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Fanboy Comics Interviews Martin Stiff (‘The Absence’)

The following is an interview with Martin Stiff, writer and illustrator of the comic book series The Absence and co-director of the graphic design studio Amazing 15. In this interview, Fanboy Comics Managing Editor Barbra Dillon chats with Stiff about collecting the single issues of The Absence into a trade paperback through Titan Books, the challenges of taking on both the writing and artistic duties of a project, and how he balances his comic book work (and personal life!) with graphic design.

This interview was conducted on March 7, 2014.

Barbra J. Dillon, Fanboy Comics Managing Editor: Titan Comics will soon be releasing the trade paperback of your comic book series, The Absence. What inspired you to tell this story?

Martin Stiff: Many things, really. The story itself pulled itself together from a variety of sources: books and documentaries about the war; biographies of people like Robert Oppenheimer, John Parsons, and Alan Turing; movies and TV shows – particularly this BBC show called Coast which examines the history of Britain’s coastlines. And, more personal stuff like seaside holidays I’d enjoyed as a kid, and what my grandfather went through as a POW during WWII. All this stuff kind of sat in my brain like a soup, and the story evolved out from that. The desire to tell the story really came as an attempt to do something I had complete creative control over. I work as a designer which, although it’s a lot of fun, invariably means you answer ultimately to clients, and I wanted to create something purely for myself. I’d intended The Absence to be a novel, but after a decade of working on a Mac, I wanted to start drawing again, so I adapted it into a comic.

BD: The Absence was originally released as a self-published series over several years. Do you feel that the collected volume will offer a different reading experience for readers as opposed to those who had the opportunity to read it issue to issue?

MS: Well, it was always intended to be a single book. Each issue is really a chapter of this bigger, epic story. I put it out as individual issues, because I knew it was a way I could keep my interest in it going – if I could get regular feedback as it progressed, it would spur me on. Due to the sheer scale of thing, and the fact I also work full time and have a family including two small kids, it took about five years to complete, so any readers who enjoyed it often had an interminable wait between ‘chapters,’ which I really felt bad about. Throughout the story there’s a lot of jumping around in time, and over its five-year release schedule, it’s probably easy to miss a lot of the subtly and narrative tricks which I tried to put in. I’m a big fan of big, fat graphic novel collections like the Marvel Omnibuses; I find them hugely satisfying and I think having The Absence available to read in one go would be a more fulfilling experience.

BD: As the creator writer and illustrator of the graphic novel, did you find that one aspect of the creative process was more challenging (or more natural) for you?

MS: Jeez, each part of the process had its own challenge. I studied illustration at university but found it hard to draw to begin with. I’d totally lost the muscle memory, and it took ages to get comfortable doing it again after so long. But, I’m not exactly a seasoned writer either, so that presented its own complexities. The whole book was one massive learning curve. They were all equally tricky, but, at the same time, I enjoyed every step of the process. There was nothing more thrilling than finding a really neat way of fitting together separate parts of the plot, and I loved writing the dialogue. But, I also enjoyed the drawing and the lettering, too.

BD: In addition to being a comic book creator, you are also the co-director of the award-winning design studio Amazing 15. Do you find that one line of work prepares you for the other?

MS: Oh definitely. From the simple fact that, as a designer, I need to be able to manage my time and workflow well meant I could handle the various stages of production and find the motivation to continue, to the literal creation of the book. Although The Absence is all drawn by hand, not a single page of the printed book also exists in a physical form. It was all scanned in and tided and messed about with in Photoshop, with bits of collage added and stuff layered over the top or whatever. I try and kid myself that it’s a very old school, handmade comic, but it’s as digital as any other modern comic. It just hides it well.

BD: Are there any upcoming projects on which you are working that you are able to share with our readers?

MS: After The Absence I promised myself (and my long-suffering family!) a bit of a break, but I’ve already got a few things on that I’m playing with. I’m doing a short strip for Zarjaz, the 2000AD fanzine, and I’m planning my “next big (although not as big as The Absence)” graphic novel which will be set during the Cold War in Berlin. It has a weird sort of fantasy slant to it.

BD: Being that we focus on all things “geek” at Fanboy Comics, would you care to geek out with us about your favorite comic books and graphic novels?

MS: I go through phases of what I enjoy really. Growing up I was obsessed with 2000AD, then DC Vertigo, and then, during university, drifted away from comics a bit. I came back again when I discovered what Bendis, Millar, and Ellis were doing at Marvel and Wildstorm and totally fell in love with the superhero genre. But, that got stale and I found myself enjoying catching up on all the Judge Dredd stories I missed out on during the late ’90s and 2000s. Nowadays, I tend to read things like Saga, The Manhattan Projects, and whatnot. I tend to go after writers and artists that I like more than the characters they’re writing. I’ll read anything if Garth Ennis or Brian K. Vaughan are at the helm. Weirdly, despite my career and education in design and illustration, I tend to be driven by interest in the writer more than the artist, but I love the work of Jock, Phillips, and Maleev.

BD: Lastly, what would you like to tell fans who want to learn more about The Absence?

MS: It’s a difficult book to pin down into any one genre. My interests are quite wide ranging, and I think the book reflects that. It’s not horror, it’s not a war comic, it’s not a soap opera, it’s not a science fiction book, it’s not a psychological thriller – but, at the same time, it’s exactly all of those things. It’s a book for someone like me, basically!

Barbra Dillon, Fanbase Press Editor-in-Chief




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