Director’s Commentary: Martin Stiff talk The Absence
Martin Stiff‘s The Absence was one of the more unusual and intriguing self published series to come out of the vibrant UK small press scene in recent years, offering some twisted mysteries in rural locations that put it alongside works like Strangehaven. I was delighted when Titan announced that they were collecting all of The Absence as a hardback edition this spring and thought it was a good excuse to see if Martin might fancy being out latest guest Commentary poster (the feature where we give the space to the creators to talk us through their new work in their own words, in any way they want to). I’m happy to report that Martin did indeed write a Commentary – in fact he’s penned a very detailed and fascinating account about creating the Absence, which I think many of our readers will find fascinating.
However, as he cautions himself, his Commentary also includes a number of potential spoilers, so if you haven’t read all of The Absence yet you should be warned – if you want to avoid potential spoilers, perhaps this is best read after going through the book and treating it as a behind the scenes, making-off feature. It is well worthy of your reading time though and should work as a companion piece to the actual book, which is due from Titan in March. Over to Martin:
At its heart, The Absence is a mystery story, reveling in its slow burn reveals and trickling flow of secrets. The following ‘behind-the-scenes’ commentary is little more than a long list of spoilers for the book, so really, unless you’ve read the graphic novel, I wouldn’t read this first. Basically, what I’m saying is, go and buy the damn book.
The majority of The Absence takes place over the course of a single year, but the narrative continuously flips back decades as we investigate the early lives of the lead characters. Knowing that there was going to be a lot of these flashbacks, I decided to show the occasional date to help the readers orientate themselves. I tried to make them into a bit of a regular feature, like a pause for breath in the flow of the story. They’re always in the middle of the page and the surrounding imagery works around them.
(As it happened, keeping track of the dates quickly became a bloody nuisance, and in an early version of one of the self-published issues I got myself a little confused, repeating a date. The beauty of revisiting pages for the graphic novel is that I was able to go back and fix these minor errors…)
The first date which appears on page one of the story, is August Sixth, Nineteen Forty-Five. It may seem a fairly arbitrary place to start, but it’s actually the date that the US dropped the Atomic bomb on Hiroshima. It happened at 8.15AM, local Japanese time which, for the South Coast of England, was the middle of the night. It’s a date, which represents (for the purpose of this story anyway) the end of the second world war and thus the beginning of our story here.
The Absence – A Novel
As I’ve noted elsewhere previously, I originally intended to write The Absence as a novel. I’d written a few previously (some finished, some…not so finished, all unpublishable), and wanted to try another. I got as far as the prologue, which had Father Jonathan rudely awoken in the middle of the night by a terrible storm, and then switched to adapting the story as a comic. The prose prologue did eventually find its way into the comic – the opening sequence is really the only part of the entire story which has an interior monologue, most of which was cut and pasted from the few paragraphs I’d written. Shown here, for the first time anywhere, is the opening paragraph:
August 6, 1945
God spoke and the window above Father Thomas blew in, scattering black glass across the bedclothes. Startled out of quiet dreams into violence and fury, Thomas arched up and was wrapped within the curtains as they twisted and heaved in sympathy with the angry waves far below the church. Drowning in the heavy, soaking material he fought with a desperate strength until, thrashing, he slid off the cot and crashed to the floor.
‘God spoke.’ Oh dear. One of my intentions for the novel was to have Marwood Clay represent ‘religion’ and Robert Temple ‘science’. Marwood’s Christ-like return from death following persecution, the way he unites the village and repairs their access to the destroyed church… all this was to play against Temple’s world of mathematics and logical reason. Their names sort of reflect the exact opposite of their personalities (if that makes sense). Temple – man of reason and Clay – man of spirit.
Of course, this is utterly pretentious nonsense and, although some of the elements remain, I’m so pleased I dispensed with most of it as the comic progressed.
The Early Art
I did a degree in illustration in the late 90s and became a graphic designer not long after I graduated. Graphic design is done almost solely on a computer and I’d hardly drawn anything in almost a decade so when I started The Absence I was terribly rusty and spent ages finding my feet again. I *think*, over the course of it’s 272 page run, I did eventually find ‘em but some of the earlier pages make me shiver when I look back at them. Wobbly anatomy, weird page structure, over-worked inking… I redrew so many pages in the earlier part of the book that the artwork pile for each issue was coming in at twice the final page count. The Absence took five years, from start to finish and hopefully the art shows a progression of sorts.
I get bored so easily (I still find it surprising I saw The Absence through to it’s conclusion) and I don’t have enough time in my life to spend ages labouring over every panel. I draw fast and loose and if sometimes looks a bit wonky I’ve learnt to live with it.
Whenever I’ve written anything before I always struggle coming up with realistic sounding names so for The Absence I looked at some Parish records of a small south coast town from around the 1880s that I found online. Marwood, Clay, Temple, Burgess,Stabback, Birdwood, Fry, Miller, Winter, Royce… all these names were plucked from the same source.
From the start, even in its original novel format, Marwood was the lead character. It was his story, his mystery we were exploring. The initial idea was that he would rise from hated exile to saviour of the village, becoming it’s figurehead and almost cult-like leader. A lot of this got pared back, especially with the introduction of Temple. Instead I found myself becoming more interested in Temple’s story, and how it linked with Marwood’s – they were almost on opposite dramatic curves, one rising as the other fell. A few people have commented they preferred the story when it was smaller, just Marwood and his predicament in the village and that it had lost its way slightly as the story grew. It had always been my intention to start small and intimate, and gradually increase the drama until, in the final chapter, it was literally ‘universal’ in scale. Marwood’s vilification by the town he grew up in was simply a useful way into the world I wanted to explore.
The slow reveal of Marwood Clay’s face was something which came to me while I was still considering the book as a prose novel and it was the realisation of how much better that would work in a visual medium which compelled me to switch the whole thing to a comic. I’ve had it pointed out to me that Marwood’s wound changes in size throughout the comic, and people have asked if I always had the origin of Marwood since the beginning of the book. I did. How his mouth was destroyed was one of the initial ideas and helped pull together a lot of the story. I put the inconsistency to how it looks down to both the long period of time it took to draw, and my general lack of attention to detail.
So much of the town in The Absence is taken from my childhood memories of family holidays in the UK. Every year we’d brave the awful British summer weather and pitch up at a caravan park somewhere. We’d go for long walks along the coast and explore quaint old villages. This pic is a actually based on a memory I have of a photo of my dad walking down a steep cobbled street.
The comic demanded a lot of picture research from me, both because it’s a period piece (what did a police man’s bicycle look like in the 1940s?) and to help build an authentic looking environment. I bought a few great books on the history of the English country-side and used the old photos to create the town’s look which, given that it’s basically a character within the story, was incredibly important.
I used Google’s (now Trimble’s) free 3D modelling software at work once or twice to create pack shots of books I was designing. I hadn’t used it much and so I never really mastered it (in fact most of my time was spent going, ‘Oh now why has that happened? Don’t move that there, I didn’t – OH FOR GOD’S SAKE’).
I’d read how some artists use it to create a 3D environment that they can immerse themselves in to help ensure their backgrounds and scenes look authentic. I discovered it’s possible to download 3D sculpts created by other people when working on the third chapter. I found a lovely model of a Messerschmitt, which I used as reference for the upended plane on the cliff edge.
To be able to spin the thing around and find the perfect angle was a revelation but I always shied away from actually building my own sculpts because it always seemed so complicated.
But I continued to fiddle with it over the next year or so and with the fifth chapter I was able to create a couple of building interiors.
The Falling Moon Pub Interior…
…and how it looked in the comic.
Edward Temple’s house hallway (I imported a pre-built staircase – actually from the Titanic! – and a chandelier. Both of them were just used as positional reference)…
…and it’s comic equivalent.
They were pretty coarse, very simple and a bit clunky but they enabled me to move around inside the two spaces and find the perfect angle. I did a 2D export, stuck it onto my page layout and basically ‘traced’ the geometric lines. All the detail I then put in by hand afterwards, safe in the knowledge my vanishing points and perspective was pretty much bang on.
I needed a character that the audience could relate to – someone else who didn’t understand Marwood’s plight or reason for exile. The reader would be able to watch the reveal of Marwood’s tragedy through the eyes of this innocent and I created the character of Thomas Birdwood for this purpose.
Writing kids is fun. I have two of them and I love their undisguised exuberance for life. They’re very open with their emotions and make me laugh more than anyone else in the world. I wanted Thomas to have that wide-eyed wonder which could play against Marwood’s cynicism. I think it worked – the editor who proof read the first issue for me commented on how much she’d enjoyed Thomas’ character. So I did what any sane writer would do upon learning they had a character people were endeared to – I decided to kill him.
Before I explained why he’d been exiled, I needed to put Marwood through the wringer. I needed his only friend Thomas to disappear and for him to be considered the culprit. I needed his oldest friend, Helen, to completely disown him. And I needed someone new, a stranger, to enter the village and show Marwood a touch of kindness before stripping it away again.
Temple would be as much of an enigmatic figure as Marwood – but Marwood’s secret was tied into his past, whereas Temple’s was about his future. The danger of two mysterious leads is that people can quickly get pissed off with all the questions with no sense of when they might see any answers. Just ask the creators of Lost.
To ensure this didn’t happen I needed to drip-feed little nuggets of information about each character. With Temple I did it through rumour. I had the characters around Temple speculate on his history. I created his site foreman ‘Pitman’ as soon as I’d decided to dispatch Thomas. Thomas brought a bit of lightness and levity to the story and without him there was a danger it was all going a bit bleak so I brought Pitman in as a bit of a comic foil to play against Temple’s self-importance. Like Thomas he too would be as much in the dark as the reader, but he would approach it with rolling eyes and a muttered swearword. I imagined Pitman as a burly chap similar to TV’s Dick Strawbridge, all mucky overalls, big ‘tashe and flat caps.
Unfortunately, Pitman ended up looking more like this guy:
But anyway, it worked. I had more fun writing Pitman’s pithy put downs of Temple than I did any other character.
Across the 5 years it took to finish The Absence I learnt a lot about how I work best, and by the end I’d developed a process that really helped keep me on schedule.
To ensure the system worked for me, I had to make damn certain I had each chapter planned out carefully before I started in scene-by-scene bullet points. From there I just expanded each of the bullet points.
I’d write a scene, maybe six pages in all, as straight dialogue – like a movie script – without any care or consideration how it was going to break down. This was to attempt to ensure the dialogue flowed smoothly. I find it enormously intrusive breaking away from speech patterns to write panel descriptions.
Once I had the entire scene written as dialogue, I went back and roughly broke it down into panel sized chunks. Usually this would mean rewriting as I went to make sure everything fitted and flowed comfortably. From there I’d do thumbnail doodles of the scene to work out how it was going to look visually.
In thumbnailling the scene I’d often find I’d need to rewrite sequences again, to tighten or expand them. Sometimes this process could go on in circles for a while. Often I’d scrap the entire scene and start from scratch. But once I was happy with the thumbnails, and the script for the scene, I’d start work on the art.
Through thumbnailling the pages so thoroughly, I knew what was needed where and how big each panel would need to be. I’m lucky enough to have access to an A3 printer, so I drew up the panel borders in Indesign and printed them out onto A3 sized drawing paper.
I like a heavy gauge, rough textured paper to draw on – I like how the ink catches on it for that slightly scratchy look. With the ruled up paper on my drawing board, I’d rough out each panel with a 2H pencil. When I was happy with that, I’d move to inks. I use a dip pen for thicker lines and a fine pen for faces and smaller details. I filled the black areas with a brush pen, which gives a nice line as well as being able to produce a good dry brush mark. I’d also use a regular brush and ink for something a bit splattery or a thick chisel marker for a varied texture. Once the page was dry, I’d simply rub out the pencil lines, scan it in and tidy it up in Photoshop. For some reason, I’ve never really felt comfortable drawing in blue line but at the same time the ‘rubbing out’ bit of the the process was by far the most annoying, leading to smudges, creased paper and wrist ache.
With a sequence finished, scanned and tided up, I’d then letter it using Illustrator. Usually at this stage I’d give the dialogue one final polish.
For each sequence, while I had pages up on the drawing board I was writing and thumbnailling the next scene. This meant I kept the whole ball rolling and didn’t get bored doing one particular job since I was spinning plates and keeping all parts of the process rolling at once.
Although much of the smaller plot details evolved during the process of creating the comic, the major bulk of the overall story arc was roughed out from the beginning. I knew, more or less, what would need to happen in each of the six issues to move the story to where I wanted it to be. I’ve always considered writers who claim, ‘oh – well the characters drove the story into entirely unexpected places’ to be pretentious liars. How can your story be at the mercy of the people you’ve created to tell it? But, making The Absence, that’s exactly what happened. Each issue got longer and longer as I found the characters needed more and more room to justify themselves and tell their own story. But maybe I’m just a pretentious liar. Who knows.
With a rough issue plan sorted from the start, I knew issues 4 and 5 would be the big flashback chapters for Marwood and Temple. I’d already developed a flashback style for a couple of panels earlier in the book but it was with these issues I really had to hone the look.
Although I’m a graphic designer and use Photoshop every day, I really wanted The Absence to be a proper old school comic, all hand-drawn on paper. That’s not to say there’s not a lot of Photoshop work in there – almost every page has been tided and neatened and bits of collage added, all on the Mac – but the basic line work on every page is all by hand, in ink, on paper. For the flashback sequences I added another layer in the process. I wanted a grey wash across these pages, to easily separate them from the ‘current day’ sequences. To achieve this, the page was drawn as normal, then the outlines drawn in ink as usual, but then instead of filling in the black areas directly on the page I laid a sheet of tracing paper over the top.
I worked fast with the tracing paper layer, mainly because I wanted the flashbacks to feel even looser than the regular pages but also because it shrunk quickly as soon as the ink was applied so I needed to get it all painted fast. With the two layers finished I scanned both in and overlaid them in Photoshop. I cranked up the contrast and set the top grey area to Multiply and a mid-tone opacity.
It seemed a good idea at the time. Doing almost 100 pages of it soon convinced me otherwise.
I guess there’s probably some people who will dispute my ‘I had it all planned from the beginning’ claim. They’ll say I made it all up as I went along. They’re not entirely wrong – as I’ve said previously, the story certainly grew into new areas. But here’s a thing: I remember seeing a film adaptation of Moby Dick when I was a kid. Not sure which one it was, but the bit which stayed with me was the very end scene, with the seagulls flocking around the dead whale, scavenging at its corpse.
In almost every single panel, where Marwood is outside, and where the angle allows it – you’ll find seagulls in the panel with him. Even if they’re not in another characters panel, they’ll be there with Marwood. And I’d planned that from the beginning, planned it right from the start. Marwood is dead and the seagulls have always known.
The final pile of artwork created for The Absence.