Liam Sharp is seemingly the very definition of ‘local lad done good’.
Born in the city and having developed a passion for comic books from a young age, it wasn’t long before Liam was spotted for his own talents.
At the age of 11 he moved away for a scholarship before eventually becoming involved with both 2000 AD and Marvel UK. This saw him illustrate some of the most famous comic characters of all time, from Judge Dredd to the X-Men.
He moved back to Derby in the early noughties to raise his family, but his talents have since seen him move to California where he’s set up a business that’s set to revolutionise the way people read comics.
Oh, and he also currently illustrates Wonder Woman for DC Comics too!
Despite his incredible talent and involvement in creating some of the most famous comic books of all time, Liam’s is surprisingly humble. With Derby Museums displaying a fantastic exhibition charting his 30-year career this summer, Liam was more than happy to discuss his rise to the top and what inspiration Derby still plays in his work.
Where did your passion for comic books originate? Was there anywhere in Derby that you used to pick comics up from?
I don’t recall a time when I didn’t love comics – though it was always one of many storytelling mediums for me, not a specialist obsession! I loved to draw from dot, and I loved mythological and magical themes. Whatever the medium – film, books, comics, music – I lapped it up if it had imaginative themes. I used to get my comics from a little corner store on Allestree Lane – growing up I had no idea at all that specialist comic shops existed, and in the 70s they really didn’t, except for Forbidden Planet in London. It was always dealer’s choice from the small stack of whatever they had in, and it was always the style of the art that attracted me most, more than the characters themselves.
How did you make your way into the comic book industry?
Happenstance and a bit of kismet! My teachers at Lawn Junior School encouraged my parents to seek out the loftily-named ‘Gifted Children’s Society’. The head of that had been a headmaster of a prep school in Eastbourne – very much like Hogwarts – called St. Andrews. He proposed that they take their first Art Scholar, and I found myself as a working class Derby boy boarding in a private school in Sussex! I went on from there to Eastbourne College, through O and A levels, where I was introduced to one of my all-time artistic heroes, Sir Don Lawrence, who happened to live just outside of Eastbourne in the village of Jevington. I tried out with him at 17 during the summer holidays, and went to work a year later as his apprentice. A year on from that I was working for 2000 AD pretty much full-time.
You’ve illustrated some of the most famous characters in comic book history – do you ever feel any pressure (or a level of expectation) when creating work featuring these characters?
Always! And more so as I get older! When I was young I had a more cavalier view – we could change the world, do anything we liked if it was cool! They were just comics after all. Whatever made it exciting. Now I realise there’s no such thing as ‘just comics’, especially when you are dealing with icons! And Wonder Woman is one of the biggest icons of them all, and certainly the biggest female character in all of comics. With Diana you soon learn that she has touched, and continues to touch, lives in profound, empowering ways – not just as a feminist icon, but as an LGBTQ icon. She’s given people the strength to believe in themselves, and pretty much every con I go to now somebody will turn up to tearfully say thank you. I had no idea she had such a measurable societal impact on so many people. A lot of people don’t see beyond their own perception of the character – the somewhat dated memory of her, and her old costume. They don’t know what she actually stands for and represents. It’s pretty enlightening once you actually start reading the books. She’s unique in the Superhero genre in that her greatest super-power – without being sappy – is compassion, empathy and love. There’s no other mainstream comic like that!
So yes, that’s a huge responsibility! She’s also 76 years old now, so we should respect that too!
Given the recent surge in popularity of comic book characters across seemingly all forms of media, is it strange to see the portrayal of some characters you’ve spent a lot of time with?
I revel in it! Seeing my childhood – and comics was a solo pursuit growing up. Something you did alone in your bedroom – up on the silver screen, with millions of people enjoying them? It’s incredible! We old fans were in on it from the beginning. We knew they were cool, the rest of the world just had to catch up! All joking aside, it is, without doubt, the technology that has made possible what could only be done on paper before. I love that these great epic characters and stories are entertaining a whole new generation in fresh and exciting ways. And I’m not the precious type, so I’m always interested in how characters are interpreted, whatever the medium.
What do you enjoy more, illustrating famous characters or your own original creations?
I love both equally for very different reasons. The icons are a joy because everybody knows them, and it’s a privilege to tell their stories because only a very few people in the grand scheme of things ever do. It’s rarefied air, and we few are blessed!
As for creator-owned material, ‘Captain Stone Is Missing…’, which I co-created and co-wrote with my wife Christina McCormack, was a joy because it was a love-letter to the books I most adored through the 70s, 80s and 90s. It’s very personal, and it garnered great reviews – which is incredibly satisfying! I hope it has long legs, and we see more of him in the future. Creating your own work means you are free to do whatever you like, and that’s liberating, but it’s also very hard to rise above all the noise and get your more personal projects seen by many people. There is more amazing work out there than ever, so unless you have sharp elbows – and I don’t – you’re going to struggle to get to the head of the line.
Does Derby and Derbyshire provide you with a lot of inspiration for your work?
Always. Derby is an old Viking settlement. It is the gateway to a rugged and beautiful shire, in which you will find standing stones, and castles, rivers and woodland, peetbogs and sandstone crags. I used to imagine it was Middle Earth, and peopled with dwarves and faeries. It’s a famously haunted shire, steeped in history. It exudes Heathcliffian longing, and has inspired writers and artists for centuries. My novella ‘Paradise Rex Press, Inc.’ is set in a fictionalised Derby, called Deadby, but you can identify certain locations quite easily. My Short story, ‘Death and the Myrmidon’ which features in ‘God Killers: Machivarious Point and Other Tales’ is set in the Seven Stars pub, and on Bromley Street, where I used to live. ‘Metawhal Alpha’ is set in the Clock Warehouse in Shardlow. ‘Frogspawn’ takes us along Ashbourne Road, and past the old Mill on Markeaton Rec. I very much love Derby and Derbyshire, and it will always house my heart.
How does it feel to have an exhibition of your work being put on show in your home town?
Funny enough it did, for a while, trigger the old Derby humility! I thought – who wants to see a bloody exhibition by me? Who do I think I am, eh? It’s incredibly humbling. It’s easy to love Derby now, but when I was growing up there it was a very industrial, working-class Midland town, and you didn’t get above your station! I had a relative or two that didn’t think I should go off to a posh school. It was a kind of inverted snobbery, and that’s still a small part of me – ‘Paradise Rex’ is really all about that – being torn between the classes, unsure where you really belong. But my parents were always amazingly supportive. My dad could have been – and is! – a great artist, but wasn’t supported when he had the chance to go to the Joseph Wright school of Art when he was a boy. He was never going to let the same thing happen to me, and so – all these years later – he was pretty much vindicated. As such this exhibit is really for my parents in my eyes, for their support and sacrifices (which were many) and love. They believed in me.
What would your advice be to any aspiring illustrators in Derby?
Work hard. Learn the traditional skills – anatomy, life-drawing, lighting, perspective, ambient perspective, colour theory, composition. Learn to draw as well as you can, because that skill is dying and it is the true root of everything. After that – go break all the rules! You’ll find yourself and your style by doing, and doing well, not by trying to invent and force a flashy technique that doesn’t come naturally to you.
But most importantly – be civil at all times, be reliable to the point of obsession, and if you MUST procrastinate creatively – by which I mean, don’t spend hours surfing the internet or playing games. Grow your craft, enrich yourself by reading, or painting, or writing, or making music. It will ALL come in handy as part of your process eventually, and it helps with narrative and storytelling, which is what all great illustrating truly is at its core.
The exhibition ‘Judge Dredd to Wonder Woman – The Work of Liam Sharp’ continues at Derby Museum & Art Gallery until Sunday 3 September. Visit the Derby Museums website for more information: www.derbymuseums.org