I’m doing interviews at http://www.comicmix.com. It’s a real thrill to begin this stuff. Later today, there will be another interview up there as well. However, there are some guidelines on the site that need to be followed; which unfortunately means that sometimes I have to pick and choose the highlights of these interviews. In this case, I find the full conversation interesting. I hope you will do.
In looking for my first topic, I found myself dwelling to Kickstarter. I’m not sure how or why, but the name Ultrasylvania came to the forefront. I was intrigued by the concept: What if Dracula, Frankenstein and other well known monsters were leaders in their own countries? Not to mention the fact that comic itself was a class project and has been for the last three years. Curious, I began to read volume one for free at http://www.ultrasylvania.com and became engrossed in what was a pretty good story.
Ultrasylvania is an alternative take at the turn of the century. This story takes place from two points of time; the present day in the story, and fifty years prior to the events. In the present, Bram Stoker is presented the opportunity to interview King Dracula and his staff to uncover his rise to power for an autobiography. Through Stoker you are introduced to Dracula’s staff, his wives, and find out the truth about his rise to power.
In the past, you meet Emperor Frankenstein coming to the rescue of a damsel in distress, in this case, his future love Ileana. How these two events tie together is what makes the story. Brian Schirmer crafts a story that feels one part game of thrones and another part Parker by Richard Stark as games within games are played on the pages and the payoff I assure you is worth it. If you’ve ever loved and lost, this story is for you.
The art is solid, even if it does take a little getting used to. A variety of artists do the art chores and the change of artist is quite evident. Whole parts of the story are crafted together with theme, mood and style depending on the point in the story. Once you go through the changes enough times, you see that the styles add layers to the overall arc. Readers will not be disappointed.
I had a change to talk to Brian Schrimer and Jeremy Saliba about the project and current kickstarter to finish the series with volume three.
Joshua Pantalleresco: How did Ultrasylvania came to be?
Brian Schrimer: I was traveling in Europe in 2011, making any notes of things that crossed my mind in a little notebook – observations, passing thoughts, ideas. One notion – “What if Dracula had been a world leader?” – stuck with me. I didn’t know what I’d do with it, but it certainly had its hooks in me.
Months later, I was approached by a former student of mine – I teach Writing for Comics and Graphic Novels at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco – who suggested that the school should offer a class that would be built around something I wrote, where students would provide the artwork. Naturally, I laughed at him.
Then, a few days passed and I realized the notion stuck with me. I spoke with Jeremy about it – and about the prospect of building a class around the idea that would become Ultrasylvania. He was on board, followed by the School of Illustration’s director, Chuck Pyle. We were off and running.
JP: Is it a little intimidating using such classic characters?
BS: So many of our key characters – from Dracula and Frankenstein’s Monster to the Invisible Man and the Mummy – have well known legacies. You know what to expect in a story that features any of them. Our challenge was to subvert those expectations. That was part of the fun. It wasn’t intimidating – it was liberating. We’d found a new way to look at these classic characters, despite some of them having been around for 100 years or more.
JP: What were your influences in creating this series?
BS: I put a bit of my love for most everything in there somewhere. Coen Brothers films, ancient Egypt, Shakespeare. Apocalypse Now is in there a few times. Moral and ethical ambiguity abounds. Dracula is a bastard and Victor (our Frankenstein Monster) is very sympathetic – but neither is a hero or villain. I really wanted that to be the case, as it was something I wanted to explore.
JP: Which character in writing or art has surprised you the most?
BS: One of the biggest surprises for me was seeing how the artwork from one volume would influence the story in the next. While I wrote Victor as someone you’d want to root for, it wasn’t until I saw the initial artwork from artists Jonathan Aguillon and Dylan Palmer that I saw his quiet dignity. Likewise, it’s been thrilling to see how different artists will approach the same character. Their respective styles always shine through.
JP: I realize this may be like choosing your children, but if you had to pick one page in the series that is your favorite, what would it be?
BS: I don’t feel I can really answer that question. I tend to have a favorite page or two by each artist – Valerio Fabbretti’s penultimate splash of Dracula and his Brides in Volume One, John Gomes’ 16-panel history of Sophia Frankenstein in Volume Two, many others. Yeah, it is like making Sophie’s Choice – but from over a dozen children.
JP: Is it still a class project to this day? If it is, have you had any comics pros work on the concept? Would you like to?
BS: The class is on indefinite hiatus. After running the course for three consecutive semesters, completing three graphic novels worth of material in 18 months, and all of the subsequent efforts that go into bringing those works to digital and to print – including the Kickstarter for Volume Three that launches Monday – we decided to take a break and to work on other projects.
JP: Why use Bram Stoker in that way? Where did that idea come from?
BS: If memory serves, the base of the idea to make Stoker himself a character came from an early discussion with my Aunt Mary. She and her brother Marty gave me my first introduction to geek culture when I was maybe five, turning me on to old Star Trek and films like the original War of the Worlds. When I’d mentioned that we’d be playing in an alternate history with these classic characters as though they’d really existed, she suggested Stoker could be there as a struggling novelist or reporter of some kind. I took the idea and ran with it, spicing it up by also mixing his character with Robert Redford’s from Three Days of the Condor. And, yes, there’s a bit of Willard from Apocalypse Now in there, too.
JP: Will there be a volume four, or does volume three wrap the story up?
BS: For the time being, Volume Three wraps things up. I keep telling people that we don’t blow up the world, that we don’t kill everyone off. We can go back to it someday if we wish. But, for now, yes, this will be the end of our tale. That said…. One of our planned stretch goals for the Volume Three Kickstarter will be… an interlude of sorts. In a different medium. I don’t really want to say more about that at the moment.
JP:The first story seemed to be about the concept of finding and losing love. Was that an intentional theme?
BS: It was indeed. You’ll find that same theme explored in Volume Two. More to the point, before writing this project I’d come to realize that perhaps the overarching subject in most of my work has been hope. It was never something I set out to do. I just began to recognize it as a throughline, as a pattern. So, I decided to dive into Ultrasylvania with that in the back of my mind, allowing the tale to explore hope in all its permutations – loss of hope, misplaced hope, the hope one feels when richly in love, that last bit of pure hope one has when it seems things are all but lost, and so on.
JP: In crafting this concept, what characters were the biggest surprises to you?
BS: All of the characters surprised me in one way or another. Perhaps the biggest surprises were our B-players, the characters that were not direct offshoots of the classic monsters. Dracula’s right-hand man is an American expat named Redford, who in the writing became not only his king’s conscience, but also the ill-fated lover of Dracula’s daughter. He developed a bit of mystery about him through the creative process – particularly in terms of how old he really is. We address this directly in Volume Three. There’s also Sophia, who becomes our “Bride of Frankenstein”. Her brief appearance at the end of Volume One was meant as a one-off. It wasn’t until I started crafting the story for the next book that I realized I wanted to make her a more significant character, with her own rich history. I don’t want to say too much about her, beyond the fact that her origin – like all of our other “monsters” – is somewhat different from the Bride we all know and love.
JP: What’s coming up in volume three?
BS: Each volume has its own subtitle – Volume One: King Dracula, Volume Two: Emperor Frankenstein…. I had a couple working titles in my head that carried on that would have carried on that theme for Volume Three. But once I’d seen the finished artwork and saw the lettering come together, I realized it needed to be titled Ultrasylvania, Vol. 3: The Book of the Dead. There’s a very distinct reason for this. To my mind, it couldn’t be called anything else. This time out we finally see the origin of Meritaten, the “mummy” of our tale – and it’s a bit disturbing. We also fill in some of the other blanks on Dracula’s side, including how he acquired the third of his three brides. (Hint: There are witches in this world! Hint #2: She’s not one of them.) Also, we finally make it to the US of A – or what would be the US of A, had certain… unpleasantries not occurred. This last part sets the stage for our big finish. You know what else if coming up in Volume Three? Quite possibly the best artwork of the whole damn series. I know this sounds like self-serving hyperbole, but seriously, some of this work is jaw-dropping awesome.
JP: So when does your kickstarter for volume three launch?
BS: We are Kickstarting Volume 3 as of 9am PST this Monday, September 30. We’ve already been spreading the word – via social media, recent cons – and sounds like there’s some anticipation out there – which is fantastic. I suspect October will be flush with campaigns. Here’s hoping we’ve got something that truly stands out in the crowd.
JP: Anything else you’d like to add?
BS: Jeremy and I have been so lucky to work with so many amazing artists on this project. It’s hard to believe they’re still both university students and so damned young! Some of them should absolutely be working in the industry NOW. If Ultrasylvania can be a calling card for us all, then that’s something of which I can feel proud.
You can find and donate to volume three’s kickstarter at: http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/955965154/ultrasylvania-vol-3-the-book-of-the-damned?ref=live ,
the webpage is located at http://www.ultrasylvania.com and the twitter handle conveniently enough is @ultrasylvania. I want to thank Brian and Jeremy for their time. (Update: The kickstarter has been funded. Still, feel free to donate to achieve stretch goals.)