Ben Templesmith – A Wonderfully Horrific Career

Wed, May 2nd, 2007 at 12:00am PDT

Comic Books
Alex Dueben, Staff Writer

"Wormwood" vol. 1

Ben Templesmith shot to fame illustrating "30 Days of Night" and hasn't slowed down since. There have been two sequels with Steve Niles ("Dark Days" and "Return to Barrow"), "Hatter M" written by Frank Beddor and Liz Cavalier, and "Fell" written by Warren Ellis, to name just the highest profile titles.

Last year saw the debut of "Wormwood," an ongoing from IDW that Templesmith is also writing. The story of a sentient maggot, his clockwork apprentice and other assorted characters who make Hellboy's B.P.R.D. team look like the Hardy Boys. It's dark, twisted and funny as anything.

CBR News spoke with Templesmith recently about the first trade collection of "Wormwood" in stores now and the many projects he's working on this week.

First question, and probably the obvious opening question: Where did the sentient maggot come from?

An unnamed hellish dimension. Most dimensions are quite hellish actually. Just like the earth is rather unique in this part of the galaxy (as far as our limited knowledge knows) the same is true for our actual dimension itself.

Allright, then the next questions has to be where did the idea of a sentient maggot come from and how did it evolve into this character and this story?

No idea to be honest. If people knew where their ideas actually came from I guess they'd go there a lot more often. I can't claim drugs or life experiences had much of a hand in this particular case, so put it down to the depths of my rather small brain.

Page from " Conluvio:

The Art of Ben Templesmith" Vol. 2

Apart from that, the evolution of the whole thing and how it came together was a snap decision and a little trial by fire, when I had to rapidly come up with the first tale that ever made it to print because "LOFI" magazine (which now sadly is no longer with us) had some extra pages in their current issue, back in 2004 (I think?) and I figured then was as good a time as any to start getting "Wormwood" out there. I also, foolishly, thought it'd establish the name "Wormwood" more as the name for the whole property, before Avatar decided to put out a book with a very similar name at the exact same time my first collection, the "Taster" came out. Life is strange that way, but then my life is a series of coincidences and chance happenings!

You've spoken about how you created the character about a decade ago, but what brought you back to the character and how has the idea changed? How have you approached the idea differently today compared to the pages you produced back in the nineties?

Well, I never actually got into comics just wanting to be an artist (though my true love is drawing and writing isn't something I'd do for anyone but myself really.) I wanted to do my own creations. Not that I have that many with ambitions to get published, but I have a few, and that was the overriding intention. I've been lucky enough to get the chance.

"Wormwood" issue #1, pages 1 and 2
"Wormwood" was basically the one creation I was constantly revising ever since I started. I never wanted to really do anything with him until I was supremely confident really, but the time came and thanks to the late "LOFI" magzine folks, I was asked at the last minute to come up with some pages to fill a gap in their book, so I figured it was a good time, and ironically, a good start to "branding" the name "Wormwood" for my comic as a bit of a known quantity as such in 2002. Little did I know how strangely it would turn out that such a similar named book would also get put out when the first IDW issue was published.

Sigh.

As for how he's changed, some of my earlier renditions of Wormy are in the back of issue #5. It all really stemmed from me wanting to draw a walking talking corpse, skulls and general dead things. And cigarettes. I don't smoke, but I like to draw them for some reason.

"Wormwood" issue #1, pages 3 and 4
Drawing cigarettes is better for your health, anyway. Was there a book/film/comic/painting/whatever that really influenced the feel and the tone you were trying to give to the book? One critic called it "Hellboy" as a sitcom, but it stands out and is fairly unique.

I've never heard the "Hellboy" comment, though that's kinda cool. The only real negative comments I've actually heard are that the book is generic and unoriginal. So I'd love to know the book those people are reading! The other 95% I hear feedback from say the exact opposite. Weird. Pretty much my only real influence for it is my sense of humour and the fact I grew up with "Doctor Who." "Doctor Who" is what got me into everything fantastical. It's definitely, at least to me, a bit of a riff on that.

As a side, I could also say that having the chance to work with the wonderful Mr. Ellis, my lord and master, has helped, too. Not really on the subject as such, but in how I actually write.

Do you think the reason you and Warren work so well together is that you both have an affinity for alcoholic Brits who smoke?

"Wormwood" issue #1, page 5
Well, I'm Australian, so there's the drinking and I already admitted my love for drawing people smoking a little -- and skulls too -- but being Aussie, I basically grew up with British culture, too. Their comedy and satire are what most Aussies know, though now we're also fed a staple diet of things like "Friends" and other American humour on the TV now. (Yes, we got TV a few years back). Though it's wrong to characterize American humour as all the same, too, since of course there's guys like Bill Hicks and some great stuff from Adult Awim, etc., now . But I didn't grow up with any of that, which is a damn shame. Anyways I'm a Brit comedy lover 'til I die.

How do you approach writing the book and then illustrating it?

A bare bones plot, then I just try and write conversationally. Then I break it up via layouts and then go ahead and draw it. I refuse to write except with a real pen on real paper though. It's become my little tradition for my own stuff. I only do up a script in a passable format at the end to give the letterer.

Is there a master arc, do you have this lengthy story in your head?

"Conluvio:

The Art of Ben Templesmith" Vol. 2

It was really only planned as a series of stories. Sure, they'd sequentially follow on from each other, but since sales on the book are so stable -- really, they've been going up slightly -- I figure the only thing holding me back from some over-arching story are my own ambitions for how long I want to go. I have ideas and may start working them in. I'd say by issue #10 there'll be a sense of something bigger since the trick with Wormwood is to allude to so much else, but never explain any of it. There are plenty of things coming where I want to explain a lot more about the side characters and a bit of his past. I have enough material for quite a while longer yet before I have to ultimately figure out a real official ending. (Though I do know what that'll ultimately be).

The names -- Wormwood, Trotsky, Medusa, Mr. Pendulum -- do you write down names to use in the future or do you make them up as you go along?

Mostly they just come to me when they come to me as I brainstorm. I've only recently taken to using a journal for whenever I have random useful thoughts, but all the names thus far I've just made up as I go along. It's pretty easy to do really when you have a love of history and mythology. Medusa, Trotsky, Wormwood, they all came from there, and Mr. Pendulum, being made from a grandfather clock pretty much wrote himself.

Page from "Conluvio:

The Art of Ben Templesmith" Vol. 2

Are you a Lovecraft fan or is it just fun to draw squid-headed creatures?

Lover of squid-heads who's now working his way back to some source material.

So, you have an incredibly hot tattooed redhead in the book, but you seem to hate the Irish (or at least those damn leprechauns, which I can't entirely blame you for), why?

I don't hate the Irish actually, I love them! The Leprechauns started out as a brief quirky thing for one of the supporting characters, but have since taken a life of their own due to a brainstorming session where the wife and I were able to plan out a whole story just involving them. It was one I couldn't pass up, especially since the reaction to the leprechaun's first appearance went down so well.

The redhead? Well, she had the name Phoebe Phoenix before the hair, so it just seemed a natural fit. If it makes you feel better, it's a dye job.

With "Fell," you've done a l ot of work drawing in "the grid" which is different from the layouts you tend to create in your own books, do you find it a challenge, an annoyance?

Page from "Conluvio: The Art of Ben Templesmith" vol. 2

I think grids are fantastic now. They're a structure to work within. In some ways it's liberating, as you don't have to think about coming up with some sort of "interesting" page layout that usually involves arms and legs poking out of panels and things "creatively" splashed every which way across a page. Generally speaking I can't be accused of such things, I guess. I tend to err on the conservative side of page layouts anyway I think. I worry more about telling a story than making a single page look completely whizbang. Though of course, within the art itself, that's a different matter and I know the audience seems to have a love it or hate it attitude to my work. So, err to sum up, I like the grid. With a competent writer, let alone the talents of Ellis or Fraction (on a "30 Days of Night" spinoff tale with an eight panel grid format) to work with, they're quite liberating in many ways as a device. I'd never really want to write for them myself, though. The pacing and conformity breaking aspects require more effort than I think I'm up to just yet. So, I definitely have a newfound appreciation of the guys that do do it.

You always seem to be in the midst of multiple projects. "Wormwood." "Fell." Covers on "Wasteland." Art on "Hatter M." Why always so many different projects at once?

Partly because I work on creator owned stuff for the most part. It doesn't pay as well as a corporate franchise character gig obviously, but I love the satisfaction of "owning" at least part of what I create. Of course I take paying jobs too, though!

The other big reason, at least for the last couple years, is the US dollar is sinking to new depths every day it seems. It's ok when it might go down 5%, but when it goes down 30% or so, and is currently at record lows against the Aussie dollar, I'm more inclined to name it the new US peso! It makes earning a living a little tougher obviously. So you can either try to earn more or do more really. Hopefully the currencies swap around sometime in the next few years, but who knows. It's the business side of things I don't hear about much. I'd imagine the UK based creators have it just as tough, if not more so. Same with the other Euro guys. I don't think anyone outside the US is having a good run these days.

No doubt, but I'm wondering how you keep everything straight in your mind. Do you work on an entire issue of "Wormwood" and then an issue of "Fell" and then a "Wasteland" cover and then an issue of "Hatter M" -- how do you work?

Complete chaos usually. It's not easy. Some things have definite dates, but then other things are more organic and just need to be done when they need to be done, which of course throws everything else out the window. I've never actively said "Sorry, no" to more things than I seem to be right now, but I have to balance the creator owned stuff with the occasional work for hire, to pay rent, and probably work harder now since the dollar is so low.

"30 Days of Night: Red Snow"
On a related topic, is there more "Hatter M" coming and will you be involved with it?

Apparently so! I've been so busy I need to get onto that one.

As in later this year to coincide with the new novel? Will there be a trade of the first series?

No idea about these things yet so I couldn't say.

You spent some time on the set of the film "30 Days of Night" and visited WETA - what was it like, what kind of aesthetic do they seem to be going for?

WETA was fantastic. If I wasn't doing comics, I know what I'd love to be doing. I had the honour to meet Richard Taylor, the main man, as well as a bunch of great guys including Gino who headed up the "30 Days" stuff and Steve who made me an amazing gift and whom I still need to get a few prints sent over as a thank you (Not forgotten Steve, promise!).

I got the standard tour of the facilities as well as a looksee at some other cool stuff that was okayed. I want a life size custom T-Rex skull for 25k. One day, sigh. The whole place is amazing. They even insisted I sign some books and sign the guest book which has a ton of celebs in and officials like the deputy premier of China -- it's amazing the people who've visited. What I remember most is that two of the guys who've played Doctor Who were also in the book, so I had what was, for me, a strange and truly rare fanboy moment.

The whole aesthetic for the vampires and effects that I've seen rings completely true to the book. The visual ideas I put down on paper are pretty much all there. There's quite a few characters I designed that are directly in the film, though I'm not going to say who they are. Several are direct, several more have names I gave characters, but are swapped around, etc.. I have no idea what will make the final cut, of course. WETA have done a stunning job, I think. However it all looks when it's all finished on the screen, I can tell you from seeing the stuff with my own eyes on set it looked good enough already. So, added to what David has planned and with the colourization and such, I think he's really going to capture the feel of the book completely. It's going to be horror. Real horror. The stuff looked like how it was in my head before I drew it. If only I could have drawn it so lifelike on paper.

Test artwork by Ben Templesmith

You're coming to Comic-Con International in San Diego this July as a special guest. Congrats, it's well-deserved. As a special guest do they fly you out, put you up, help you escape the rainy season and all that?

Yep they fly you out and be nice to you. And it's an honour. It really does help, too, since people in Perth have to come further than pretty much anyone else. Even Europe is just across the pond, but Australia and the US have an airline cartel system going, so it's real expensive to fly to either country currently. My only complaint is that cons are in the summer mostly. I hate summer.

Everything I've read about Perth sounds awesome, except it seems to take about a day's worth of flying to get anywhere on Earth.

Perth is on the west coast, and it's sort of the same thing America has, except that the east coast can ignore us since we only have 2 million people over here. We're mostly arid and desert and my state makes Texas look tiny. Even if you make it to Australia, it's another 5 hour flight to get here. We're a city of 1.5 million and we're closer to Singapore than we are our own capitol. To me, since I've lived in both places, Perth feels a lot like San Diego, just with half the people, 90% less of the traffic and with lots of public transport (we got ourselves some hydrogen buses) and no Starbucks. How I miss Starbucks.

Someone comes to you and says they have the greatest vampire story ever, do you listen to the pitch or run away in terror?

I wouldn't run away in terror, but my vampire days are done so I'd say thanks, but no thanks. I'm tied to one property forever and that's fine. It was a great concept. I even have an idea to write a "30 Days of Night" story myself and later this year will have a mini out called "Red Snow," which will probably mark my return to actual real horror comics after quite awhile doing less horrific stuff, but no other vampire stuff for me. It's been done, for me at least. I really have nothing left to give any new vampire concepts. I want to move on after this new mini. (Which is really going to be a little excuse for me to dabble in history, which is where my bigger interest lay.)

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