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 Dracula illustrator Martin Stiff 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’m a writer, designer and illustrator living in London. In my day job, I’m co-director of Amazing15, a design studio specialising in books, magazines, branding and merchandise. We’ve worked on a wide range of diverse projects including Sherlock, Doctor Who and Breaking Bad, and some of our book covers have won awards. On top of all this, for the past few years I’ve been writing and drawing a big award-nominated graphic novel called The Absence which finally saw publication this March from Titan Comics. I’m also married with a couple of kids. Life is busy.
How did you get started in art and illustration?
I don’t think I was ever not in art or illustration. Since I’ve been able to hold a pencil I’ve always enjoyed drawing and even from a young age it was always my intention to somehow make a living out of it. I’m lucky enough to have managed to make that happen. I studied illustration at university, spent a few years working in theatre set design and then kind of ended up as a graphic designer which is where I’ve been for the last decade or so. I’m a massive nerd so to be able to work on books and comics and get paid for it is like some kind of crazy dream come true.
Who are some of your favorite artists and/or illustrators and why? Who or what are some of your influences right now?
I like a wide variety of artists, but I guess primarily my main influences come from comics. Artists like Dave McKean (Arkham Asylum, Cages) had a huge effect on me when I was a teenager and really beginning to ‘learn’ about art. His use of collage and mixed media to tell the story was massively influential. I’ve always been a big fan of the anthology science fiction comic 2000AD, and the range of artists working on it was hugely inspiring. I tend towards artists that have a lot of energy and movement in their work so love people like Jock and Sean Phillips, Duncan Fegredo and Alex Maleev.
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 tend to work in whichever way suits the project. The Absence was 272 pages long and I hand drew all of it in the traditional comic way of working in pencil then going over it in black ink. But then I scanned it all into the computer and mucked about with it in Photoshop so actually I don’t think there’s a single page of the book which exists as a complete page of ‘handmade’ art. For the Penny Dreadful Dracula book I suggested we produce portraits of each of the main characters and I spent some time researching photography and paintings from the Victorian period to try and get a feel of how the subjects sit and look and what environment they’re placed in. Each portrait tries to capture something of the spirit of the character. I roughly doodled each picture to get a general sense of how it’d work, then did a pen and ink drawing which I scanned in to the Mac so I could… well, muck about with it in Photoshop. The pleasure of working digitally is that you can just keep moving stuff around and adding and removing elements until you’re happy with it.
Do you prefer working digitally, traditionally, or both, and how has this influenced your work?
As I say, I like all the ways of working. I like getting my hands dirty with pens and brushes and ink but being able to fix stuff on the computer gives you a fearlessness which is both a convenience (you can correct mistakes) but also a hindrance (it can make you careless). I try and use everything available and make best use of whatever I can.
Could you describe your creative process to us? What helps you be more creative?
Deadline terror makes me creative. I tend to get bored easily, so I work best when I don’t have much time to faff about and worry. I can be inspired by anything. I think it’s just a trick of keeping your eyes and ears open, take in as much stuff as you can and with any luck something will emerge from the soup.
How were you approached by John Logan & Co. to do the gorgeous artwork for Penny Dreadful’s Dracula?
I’ve got a long history with Titan Books (the publishers of the books) – I used to be the books art director there before starting my own company and we’re lucky enough to still do a lot of work with them. Originally they asked us to design the covers to the Penny Dreadful book series but then they also asked for some illustration samples from me. John Logan saw and liked them – especially the photo-montage covers I did for The Absence – and so I was asked to do a couple of sample illustrations for Dracula. We went backwards and forwards a few times – John’s feedback was incredibly supportive and he seemed really keen to see me experiment with ideas and push things as far as I could – and we finally settled on the sort of collagey portrait style.
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?
Nope, they gave me Dracula from the start which made me nervous as how the hell do you find a fresh way of illustrating such an influential and well known book?
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?
Well, without spoiling it for those that haven’t seen the book, I like my Dracula portrait. Some might see it as a cop-out, and It was a total gamble which I felt sure would get knocked back as slightly too arch but everyone seemed to dig it so in it stayed! After that I like the Renfield portrait. That was the first one I did and the one which won over John.
How did you find the inspiration for illustrating Dracula? Did you do any kind of research? Did you know exactly what you wanted?
I’m pretty familiar with the novel (who isn’t) so I knew the characters well enough to get a general sense of what I wanted to say about each. The biggest challenge was finding a quote from each one which neatly sums them up (the illustrations have text collaged into them) but thank heavens for Google.
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?
Originally I tried a few traditional directions which more illustrative of certain scenes but John, quite rightly, was keen to avoid the cliched comic or graphic novel approach and wanted something more esoteric and unusual. Let’s face it, Dracula is one of the most adapted and well known books ever written so to go specifically looking for something new and fresh that hadn’t been done before was going to be a nonstarter. I went in blind and just hoped I’d produce something interesting.
How do you feel about Dracula as a character, both in literature and mythology?
He’s the original, archetypal villain. Mysterious, enigmatic, intelligent, sinister, unstoppable and entirely without mercy. But he’s also flawed and sensitive and even human. It’s not hard to see how the character has been so influential.
Would you say you relate in any way to the character that you were assigned to sketch?
I think the success of any work of art – be it book or film or music – depends on the audience finding something relatable within it and Dracula succeeds on that level many times over. It’s cast is so broad and well realised that it’s impossible not to be drawn into it and emphasise with even the most unpleasant of the characters.
— Martin Stiff (@martinstiff) July 30, 2014
Are you a fan of Bram Stoker’s Dracula or gothic horror in general?
I’ve certainly read all the classics but I’m no expert. My interests tend to be fairly broad. I’ve just finished reading a couple of books about the history of MI6 and life behind the Berlin Wall so now I’m going to enjoy a trashy horror novel.
What do you see as the primary theme of the novel?
That’s a big question. Dracula covers a lot of themes. The Victorian period saw a huge shift from superstition to science and I think the most interesting theme for me is the way it explores that conflict. It’s a theme which remains relevant even today.
What’s your favorite Gothic novel? And, more generally speaking, what’s your favorite book, comic book, or graphic novel?
Like with most of these sorts of things, I don’t really have a ‘favourite’ so much as a whole bunch of books which I like. It really depends on when you ask. Looking along my bookshelves reminds me that I’ve just finished The Ghost Hunters by Neil Spring which I really enjoyed. It’s not a traditional gothic horror but Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy is horrific in all the right ways. I’m a massive Nick Cave fan – both his music and his written work – and And the Ass Saw the Angel is brilliant. Outside of that genre, I’ll read anything really. Particularly anything Dave Eggers writes.
We just have to ask: DC or Marvel?
2000AD. Oh alright, Marvel.
Have you ever worked on any other Victorian era and/or Gothic projects before?
Funnily enough, I co-wrote a stage adaptation of Dracula in the late 90s. For a while I ran a theatre company and we did a site-specific version of the book on the subterranean ruins of a chapter house in South London. Because of the location, the local vicar condemned the show as blasphemous and it made the cover of the local newspaper… and caused record audience numbers. I should probably find the vicar and thank him…
Additionally I’m the cover designer of the Anno Dracula books, a series of alternative vampire history novels by Kim Newman which are brilliant.
Do you have any personal projects you’re working on at the moment?
After finishing The Absence I’m taking a bit of time off but I’m just starting to circle my next book. It’s a sort of horror spy thriller set in 1960s Berlin.
The Absence cover arts
Have you been watching Penny Dreadful? What do you like the most about it? Who’s your favorite character (so far) and why?
Yes! It’s bloody ace. My favourite character (and I’m not just saying this…) is Vanessa. Eva Green just knocks it out of the park. She can flip between bat-shit crazy, sinister and then loveable all in a heartbeat. I also like Sir Malcolm because Timothy Dalton.
Is there an online site where people can look into or buy some of your art?
The Absence is available from Amazon and other good bookshops that *do* pay their taxes. I have a blog about it which I don’t update nearly enough: absencecomic.blogspot.co.uk
Any last words for Penny Dreadful fans who enjoy your work and who bought the book that you illustrated?
Thank you! I hope you like it. Also, a final plug: I’m just about to start designing The Art and Making of Penny Dreadful for Titan. It’s written by the extremely talented and award winning author Sharon Gosling and contains interviews and behind the scenes stuff. I think it’s due out before season two starts in 2015. So if you liked the show, make sure you get the book.
And finally… Do you have anything motivational to say to artists and/or illustrators or students first starting out?
Work hard. Do it for it’s own enjoyment. Don’t expect to get rich. Get to know loads of people and be open minded. Keep going and never give up. And then work harder.
Follow Martin Stiff on Twitter.