The artist behind 30 Days of Night and the sole creator of the darkly humorous Wormwood: Gentleman Corpse is currently busy documenting mysterious goings-on at the Hoxford secure mental facility. Ben Templesmith’s themes are always sombre, sometimes funny and usually bloody.
The man himself is mild mannered, witty and self-deprecating. So where does all the darkness come from? “Er, yes…” he smiles. “I just get it all out of me.” It is, he suggests, the people drawing stuff along the lines of Mickey Mouse who you really need to watch. “They’re hiding something! Beware of the happy, happy people. They’re complete psychopaths because they internalise it all,” he jokes.OUT OF OZ
Though he now lives in California, it was elsewhere that Ben clinched his first break. “I got my start just by being on comic book message forums and showing off some work,” he recalls. “A couple of talent scouts got in touch and said, ‘Hey, we’ll get you to do some stuff.’” Ben was in Perth, Australia, which he dubs “the world’s most isolated capital city.” It was five hours to the next town – but comic books were his ticket out.
For artists at least, the internet lives up to the hype, presenting a means for stranded talent to come together, building a long-overdue lifeline. “Isolation is not a hindrance any more,” says Ben. He’s living proof that truly remarkable things can happen, regardless of where you live.
“I actually broke into comics twice,” Ben notes, but only one of those early forays ever saw it to print. A project at Vertigo got torpedoed by ‘political editorial problems’ once half the book was done. This could have been a decisive blow so early in his career, but Todd MacFarlane Productions came to the rescue. “I followed after Ashley Wood,” Ben says. “I followed on in his style, doing Hellspawn.” This one did find its way into print, if slightly sporadically.
On that project, Ben teamed up with comic book writing maestro Steve Niles. “We were virtually married for a while,” he quips. Hellspawn was taking some time to get finished, so the pair began comparing notes on possible future projects. “Steve had a lot of other ideas, so he threw a list of pitches at me and I chose one and we showed it to a few publishers in the hope of getting a mini-series.”
Sounds pretty innocuous, doesn’t it? In retrospect, it emerged to be a career-making choice. “I picked 30 Days of Night because it looked pretty cool and it was a vampire story,” he explains. Ben’s love affair with the dark side really paid out on this occasion. IDW Publishing was the only company with enough foresight to pick the story up. “It was probably my first full story to see print, and it became quite a hit I guess, after there were movie options on it.”INDEPENDENCE
The success of 30 Days of Night gave Ben a freedom that most comic book artists only dream of, something he sums up in a nutshell: “It meant I was able to have a career.” The hype grew and the book sold. As a result, Ben developed a strong relationship with IDW and says the company has since given him a free rein to do pretty much whatever he’s wanted.
To be awarded such freedom after only your first full job is pretty incredible.
“The success of 30 Days of Night gave me a name recognition which is pretty unique,” Ben acknowledges. To put this into perspective, the US, a country of perhaps 300 million people, has an active comic book readership of around 300,000. By any standard, this is a niche market. There are other territories of course, notably Europe, but tastes are not universal. For an artist or writer in this genre to become as established as Ben outside of Marvel and DC is almost unheard of.
“I’m one of the only well-known artists never to have done anything for the big two,” points out Ben. “Not that I’d turn down Batman or whatever, but that’s not really on the cards.” The reason for this is perhaps that Ben’s style is too strong –
it might just overwhelm the likes of the Caped Crusader. This, Ben admits, is both a hindrance and a blessing. “People either love my stuff or hate it,” he says. “I get both!” From the lighting to the heavily worked textures and Steadman-esque jauntiness of the drawing, Ben accepts that he is not a typical comic book artist. “But then I’ve never entertained that kind of work,” he adds.
Yet things are changing – Ben believes that the comic book mainstream has been getting a little more dynamic lately. “Marvel for one has been getting bigger editorial type artists to do covers for them,” he says. “They’re trying to break out a little.” But one step at a time, eh? The reluctance of the big two to step into this area creates a healthy breeding ground for independent comics, artists, writers and fans. CAN’T THEY SEE THE PAINT?
Ben explores his world with paint, ink, pencils and pixels. “A lot of people assume that I do everything on a computer,” Ben exclaims, sounding bemused. “It’s strange. I mean, can’t they see the paint?” There’s a lot more going on than just paint, but Ben is still amazed. “I mean, digital brushes are getting really good but I can still tell when something has been done with traditional media,” he insists.
The traditional media in question are watercolour and acrylic on pencil and ink sketches – mainstays of the comic book world. “I scan those in and print them out again to work over them. Then I scan them again and work them up in Photoshop,” says Ben. “You get a bit of cross-pollination that way.” He uses Photoshop to accomplish any tasks that would be difficult or overly time-consuming in paint and ink.
“Probably about 80 per cent of what I do is real-world drawing,” he explains. “But I still use a mouse.” The whole Wacom tablet thing never really caught on with him, but now that he has a Cintiq, that might change. “I would love to paint fully digitally, but probably still using real-world base drawings,” he adds. Something makes you think that losing that connection with the messiness of the analogue world would be a mistake, as so much of Ben’s work is about that messiness. Surely there is a contradiction between this real interpretation and a cleaner, digital description of the world? STORYTELLING
Back when Ben was trying to get work as a regular freelance illustrator, an agent told him he had a masculine style. “She wouldn’t represent me,” he grumbles, with a puzzled tone. “And I was drawing happy things like ponies.”
This must have been a trying moment. It was, in effect, the market talking. But the suggestion that this sent to him was to become something that wasn’t him. Fortuitously, Ben was either unable or unwilling to heed that message. Still, he confesses quite surprisingly: “I don’t think I’m a horror guy. I think I just prefer darker things with an edge. I don’t have to draw actual monsters or anything.”
For Ben, it’s not about the monsters – though they’re there, and frequently freaky – it’s about the full spectrum disturbance. “If you look at my work on Fell, that’s more normal,” he says. “But I try to bring more of an atmosphere or a vibe to it. I guess that’s what drives me.” His desire to convey that sense of impending weirdness has put him behind the typewriter as well as the drawing board. His most recent works are all his own.
Take Wormwood: Gentleman Corpse, for instance. “My crazy story about nothing,” he smiles. “A maggot from Hell. He has an English accent and likes drinking beer.” Wormwood came to Earth because he was bored. “It’s written in a juvenile manner but it’s for mature people.” Three volumes in three years, all on their third reprint – not bad going. “It’s one of the few titles that has taken on a life of its own,” adds its author, cheerfully. And the demand just keeps building. “It makes me feel good that it’s a successful grassroots book.”
Hoxford, his latest solo venture, sounds like it’s going to be amazing. “I just like telling stories,” says Ben. “I don’t entertain thoughts of writing for other people or thinking I’m a ‘real’ writer. I’m just a guy who can form his own ideas and has progressed to the point where he can tell a complete story.” THE TEMPLESMITH MAGIC
Whatever the elements that Ben piles into his work, his magic is that the whole is much greater than the sum of its parts. The images and feelings he conjures up manage to stay with you. Perhaps it’s the choice of colour scheme, the ability to capture character with just a few lines and shapes, and his application of atmosphere, lots of atmosphere. It’s akin to watching a good art-house movie. Perhaps that’s why the French are particularly taken with his work.
Getting a comic published and earning a living from it fulfils two heartfelt ambitions for Ben. Freed from the need to pursue these goals, the future is a blank canvas. “From now on, I just want to have fun and see where it takes me,” he grins.