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Australian artist Ben Templesmith is perhaps most known to horror fans as the co-creator of the popular vampire series 30 Days of Night, a stylish graphic novel which was adapted in 2007 into a hit movie by Sam Raimi’s Ghost House Pictures. Yet over recent years he has created a body of work that has remained unpredictable, unique and in turn beautiful and horrifying. Born in Perth in 1984, Templesmith’s first break came when he created artwork for the comic series Hellspawn in 2002.
The same year saw him collaborate with writer Steve Niles on 30 Days of Night, initially published as a three-part story until its surprise success resulted in the sequel Dark Days the following year. The comic finally attracted the attention of Ghost House with David Slade, best known for his work on the drama Hard Candy, brought in to direct from a screenplay co-written by Niles. Since its popularity brought Templesmith wider acclaim he has worked on the Wormwood series and an array of comics that include Dead Space and Welcome to Hoxford.
Ben Templesmith talks about his approach to art and the themes that he explores through his work.
Do you feel that directing a movie would be a natural progression for you after years of developing the look of graphic novels?
Maybe. I’m gradually leaning towards having the ambition to tell stories with moving pictures. It’s all storyboarding anyway really. Have had many a debate with some writers who think they are the director, instead of the artist, in comics…and how that translates to film. Definitely, some writers are very visual and are masters at such things; Warren Ellis especially knows what he likes on a page but for me, as an artist, I love making the call on pacing, which shot to chose, etc. Most writers would just be screenwriters, while it’s the blokes who make things work visually with story flow who should direct. So maybe one day. I’d have an awful lot to learn first. I’d want to try my hand at stop motion actually.
Have you ever been hired to create the storyboards for a film, or have you tried to pitch a project to a studio using your artwork?
No, I have not. Almost did several times, but for the work involved, I could just do comics instead for the same. And no, not directly pitched a studio or anything with my artwork, though 30 Days of Night got attention at least fifty per cent (from the mouth of one of the producers who optioned it) because of the pin-ups and art I did that then got shown around, apparently. I have little interest in actually shilling myself to Hollywood that way or using comics as a gateway to that. If it happens, well and good, but I like my niche comic stuff to be just that really.
How is your work influenced by your culture and do you feel that as an artist you are a product of your environment?
I have no idea. I came from a very stable family environment really, yet have a lot of rather sick and dark and hopefully funny thoughts in my head I try to get out onto the paper. I’m the product of what I watched on TV mostly I guess, as it shows through in my ideas and writing I tend to think.
Most artists reference their idols in their work; would you say there is a fine line between paying homage to your influences and plagiarism?
Every artist starts out admiring others and using them to move forward. Most people with a decent eye can tell who’s who though (Though I’ve encountered many a lazy-eyed person who confuses artists with only vaguely similar work, which I find amusing mostly). I’ve been called a hack in the past, but then almost everyone has. Once I got told I ripped off no less than five of the best artists in the business ALL AT ONCE. So…I must be doing something right. Plus, I seem to have made a career of this thing and am often employed directly because of my style. I’m still in a similar vein to some others but apparently I’m known enough to be distinct.
I did get completely plagiarised once though, to the extent I thought I’d had a stroke and done some work I couldn’t remember doing. It was, line by line, exactly how I drew several years ago, as well as completely the same computer technique. It was really quite scary. Professionally, you’d always want to at least be ‘mostly’ distinct…not have another guy who was exactly the same, but mostly I just felt sad because there was zero spark of the other guy’s artistic sensibilities within that work and I knew he had a great style of his own evolving.
But it suddenly devolved into a complete clone of me. I can almost always tell a clone from an original artist though, and fair enough, sometimes a good clone is what’s needed because the original artist moves on and stops producing comics or what not, so why not keep the style alive with some new work? I certainly don’t mind people using me to learn from and supersede me, but if it’s to the point even I am confused if I did my own art or not? Probably not a good thing.
Are you conscious of repeating yourself and do you strive to constantly try new things with each project?
Well, I try. But I have my own sensibilities and people seem to pick my work up based on them and the general tone/ideas in my work. So I do try to keep things closer that way, rather than being completely random from project to project (unless people throw money at me for creative service jobs). It’s all about cultivating an audience and building a back catalogue so if people like one book I’ve done, they can seek out more and know they’ll dig the other books in all likelihood.Sexuality can play a major role in art, with the likes of Clive Barker incorporating themes of S&M into his work. In what ways would you say you explore sex in your art?
I don’t. I don’t write or draw sexual stuff much at all. I don’t have sexuality issues that way I seek to explore. I keep my stuff dirty, in a joke way – not a real sexual way. I do try to draw women the NON comic book way. I loathe fake spherical boobs. I loathe the fake, idealised and cartoony look many give to the female form in comics. I draw ladies I prefer to see. So they’re at least slightly natural, even if I still suck at drawing them.
You created eerie artwork for Caitlin Kittredge’s next novel The Curse of Four. What was the meaning behind the image and how did it represent the story?
He’s a magician type, and the story involves a graveyard and stuff. So I simply made an interesting composition that stuck.
What are the key themes you feel you constantly return to in your work and do do you think these appeal to you so much?
Genital-based humour. Death, lots of blood and the darker side of life but fun at the same time, because we really should laugh more in the dark times. Gallows humour is apparently a bit of an Australian characteristic, at least if you go on war stories. I think it’s healthy. And the way my art is seems to always be moody, which suits horror and just generally darker toned stories, fantastical or not.