Interview: Declan Shalvey Explores the Beautiful and Terrifying World of Injection

and the second volume is on its way. It reads like the next natural step in this collaboration [...]

Injection Declan Shalvey Needle
(Photo: Declan Shalvey and Jordie Bellaire)

When Moon Knight relaunched at the beginning of 2014, it was instantly clear that the comic would be a success. That had nothing to do with the character or company attached, but the dynamic creative team. Comics are a great collaborative medium and artist Declan Shalvey, writer Warren Ellis, and colorist Jordie Bellaire were working together in such a way that each page could drop jaws. After six issues, Ellis and Shalvey left the book to develop a project of their own: Injection.

Almost two years later and the first volume of Injection has been completed (available for less than $10 physically or digitally) and the second volume is on its way. It reads like the next natural step in this collaboration between comics greats new and old, taking everything that worked in Moon Knight, then adding greater depth and new levels of complexity. ComicBook.Com critic Chase Magnett had the opportunity to catch up with Shalvey in New York City this fall where they discussed the craft and future of this stunning new comics series.

Also be sure to take a look at upcoming Injection covers at the bottom of the interview.

The first arc of Injection and its collection are out now. How are you feeling about it? It was announced over a year ago, and you've got this first big milestone behind you.

Shalvey: The plan has always been to do five graphic novels. So that's like twenty-five issues. It sounds fine, but it's just a lot of work. I think that now that I've done five, I'm feeling a bit more secure in the fact that I've told a story. It's always better to be on the other side because it is storytelling and it is apostolic to reach the first notch of the story. It's not closed, but there is a chapter end and so we can begin the next chapter. It's very, very satisfying.

I was always worried about the way it comes out monthly. It's not a book where every single issue is blowing your mind away; it's a different type of storytelling. I was worried we would lose a lot of readers, and we have some I am sure. It's my hope they will come back for the trade. I think as they read the trade, they are going to want to read more of the story.

I think it works pretty well. Those first five issues are designed to be read as a complete whole.

Shalvey: Yeah.

It is a functioning unit.

Shalvey: Oh, definitely. I knew that from the beginning. It's also what I want to do. Especially after doing so many projects at Marvel that are like two issues or three issues. I wanted to do something long form. The only place to really do that now is Image. If I was handed Punisher tomorrow, I wouldn't get to draw it for two years. There would be fill-in guys or whatever because of the nature of the publishing line-up.

At Image, it is just however long it takes just to tell your story. It's amazing to have the kind of space to do that. It also helps because it's Warren [Ellis]. I feel like if I was writing this story in the very same way, people would be like, after the first issue, "Nah." People know who Warren is. They know there is history and he has stories to tell. I think there is a lot of trust, people know it is going to go somewhere. And me, too. I don't want to spend three years drawing a story that doesn't go anywhere. I think Warren knows what he is doing. I know I am rambling and I am sorry.

Oh, no, you're fine.

Shalvey: It feels good to have just finished. Now, of course, there is the next one. Once I finish issue six, this will be my longest run in a book.

That's actually what I was going to ask next. Moon Knight will have been your longest run on a comic before this.

Shalvey: It was my longest succinct run. I did more issues of Thunderbolts and more issues of Phantom. They were always broken apart by alternating artists.

Injection Declan Shalvey Five
(Photo: Declan Shalvey and Jordie Bellaire)

So when you are looking at this as a long-term project, does that change your mindset about how you approach the art, how you build the story, and how you are working on it? Because it is now more of a marathon than a sprint.

Shalvey: Yeah, it is. I decided to switch things up on the second volume. I wanted to do the haunted covers. I wanted to do something dramatic. Each of the covers are similar. I don't know if you have seen the Hauntables. They are very ghostly. I like that they work as a set for that arc. So the next arc I want to change the cover design because I can. We can do whatever we want, which is the best thing about doing something at Image. I also am switching up the storytelling a little. I got a little worried that the letterbox panels were getting a little boring for people. I was deliberately trying to be subtle and not trying to be in your face. But Warren was telling me that each volume will be more representative of one of the five characters. That's when I knew I could shift something up a little bit for the second one.

I am using more gray. I basically dig an establishing shot and add the gray to the four panels or six panels. Because the nature of Headland is he's a detective. It just paces it differently. So I am not exactly sure what I'll do with the next one. I imagine that maybe the Simon Winters one will be more bombastic. It'll be interesting. It will give me something to stop me from getting complacent and boring. It's like it's a new book in a way, especially the sixth issue. The sixth issue is completely different from the first one.

I know you are somebody who always thinks of yourself as a storyteller, first and foremost. In a recent issue of Dark Horse Presents you had your first thing that was one hundred percent you with Jordie [Bellaire] on colors. I see you as someone emerging as a full storyteller in the comics medium. Do you see that developing in Injection?

Shalvey: Yeah. I want to write more now, I think for purely careerist reasons. If you work with someone like Warren, that puts you on another level. It's purely happenstance, so that's great. To work with writers that I am not excited about I feel devalues that cachet. I know it sounds really like I am up my own arse. It's like starting with a new writer wouldn't be something that would be a good career move for me. I have to be careful. I was talking with a writer before and they said basically writers are whores; they will work with whoever. I just have to be very, very choosey. Because it's like Warren still has Trees and Warren has Karnak and Warren has James Bond. This is my one thing. So whatever project I work on, I want to give it my all and I want it to be the best possible thing it can be.

I think it is pretty obvious you and Warren have a very good relationship and that you, Warren, and Jordie have a good relationship.

Is it fair to say that that enhances the work, that you are doing better work because you are working with people you enjoy working with?

Shalvey: Yeah. It's not like Warren and I are super close or anything. But he came to do Dublin to do a signing and I was dying for him to do that because I've worked with him. I had done a couple of issues of Injection at this stage. I hadn't talked to the man as a collaborator. I can be insecure. I just need something like we are doing right now- to have a conversation. Once we did, I felt much better because I am married to this guy for the next two or so years. But he's been nothing but accommodating and trusting.

Especially on something like Moon Knight, which was a company job, he was really looking out for us and wanted us to do what we wanted to do, which was amazing having done like full arcs and rotating arcs in various books. To have the space to do whatever the hell we wanted on Moon Knight was great. There was a fickle editorial involvement there. Not that editors didn't do their job, but they let us do our job. Having done that, it was like, "I need more of this." So there's other writers I've worked with that I would be closer with, but I just trust Warren. He seems to put the same trust in me and Jordie. I never have to worry in that regard. I've done enough issues with him now that I know what would piss him off and what wouldn't. Nothing I have done has pissed him off, so I am fine now at this stage. So with Moon Knight and Injection, we've done eleven issues together and no problems.

What is the scripting process like? There's a lot of pages in Injection that pop out to me. Your fight scenes are long and they are silent. They strike me as things that seem to be coming very much from your head. Are there bits that are more Marvel style in how you design them?

Shalvey: Nope, it's pure script. I take it. I don't like Marvel style in the way that I think, but it depends. If someone gave me a Marvel style script, I would be thinking, "Why didn't you do your job?" because I think that the great writers who work in comics have a good visual sense so they know how to do this stuff. I'd love to say that I am the one who is the most interesting, innovative guy.

I don't ask Warren if we can do this or that; I just want him to tell a story that he wants to tell. Maybe I'll be like, "Can I draw more forests or something?" and he'll work that in. Stuff I've asked for he's worked it in. But sometimes he's asked for something and I'm like, "I am sorry if this is more work for you." I've responded, "I just want to do the best book we can do. If it takes more time to draw it or takes more work for me, I don't care. I just want it to be good." So if he's got an idea, if there is something he wants to do, I don't want him to have to gauge me or walk around me. I just want to do a good book. And if it's harder to draw but it has better results, then I'll do it.

Injection Declan Shalvey Fight
(Photo: Declan Shalvey and Jordie Bellaire)

So has all of Injection felt like a pretty good challenge for you, having to tackle new things as you turn out pages?

Shalvey: Yeah. In the beginning I was just very insecure because Moon Knight did so well. It's the best thing, the most well reviewed thing and it sold really well. I wasn't used to that. So following that up with a greater book? I was pretty insecure about it. But once I got my head around this, it's been fine.

Much like Moon Knight, I don't know what is coming. A lot of people have asked me, "So do you know what's happening with the story?" I don't care! It's like I feel like I am the director and Warren's the screenwriter. He gives me great scripts and it is up to me to execute it the best, most interesting, and most visually enhancing way possible. A lot of it is not being visually enhancing and restraining myself and not going for the throat every time or to shock the reader every page. Some pages have to be boring in order for the exciting pages to be more exciting.

Every issue I get I just don't know what the hell is going to come next. I would like to know some things because I feel like I would make some more art design choices, like maybe there is a red cup in one that could signify something that happens down the line. I will say that not knowing what is happening means I am always kept on my toes. I can't get complacent. The next issue of Injection is basically a detective story in Manhattan, which I don't think you would have expected that.

Yeah, I did not see that coming.

Shalvey: Exactly! Not that it is that drastic, but I like it. What I like about Injection is it is kind of every genre. It could be a detective story. It could be a spy story. It could be an introspective, melancholy examination on folklore. Anything could be in the book. So it just keeps me on my toes all the time.

I think looking at the first arc and what you were talking about in terms of ideas for what comes next, no matter where it goes, it is a very heady book. You mentioned there are a lot of scenes that you described as boring. There are lots of meetings and people encountering each other and sniping at each other, but those scenes are still visually engaging.

Shalvey: Yeah, boring is not the right word. It's subdued, deliberately subdued. It's not the most exciting stuff to be drawing or looking at. But if somebody is telling you something very complex, you don't want them yelling at the reader. That is not work. It is knowing when to use your tools. I find a lot of people have a toolbox and they just use every single tool. It's knowing when to use them. Injection, and Moon Knight as well, was me making sure that I was restraining myself when I needed to be and knowing when to really go crazy.

I think there is a subtlety with both of those books.

Shalvey: There is and it is tough to do subtle.

It's just as subtle as Moon Knight, even more so I think, but it's there.

Shalvey: Yeah, I think so. Somebody's like, "Oh, do you think you are going to do something more striking like in Moon Knight with the white outfit?" I am like, "No, because that was that book." It's still the same creative team, but Moon Knight isn't really a character in our run, I don't think. I think he is just a force of nature. I don't know Marc Spector anymore than I knew him when I read it. But they are excellent stories. Injection is different. It's five character pieces. They are more engaging. It's a different approach.

Injection Declan Shalvey Tree Monster
(Photo: Declan Shalvey and Jordie Bellaire)

I enjoy both your work and Jordie's work. I think there are a few key scenes in Injection that highlight what you both do so well, like when there's the forest spirit that emerges from the portal. Looking at the two of you working together on stuff like that is thrilling, and then also the way she can invoke things like the wind within your work and the smallest of movements. Obviously, you are closer with her than you are with other colorists.

Do you think you draw out the best in one another? Is there an extra step to that collaborative process?

Shalvey: It's interesting. I was talking to another friend of mine last night. I met him years ago when Jordie and I first became a couple. He said, "It's amazing to see how both of you guys have come so far in such a small space of time." I liked how he put it as "sharpening each other's spears." Because I am trying to do good work and I respect her opinion; I'll ask her. It makes me better and vice versa.

Not that helping each other in terms of moving your career along, but trying to keep the craft bar high, high, high, high, high. We both do push each other like that- maybe too much sometimes. I'd like to say one of the reasons she does so well is because of whatever help I could have given her. But I also know she is her own worst critic. She is very driven. She wants to do the best work and she sees me doing the same.

Sometimes I get down on myself. I think both of us are pretty ambitious in that regard. It's pushed us this far. Doing something like Injection, it can be tough because we are both in the same room. She sees every page I draw. She'll spot something odd now and then. Working in the same space as Jordie, she's trained me to be more critical of my own work in actual problem-solving ways, like "That looks weird. That hand isn't good enough." And I go back and change it. There's time when she says something to me and I turn into a baby. I am like, "It looks fine!" I'll go back the next day like, "Yeah, you were right." Because I get defensive. If someone tells you something you know, you get defensive about it.

That's been great. And sometimes it is a little intense because of our schedule or other books that are a problem for Jordie. I am so happy with the results. It's hard to say what it is, but she just makes everything better. She makes the subdued scenes more subdued. She makes the surreal scenes more surreal. I give her more leeway than I would with anybody else. There's time when she makes panel borders black, which I feel should be my decision. But she shows me and she says, "I think this works better like that." I am like, "Yeah, actually." I get over my own ego and go, "You are right. It does look better."

In issue four, she used a blur effect and I hate blur effects. I hate when somebody punches somebody in a comic and there's a blur effect. I just think it is tacky and horrible. But she used it in the right way. She showed me and said, "I think this looks better." I am like, "Fair enough." I just trust her. I think overall a lot of artists… She has worked with some artists who see themselves as some sort of genius and go "You color to my vision." Fuck them, because she does her own thing.

What you do is you tell her what you would like and she'll make a better product. Just because maybe if I want to do Batman and there are no reds in it, because that's my vision, that doesn't mean necessarily it is going to work just because it's what I want. What Jordie will do is she will look at something and she will figure out what's going to work better. It may not be what you are thinking, but it is definitely more interesting. Just because I have an idea doesn't mean it is a good idea.

She'll take your idea and go, "Well, here's this, but here's this as well." You are like, "I never would have thought of that!" because she is a completely different brain. She'll add something to the mix so it will just make it better. I'd love to say Injection would be just as good with another colorist, but it wouldn't. It would be different. There's other colorists I like, but nobody delivers the way Jordie delivers.

One thing about Injection like you said earlier is there are is a lot of subdued stuff so that when the big things come across, when you have these giant, fantastic sort of settings or you have these monsters emerging that they really land. And each of them feels very, very fresh. There's nothing that is like, "Oh, that's a cat monster." Even something that is very much based in trees and English forests feels unique. What kind of research are you doing when you are designing those big moments?

Shalvey: Is there anything specific you are thinking of?

Injection Declan Shalvey Mushroom Cave
(Photo: Declan Shalvey and Jordie Bellaire)

I would think the cave, because the first time she opens the door and you see this fungus-based world it's mind-expanding.

Shalvey: Yeah. A lot of that I just looked up caves. For Injection, I basically spend a week doing the layout and gathering all the reference I want. Warren is pretty good with links and visual stuff that he might be thinking of. But a lot of the locations were actual locations. That factory in the last issue is an actual factory in Birmingham. I spent half the day just going to Flickr, taking stream caps. I don't know what I am going to use, but I just try to get as much material as you can so I have the option. I find sometimes if there is a location, you can tell a narrative just from one photo and through that one photo. But I like looking at options to see if there is a way I can take a bit from one and a bit from another and make it a more interesting drawing. Some of the caves I drew, I just looked at caves, caves, caves, rock formations.

I could have done something way different with that cave. Because of the letterbox panels, I had to make sure that the reader is going direct. So I made the cave very dark so that you are going from character to lychen. It goes in this kind of formation things. Sometimes with bodies of scripts, you are trying to tell a story from what's in the script. I play to a certain format and certain actions need so much space. It can be a visual puzzle sometimes. Sometimes it is actually narratively driven based on what I can get on a page.

You mentioned you take about a week for layouts. Do you have a set process you actually hold yourself to for each issue of Injection?

Shalvey: We don't have an editor, so I kind of make the schedule. Actually Jordie is pretty good because she works on so many Image books, she knows how they can be problematic. So I have a rough schedule for myself. I might need to remind Warren that I am going to need it by a certain date. He drew a map for one page. I had to skip that page in order to get the rest of the issue done. So I am like, "I need that map so I can draw the page." Little things like that can slow you down a little bit. What I like to do is get the script from Warren before I finish an issue. So if I am drawing issue five, I would like to get the script for issue six before I finish so I can read it and it is in my head. So while I am drawing the rest of the issue, I will do my washes, I'll scan it, and I kind of just let it percolate in my brain a little bit. Then I'll actually go through it and break down what I need, how many scenes there are, where the scenes are going to be, where I am going to need reference, if there are new things, if there are new characters, etc.

In issue six there are some new characters. There's a bodyguard for Vivek. So the back and forth with Jordie, "Should we do something color-wise?" Little things like that. I try to do that in a week and maybe do a cover for Marvel the same week. Then I spend a week on pencils, spend a week on inks, spend a week on pencils, spend a week on inks. Things get in the way, like if I do a short story or if I have more covers than I realized I did. I try to do covers for friends and stuff. Sometimes real life or a convention gets in the way.

It can be tough keeping that rigid. But that is when I am most productive. I think there was one week, I think it was after Warren had been sick, he got me some script. I hate working with half a script. He was very apologetic and it is the only time it has happened, even on Moon Knight. That can be a little different. It's just more productive to work in batches. So I don't want to do half layouts, half pencils, half inks, and go back. It just takes longer. I know how I am my most efficient, so that's how I like to work.

When you are doing layouts for a single issue, even though Injection is designed to be a five-issue chapters, are you trying to design it so there is a rhythm within that distinct issue?

Shalvey: Yeah. That's the best way to do a whole book. If I just laid out a page, drew it, laid out a page, drew it, it would be fine. But it's good to kind of see the whole thing and see if there's a lot of wide shot or a lot of the characters are just head and shoulders for like twenty pages. It's things like that. Because you are not going to see it if you are just working page to page. It's good to see the whole issue. I know Jason Twirl works like that as well. But I think he really looks at the whole thing. I just kind of use it as a roll back to see if things are working.

Talking with you and Cliff [Chiang] this weekend, I have noticed when you bring up all the pages on Comixology for a single issue, you can look and see where there is a rhythm where they sort of breathe in and out. There's an inhalation and exhalation. You have some tight pages and then you tend to see either a big central panel or a splash.

Shalvey: Yeah, I feel like I need those big, establishing shots. Those are like kind of an Injection panel. I did it in Moon Knight, too. I won't draw background in every single panel

because if two characters are talking, it's not necessary to have a background. But as long as you've got a point where the characters are centered and the reader will know where he is. I need that big wide shot every time I feel.

So looking forward to the future of Injection, the new story starts at the beginning of next year [2016], right?

Shalvey: Yeah, January will be issue six. I have drawn half the issue now. So I am just going to work ahead and try to pull up some me time.

What about the arc has you most engaged right now as an artist? What are you thinking is the coolest thing that you are doing right now?

Shalvey: Actually, a little bit of it is some more set design. I've been watching Hannibal a lot. That's a gorgeous show. Actually issue six is very Hannibal-y, even the cover. The cover is very Hannibal. The rooms are very Hannibal. Also there are some great shots where it pulls back and I can see characters in a symmetrical way, much like how I try to stage the shots in Injection.

I talked to Jordie, "Maria's office is going to be done up so let's try have a conversation about if there are some colors you are going to use." Because it is tough when you are trying to get a comic done to grind. It can stuff the creative think. If you don't have all day to have your thoughts, you just got to move on sometimes. So I'd like to spend a bit more time just trying to make all of the environments more interesting.

Then again I don't know what Warren is writing. So maybe I won't get to draw a room in issue seven. I just don't know where the hell the thing is going to go, so I am going to try to see what the hell happens. I do hope that the closer we get in the story, the worse the injection gets, that there will be more surreal things to draw. I have to admit they are quite fun to draw. But issue six is actually just a straight detective story, like no crazy supernatural stuff. I read the script and when I got to a certain page, I was like, "Bah!" It's those moments when Warren just drops a bomb in an issue and I am like, "Oh, man, that's phat."

I know he told me that I am his first audience. So if I am having that reaction, hopefully the reader is having that reaction, too.


Injection #6 - Cover A


Injection #6 - Cover B


Injection #7

Chase Magnett is a freelance journalist, critic, and editor working with comics, film, and television. He has been hooked on comics since he picked an issue of Suicide Squad out of a back issue bin fifteen years ago. When Chase is not working with comics in some way he spends his time rooting for the San Francisco 49ers and grilling. He currently contributes to and other outlets.