Animator Stephan Franck Turns To Comics With SILVER

Although Stephan Franck's name may not be familiar to you, you've definitely seen his work on screen in movies like The Iron Giant and Despicable Me. Franck, who is continuing to work in animation, has now also turned to comics and the excellent first issue of his series Silver, is available now through Comixology. I spoke to him last week. 

Josh Kopin: Although you've spent most of your professional life working in animation, I know that you have had a long interest in comics; how were you first introduced to the form?

Stephan Franck: When I was a kid in France, my parents had a book store/newsstand/photography store that sold comic books. They had all the European BD, plus the French editions of US comics. The fun thing was there was no real rhyme or reason to how the US comics were distributed, so you had the 30's adventure strips sharing the newsstand with silver and bronze age Marvel, DC, and the occasional Gold Key, in no particular order. It was all laid out there, like moments out of time...

JK: Did that interest transition you into your work in animation?

SF: I've been doing both since as long as I can remember holding a pencil, plus shooting live action epic westerns in my backyard... Then, when I was 13, I saw the movie Heavy Metal, and it seemed like it was possible to combine the two. I spent the rest of my teenage years doing an animated short of Will Eisner's Spirit... I kept doing comics through general art college, but once I hit animation school... animation is what I would call a life project, it takes over everything.

JK: Of your work in television and film, are there one or two projects that you're most proud of?

SF: I am very proud of Smurfs: The Legend Of Sleepy Hollow that I just finished directing. I'm flying back to France tomorrow for the Annecy festival, where we are in official competition in the best TV special category. You have not lived until you've heard Allan Cumming as Gutsy Smurf. Fred Armisen does a great Brainy, and Hank Azaria is a comic genius! Not to mention John Oliver from the Daily Show... So yeah, very proud! Also very proud of my show Corneil & Bernie (Watch My Chops in the UK), and I cannot not mention The Iron Giant.

JK: When you read comics as a kid, did you read Peyo's Smurf work? Do you find that Americans, whose knowledge of the Smurfs was formed primarily from animation, have different things they want or expect out of a story with those characters than a European who grew up with Peyo might?

SF: Yes, I was a huge fan of Smurfs as a kid. My favorite one was one called "The Schtroumphissime." I don't know the official English translation, but it means Supreme Leader Smurf, or something like that [it's available in English as The Smurf King]. Papa goes on a trip and puts one guy in charge, who quickly becomes a dictator, then a Smurfs insurgency/resistance forms, and then they take over, and that doesn't go well either, etc... Pretty insane political commentary... As you mentioned, the US audience primarily knows the Smurfs from the Hanna Barbera series, which was more sitcom-y in nature. You could say that the original books might have featured some hero Smurfs, but played up the uniformity joke a lot, where all the Smurfs look the same--a running gag is that they all call each other "Smurf" and you don't know which one you're looking at. The HB show started down the road of individualizing the Smurfs more.

JK: Do you find that French comics readers and American ones have different expectations about comics as a form? 

SF: I think that things have change a lot in the last 10/15 years or so. The take on US super hero comics has moved away from the historical approach (from golden to iron age), and moving closer to the way the French BD always did scifi/techno thriller. And of course, both have been influenced by Manga at this point. Of course, there is a lot of sex in French comics, which is portrayed in a way that, by any standards, would be considered pornographic. That would be unthinkable in a US comic.

The other big difference is that French comics (or films) have this sort of contrarian streak, which translates into a way of not taking itself completely seriously. In movies, that would be the difference between the 5th Element and Star Wars, for instance. I think that US and global audiences in general buy into a strong commitment to the internal reality of the story. So they appreciate the "French touch" artistically, but it can make them feel like they're not "in on the joke."

JK: Does your love of comics influence your work in other media?

SF: Looking back at my storyboards, there is always a little Kirby, Colan, or Eisner influence in there. Which perplexed a lot of folks in my Disney days... I also have a terrific project called Futuropolis that is in turnaround from Sony Pictures right now, that has a huge comics influence. Hopefully, we can find a good home for it.

JK: Can you describe Silver for me? 

SF: Silver takes place in Bram Stoker's Dracula universe, extended forty years forward into the 1930's.  It is a pulp era mash-up of noir, horror and adventure.  It features James Finnigan, a witty but (figuratively) soulless con man, who suddenly discovers that there exists a secret shadow-world of vampires, and that the coin of that realm is silver. Amazing, ancient, and invaluable silver... Sure enough, Finn sets out to separate the living-dead from their silver. Personality conflicts, emotional entanglements and character comedy abound, as Finnigan assembles the crew of talented but broken misfits needed to pull off the heist of the last ten centuries.  But whether or not he survives his walk through the garden of the truly soulless, one thing is sure--in the process, Finnigan will gain a new perspective of what it means to be truly alive.

JK: How did the idea for Silver arise? 

SF: I had the character of Finnigan. A pulp era master thief/conman type. A somewhat predatory soulless creature. As I was looking for the most challenging environment for him to try to pull a long con in, the idea of vampires presented itself. Also, vampires are TRULY predatory and soulless, so on a thematic level, they felt like a good fit.

JK: What do you feel are the general advantages or disadvantages of both writing and drawing the book, as opposed to taking a more traditional collaborative route?

SF: Movies are a very collaborative medium. Especially animated movies where you literally work with hundreds of people on a single project. A big part of directing is being able to solicit and receive input from that large amount of very generously creative people. Those artists also bring their own skills, some of which you do not possess yourself. Here, I really enjoyed the challenge of being all on my own, only realizing my vision through my own powers of execution.

Of course, a serious limitation is time. I love writing AND drawing, but I have to be honest. It's much less work to write something like "and the entire street explodes" that it is to have to draw it.

JK: I'm curious about some of the artistic choices that you made for Silver's art, particularly the benday dots; there are plenty of other ways to achieve shading with contemporary printing technology, why did you go the more archaic route?

SF: That look, I felt, fits the period well. It reminds me of all those great 30's adventure strips I read as a kid, which I also connect in my mind with the old B movies I used to love. Somebody called it "lo-fi", which I like. It feels cheap, dirty and unprecious. And beyond the retro vibe, I also feel that the dots make a broad statement that has its own artistic merits, in a pop art sort of way.

JK: I was also wondering about the slightly askew top down perspective you adopt a few times over the course of Silver's first issue; what does it add to the story?  

SF: That's something I probably carry over from movies. Every angle/view must has a point of view. So whose is it? Hitchcock used to call the one you're mentioning "God's eye view." It's a way to extract the viewer from the action. It makes you feel like you're privy to something no one else is seeing, and it's also a very judgmental shot. Perfect to observe our morally suspect conman. On a more practical level, it's always a good way to reestablish the lay of the land.

JK: In the backmatter, you compare your drawing for your comic with story work you've done for the screen, saying that the latter influenced the work on the former. Do you feel that you could adopt storyboarding to comics pretty easily? Or were there some visual principles you had to abandon in order to make the art work? 

SF: I didn't really have to abandon anything. It's about the visual tension between the shapes. Of course, in animation, that tension happens over time in the way the shapes change from drawing to drawing. Part of the training to be an animator, is training your eye to see that graphic tension, and process it on an abstract level, beyond the anecdote of what is represented. Here the eye does the exact same thing, but the change is juxtaposed in space, not time. But the visual sensation you're looking for is the same.

JK: What is "visual tension between the shapes," exactly? How does considering it affect your composition and how your panels relate to one another? 

SF: Images work on two levels. A "literal level" (it's Superman, he has a cape, he's crushing a car, his expression is anger... etc...). That is where you understand the idea of what is presented. But then there is an abstract quality to the drawing that will give you emotion and sensation. Does the drawing feel powerful, disturbing, sexy, appealing? That has to do with the abstract shapes and lines--are they broad? Timid? Direct? Noodle-y?--and how they visually interact with each other.

I'll give you a concrete example. In film, the screen always stays the same size, so if you cut to a close up, a face that was small on screen is now gigantic--lots of energy in that change. In comics, people will sometimes make the mistake to do a close up by drawing a face the same size as the previous panel, but framing it in a smaller panel. So, on a literal level, you have the idea of a close up, but not the visual impact, because there is no change in the size of that shape. No visual tension has been created.

JK: I wonder if you could comment on the way that the comics gutter effects the way you tell a story. Do you find the gutter freeing or restrictive in any particular way? Was it an adjustment having to rely on your readers to get from one action to another themselves, rather than showing them the complete A to B sequence? 

SF: The only thing I found I needed to look out for regarding the gutter is to not have the black shapes from one panel connect tangentially with the ones in the next panel. Otherwise, it creates those runaway shapes that escape the panels, linking them together. That became apparent very quickly.

As far as bridging the gap between actions, in comics, you can add a bit of extra dialog or voice over to convey the missing information. The trick is that piece of writing must have its own artistic merits and earn its presence.

JK: Outside of Silver, do you have any plans for Dark Planet Comics? 

SF: Yes. I have other properties that I may or may not draw myself, but that I will put out through DPC. We also made the first steps last week towards some kick ass collectible maquettes. Those should start showing up toward the end of the year.

JK: Where can people find issues of Silver

SF: It is available as a digital comics through ComiXology, and DrivethruComics. It is also available in print, and can be ordered from or purchased at the various conventions where I will be appearing. About conventions and signings, we're working on the 2013/14 season, and dates will be announced soon. So check back on the website or look up Dark Planet Comics on Facebook or twitter for the latest news. As far as comic book stores, we will do a more robust push with the trade paperback that will combine the first few issues.

JK: Is there anything else you would like to add?

SF: We're building Dark Planet Comics completely independently from the ground up, so we need all the help we can get to get the word out. If you like what you see, let a thousand of your closest friends know on your favorite social media.

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