Inside the dizzying, ambitious Arthurian sci-fi epic Starhenge with writer/artist Liam Sharp
Stonehenge never looked so good in Liam Sharp's Starhenge from Image Comics
Fresh from runs on iconic DC characters like Batman, Green Lantern, and Wonder Woman, Liam Sharp’s new Image Comics series Starhenge shows that, if anything, he was just warming up.
An epic story that mixes science fiction, historical fantasy, and contemporary romance – and that’s just the first issue – Starhenge is a dizzying, ambitious read that takes everything that Sharp has done in the past and pushes it in unexpected new directions. Written and illustrated by Sharp, the series is unlike almost everything else on the stands right now, and undoubtedly offers the comics veteran of such titles as 2000 AD, Death’s Head II, and The Incredible Hulk the opportunity to show off… but what might be most impressive is how focused he remains, even in the service of something so gloriously over-the-top.
Ahead of the title’s July 6 debut, Popverse spoke to Sharp about bringing the story to life, bringing himself to Image Comics, and what he’s going to be bringing readers as Starhenge continues.
Popverse: There’s a line in the first issue: “If the story is about anything, it’s about magic.” That feels like a good place to start because, while there’s no shortage of 'traditional' magic on show — and even an appearance by Merlin! — Starhenge feels much larger than a pure fantasy or magic book. There’s romance, there’s science fiction… it feels like you put everything you possibly could in here.
Liam Sharp: Thank you! And I suppose the whole idea of 'magic' is actually very broad. There are moments where what looks like magic is actually future science. There's some strong traditional magic, but it may or may not quite be as it is recounted. There's magic in romance, and many things we can't quite explain... so the book attempts to capture a lot of that! There's also just the magic of the comics medium itself, which I find endlessly fascinating, and remarkably still full of possibilities. So yes, it's probably the culmination of a great many things over a long career!
This feels very much like something that’s taking in a number of different influences, and playing around with them: there’s Arthurian myth — I got a strong John Boorman’s Excalibur feel off the first few pages, personally — but also things like Doctor Who, Giger, Humanoids and Heavy Metal, and so much more. Does this book give you a chance to play with the stuff that fed your head when you were younger, and create something new to feed other heads?
Absolutely! It's very literally all of those things. For so long - decades in fact! - it seemed comics were dominated by style, and that gave me huge problems. The notion you had to find one relatable style and religiously stick to it, no matter the genre, was something I found almost impossible, and extremely restrictive. And for a long time I think it worked against me, because I spent decades jumping around, trying to find that style - something I could stick with, and that people liked - and I utterly failed at that! The only thing that you could count on was that you couldn't be sure what you'd get from me next. And I think that was a problem for editors for a long time too!
But having had this long run on a series of high profile books, when I got to The Green Lantern I was able to incorporate exactly that into the work in a very intentional manner. And it worked! People went along with me for the ride, and started to enjoy the idea of not knowing what it would look like next issue. It added to the excitement. And now, I think, it's that very range that defines my work, and not a single style at all. But because I've been doing it so long there's something still very recognizably 'me' in all of it now. That's a complete joy for me, and has changed the way I approach everything.
And yes - I'm touching on so much of what I loved when I was a teen, and younger. Material I still love to this day.
Visually, can we talk about who you’re bringing to the table? Bill Sienkiewicz, Chris Foss, and Dave McKean seem clear touchstones, but it feels as if you’re evolving and playing around with your style even within this first issue. Is this something people can look forward to more of, as the series progresses? I’m reminded of your experimentation with Grant Morrison in The Green Lantern. Are you a particularly restless creator?
It's definitely something you'll see more of. From #2 we see that Amber processes the world through her art, and she talks about that even more in #4, which has a very mainstream '70s style section. She filters everything through the lens of art, and often comic art. This comic knows it's a comic!
And it's true - The Green Lantern wasn't just a love-letter to comics, it was paying homage to the great illustrators of the '70s, and earlier. This is the same. I love comics, but my approach has tended towards illustration for some time, so I'm definitely leaning into that. You hit the nail on the head with 'restless creator'! Life's short, and art offers so much to explore! I've always found the notion that we should shackle ourselves with one singular approach the antithesis of creativity and art. That never made sense to me! I want to explore, and push myself. To find the edges of what I can do, and try to get beyond them...
Is this all done digitally? There’s such a multimedia feel to some of these pages that I genuinely can’t tell. How do you ever start working on something like this? What’s your process?
It's a lot of different approaches used real scanned media, and digital painting, and some traditional too. Sometimes I just start with a literal mess - an abstract splatter of paint mixed digitally with other layers - and I'll see what I can see in that, and just sort of pick it out. Other times I'll just paint digitally, but with as close to a traditional method as I can replicate. I love exploring different approaches. It keeps it lively, and a little risky. I like the David Bowie notion that as a creative you should always be in the sea, up to your nose in water, on tiptoes - just on the edge of your comfort zone... Sometimes a wave will pass over and you'll be completely discombobulated, but you'll touch toes to the sand again soon enough!
What was the origin point for the series as a whole? What was the original idea behind it all, way back when?
It was originally meant to be a sort of straight-up retelling of Geoffrey of Monmouth's version of the Merlin and Arthur stories from his 'History of the Kings of Britain' - the earliest existing version of those tales, and lesser known the Sir Thomas Malory's 'Le Morte D'Arthur', which is the classic chivalric romance. There's so much in there that is fascinating, but it's also very convoluted – a bit like the Vinland Sagas. Very much material for a select and specialist audience! Then I thought of T.H.White's 'Once and Future King', where Merlin was born in the future, and that became an idea that lodged. If he was coming from the future then what was his mission?
Talk to me about Amber. She feels like this very grounded character at the center of this ambitious, epic story. Where does she come from? Is there a real Amber out there that you’re drawing from, in terms of writing?
At first Merlin was really the main character, but after a while you begin to see that - like Dr Who, or Gandalf - while these characters are central, it's the attendant characters that give the stories heart. They are us - witness to great events. And that's where Amber came in, born out of the need to give the story at least a little relence, and a modern day reference point. The hard sci-fi of the future and the wild magic of 5th century Britain are as alien to her as they are to us, so I tried to imagine how a lay person would understand those things. And in the process of that she slowly became the true focus of the book, with a bigger story and purpose than I ever guessed setting out.
Her voice is very much informed by my kids and their friends – Brit kids in the U.S. – so while she's not directly a real person, she's an amalgam of many. Daryl is based on a great friend of my son's too, who is a big name in parkour. He has a huge backstory story too, it turns out...
This is your first Image Comics project… ever, I think…?
Aside from Spawn: the Dark Ages. But this is my first creator-owned Image book.
What brought you to the publisher, after a few years of consistent work at DC?
I've wanted to work with Image since it was founded, and in fact Jim Lee offered me a place all those 30 years ago, but I passed, partly for love; I'd met the girl who would eventually be my best friend, wife, and partner for life, but it was very early days, and I feared wouldn't survive my moving to the US at that time. Also, I thought Marvel would look after me forever, and Death's Head II was doing very well! I was loyal to a fault back then! I still can be, honestly!
And so while I've loved working at DC over the last six years – and, even before Madefire days, DC have been my mainstay for decades – when one project failed to get greenlit, it just seemed like the right time to give it a shot, and to tie a bow in everything. The idea of an Image series has been something I've wanted to do for a very long time.
What are you hoping that readers get out of Starhenge? What’s the feedback that you’re dreaming of hearing?
I hope people find themselves invested in the characters. I hope they find a different perspective on some old material. And I hope they enjoy the ride with me! The first six issues really set-up a pretty vast and convoluted universe, but as it chugs along I think it will become more and more of a wild adventure. The Early Arthurian aspects are important, but they are a backdrop. The classic events of those stories are alluded to, but they don't dominate the narrative. This is in no way a retelling! So I hope readers find it refreshing, and fun, and illuminating, and a little bit different – in a good way!
Okay, last thing: what can you tease for those picking up the series and wondering what they’re going to get in the next few issues?
Oh, you're getting a crash course in the Monmouth Merlin stories, from Aurelius through Uther to Arthur and the building of Stonehenge. You're getting time-travelling monster robots, and more of Amber and Daryl’s crazy, evolving romance through time... You'll also get the best art I've ever done, and more nerdy cultural references for your amusement!
Starhenge is one of many comics we've recommended as part of our Summer 2022 comics guide.