cars to feature in your comic book series Batman: White Knight for DC Comics?
SGM: In Batman: White Knight, the police department decides they need their own Batmobiles, so they take a bunch of random cars and soup them up. Among them are a Datsun 280Z, an AMC Eagle, a Chevrolet Nova SS, and a Volkswagen Scirocco. I just chose these weird cars that I thought would be fun to illustrate, and they also had to match the characters. The idea was that every cop would use their souped-up car to coordinate an effort to capture somebody without needing Batman’s help.
Why did you go with a Datsun 280Z for the character Nightwing?
SGM: I thought it would be cool to draw my car into a comic, so for volume two of Batman: White Knight, I made sure the character Nightwing was driving it. If someday the comic is made into a movie, maybe my 280Z could be one of the cars featured in the film.
Do you have a favorite Batmobile?
SGM: For looks, I like the 1989 Batmobile because it resembles a C3 Corvette with the long hood and rolling fenders. Having drawn all of them, the 1989 Batmobile looks good from every angle. The Tumbler Batmobile makes the most sense if Gotham is falling apart, but the one I want to own and look at is the one Michael Keaton drove.
Before launching your latest campaign on IndieGoGo for your upcoming book, The Plot Holes, you had two successful crowdfunding campaigns. How is this one different?
SGM: My first two campaigns were not for traditional graphic novels in that there wasn’t a story to either of them. Under the Hood from my previous campaign, for example, features my friend and comic book writer, Scott Snyder, and me as the characters driving around in my Datsun 280Z. In this sketchbook, I imagine my perfect garage and explain to Scott how I draw cars. With The Plot Holes, the difference this time around is that it is a self-published book written and illustrated by me, and there’s a story to read.
What cars will be illustrated in The Plot Holes?
SGM: There’s one scene where the main character takes a ride in a DeLorean, and I recently finished drawing a Lamborghini Countach. I like these scenes where you can have any car you want. I often buy a die-cast model and have it sitting on my shelf to study and illustrate.
Speaking of your modified 1978 Datsun 280Z, tell us about it.
SGM: I decided the De Tomaso Pantera was not practical and out of my budget after Jay Leno covered it in his show, so I looked at the Datsun 280Z as a replacement. I found one in St. Louis with a perfect interior and had it shipped to Maine, [and then it] took two years to build. Although I was thrilled about my 2+2 Datsun, I wasn’t a fan of the stock bumpers because they make the car longer, and I also thought they looked ugly. It then became my project car.
On the inside, I kept everything mostly original. I had the bumpers removed, lowered the car, and had my friend Matt Dolan of EZ Autobody in Salem, Massachusetts, perform all the bodywork: flairs, molded valances, and the paint. Everything else—engine, suspension, exhaust, and so on—was done by Select Speed Shop. Suspension-wise, I’ve got Wilwood Superlite front and rear calipers; Techno Toy Tuning adjustable control arms; Suspension Technique sway bars; and BC Racing coilovers. For shifting, I went with a Competition Clutch lightweight flywheel and clutch setup, and added a Kaaz 1.5-way limited-slip differential. Under the hood sits an RB25DET Nissan Skyline GTS engine coupled with Tomie camshafts, Injector Dynamics fuel injectors, and a Garrett GTX3071R turbo making 502 hp. I probably have about $110,000 into it right now.
What cars would you have in your dream garage?
SGM: Next to my 280Z, I’d add a Porsche 944, an Alfa Romeo Montreal, Opel Commodore, and a vintage Toyota Land Cruiser. I am a simple man and don’t need to be Jay Leno.
These days you seem to be absorbed by your project, The Plot Holes. Do you ever find time to take your Datsun for a drive, and is there any specific road in Maine you enjoy most?
SGM: I don’t get to drive my 280Z as much as I would like to. The best scenic road in Maine is on the coastal region up Route 1; I think Maine has as much coast as California, but the shape gets squiggly on the coastline. If you take a detour away from the road, you will find some fantastic hidden gems. Even though Route 1 itself is more of a tourist road, there are great inlets, banks, and fun curves where I like to ride my motorcycle.
More information on The Plot Holes
Photography and artwork by Sean Gordon Murphy