Latest News | 29 June 2021

Comic book hero – meet the man behind Marketing Derby’s ram!

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The Derby Ram Trail is now up and running, with 30 five foot tall rams populating the city centre. Each ram has been sponsored by a business or organisation – and Marketing Derby has its very own ram called ‘Captain Stone’. Local artists were enlisted to come up with colourful designs for each ram.

In the case of Marketing Derby’s ram, esteemed comic book artist Liam Sharp was called upon. Derby-born Liam is regarded as one of the leading comic book artists. Now, based in the US, he took time out of his busy schedule to talk to our about his work on the ram trail project.

Q: Hello, Liam. Before we talk about the Derby Ram Trail, can I ask a bit about yourself? What are your memories of growing up in Derby?

A: How much time do you have? It was an incredibly formative part of my life and I will always consider myself a Derby man.

My first memories were in Littleover – crazily my third birthday. I woke up and was immediately sick!

My mum came and sorted me out and I went downstairs to find there were a lot of people in sleeping bags all over the place as my folks had had a bit of a party the night before!

Along the fireplace was a row of matchbox cars, lorries and army vehicles that somebody had bought me. That’s my first memory of Derby.

We’d just recently come back from Nigeria where my dad had worked. My mum had come back to Derby to have me but we had lived out there.

Liam Sharp

Liam Sharp

After that we moved to the Mackworth estate where my parents opened a hardware store in Humbleton Drive.

I started school at Brackensdale Infants and the first year of junior school. I joined the Cubs and walked in the parade when Derby was finally recognised as a city, not just a town.

We had an Old English Sheepdog called Nelly and while I know it was a struggle for my parents – they were enduring the three-day working week, and the bin men went on strike for a while, so there were bags of rubbish everywhere – I remember those times fondly.

Bohemian Rhapsody was at number one and I really found my passion for comics then, buying them from a newsagents called Dolphins, which was a few doors up.

After that we moved to Allestree. I started at Lawn Junior School, which I loved!

Nigel Clough was a few years older than me and his dad was often there to present awards. I came second place in a fancy dress competition as a robot and remember seeing Brian Clough through the toilet paper rolls that were my robot eyes!

This was when I discovered the great Don Lawrence’s work in The Trigan Empire in Look and Learn magazine at the Park Farm Library. Life-changing it would turn out!

By then my dad, Roger Sharp, was working at Findern on the canals. To cut a long story short, he ended up leading the conversion of the Old Clock Warehouse in Shardlow.

Wainwright, the builder, had wanted to turn it into flats. My dad changed his mind and instead it was restored back to being a working inland marina.

The Marketing Derby team

The Marketing Derby team

He built most of the canal exhibition himself and we had a restaurant, chandlery shop and a fleet of narrow boats. Halcyon days!

We lived in the mill itself over two floors in the top left. It was stunning. The best place ever to be as a child. It was an amazing playground.

It was around this time that my teachers at Lawn – and in particular Eric Cohen, who only taught there for a year, but was hugely loved by all of us in his class – really made an effort to help my parents figure out what to do with me.

He suggested The Gifted Children’s Society. So we went and I did some drawing and it turned out he had been the headmaster of a prep school in Eastbourne, called St Andrews.

Private schools had not, until that time, had art scholarships. He thought that was wrong. I was awarded the first art scholarship to a private school, opening the doors for many after me.

It was quite an experience. Very much like Hogwarts! I was the poor working-class lad with a Midland accent among the great and rich from all over the world!

That led to another scholarship to Eastbourne College at 13 and then I met my hero, Don Lawrence, at 17 – he worked just outside of Eastbourne at his home studio in Jevington.

So, I turned down a place at Ruskin College, Oxford University, to follow my dream in comics, becoming his apprentice.

And less than a year after that I started working as a freelancer for 2000ad, the legendary sci-fi magazine, drawing Judge Dredd.

This led, in time, to Marvel and Death’s Head II, The Hulk, Spiderman, XMen, and then DC, and Wonder Woman, The Green Lantern with legendary writer Grant Morrison, and now Batman with ‘The Boys’ TV show creator, my mate Garth Ennis.

Captain Stone comic book

Captain Stone comic book

Q: When did you move to the States?

A: We had moved back to Derby from Brighton in 2001 and I was delighted that all my kids were able to go to Lawn!

We had a wonderful 10 years there before we moved to California in 2001 to set up Madefire, which was a progressive digital storytelling company I co-founded.

I eventually left that company about five years ago to return to my first love, comics, drawing Wonder Woman.

Q: How often do you manage to get back ‘home’ and what do you miss about Derby?

A: We try to get back most years. There is a lot I miss. Family, friends, and great pubs!

Derby is very good at knocking itself – I always say it’s a city without an ego – but there’s a lot to love.

It might not be pretty but it is full of great people, great live music and everything you need for a thriving community.

I think we are great at selling ourselves short and I’ve had to fight my own natural urge to do that over the years! It’s a wonderful place, for all its faults.

Q: Your art has taken you on quite an adventure. Did you ever think that it would lead to the successful career you are enjoying now?

A: Not at all! When I look back I see that in every way I have exceeded my own expectations.

I have achieved every dream I ever had and had to come up with more. In the thick of things you don’t always see that – we’ve had hard times too.

When we moved back to Derby from Brighton things had gone very badly for a few years and I couldn’t get work anywhere.

There simply wasn’t enough to go around. I earned £6,000 that year and that was it! Hard to feed a family and keep a roof over your head on that!

But the upshot is it forced me to innovate. I wrote my first novel, founded our first publishing company, took a stab at writing screenplays, whatever it took.

And all of that eventually led to the move to the US and everything that came after. I always say it took me 15 years to become an overnight success!

Q: How did you find out about the Derby Ram Trail? What did you think of the idea and why did you decide to get involved?

A: I was actually invited by Derby Museums, who had hosted my 10-week solo exhibition a couple of years earlier, which I understand had been a great success.

That was one of my proudest moments ever. I really thought of it as a tribute to my parents who have always supported my crazy dreams at a time in the 1970s when such lofty ideas as being a professional artist for a living were slightly – if not outrightly – frowned upon!

Q: What is the inspiration behind the design of Captain Stone?

A: Captain Stone is the character created by myself and my wife, Christina. Back in my youth, comics were not taken seriously.

The idea of being a comic artist was ridiculous, frivolous nonsense! People thought comics were stupid, and the people that liked them were weirdos.

Liam’s illustration

Liam’s illustration

‘Nerd’ was not a term you could be proud of back then and it was liberally thrown around.

So, I see this as a celebration of change. Of acceptance of alternative cultures and the power of those sub-cultures to rise above the popular misconceptions.

I stuck with comics no matter how many people told me I was wrong to – that comics were bad. That it wasn’t art. That ‘real’ artists didn’t do that kind of rubbish.

I had numerous art agencies reject my work out of hand because of that stigma. I had a university professor belittle it to my face.

But my hero, Don Lawrence, was knighted in Holland for his comic work. And now the greatest movie franchise the world has ever seen is based on the comics I adored as a Derby lad. This ram is about that.

Q: Of course, we’ve all had a tough year with Covid. How have things been for you?

A: I confess that, yes – it’s been tough – but it’s been my most productive year ever! I have been a machine!

Every year that passes I feel a need to do more and more, and to take advantage of the fact that I’m enjoying a very busy and fruitful spell. I wish there were more hours in the day!

Q: The Derby Ram Trail seems to be the perfect socially distanced family event. What would your message be to those people contemplating getting out and tracking down the rams?

A: Get vaccinated, get outside. I think there’s a simple set of rules for living just generally – Dare to follow your dreams. Work hard. Most importantly, be kind. And hope for the best!

Q: Finally, over the years, Derby, like most cities, has changed, and continues to change, with investment in new buildings etc. How do you view Derby now?

A: I’ve seen Derby grow. I’ve seen it shift from a place of deep-routed, working-class, cap-doffing humility. It was insular, a little small-minded, and somewhat oppressive.

Liam’s illustration

Liam’s illustration

I think, like every city, it has made mistakes. I think there are a moneyed few that are intent on lining their own pockets with not the slightest interest in local things that matter – be it parkland, or trees, or open spaces.

I think big business has impacted on the heart of the city and gutted it. But I have seen innovation, and imagination, and cultural growth – be it arts venues, the wonderful work the Museum has championed, the honouring of notable citizens old and new with the Made in Derby stars, the long overdue development of Darley Abbey Mills.

I think that’s the thing I have seen most – cultural and artistic growth. And every city benefits immeasurably from those things.

Q: Is there anything else you would like to add?

A: Just my sincerest thanks for backing and contributing to this delightful ram trail! I hope to get back to see it sooner rather than later!

Liam is currently running a Kick Starter programme to fund a book of his selected works from over three decades in the comics industry.

To find out more please click here.

To find out more about Liam visit his website by clicking here.

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