BELFAST – When Stephen Downey was a teenager working at the local comic book store ‘Forbidden Planet’, he was sure that one day he would like to draw his own comics. What he wasn’t so sure of was how to make a living out of it.
The 27-year-old Belfast native sits across from me in the coffee shop across from his home studio, apologizing for speaking so quickly and talking excitedly about the progress he has made since his days working at the comic book store, which he has since returned to do book signings.
As a young artist creating doodles and fantasizing about one day creating his own famous characters like Batman or The Hulk, Downey admits when at first he thought about becoming a comic book artist, he “didn’t have any idea of how to get there.”
On the backdrop of working to become an artist full-time, Downey says he taught music part-time and toured with the Irish dance show ‘Rhythm of the Dance’ playing the flute as a way to pay the rent and make ends meet. After getting rejected from Fine Arts after graduating high school, he worked on creating comics while getting a degree in Psychology from Queen’s University in Belfast – “in case I ever had to get a real job,” he says.
But Downey never had to get a ‘real job’. In a time of recession, when artists often struggle to stay afloat, his career has flourished. Over the past year and a half, the artist has collaborated with writers to create three separate comics – ranging from ”Slaughterman’s Creed”, a story about a professional killer, to ”Jennifer Wilde”, a 1920′s mystery centred around the imagined daughter of famous Irish author Oscar Wilde. He has turned making comic books into his full-time career and opened his own video game development company called ‘Outsider Games’ which creates educational apps for smart phones and tablets.
“With comics, creating your own stuff is a risk because there is no money up front,” he explains.
The pressure, he says, comes from the deadlines that need to be met. He admits, with comics “you can sort of make a living if you do it on time.” Although that means that you can end up making less than minimum wage if you are not disciplined and do not meet company deadlines. One page of pencils and ink in one day is the usual, he says, with some 12 hour work days thrown in when needed to meet a deadline.
This afternoon is a much needed break for the artist after his latest comic submission to ‘Strip Magazine’, a monthly British action-adventure comic magazine, and a weekend of drawing custom art for fans at Bristol Comic Con, he says.
Even though Northern Ireland may not be the hub of comics worldwide, with no major companies to compete with American comic book giants Marvel or DC, Downey says he the financial support of local government towards the digital arts is what helped him set up his small gaming company.
“As long as you have a good idea and a plan set out, you can get funding,” he says.
Downey received £10,000 from the Northern Ireland Arts Council, a government agency which funds local arts, for innovation and digital media in order to create his first video game ‘Shaking Safari’, an educational game for children.
Downey says the Northern Irish government recognizes the importance of supporting the digital arts.
“It’s something you can export so easily,” he says. “Other artists – clay pot makers for example – deserve grants as much as anyone but Northern Ireland is trying to get an eventual tax return and digital media you can export all over the world.”
Even with the industry of print media in decline, Downey says he’s not too worried about the future of comic books.
“Comics are one of the cheapest media you can buy and you have a piece of art,” he says.
He says comics and games distract people from the problems they have.
“You can get five games for the price of a pint,” he says. “So why wouldn’t people just stay at home?”
With a new comic being released next month, an iPhone app nearing completion and several comic strips on the go, there is no fear that Downey will be keeping busy.
The ultimate goal would be to work for a large international company, draw his own characters instead of working from a script as he does now and become a famous artist. In the short term, Downey says he wants to keep working to make his company a success.
And with that, it’s back to the drawing board for Downey as deadlines await, but he’s not complaining as he gets up to leave and go back to work. With a grin, he says “it’s always good to have more work that you need.”