‘Dead Space: Liberation': Christopher Shy on his moody sci-fi aesthetic

Feb. 07, 2013 | 6:00 a.m.

Award-winning science fiction and fantasy artist Christopher Shy is known for his book cover work, computer game design and graphic novel illustration, and in 2010, he brought his striking visual sensibility to “Dead Space: Salvage,” the paneled expansion of the world of the hit video game series.

With the release of “Dead Space 3″ this week, Shy is back with a second graphic novel, “Dead Space: Liberation,” which takes place after the events of “Dead Space 2″ and follows Earthgov Sergeant John Carver, whose wife and son are attacked by fanatics trying to liberate the Marker site where she works. Carver teams up with Ellie Langford, survivor of an earlier Necromorph outbreak on the Sprawl, and EarthGov Captain Robert Norton, and together they set out to unlock secrets about the Markers.

Hero Complex caught up with Shy to talk about his approach to illustrative storytelling, collaborating with writer Ian Edginton and developing Carver in such a way to update the action hero archetype, a man who doesn’t enjoying killing.

HC: Christopher, your artwork in “Dead Space: Liberation” is just breathtaking. What do you find inspiring about the world of “Dead Space”?

CS: The plot of the first “Dead Space” game was pretty amazing, if deceptively simple. I always loved the idea of being trapped onboard a ship, in deep space, and something onboard was stalking you. I think the simplicity of that is what makes Ridley Scott’s “Alien” so effective and modern, even today. “Dead Space” took that to a whole new horrific level. The game scared … me, and I was hooked long before coming in to do “Dead Space: Salvage.” That mood, and a man trapped inside a suit, fighting for against things he can’t understand, it’s very classic mythos. The visual power of graphic novels makes ambiguity an inevitability as well as a virtue, and “Dead Space” was well suited for a graphic novel series. It’s simply amazing.

HC: How did your approach to the visual storytelling evolve from “Salvage” to “Liberation”?

CS: Well, with “Salvage,” I was going for a punk rock look to the characters. I know they were miners, but I just wanted to get away from all that, I wanted to evoke a stranger universe in my corner of “Dead Space.” I also liked the idea that no one in that story was really the tough guy; it seemed messier, and more visceral to me. Schneider emerges as a sort of rogue hero, but in the narrative, it wasn’t a natural expected occurrence, and I really liked that. The same thing with Carver in “Liberation.” Carver’s style was a kind of silent, sad character, a more modern update on the classic action hero. I never wanted him to look like he was enjoying killing, or what was happening around him, because who would, in that situation? That always informs the art, thinking about what a real reaction would be to something like that. This only works if we can suspend disbelief, because at its core, we are trying to tell a story. The best I can hope for is to try and do it well. Not great, because I haven’t reached that level, but well.

HC: The imagery is quite cinematic. Where did you draw your inspiration? Did you spend time playing the game?

CS: I did play “Dead Space” 1 and 2, but could only do a partial walk-through of 3. I knew what would happen, the important elements. Ian also knew, and we used that as our destination point, but everything else was our take on this, and how we wanted to get there. I have always approached graphic novels as if they were films. I don’t do single issues, and have turned them down in the past, because in that sense, you never seem to have real ownership of the narrative flow. I love reading single issues, and the appeal of installments, and placing in dramatic act breaks is fantastic, but for me, I try and construct the entire book roughly in my mind before I start and adjust pacing and flow as I go. There are times when you can feel you need more here, and less there, and I want that freedom and control to be able to do edits as I see fit.

HC: It seems that capturing emotion is very important to you — the characters’ facial expressions are haunting and quite real. Is that a key focus for you?

CS: It is, in my opinion, the only focus. Without strong characterization, this is just one long bug hunt, and that would be incredibly boring. I do have a reputation for arguing for that, and have turned down projects in the past because they were simply devoid of anything I could connect to. The strongest moments of any narrative are what is happening in between running for your life, and if a character dies, please make the death mean something. Nothing pisses me off more than a character that dies in front of the supporting cast, and by the next page they are sporting tough guy lines. Are you kidding me? You just saw someone die in front of you, torn apart; your reaction is going to be to crack a “Die Hard” joke? That does not happen in real life, unless that event drove the character insane. I am most interested in trying to bring out the moments that will make that character real to any of us. It can be a tough job, but there are a few moments when it does happen that you can feel the electricity on the page, and that makes it all worthwhile. Carver’s sexual tension with Ellie in “Liberation” comes across very smoothly, and you can feel it in both the art and Ian’s script. Those are the moments that make those characters most real, not blowing away a Necromorph.

"Dead Space: Liberation," (Titan Books)

“Dead Space: Liberation.” (Titan Books)

HC: Was there an overarching atmosphere you were attempting to capture and assuming so, in what ways does your choice of color palette play into that?

CS: Yes, color and atmosphere are planned from the very beginning. In the first part of the book I wanted to have a sort of filmic bleach bypass-like look, leading in, a world desaturated. Carver’s marriage was crumbling, and I wanted to reflect that in the overall mood. When the ships start falling from the sky, and the explosions start, even then, we have a very subdued palette, and that doesn’t change until they are off the planet and in deep space, where I played with cool blues and greens. I chose that warmer more Earth-like tone for the safety of the ship rather than the planet because it’s not until he connects with Ellie that Carver starts to feel any sense of center and safety and begins to feel alive again. As the novel progresses, the color pallet progressively shifts warmer and warmer, as Carver feels more and more alive, and at times, the palette burns red and orange to reflect Carver’s rage and efficiency as a soldier, when he begins to kill.

HC: Could you describe your creative process a little bit? Do you read scripts and instantly react? Do you ruminate over stories for a while before you begin crafting images?

CS: I read the script and usually get a sense almost right away. On “Liberation” I had a pretty clear sense of what I needed to do, and what I needed to bring out. “Salvage” was a bit more nebulous because I was playing very far outside the “Dead Space” sandbox and really less secure in making my mark. I think the results are very inventive, but I find myself looking more critically at that book and seeing I was much freer on “Liberation.” I am never satisfied, but I think the art was smoother this time around.

HC: And how closely did you work with Ian?

CS: Ian and I worked about as closely as you can considering he was in England, and I the United States, but I will say I feel it was one of the more collaborative novels I have had, short of “Soul Stealer.” Ian was very relaxed, and I think we both arrived at the same conclusions regarding certain aspects of Carver’s character, and certain tensions between the characters. We had a tough deadline on this book to bring it in so we could have it out with the release of “Dead Space 3,” so we had to balance that with wanting to add in more and more pages. I would work with Ian again anytime. He is a wonderful writer.

HC: Is there a particular image that you’re most pleased with?

CS: I am very pleased with the opening sequence of the book. I think I managed an effective job of introducing Carver and his emotional state. I also enjoyed blowing the [hell] out of a whole starship.

– Gina McIntyre

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