Backward Glance: Steve Purcell

A character concept for Fergus from the Pixar film Brave, by Steve Purcell

Steve Purcell (Interdisciplinary Fine Arts 1982) is a cartoonist, animator, director, game designer, and Eisner Award recipient. He works at Pixar, and was a writer and codirector of the 2012 feature film Brave.

While at CCA he contributed comic strips to the college newspaper, Spectrum, and these were the first public appearances of his characters known as Sam & Max Freelance Police, a duo of anthropomorphic animal vigilantes and private investigators who have subsequently enjoyed great success in comic, TV show, and game formats.

One of Purcell's friends and fellow students at CCA was Mike Mignola (Illustration 1982), who went on to become the creator of Hellboy. They both studied under Vince Perez and Gary Ruddell.

After graduation Purcell freelanced for Marvel Comics and spent some years at LucasArts and Industrial Light & Magic before landing his current job at Pixar.

Purcell shared some insights about his career in the latest issue of CCA's Glance magazine:

"I was in need of humanities credits, and the college newspaper sounded like an interesting choice. I wrote art reviews and did some spot illustrations, but I most enjoyed making strips for the comics page. I tried a few different subjects. One was about a job I had as a donut delivery driver, and another one showed how to make a kite out of the newspaper. But Sam & Max resonated with readers the most.

A few years later, a friend of mine was self-publishing his comic and wanted to add a title to his imprint. He asked about Sam & Max. I took my time and figured out exactly how I wanted to do it. I ended up with fans in high places who would ask to license Sam & Max for games, a TV series, and more games. I always made sure to never give up the ownership of them so I could start over after each adaptation.

I really enjoy writing conversations between Sam & Max. My comics letterer used to tell me the scripts sound like me talking to myself. I can drop them into any situation, and I know how they'll react. But they are adaptable because the audience understands the basic equation of their friendship. The folks I've worked with on the adaptations to games and TV seem to understand Sam & Max and appreciate the wide range of situations one can create for them. Their personalities anchor them in whatever lunacy they find themselves in the middle of.

I've created some characters that I've subsequently barely touched, and others that I still like but haven't quite cracked. I never throw them away because there might be something there, and it's just eluding me. Sometimes they sort themselves out over time, like they are being developed in the back recesses of my brain while I'm not paying attention. The good ones make themselves heard.

Shortly after I graduated, I was making my living as a freelance illustrator. It wasn't always easy, and I spent my share of time scraping by. The jobs ranged from technical illustrations for computer manuals to covers for video game packages. I would take on anything, but looked for chances to do the work I enjoyed -- something that was funny or that I could put my personality into.

Eventually that brought me more opportunities to do what I liked. I was always interested in filmmaking, but ended up sneaking up on it through being an artist."