Grand designs pay off as Irish artist becomes leading light at Marvel

Lines drawn from Marvel’s new Spider-Man and cartoons of Seamus Coleman intersect at the son of a Ballycotton trawlerman. Don O’Mahony talks to Will Sliney.

Grand designs pay off as Irish artist becomes leading light at Marvel

THERE are certain companies in the field of entertainment that stand like totems on the popular landscape, their history and achievements understandable to all.

If you’re thinking comics, chances are you’ll think of Marvel. Its cartoonists and writers have created characters that are truly iconic and if you have a love of comics you will have thumbed the pages of a Marvel comic at some stage.

Recent years have seen Irish artists grab a foothold on the lofty heights of this empire and none more assuredly than Will Sliney. Having first worked with the company in 2013, this year the man from Ballycotton, Co Cork, signed an exclusive contract with Marvel, the first Irish artist to do so. On July 9, the world will get its first glimpse of his new work when the famed brand releases the next instalment of Spider-Man 2099.

A lifelong fan of Marvel, Sliney is the archetypal kid in a candy store. When he describes himself as a “Marvel artist” there is a touch of wonder in his voice.

“Yeah. It’s mad,” he reflects. “It’s just something that you never knew was even possible as a young person but now it’s great that people know it is possible. It definitely was a dream job for me. I definitely have a lot of moments where I’m pinching myself and delighted.”

It seems Spider-Man was there throughout all Sliney’s life. Yet it wasn’t through comic books that he got to know the character, but through Saturday morning TV cartoons. After all, there were no comic shops in the fishing village of Ballycotton, but these cartoons opened the door to that world.

“As a young person anyway I think it was just they had such a strong visual aesthetic. You just instantly spot them. And the thing about the Marvel superheroes, they were made relatable for people. They weren’t billionaires or aliens — they were average people.

“Peter Parker [Spider-Man’s alter ego] was just like a regular kinda kid, a regular awkward kid. So they made sure to bring their audience into the comic books,” he says.

“The funny thing is that Marvel comics are basically romance comics with superhero elements,” he continues, nailing their appeal. “It’s always about the person and their own personal dramas first and foremost, they just happen to be framed around these superhero fights as well.

“So when you think of Spider-Man, obviously you’ll think of him fighting the Green Goblin but you’re more than likely going to think of, ‘Oh, he’s going to be late for his date with Mary Jane, and he won’t get his work done in time and his Aunt May wants him to pick up some milk and eggs’. They’re more soap operas rather than action movies.”

Spider-Man 2099 is a different character to Peter Parker — he is the alter ego of Miguel O’Hara, a brilliant geneticist from the year 2099 AD who finds himself stranded in present day New York.

“Miguel is definitely different from Peter Parker, that’s the one thing Peter David, the creator, wanted to make sure of, even though they both have a similar type look,” says Sliney. “Both Peter Parker’s parents had died but Miguel had both parents. He was a little bit harsher definitely and that’s kind of the tone we will have. I love working on him because he’s half Irish.”

This may be a point of some controversy. In the original storyline created in 1992, Miguel’s father was Irish. But it has since been revealed he was adopted. In Sliney’s mind at least, and after consultation with the writer, it has been decided he is Irish.

“We’ve kinda decided, sure who’s to say his actual genetic father isn’t Irish as well? But not only that, he was raised by an Irishman so he’s as Irish as they come. Well, as Irish as an half-Irish/half-Mexican person can be,” Sliney chuckles. “I’ve never met any half-Irish/ half-Mexicans but I can imagine you’d have a bit of a spark to you if you were.”

The affable and courteous Sliney, who is still based in Co Cork, has some of this fieriness within him also. Still in his early 30s, Sliney only had his first published comic back in 2007. To reach this stage within six years seems, well, heroic.

“It’s funny. It felt like when I was doing it that it was a long, long time because I’ve drawn thousands of pages and put in hundreds of thousands of hours. So many hours of drawing. But if you look back on it, it is very, very fast.

“There obviously are examples where it happens faster but there aren’t too many people working on Marvel that are younger than me now and especially not on their own Spider-Man book. So I’m very, very lucky that way.

“An awful lot of comic books can be luck and timing as well and it just happened that my first job for Marvel, for some people it might be one issue but they liked my stuff enough and, as important, there happened to be a book available on which I was going to get 12 issues at least. So that was great and I had a year to prove myself on Marvel.”

The work ethic also comes from within his family and watching his father go out on a trawler in all weather.

“I always think of how hard my father worked and how hard my grandfather worked and they had to get up and go to work every day. If I wasn’t getting up and just going into the room next door to draw Spider-Man, that’d be disgraceful really.”

As a child he liked to draw sketches of his favourite superheroes but living in remote East Cork a career in comics seemed impossible. When it came to a career he decided it would be engineering.

“I think it was more on the drawing side of it. I wanted to design Formula 1 cars and things like that so I always used to draw them as well.”

Before he committed to that path, his parents, encouraging of his creative side, sent him to a guidance counsellor who recommended he study something more suitable to his inclinations.

In 2001 he enrolled in a multimedia course at Cork Institute of Technology. He was attracted to the course’s mix of illustration and computer work.

“I didn’t really want to do something that was full-on illustration, because I wanted to have some other skills as well.”

There he received encouragement from his lecturer Steven Young. “He saw I was very interested in comic books. He was just like, ‘I can see you’re interested in this. Why don’t you just work on comics in my class for the year and really give it a go?’. And to be fair to him he pushed me really hard, which is what I needed.

“At the end of it, he sat me down and said, ‘There is a career for you in this if you go for it. I’ll meet you in five years time. You either will not be doing it at all or you’ll be working in one of the big companies. But you’ll have to go for it completely wholeheartedly and give it that shot’.”

That he did. After completing his course Sliney got to know other artists on the Irish scene and having taken out loans he soon took off, portfolio under his arm, for the renowned San Diego Comic Convention.

Many times he was told his work was no good. Undeterred, he snapped up whatever advice was given and came back with improved work. Eventually, a Marvel talent manager offered him work on the 12-issue run of Fearless Defenders.

“It is tough,” he admits, “but in equal parts as tough as it is, it’s also quite inspiring as well because not only will editors give advice on how to improve your portfolio, the comic book community is one where the artists are very encouraging.”

Another success for Sliney is last year’s Celtic Warrior: The Legend of Cú Chulainn, Ireland’s fastest-selling graphic novel.

Sliney stresses the importance of having an online presence in order to get work noticed. Last year he tweeted a picture of Seamus Coleman, the Irish player at Sliney’s beloved Everton.

It was re-tweeted by Everton fans and this led to him being offered work at the club. It is especially thrilling for Sliney, whose uncle used to bring him to games at Goodison Park.

“But it just goes back to how amazing it is that you can be spotted with one tweet,” he says. “A 140-character thing with a picture and bang: you’re hired by Everton.” Living the dream indeed.

Marvel releases Spider-Man 2099 on Wednesday

Tool of the trade:

Will’s trusty companion

Will Sliney quickly swapped pencil and paper for the Wacom Cintiq Companion high-end tablet when he went full-time into freelance work in 2008.

“I was one of the first artists to go digital,” he says.

“About 50% of comic artists use it now.”

One for the professional illustrator, Sliney uses the Cintiq all the time.

“The process is similar to pen and paper. You can carry it anywhere. It’s great for time saving and portability.

And crucially, he adds, “You can press undo”.

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