Ian Shaughnessy Emerging, by Michael H. Price
From V.T. Hamlin in the 1920s and Etta Hulme during the mid-century, through the Superman books of Kerry Gammill in times more recent, Tarrant County, Texas, has long yielded a wealth of storytelling artistry to the comics industry at large.
An ambitious new representative of that regional-breakout scene is graphic novelist Ian Shaughnessy, of Arlington, Texas. Shaughnessy’s books for Portland, Oregon-based Oni Press – including an edgy comedy-of-errors called Shenanigans, with the Canadian illustrator Mike Holmes – bespeak a childhood fascination with comics, filtered through a lifelong love of language and an interest in taking the words-and-pictures medium to provocative literary levels more commonly associated with the present day’s independent filmmaking sector.
“I find myself writing under the direct influence of Billy Wilder,” says Shaughnessy, 24, invoking the name of a great screenwriter-director whose career spanned from 1929 into the 1980s. “I discovered Wilder during the 1990s with The Apartment , then with Double Indemnity , and found myself very inspired – in a lasting way.
“With Shenanigans, I found myself attempting to honor the spirit of Billy Wilder – that mastery that he had of romantic tensions, with finding the humor in awkward situations – as a key influence.”
Any such talent needs a practical springboard. With V.T. Hamlin, the creator of a famous comic strip called Alley Oop that has survived him by many years, the springboard was a cartooning job at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Hamlin spent much of the 1920s at the daily paper, generating such local-interest attractions as a serialized feature about a formidable minor-league baseball club, the Fort Worth Cats. (A retrospective collection of Hamlin’s Oop-prototype Panther Kitten cartoons is in preparation, along with an earlier Hamlin gag strip called The Hired Hand, whose booklet edition has been out of print since the 1920s.)
For Etta Hulme, the Star-Telegram’s signature opinion-page cartoonist since 1972, an early breakthrough lay in a post-WWII comic-book series about a cowboy critter named “Red” Rabbit. Graphic designer and Web publisher Kerry Gammill spent the 1980s and earlier ’90s as an illustrator with Marvel and DC, then moved into motion-picture conceptual art on such productions as 1998’s Blues Brothers 2000 and 1999’s Storm of the Century.
At 24, Ian Shaughnessy traces his springboard to a fortunate connection, as a schoolboy, with Oni Press. Shaughnessy represents not only a new generation of niche-market comics talent, but also a fondness for mainstream comic-book influences – although he favors the independent-publishing arena – that he traces to one childhood favorite, an issue of Batman.
“I grew up reading,” Shaughnessy recalls, “with strong encouragement from my parents – and I’ve always read comics. But that one issue of Batman, with its powerful interpretation by Matt Wagner – I bought it at an airport news-stand, and it left me with an impression that this would be the kind of storytelling that I’d like to do.” Wagner has remained a direct influence, Shaughnessy adds, although “the business of writing my own stuff has left me with little time to read the newer comics as extensively as I might like.”
His family encouraged the interest early on with a trip in 1999 to the Chicago Comics Convention. The upstart publishing firm of Oni Press was touting a comics-spinoff version of that year’s most lucrative independent-film release, The Blair Witch Project.
Shaughnessy found the Chicago expo “more mainstream than indie” but felt drawn to the Oni booth, where he met such talents as Greg Rucka and his wife, Blair Witch comics scripter Jen Van Meter, and editor Jamie S. Rich.
“They kind of took me under their wing, you might say, and by the time I had completed high school I had been offered a summer internship at Oni Press in Portland,” says Shaughnessy. “One internship led to another, and although I knew that I wanted to write, more so than to work as an editor, I enjoyed the experience a great deal – a real turning-point. Turned out, too, that Jamie Rich also wanted to create, as opposed to working as an editor. And so we’ve both ended up in that creative realm.
“But I also believe that what writing strengths I may have developed owe a great deal to the editorial internships at Oni,” Shaughnessy adds. “I found a publisher that had dedicated itself to stories of a certain human dimension – as opposed to the mainstream’s overall greater interest in sensational adventures – and … a publisher willing to provide not only a learning experience but also a creative outlet over the longer term.
“And that has been my real quote/unquote ‘formal education’ beyond high school,” he says, “although I won’t rule out the prospect of a college-degree plan. One of these days.”
A pivotal assignment has involved a graphic-novel project called Strangetown, with the writer-artist Chynna Clugston. Planned as a series involving a disoriented central character at large in a city of mystery, Strangetown has been interrupted by other commitments for Clugston. She and Shaughnessy plan to resume the serial in due course.
“In all, just now,” says Shaughnessy, “I’ve got three graphic novels in preparation. Mike Holmes and I have tightened our collaborative skills to a point where we can communicate instinctively, and that’s a good way to work together.
“When Mike started drawing the pages for Shenanigans, we had not yet met in person and I had written only 50-or-so pages of the finished script. And as Mike’s illustrated pages started coming in and we moved closer to completing the book, I found that I was writing less exhaustive stage-instruction descriptions and he was sensing more and more of the situations from my dialogue among the characters.”
Shaughnessy devotes about half his working time to the writing process, preparing scripts as if writing a stage- or screenplay but reserving the right to resort to pencil-and-paper notes to test the credible flow of his characters’ dialogue. He envisions a generally young readership, given Shenanigans’ array of college-age characters, but often finds himself surprised to find his audience leaning toward middle age.
“So who’s the audience, anyhow?” Shaughnessy asks rhetorically. “People who can relate to committed storytelling.”
As to technique, he mentions: “A lot of people look at me kind of weird when I say I’ll test-write a dialogue sequence in pencil. But it’s a system that works for me. If an exchange reads well in longhand, then I’ll key it into the script.
“I’m really bad about self-editing,” he adds. “Sometimes, I’ll set aside a sequence and try not to think about it for a while – but of course then it’ll prey on my mind until I go back to try to get it right. Sometimes, a spontaneous rush of words will work as a finished product. But sometimes I’ll scrap it and start over.”
Shaughnessy devotes about half a work-day to the writing, setting no page-quota but pursuing a regimen of story-plotting and outlining that he considers necessary to the development of a finished script. He also works with his family’s entrepreneurial gifts-and-collectibles shop.
“The graphic novel, unlike the traditional comics magazine, gives you a good 100 pages and more to tell a story,” he explains. “With the graphic novel, you don’t have to worry about writing to fit into a fixed page-count, and your story can unfold more naturally – less episodically.”
The long-term project commitments anticipate Shaughnessy’s objective of making comics a full-scale career.
“The comics career is finding its way,” says Ian Shaughnessy. “I’m concentrating on the writing, on polishing the skills with dialogue and lifelike situations and character development, and not worrying about commercial prospects beyond the delivery of a book that’s worth publishing.
“A lot of comics nowadays, especially with the current rush of movie-studio interest in comic-book properties, read as though they were written as movie pitches more so than self-sufficient stories. The bigger comics conventions, too, like San Diego’s, seem to have become less about a love of comics than about movie-studio hype.
“And, too, the publishers have their own people who deal with movie-development prospects, if a book should come to that. My job is just that of telling a good story.
“I’m in it for the love of comics – that’s the basis,” says Shaughnessy, “and for my belief in the medium as an area of great potential for telling stories about real people in credible situations.”
Prowler and Fishhead co-author Michael H. Price is responsible for the Forgotten Horrors series of movie-history books, from Baltimore’s Midnight Marquee Press. Price’s arts-scene commentaries can be found at www.fortworthbusinesspress.com, and in the Times Leader of Wilkes–Barre, Pa.