Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Knockin' One Back with Ben Templesmith

Words: Christopher Irving . Pictures: Seth Kushner

“I know movie directors, and how they have to go on movie junkets to go around and talk endlessly, answering the same questions,” Ben Templesmith says over a drink in a pub near Grand Central Station. “It drives most of them pretty mad. I feel a bit like ‘I just want to go home now, and finish the book.’”

Its been a very full week for the Australian-born artist: He’d just arrived in New York in time for a signing event for his new book Choker, with writer Ben McCool; luckily, the first issue came out after a scheduling nightmare, one he’s been asked about a bit too repeatedly at this point.

“I’ll explain it, because the more people who read this, the less I have to explain all that shit,” Ben admits. “We were given a release date, and then they pushed it back, from the first date, which was what we planned our promotional events around (which was the date it ended up coming out on). The first printing of the book had a bad water and ink mix, and Image decided that it looked like crap (which it did), so the printer reprinted it on their own dime, but it would push the book back by a week. We’d found out that it would have come out earlier than we planned, so asked if they could push it to the date we had planned, event wise, so they pushed it back with a week delay from when it was originally planned, and it came out last Wednesday, on [February] 24th.

“Some stores got these bad copies, from before they got pulped, hence that there are some copies of the bad ones out. It helped us, really, because having the book out earlier than expected got us a few good reviews before it really came out. But now my head hurts.”

Choker is a noir crime book infused with a bit of horror and – it’s not really an easy book to describe. Think of Sam Spade stuck in Bladerunner by way of a John Carpenter horror movie, with a bit of Tim Burton thrown into the mix. Choker starts as a seemingly normal private eye story, Johnny Jackson, bemoans the pile of shitty cases piled up on his desk. When he mentions that they probe misfits and mutants, you think he’s talking metaphorically, but when he steps out into his normal world of police brutality, cybernetic appendages, and mutated freaks, you find out he means it quite literally. Offered his old job back with the police department, Jackson is charged with bringing in an old case who had just escaped prison.

And it just gets weirder and weirder from there and curiouser and curiouser.

“You’ll think ‘Oh, I’ve already read that story,’ but then Ben gives it an interesting twist,” Ben points out. McCool’s script and Templesmith’s art are full of tiny details which warrant repeated readings to get a fuller picture – and that’s only with the first issue.

“We did discuss that, because we’re pricing this as a four dollar book, which means that we can hopefully pay our rent, while doing it,” Ben admits. “I realized ‘This is a lot of work,’ because each page has about six panels, and there’s maybe one splash page. It’s a relatively dense book, and it’s not like we’re giving you a decompressed book. We wanted to give you your money’s worth.”

Still a relative newcomer to writing comics, Choker is McCool’s first creator-owned work (he just recently had a story in a Superman anthology special). According to Templesmith, McCool’s script format is much like frequent collaborator Warren Ellis.

“He doesn’t dictate the shot to me. He tells me how many panels, and what happens in each. I need the dialogue because it leads to expressions, and leads the story. A director is not going to film a scene if he doesn’t know what the dialogue is; they’re not making it up as they go. (well, unless it’s improv really, ) I’ve only done one book with the ‘Marvel Method’ I think you’d call it… that had a loose plot and, to me, that’s not really someone being a writer, that’s just a vague notion of writing or plotting. I have to then do the real work, because I have to extrapolate the story and the writer hadn’t given me panel numbers or anything. That was much looser, and was more work for me. It’s something I actually enjoy the most, when I write for myself, but if I have to work with someone, I’d rather a full script, otherwise I would want half a writer’s credit for that because of the nature of the work! I’d probably never be able to work with someone like Alan Moore, either, where he dictates exactly what is on the page, because it’s no fun for me. He’s so precise with what he wants, my role would be very limited.

“That’s a long way of saying ‘Ben McCool was interestingly cool to work with.’ The storytelling aspect and writing is divided.”

A little known project of Ben’s that didn’t get much notice two years ago was The Presidents of the United States, an art book with portraits of all the Presidents, accompanied by historical notes on the facing page. When it comes up, Ben’s love of history betrays itself, as does his admittedly and jokingly being “an opinionated bastard”.

“The Founding Fathers are an unknown religion,” Ben comments. “Not to me, but there are people that religiously believe in the founding fathers, or at least, in the caricatured, fantastical versions they’ve created for them. Constitutionalists. They think the Constitution is nothing connected to change, because it was perfect then. I wonder what they’d think of the Founding Father Funnies: probably that they’re not that funny at all. They were serious blokes, open to debate and change. They’d probably weep if they knew there were people now who thought their old work should be set in stone and never modernized. American democracy is incredibly archaic in many ways. Extremely inefficient and undemocratic I’d say. Tradition is big here.”

Thomas Jefferson’s “banging his slaves” even comes up next, and Ben extrapolates:

“He did that, and he was quite anti-religion. All that supernatural crap in the Bible? He took that out, and they call it the Jeffersonian Bible I think. He was very progressive at the time, and I’m just fascinated that there are all of these Constitutionalists who’ll go ‘All the Founding Fathers were heavy Christians’.

“The sad thing is that a lot of people still think that Benjamin Franklin was a President, but they don’t know that John Adams was a President. That was getting back to research on your money, and how many Presidents were on the notes. ‘Ben Franklin’s on the 100, so he’s a President!’ It annoys me, because I like history and I know history. Can you tell I’m frustrated?”

Growing up in Australia, Ben learned the basics of American history in school (read: the war with England), in a country younger than the U.S.A.

“We came after you, since after you rebelled, the Brits needed a new place to send convicts, so that’s why we don’t have much of a history,” he says. “We were boring: we just got together at a big convention and said ‘Let’s become a country now.’ They called a lawyer from New Zealand but he missed the fun because he was sick that day of the con and they didn’t become part of us, and stayed their own.

“It was about a hundred years since we actually become a nation, but we’re about two hundred years old as a bunch of colonies.”

Ben rags on the stereotypes of his home country:

“One of the stereotypes that Americans say is ‘Your country was founded by criminals.’ No it wasn’t: it was founded by the jailers,” he points out. “You guys were founded by people that had to leave Britain because they were so insane; they were kicked out for a reason, that they were Puritans. Religious extremists everyone else was happy to see the back of in the end. They proceeded to ‘burn witches’ in America, and hate people for having sex and stuff like that. All sorts of fun.

“And now you guys are the biggest porn exporter in the world, and guns; it’s an important dichotomy you guys have. And, you are also the most criminal country in the world. More people under lock and key, percentage wise, than any other country. Two million of you are locked up! You know that, right? A bunch of deviants, you are, a bunch of sick criminals. And yet I still love you.”

Part of showing his love to Americans (flawed and dysfunctional lot we be), is by making frequent convention appearances or, even, on his signing tour for Choker.

“I get a lot of questions at cons, a lot that make you think, but it’s nice to be able to tell other people your perspective, because they ask,” Ben points out. “People think I’m a horribly opinionated person, but I’m just a foreigner living here who likes history and knows a bit, comes from a place things are done differently and likes talking to people about where they’re from.”

“All of my opinions, especially on dissection of Australia and America, come from questions I get at comic conventions,” he continues. “I get to talk about a lot of it, and I’d never thought about a lot of this stuff until I was asked about it. I also cop a lot of shit for the general American idea of what an Australian is. They all think I sound English, but I at least sound like the newsreader in Australia: a little English, but not really.”

Let’s get it out of the way: Templesmith made his first waves as the artist on vampire comic turned movie 30 Days of Night in 2002. The Ben Templesmith of eight years ago is not the Ben Templesmith of today: the Ben of today has come a long ways.

“I try as hard as I can now to not be perceived as ‘The 30 Days of Night Guy’,” Ben confesses. “Some people would be happy to have something linked to their name until they die, and you probably can’t help that if it’s your one big success. I don’t want to be known just for that, and I was. Not now at all, but I was.
“I’ve been working to broaden my horizons and do some other work. Luckily, I worked with Warren on Fell and it did great, so I’m known for Fell. I’m hopefully coming up with my own voice, and it’s one of the reasons I’m talking to you now. I want to be known for the work I do, and mature into a career, rather than what I did that was made into a movie. The movie got me a career, and helped with name recognition, but you make your own luck.”

Ben’s 30 Days partner, Steve Niles, has continued to strip mine 30 Days, and has emerged as a successful horror comics writer. Most recently, Niles wrote a short Spectre animated cartoon for DC Entertainment.

“I don’t know what Niles’ perspective is,” Ben adds. “He’s definitely lived a lot off of 30 Days, but I don’t necessarily know if he’s gone very much beyond that. I don’t follow his career much anymore. He’s still very much a horror guy, that much is obvious and he loves horror and that’s what he knows. I like horror, too, but in a slightly different way and have other interests too. I want to be pretty eclectic. In a very broad way, I’m trying to do that.”

The conversation turns to artists known for one out of dozens of books they’ve drawn (Gil Kane on Green Lantern is the first thought), or washed-up child actors like Gary Coleman.

“I see it a lot (not myself) with washed-up child actors,” Ben says. I actually shared a house with one in Australia….Still at the same time, you want to be known more for what you did way back then. It’s like Gary Coleman, now he’s a parody in many ways. Or Shatner, as well. He’s a character and he’s taken it upon himself to take that and have fun with it, to take the piss out of it.”

Templesmith put the vampire project to rest some time back: not just from his subsequent projects (particularly Fell and Wormwood…more on those later), but also on a personal level.

“I’d hate to be the bitter guy in the corner saying ‘I wish people would stop talking about 30 Days of Night,’” Ben says. “It’s one of the biggest hits of the time, but I constantly want to leave it, as well. I thought they ended up flogging a dead horse with endless mini-series. I was only there for the core concept, which is why I wanted to do it. So I’m proud of my instincts on the book. At the same time, was ready long ago to move on and challenge myself anew. I’ve visited Barrow now, to say a final farewell to that period of my life, on the shores of the Arctic Ocean.”

But for a minute, and for the sake of completeness on Mr. Ben Templesmith, let’s look at the road to 30 Days of Night, starting with a Spawn spin-off, and an emergent comic book company.

Ben’s first professional comics gig was with Hellspawn, for Todd McFarlane (though Ben credits art director Brent Ashe in procuring the job, with an “I owe him muchly.”).

“I didn’t deal with [McFarlane] directly most of the time, but with an editor; he’s not in comics anymore, and I can’t remember his name right now, but he was very hands-off,” Ben remembers. “Niles was the writer, and Bendis had already left. I came on, and there were large gaps between approvals on Hellspawn, so we worked up a pitch for a new book, which was 30 Days of Night. That’s when IDW wanted to do it and, because of that, I have a career.

Hellspawn was first, though, and I hung on to that book as long as I could. I was getting the hurry up from certain people who wanted to do other books elsewhere, because 30 Days was blowing up, but I tried to hang on and be loyal. But, at the end of the day, I thought the book was dead anyway. I actually got flak for that from Greg Capullo. He wrote a public letter and got out there and very angry at me for ditching the book, apparently, with no notice, when I should’ve given two weeks’ notice? I was a freelancer on a book that wasn’t happening for three months or more. The catalyst was that the one editor contact I had at the company was let go. I went ‘Great, I don’t know anyone now, and the book seems dead, so I’ll move on to the other stuff that people are telling me I need to do.’ I made my apologies, explained I was going to leave the book too, as the writer had previously left, now the editor was gone and I needed to start on books that were going to actually get out there. That’s the only real controversy I’ve ever had in my career, comics wise, with Greg apparently disagreeing with me departing the book there.

“We made up, but it wasn’t explained exactly that ‘No, there was no problem.’ I was a youngin’ then. Now I can actually articulate a position and have an actual spine so I’d put up with less flak from the angry ranting types.”

And then came 30 Days of Night, the horror mini-series that led into a feature film produced by Sam Raimi. The pair’s comic was the first for IDW, and launched them into becoming one of the major contenders in the present-day comic book industry.

“Before that, they were mostly creative services, and had done an art book with Ashley Wood,” Ben points out. “They fell into doing comics I guess. I had a conversation with the President the other day, and he said ‘I never, never set out to be a comics publisher. It happened that we just fell into it.’ He’s in charge of one of the larger comic book publishers now. Ted’s a smart guy. I’ve learned a lot from him and how he approaches the business model.”

Where Ben has grown exponentially as an artist and full-on cartoonist since then, IDW has also matured in leaps and bounds.

“They’ve gotten bigger, and I mean that in more of a sense of what people see. They started out as a bunch of guys who were friends and had a minimal staff. They put in some hard work and they’ve gone now to being owned by a large venture capital corporation, or something like that, called IDT, who are technically the owners of IDW. (Though I just read there’s been a new corporate shuffle and now IDW is owned by some other shell company or some such ) Two of the founders are still there, which is why I’m still there, but they’re a much larger organization now. They’ve brought in more people and have middle management, and the bells and whistles like new payment systems – all the stuff a big company will get – versus where I grew up with them during the first five years or so. They’ve hit the big time now.

“I want to stress I’m not talking crap about them: that is the reality of any company that does well and gets bought out, but then has to make things work in a larger organizational structure. I wasn’t criticizing that, but it does change the character of the company and you have to start dealing with people differently. How I would work with IDW would always be different than how I would work with a publisher that’s just two guys working out of a basement, or a large corporation like Marvel. Comics is a very person-oriented business, and more about relationships with editors and such.

“Companies that have good relationships with their creators (whether they’re work for hire or not) can make some good comics. Editors are key, especially when you’re dealing with a corporate IP where they’re the gatekeepers who keep Superman from suddenly becoming gay or something. There’s big money at stake so no one can go crazy and twist up a brand like that on a whim!”

Ben hit his stride as a writer/artist with his smart-ass supernatural character Wormwood: Gentleman Corpse, first as a series in LOFI Magazine in 2004, and then in the form of trade paperbacks and mini-series through IDW in ’06. Wormwood is, literally, a worm that possesses corpses that hangs out in a strip club run by Medusa, who happens to also guard an interdimensional gate. Accompanied by Wormwood is his robot ally Pendulum (built as an eunuch), supernatural hottie Phoebe, and the ineffective ghost of a dead police detective. Wormwood doesn’t go after monsters: they just have a nasty habit of finding him.

It’s as if Mr. Mind from Captain Marvel was mashed up with Douglas Adams, old Doctor Who, and given an overlapping coat of steampunk.

“One of my earliest influences was that I grew up watching Doctor Who, and reading The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” Ben reflects. “Tom Baker was the big [Doctor] because he did the most episodes (and Douglas Adams wrote some of those). Tom Baker, probably, and then more recently the new one, Tennant, who is the next best for me in many ways. It’s not so much the writing of Russell T. Davies, but it rekindled the magic that brought me back to the old Doctor Who.

Wormwood is all about having fun as much as anything, and I also like to take the piss out of the whole monster hunter genre if I can. One of the reasons I didn’t want to do another book like Cal McDonald, was that it was very generic in that it was a guy who chases monsters. Even if it was really well written, I couldn’t have done it. I wanted to make it even more different and add my particularly quirky voice to it...and lampoon much of what others try to do legitimately!”

Wormwood features weird alien babies, naughty leprechauns (including leprechaun fighting matches), and four Horsemen of the Apocalypse who are fine—so long as they’ve got plenty of hookers, cocaine and pizza. It’s a far cry from straight up monster hunter Cal McDonald, who he drew in the Niles-penned miniseries Criminal Macabre in 2003:

“I wanted Wormwood to be the anti-monster hunter: he’d rather sit in a pub and drink a beer, but the trouble finds him instead of him having some goal. He doesn’t say ‘I’m going to save them’ or some such shit—there was one issue where he stops the Apocalypse by making a couple of phone calls, but gets annoyed when he doesn’t get the appreciation, so he goes ‘You don’t know what I just did!’ Constantine kind of does that a bit, and I don’t know about Cal McDonald, but I wanted to take that ‘Fuck you’ approach to it, because I don’t want to take it seriously.

“I was called an anarchist for stuff like that last night,” he adds as an aside. “I forget who it was, but I’m definitely not an anarchist, politically, but maybe with my writing I am. My brain works in mysterious ways.”

Wormwood couldn’t work if not for Ben’s anarchistic writing tendencies, that daring to throw things to the wall and see if they stick, marrying the macabre with the absurd and creating a comic so wrong it comes right around to being right

“I wanted to get the tone of Black Adder, with the characters always going and talking about how they do things,” Ben states. “Wormwood grows organically. It’s the only book that I have, that I also wrote, that’s in the fifth printing now. The book hasn’t been out for a couple years, and more people are dressing up as characters from Wormwood at conventions, and nobody is dressing up as characters from the other books I’ve done. Not really 30 Days of Night, and that had a freakin’ movie.

“Will I come back to Wormwood more? I’d love to and will early next year. It’ll be interesting to see if the apparent groundswell of growth in the TPB’s comes through with a new miniseries. I think it will.”

Templesmith’s art is deceivingly layered and intricate, his loose linework placing a focus on his sense of design, while graytones are merged with transparent layers. Add burning and dodging, to give a glowing effect that draws the eye across panels and pages, and you have a very distinctive visual experience. The process is a marriage between traditional pen and ink techniques and modern-day Photoshop.

“I probably do more work that should be noted, honestly,” he admits. “I say that, because I get asked all the time at conventions ‘How do you do your work? How much do you do on computer? Do you do most of it on computer?’

“No, I do more work, probably, than most ‘traditional’ artists do in real life. I work on tonal paper, I do pencils, inks, then I do tones, and white highlights, as well. Sometimes I’ll literally paint with white acrylic and then I scan it in and add color. I probably do half as much again as most artists who just use black and white pen and ink.”
“It was a big thing when people started reading Fell and went ‘Oh, I like this, this is different,’ and I got some new fans from that,” Ben says of his collaboration with writer Warren Ellis. “I’m trying to get these people that have these bullshit perceptions of me in their brain about the work that’s been the same when you were younger. Fell made a big splash, otherwise they wouldn’t have known.”

Fell follows the trials and tribulations of Detective Richard Fell, a blond plainclothes detective just transferred to the hellish city of Snowtown, banished there from his last home across the bridge. Ellis, recognizing the rising cover prices of non-accessible single issue comics, recruited Templesmith on Fell, a series of self-contained issues that join up to form an over arcing longer story. By keeping the page count to sixteen per story, they manage to keep the cover price to $2 an issue.

“Warren Ellis…was the entire reason I wanted to do the book,” Ben admits. “One of the reasons he wanted to do the book was to get out to the broader masses in a cheaper way. I love that Warren is a vocal thinker about such things. I wish more were…I look to him opinion-wise; I think he’s a very smart guy, and he got me thinking about comics in general, outside of the practicalities of doing a single book…

“He’s had an influence in comics. He’s recognized other creators and helped them get their careers going. He’s had the makings of various people’s comic careers, and has talked them up and help promote them, or put them in touch with editors…This is not to their detriment, because they’re talented people, but Matt Fraction, and Mark Millar (who followed him on other books, like The Authority) and many others I forget. He’s also broken in a lot of artists, as well, who have become huge or more popular than me. The world would be a very different place without Warren Ellis, a poorer, much less dirty and funny one…and now he really is hitting the big time, which is fantastic.”

Templesmith’s style is dark in its sodium and neon-lit hellish brightness, his coloring cranked up a notch to amplify the oppressive mood of the Fell stories. Fell solves his first murder case: his next-door neighbor; he deals with a crazed suicide bomber in an old woman’s thrift store—through all of the grisly and disturbing cases in Fell’s new Hell, the fallen detective finds he sometimes has to let himself fall a bit further down in Snowtown to be able to rise above his prior defeats.

“Warren Ellis [is] my favorite writer to work with, honestly,” Ben says. “His scripts are (for what we were doing, anyway) very dialogue-heavy; I’ve seen scripts where he had all the dialogue down and then chopped it down to the various panels, and in the panel, he’ll tell me ‘This guy needs to do this, make it work.’ At one point, he gave me a five-page interrogation scene, and I had to make that interesting with a nine-panel grid, for five pages. It makes you think about how you have to do a different shot each time, or it gets very boring.”

While Fell started in 2006, only nine issues have come out to date. One of the main reasons is because Ellis had a computer crash that wiped out future Fell scripts. The writer is apparently in the process of bringing Fell back together for a return in the near future, and Templesmith will be back with it.

“I’ll always make time for more Fell,” Ben smiles.

“We are very much slaves to fans’ perceptions, and it’s all about breaking those perceptions or molding them to the way it makes you happy, and not bitter. Bitter is never good.”

“Niles has done books for just about any publisher under the sun who will publish him, and I don’t understand, because I think that dilutes your brand a bit,” Ben says on his career. “It’s also smart not to tie yourself too much with one publisher though. I also love Image. They published my first book, and also published the other big book I did (which was Fell), and they’re now publishing Choker. I have a great relationship with them and they’re very supportive. I’m a rather aware person, and I’m always conscious of the deals I do now, and I want ownership and control as a creator, first and foremost. A creator having success off their own work first and foremost is what I strongly believe in. I don’t want to be the guys who created Superman, or end up like Kirby. Not that I’ll ever create a new Harry Potter etc! But you know what I mean?”

Ben Templesmith has had a great ride of a career so far, successfully adapting a distinctive style into various genres and approaches: be it the crazy darkness of Wormwood, the atmosphere of Fell, or the neon-lit grime of Choker. And, with the emerging digital venue of comics, he has more up his sleeve.

“Maybe a couple of art books, some comics, and the emerging digital thing more,” he says of his future plans. “Maybe not so much adapting comics but wanting to get involved with the more digital side of things. I’d honestly like to get my hands dirty in an organizational sense, and not just as a producer of content. Why can’t I be the ground floor guy, and why can’t I be something part of some larger thing? I love it when creative people like Jim Lee can become publisher and push creatives into new things…after all, I have the creators interests at heart, more than a simple management type who’s never been there, done that. Not every creative person has a business mind at all, I know that, but I can try.

“You’ve got to start thinking of these things when you hit middle age,” he says with a laugh.

Learn more about Ben Templesmith at Templesmith.com.