Penny Dreadful has four main characters based on three Gothic literature: Frankenstein, Dracula and The Picture of Dorian Gray. At San Diego Comic Con 2014, Showtime released three hardcover Special Editions of these books. The books contain original illustrations that were commissioned and oversaw by Penny Dreadful Creator John Logan. Here, we talk to The Picture of Dorian Gray illustrator Ian Bass about his craft, working on the book with John Logan and who is his favorite character on the show.
First of all, tell us a little bit about yourself.
I live and work in London which is the best city in the world. I speak French. I am a total geek, I love comics, cartoons and computer games. I was a geek a very, very long time before it was fashionable…I’m also part of a comedy group called Scales of the Unexpected (we won a TV talent show and everything).
How did you get started in art and illustration?
I have always loved drawing and have done it as a hobby forever. Professionally it was because a friend of mine needed a concept sketch done of how he wanted his book cover to look. It turned out that his editor really liked it and I got the gig to do the cover and some interior illustrations. That cover went on to win an industry award which was a fantastic start and really encouraged me to pursue illustration as a career.
Who are some of your favorite artists and/or illustrators and why? Who or what are some of your influences right now?
I love cartooning and comic books. Cartoonists like T S Sullivant were so influential and so modern in style. I’ve done a fair bit of storyboarding and I am a big fan of sequential art. I am also often really impressed by the art direction on some computer games, for example Wildstar and Darksiders. I really enjoy stylised artwork and anything monstrous no matter the style. I am a big fan of Art Nouveau particularly Alphonse Mucha. I am constantly poring over illustrations to see how they were done. I think it’s really useful to try and understand why some art really appeals to you and some just doesn’t. There is such a long list of artists that I like.
Tell us about the physical process of developing imagery. Do you begin with sketches and then scan them into your computer to be rendered digitally or do you work another way?
I am really old fashioned and stick mostly to pencil and paper, ink and watercolour. My dad’s an engineer and he made a custom built light box for me which is fantastic. Everything these days is sent digitally though so I do scan everything onto computer and often tweak things here and there at that stage.
Ian Bass portrait from The Vesuvius Club Graphic Edition
Do you prefer working digitally, traditionally, or both, and how has this influenced your work?
I am not a total Luddite but I always feel I am behind the curve when it comes to technology. I would love to be better at working on computer, particularly for colour work. I find working traditionally, drawing a physical picture, can be quite meditative and I haven’t managed to capture that feeling working digitally yet.
Could you describe your creative process to us? What helps you be more creative?
My process generally involves lots of thinking about what the client wants, what I would like to draw and how to match the two up. This is followed by many sketches of random stuff and then a flurry of work as the deadline looms. I love deadlines and find they are genuinely an aid to creativity because they focus you on producing something. I enjoy the sense of puzzling out what a client would like to see based on the brief and ending up with something that we’re both happy with.
How were you approached by John Logan & Co. to do the gorgeous artwork for Penny Dreadful’s Frankenstein/The Picture of Dorian Gray/Dracula?
I’m really glad you liked the pics! I think someone at Titan had seen The Vesuvius Club Graphic Edition and mentioned me to John Logan because he was looking for something a bit reminiscent of Edwardian artwork. He had a look at my website and offered me the gig via the very lovely Miranda Jewess who was my contact at Titan Books.
The Picture of Dorian Gray sketch
Were you given the choice between Dracula, The Picture of Dorian Gray and Frankenstein? Or did they commission you a specific book among the three right from the get go?
I didn’t get a choice but I have no problem with that! I had actually never read The Picture of Dorian Gray so was really pleased to have to read it for this project.
Do you have a favorite part or illustration in the book or a sketch inside the book that you could say is the centerpiece of your work in it?
I am a harsh critic of my own work and I think that’s only right. I think I speak for most illustrators (or creative people in general) when I say it is hard to look too fondly on stuff you have done. If you were totally satisfied with everything you did you would have no reason to try and get better. That said I do like the dead bird and the dissolving cadaver, there’s something really appealing to me about the way the acid is falling in rigidly straight lines onto his gnarled face.
The Picture of Dorian Gray Chapter 7 sketch and text
How did you find the inspiration for illustrating Frankenstein/Dracula/The Picture of Dorian Gray? Did you do any kind of research? Did you know exactly what you wanted?
I did a fair bit of internet research into illustration of the period but I know John Logan was after a more modern sensibility to distinguish the Penny Dreadful editions from other versions of these books. His feedback was ultimately what guided me in choosing things to draw. I read the book and picked out passages and quotes I thought would lend themselves to an image (although the dead bird pic came out of doodling in a sketchbook) and made a shortlist of my favourites.
What did you do in order not to repeat previous illustrations of the story? Was there a specific route or point of view that your were directed to do or did you sketched based on your preference?
John Logan wanted to highlight certain themes from the book in the illustration but I had a quite lot of freedom on what to draw which was great. Miranda was also on hand with lots of helpful feedback. The only practical limitation was that the pictures should be spaced equally throughout the book so I didn’t want to make every one be about the final chapter.
The Picture of Dorian Gray Chapter 14 sketch
How do you feel about Dorian Gray as a character? Did you sketch him according to how you felt after you read the novel?
Yes the first sketches I sent for approval were all of Dorian himself. This turned out not to be the direction John was looking for and I think that his ideas were a lot more imaginative. In the first instance I was quite taken with the idea of the character in the illustration peeling back part of the page to reveal something monstrous underneath. I can imagine that if any of us were granted the kind of freedom Dorian’s painting gave him we too would end up wallowing in all kinds of wickedness.
Would you say you relate in any way to the character that you were assigned to sketch?
Well I hope I have my base desires under a bit better control than Dorian does. Hopefully it’s not just the fear of consequences that keeps me in line. And since I have never been devastatingly handsome I’m not sure I can really identify with Dorian before he was painted either!
The Picture of Dorian Gray Chapter 14 sketch with text and color
Are you a fan of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray or gothic horror in general?
Yes, love it. The atmosphere, the gloom and the sense of mystery are all very appealing. The reason these monsters are iconic characters and have such a lasting appeal is that they reflect a part of ourselves. One of the really interesting things is the way that monsters have become more heroic over the years and you now get very sympathetic portrayals of Frankenstein’s monster and vampires become the hero of the story rather than the villain (they even sparkle in the sunshine now).
The Picture of Dorian Gray Chapter 11 sketch with text and color
What do you see as the primary theme of the novel?
I was very drawn to the theme of something beautiful hiding something monstrous and wicked, the idea that there is something festering beneath. There is also the sense of complete abandon that the painting gives Dorian. I think it would be impossible to resist the temptation to indulge in your basest desires if you knew that there would be no consequences! I’m also really intrigued about what it would be like to be immortal and the practical difficulties that would involve.
What’s your favorite Gothic novel? And, more generally speaking, what’s your favorite book, comic book, or graphic novel?
As soon as I start to think about my favourite anything there is a massive list of stuff in my head that I think is awesome and picking out just one becomes impossible. As a kid the authors who had most influence on me were Anne McCaffrey, David Eddings and Frank Herbert. I think if I had to pick out one comic book it would be issue 286 of The Legion of Superheroes which is the first actual US comic I remember getting.
We just have to ask: DC or Marvel?
Being from the UK my introduction to comic books was the UK version of Marvel’s Secret Wars (drawn by the fantastic Mick Zeck) which had John Byrne’s Alpha Flight as a back up strip. I very much grew up on Marvel but my favourite comic book characters of all time are the Legion of Superheroes (when will you bring them back DC?). Superheroes-in-space is just about the best thing ever. I’ve never really felt like I had to choose one company over the other. I am enjoying Marvel’s movies more though…
Have you ever worked on any other Victorian era and/or Gothic projects before?
Not Gothic no, the closest would be the Vesuvius Club stuff which was a lot more Edwardian in style although there were plenty of horror elements in that story.
The Devil in Amber
Do you have any personal projects you’re working on at the moment?
I am working on some children’s books though I am a bit worried I enjoy drawing monsters, cadavers and decay more than fluffy, friendly things! I am also always doodling away at Happy Holidays my seasonal superheroes (mainly because I want to send people pictures at Halloween, Easter and Christmas!).
Gilbert is Dead poster
Have you been watching Penny Dreadful? What do you like the most about it? Who’s your favorite character (so far) and why?
I’ve really enjoyed it! I love the style of the show and the sense of world building. I am a sucker for superhero team ups so watching the group slowly come together is great for me. My favourite character is Vanessa of course. Loved the séance in episode two (loved Helen McCrory in that scene too) and I enjoyed discovering Ethan’s bloody secret.
Is there an online site where people can look into or buy some of your art?
ianbassillustration.co.uk , I do occasionally do commissions so feel free to get in touch.
Any last words for Penny Dreadful fans who enjoy your work and who bought the book that you illustrated?
A huge and heartfelt thanks!
And finally… Do you have anything motivational to say to artists and/or illustrators or students first starting out?
Keep drawing for fun even when it becomes your job. Being creative is good for you!
Thanks for your insights and time Ian! We wish you the best!
Many, many thanks for asking me to take part!