Trevor Hogg chats with Stephan Franck about an original film idea which transformed into a debut graphic novel series and led to the formation of his own comic book publishing company…
“When I was a kid in France, my parents had a store, which sold a whole bunch of stuff including books, newspapers, comic books,” recalls Stephan Franck, a veteran writer/director/animator who has worked on such as films as Despicable Me (2010) and The Iron Giant (1999). “I loved hanging out there. Early on, I got into the European comics, Tintin, Lucky Luke, and a lot of more obscure but awesome detective series like Tif & Tondu. Then when I was around nine or ten, I discovered the American comics; that was in the late 1970s but there was no real rhyme or reason to how those comics were distributed in France, so you would have Bronze Age Jim Aparo Batman and Curt Swan Superman sharing the newsstand with early 1970s Gwen Stacy era Spider-Man, and 1960s Fantastic Four, late 1940s Wayne Boring Superman. The syndicated stuff was also very present, Mandrake, The Phantom, and Tarzan. Thrown in the occasional Gold Key and you’ll get the picture. It was all there readily available, wonderful and all out of time. Now if I was going to pick one name that dominated my imagination at that time, I would say Jack Kirby but really it was everything.”
A turning point occurred at the age of 12. “My mom brought me to the warehouse where she was buying books for the store, and I came back with two volumes of The Spirit – high quality editions, newspaper size, in gorgeous black and white, with one single level of grey,” states Stephan Franck. “I have never seen a classier presentation of the Spirit. I still have those today. Those books became my bible. Then my teenage years were really about the ‘other side’ of US comics Wrightson and Corben, and French sci-fi artists like Moebius, Bilal and Druillet; if you don’t know Druillet its nuts. It’s like Ditko on drugs doing Kirby. By the time I started college, Frank Miller, Mazzuchelli, Bill Sienkiewicz, Chaykin, Alan Moore were having their insane late 1980s run, and those were really defining books for me.” The favourite comic books of his childhood served as a creative cue for Franck when developing his own 12-part graphic novel series. “Take those black and white Spirit books, collide them with Jack Kirby, throw some Steranko in there, and you would find of lot of my inspiration for Silver.”
“Platforms like ComiXology distributing independents have certainly been a game changer,” believes Stephan Franck. “The only criteria is quality, not any sort of editorial pre-conception so it takes the unfortunate creative gate-keeping out of the equation.” Comic book publishing decisions are be affected by whether or not a title has cinematic potential. “Hollywood has been notorious for underestimating the audience’s appetite for wildly imaginative stuff. It’s that whole line of reasoning for turning Galactus into a cloud because, supposedly, a big giant robotic guy would look stupid on film. Then guess what, you see a Pacific Rim  trailer, and you go, ‘You know what, I think a bad ass Galactus would have worked just fine.’ Finally, the Marvel movies are changing that. So for comic book publishers to go backwards and try and auto edit themselves in advance in hopes to make the book more palatable for Hollywood is grossly misguided I feel. To me, the analogy is Green Lantern’s ring. It’s the impurity that makes it work. Remove the strange element, and all you have is a perfect ring that does nothing. You have to keep the weirdness in.” Franck was compelled to address the issue by establishing his own publishing company. “What’s worse is that publishers will also tell you, they’ll put four issues out, and if a studio doesn’t option it by then, they’ll pull the plug. So what? So the end of the story will never get published? I have a commitment to this story and others, and I want to see them out into the world, in their entirety, and in their natural form; that’s the only logic behind Dark Planet Comics. How does it stand out? I happen to believe that originality is not a value that you chase. What you chase is truth, which hopefully will come out in your own voice, and therefore be original because you are you. I’m committed to my stories, and to, hopefully a quality of execution, that I hope people will connect to.”
Currently moviegoers are being treated to the Golden Age of comic book cinema. “The key factor is that people of my generation who actually grew up with, love and understand comics are making the movies now,” observes Stephan Franck. “It’s interesting to note that most of the storylines or the takes on those characters are from the mid/late 1980s graphic novels like Batman Year One. It’s because the people making those movies grew up on those books. Where we go from here? Whatever kids are reading these days will be the movies of twenty years from now.” A recently concluding trilogy gets high marks from Franck. “You have to admit that [Christopher] Nolan’s run on Batman is quite extraordinary. I’m really looking forward to Man of Steel . I also love how unapologetic the new Marvel movies are; it’s literally the books coming to life and general audiences are getting it big time.” Interestingly, Silver was originally conceived as a screenplay. “Movie scripts are of course structured in three acts, but the rule of thumb is also to subdivide them into smaller sections that are about 10 pages each. Each of these sections has their own ebb and flow, and mini climax at the end. Each of those 10-page sections in the script becomes a 30-page chapter/issue in the comic. That gives me 12 issues that have great internal pacing, while they also fit together in the larger structure of the story. As far as the art, Animation makes your drawing streamlined and very direct, but at the same time extremely specific in terms of acting and movement. Here, though, I enjoyed letting go of some of the graphic directness, and had fun adding more illustrative qualities to the art, while trying to keep the specificity.”
“You will see later in the story that some historical events are mentioned, but they do not play an important role,” explains Stephan Franck about the tale which revolves around a swashbuckling conman who orchestrates a silver heist which will put him at deadly odds with the eternal living dead. “You will NOT find out that vampires killed JFK, or cause the great Tunguska blast or anything like that. However, I did do some research on Vampirism in early rural America, and let’s just say that in issue #2, we’ll visit a little town called Exeter, Pennsylvania.” Cinema and literature helped with the development Silver. “On the vampire side only the Bram Stoker one. On the con men side, there’s a great tradition, from The Sting , to The Grifters [my favourite] to even Ocean’s Eleven .” Franck adds, “While keeping the Stoker lore at its core, Silver will be exploring a larger and brand new world of vampires, with it’s own rules and secret history that I hope will be interesting to people. Second, I’m using the vampire world in a way that has more to do with big pulp adventure than anything else, which is a use of the genre that you haven’t seen before. Lastly, there is a take on the vampires’ existential torments that I feel is also its own thing, which is symbolized by their relationship with silver; that too will be coming up soon.”
Silver does not make use of colour. “Those Will Eisner black and white Spirit books were a huge inspiration, and all the black and white B movies I saw as kid captured my imagination,” reveals Stephan Franck. “I thought it would work well with the noir/pulp aspect. And I always thought the zip-a-tone look was cool. As far as layout, my approach is mostly coming from my cinematic background. I approach the comic page the same way that I would storyboard a sequence, no bad cut, no weird jump cut, no crossing the line, controlling your horizons and eye lines, having a sense of what lens is capturing the action. But most importantly, there always has to be a point of view. Whose is it, and what is the panel/shot about?” The title of each chapter stems from the characters, places or objects that dominate storyline. “Exposition in most successful when presented in the context of a well dramatized sequence, high action, character comedy, and interesting disclosure. I try to always introduce a character through his or her own actions, and hopefully in pursuit of some sort of specific goal that the audience can immediately get behind, which itself, might be related to the larger story.” Franck notes, “Well first let me say that I’m really enjoying writing the narration, because that’s something that you tend to limit as much as possible in movies. Here, I have the literary licence to get inside the characters’ head, and add this extra dimension. But you have to be careful, because narration can become annoying fast. So you want to make sure the voice-over doesn’t become redundant or needlessly sarcastic. Ultimately I think it’s just like any other piece of writing. It has to be needed and stick to the truth of the character.”
“Certain personal themes tend to crop up in people’s work,” explains Stephan Franck. “For me, relationship between sons and father figures is one that appears often. “With writing, drawing, acting, or any sort of character creation, you learn the rules, but they have to become second nature, so that the actual work presents itself without too much tricks or premeditation. I would say that ideally, characters really aren’t created, they reveal themselves to you.” New York City in 1931 serves as the setting of the Silver #1. “When I was a kid, we had a TV channel that aired those 1930s and 1940s B-movies I mentioned earlier, late every Friday night. I became fascinated with that period. It felt like a time of technological excitement, but set when the world was still a big place, and still had mystery in it. Pre-Google Earth, if you will. NYC is just a starting point. It will get epic.” At the core of the graphic novel series is how individuals relate to one another. “As the story unfolds, I hope that you will find that the truth in Silver comes from the timeless human drama of it, father and sons, siblings, lovers, and how everyone struggles with issues of purpose, morals, and the elusiveness of feeling alive. I think these character relationships which hopefully also come with a sense of humour are what an audience relates to.”
Drama, romance, humour and action are pivotal ingredients in producing an impactful tale. “Those elements all come out of character,” remarks Stephan Franck. “Commit to characters with clear wants and needs that we can understand and relate to. Throw them at each other, and all those dimensions of story that you’re talking about should reveal themselves with honesty like hidden particles in a particle accelerator. This will start to happen in issue #2 with the introduction of Sledge. Then even more characters come in, running the gamut in terms of tone and emotions at play. Of course, it is a period piece, and there is a lot of visual reference that I research to give it an air of credibility, but historical accuracy is not a goal in itself. I’m throwing a lot of imagination into the mix.” Franck concludes, “I want to thank you for having me, and remind everyone that we’re building Silver and Dark Planet Comics completely independently, so if you like it, don’t be afraid to spread the news. We need all the help we can get!”
Silver artwork, screenplay page, and photograph courtesy of Stephan Franck.
Many thanks to Stephan Franck for taking the time for this interview and read his insights about creating The Smurfs: The Legend of Smurfy Hollow.
Make sure to visit the official website for Dark Planet Comics.
Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer who currently resides in Canada.