It says something about Sean Phillips career when you realize that, even though he’s been working with writer Ed Brubaker for more than two decades at this point — together, the two have co-created DC’s Sleeper, as well as the creator owned Criminal, Incognito, Fatale, The Fade Out, Reckless and a host of other projects published through Image Comics — he had been working for more than a decade prior to their collaboration, creating a catalog of work that other artists would kill for.
The secret to his career longevity is arguably, in part, that he started early. Phillips’ first published comics work appeared in 1980, when he was just 15 years old and still in high school; through a connection with artist Ken Houghton, who worked on girls’ comic titles for British publishers IPC and DC Thompson — and who’d taught Phillips in an art class a couple of years earlier — Phillips started working on titles such as Bunty and Nikki before taking a break to attend art school and get a degree in graphic design.
As soon as he graduated, however, he returned for what many consider the “start” of his career: working on 2000 AD and its related titles, starting with the short-lived “political” title Crisis; it was there when he first worked with writer John Smith, forming a partnership that would last through series including New Statesmen, Straitgate, Danzig’s Inferno, and their crowning achievement together: the creation of Devlin Waugh, the dandy exorcist of the Judge Dredd universe.
Even as Phillips was appearing in British titles, he was making a name for himself in the U.S., courtesy of a number of appearances in multiple “mature readers” comics from DC: he worked on Hellblazer, Kid Eternity and Wildcats before partnering with Brubaker for the first time as full artist — he’d inked an earlier series by the writer, 1999’s Scene of the Crime — for 2003’s Sleeper.
If Smith had been Phillips’ ideal collaborator for the earlier part of his career— creating increasingly atmospheric, intentionally outré stories that allowed Phillips the opportunity to play without limits—then Brubaker was (and remains) Phillips’ perfect partner for their current period. From Sleeper onwards, it was clear the two share sensibilities: aesthetic, sure — both are fans of film noir and its attendant visual cues, from cigarette smoking femme fatales to specific lighting and framing choices in tense emotional moments — but also in the types of stories the two create: something relatively grounded and realistic, with more attention paid on the emotional journey than the visual spectacle of the moment, allowing Phillips the chance to flex some subtle muscles in terms of character acting and layout. From the first issue of Sleeper onwards, it was clear the two made magic together.
That’s not to say that Phillips solely worked with Brubaker from Sleeper onwards; there’s an entire generation of comic book fans who instead know him as the artist on the first two Marvel Zombies miniseries with Robert Kirkman, from 2006 and 2007, for example; and worked on a Black Widow comic with novelist Richard Morgan around the same period. He also started working with Criterion, illustrating covers for the Criterion Collection reissues of films including 12 Angry Men, Mildred Pierce and The Great Escape. Nonetheless, it was obvious even before a 2013 deal with Image cementing the deal: Brubaker and Phillips were a comic book creator partnership for the ages.
Throughout all of this, even once his partnership with Brubaker was cemented as an ongoing, multiple project deal, one of the defining qualities of Phillips’ career is the versatility of his visuals. Although there is recurring iconography, and even specific images — few people do better confused sneers than Phillips, let’s be honest — Phillips’ career has demonstrated repeatedly that, not only can he do it all, he will. He’s an enjoyably restless artist who periodically recreates his style and refreshes his look, bringing new life to his work in the process; compare his Kid Eternity to Sleeper, or even Friend of the Devil, the latest installment in his Reckless series, and his evolution is clear. Moreso comparing his color work — look at the painterly approach of something like Devlin Waugh and then consider the covers of My Heroes Have Always Been Junkies or Bad Weekend.
All of these projects show off just how talented Phillips is, of course; how well he creates not only physical space on the page — look at the way he quietly builds believable worlds in every single project he illustrates, worlds the reader feels as if they could walk into — and how masterfully he controls the eye through use of light and shadow over the entire image, as well as in each single panel. Although the aesthetics of his work shifts through the years, across the different projects and partnerships, he maintains complete control of the tools necessary to hold the reader’s attention.
The one constant in his work — other than those wonderful sneers — is the quality. Perhaps it’s evidence that those early days on Bunty laid the groundwork for everything that followed, instilling a belief in the building blocks that allow him to continually turn in work that’s as much a masterclass in the medium as straightforward comics. Maybe it’s simply the idea that four decades in the business had left him almost unable to deliver anything less than near-perfect. Or, it might just be the case that Phillips is just naturally that good.
Whatever the reason, at any point across his 41 years in comics, Sean Phillips has created work that any other artist has every reason to be jealous of, with every single period of his career filled with work that others could consider creative peaks. He is, in the truest sense, a comics artist for life — and any examination of his back catalog confirms that he’s one of the best, too.