Mr. & Mrs. Van Helsing move beyond the Monster-of-the-Week - Interview w/ HUGH MADDEN & AARON FEVER
Welcome, Hugh & Aaron, and thank you for joining Comic Book Yeti today!
(Due to scheduling conflicts, the role of Aaron will be played by Hugh and therefore his opinions are to be treated as suspect.)
COMIC BOOK YETI: So we’re coming down to the close of your current Kickstarter campaign for Mr. & Mrs. Van Helsing, a colorful romp through a world laden with monsters where all bets are off - if each of you could frame the title through a lens they wouldn’t get from looking at the campaign page, how would each of you introduce it to our readers?
HUGH MADDEN: The eponymous Mr. and Mrs. Van Helsing are Bela and Erzabet; newlyweds who fight monsters out of the back of their van. As part of their wandering lifestyle, they turn up in a mountain town that is being terrorized by a giant beast and have to defeat it, as well as the insecurities in their own marriage.
AARON FEVER: Yeah, that’s a fair run down. I would probably say “We gave you two monster hunters that you don’t have to bother shipping because we did that for you”.
CBY: There are a number of background details I’ve been paying attention to, from depictions of external environments, to lavishly decorated rooms populated with a vivid cast of background characters and opulent meals - for instance, I noticed the detail of Bela’s nose wasn’t raised until an off-hand comment dozens of pages in, despite its fastidious inclusion (is a flashback story for a later issue in store for readers?) Can you share some other background elements deliberately included into the panels without giving away any spoilers?
HM: I think that one of the more interesting background elements is the goat. It pops up (literally) on page 9 and then just follows the main characters around for long enough that Aaron decided to rewrite sections of the script to include the goat and make him central to the finale. I also liked the bit where the Baron’s butler is talking about the rumours they have heard about Bela and Erzabet which allowed me to play around and redraw the original characters in a slightly different way. On page 8, when we see the town of Trombergo, there are a few rabbit wind vanes etc.
AF: One background detail that it took a day or two to notice was on page 13 where there is a literal wolf in sheep's clothing. That was a Hugh insert, not from the script. Honestly a lot of the small details are Hugh’s ideas. The man can’t help himself from adding work for himself, haha! It allowed me to flesh some ideas out and leave others lingering for future use.
CBY: Hugh, you’ve got an expressive cartooning style which seems to draw from some classic inspirations (to be honest, the first thing that popped into my head when I saw the character designs and proportions on page one was Betty Boop, and I got a massive kick out of that Muppet-lookin’ troll waltzing down the mountain highway with a belt full of human skulls). How did the two of you determine the visual tone as you were building the narrative world? How much deliberation and revision took place before you landed on the current look?
HM: Originally, Bela and Erza were just two character sketches, fairly similar to their current iteration. I had tried to do something with them but couldn’t figure out their dynamics. So I gave them to Aaron who got it immediately and was able to pick up the ball and run with it. Aaron is a real artist’s writer and once he knows an artist and their stylistic idiosyncrasies, he writes to the artist and trusts them. We had worked together before and we are good friends/frenemies so he knows how I draw. When he knows that the plot requires specific things in specific places, he will make sure that I know what is needed, but otherwise I am allowed to plough ahead. The only time he has ever demanded I redraw a panel is when I tried to insert a 3rd feast in as many pages.
Aaron is also a very flexible writer. We found at certain points that Bela and Erza had evolved on the page to an extent and rather than try to force the characters to follow the script, Aaron made small subtle changes here and there as the comic progressed to allow the characters to be themselves.
AF: Yeah, it sometimes feels like our working relationship is just a series of checks and balances. I’ve never worked with an artist before so in-tune with story structure so he raises my game and I try to stay out of his way.
CBY: To that end, can both of you speak to your aesthetic/stylistic influences both specifically in working on Mr. & Mrs. Van Helsing together, and in your broader creative portfolio?
HM: Specifically for Mr. and Mrs. Van Helsing, I knew that I wanted the story to unfold in a very central European landscape. So there are lots of Bavarian castles and a lot of the architecture is inspired by the Romantic Road in South Germany. Many of the costumes that the background characters wear, as well as the food etc, have Hungarian/Slovakian influences. Of course the rich nobility end up wearing more glamorous clothes and we both thought it was important that the opulence of Baron Trombergo’s castle would be a stark contrast to the town below. I wanted to make a world that felt like it was possible for the reader to visit. Like you would be able to stand in the town square and say oh that’s the inn where they stayed the night.
Obviously my own style is influenced by bandes dessinées and European comics in general. By happy accident, the weekly publishing schedule on Irishcomics.ie ended up reflecting the old serial story telling you might find in Tintin or the Pilote magazine, both of which were inspirations. The more slapstick nature of the violence has parellells with Asterix. And of course “The Curse of the Wererabbit” by Aardman Entertainment looms large over the whole book.
AF: I’m a bit of a mumble-core writer, I think. Heavy of character and lighter on plot, but this time I really wanted M&MVH to be an adventure with twists and turns. This is probably the most action heavy story I’ve written and that includes actual superhero comics! I’ve a tonne of influences but I think Terry Pratchett must have come to the fore this time as in hindsight I can see his fingerprints on this.
CBY: There’s also a rather distinct lettering style, Hugh, with some flourishes beyond the standard sans-serif capitalized block print common to many letterers. What intrinsic elements of the story and Aaron’s writing have influenced your lettering choices on Mr. & Mrs. Van Helsing, and what other letterers would you cite as reference points for your approach?
HM: I’m really glad you brought up my lettering since I’ve been getting a lot of stick over it. It's just my own handwriting. The fact that I can’t identify any influences probably shows my ignorance of the subject rather than any originality on my part.
AF: I’ve learned over the years what kind of speech bubbles annoy Hugh so I usually tailor my scripts to help with that. I wouldn’t want him to do it any differently though, I can’t imagine his pages any other way.
CBY: I’m still rubbish with an Ames letter guide, but I hack out everything on pen and paper - since you’ve been releasing pages one at a time online, what does the process look like for each of your pages from start to finish? Do you start with pencil thumbnails once the script is in-hand? Do visual gags ever come first? What has the mix included?
HM: I don’t really thumbnail, although I know I should. For each page, normally I just reread the script a few times and figure out the beats to the page; what is the first and last panel going to look like and what are the main components in between so that I get a sense of the layout. I’ll do a few sketches if there are specific images that I want to get right. Then I just pencil the page and hope that it starts to come together. Once I’m happy with how things look, I ink it and then scan it up and colour. Usually I end up reworking a lot of background elements like buildings because, for some reason, I can’t draw a straight line to save my life. Even using a ruler.
AF: Thankfully, I had a full script done before we started posting. I’ve tried the writing week-to-week thing for webcomics before and found I can lose threads very easily that way. Although we did completely rewrite the ending about half way through as, with time, we noticed some flaws. And as Hugh said earlier, I needed to make the goat the hero, haha!
CBY: Also releasing it as a webcomic, Aaron, I notice your #keywords often add additional context to what’s happening on the page (such as the introduction of Baron Trombergo’s name) - how does the media influence the message, and what additional elements are you able to include in a print edition to enrich the reader’s experience?
AF: We’ll have a few notes in the printed version but honestly there’s not much to add. I’m confident folks will get everything they need from the collection. I felt much more pressure to add little tid-bits when we were posting online to try and keep some info fresh in people’s minds. It’s a fine line of trying to give them hints to what is coming next week and trying to help because if you were reading it weekly you had to remember pages from 6 months prior! None of those problems exist when you can just sit down and read it in one sitting.
CBY: So the 48-page story arc included in this print edition was released from August 2021 to July 2022 - without giving anything away, what sort of future do you have planned for Mr. & Mrs. Van Helsing as characters - how long do you envision their total narrative journey taking in terms of page count or perhaps just a number of stories you’ve already discussed for the characters to find some lasting resolution? It’s quite literally a “monster-of-the-week” format, so you could certainly run as indefinitely as you’ve got the interest and stamina to commit, but have you both discussed a culminating, fixed endpoint?
AF: I have a definite vision for where Mr. and Mrs. can go in the future and have discussed it a bit with Hugh.
HM: That’s true. It’s all very interesting.
AF: Having said that, I think that the emphasis on our storytelling will be less on the “monster-of-the-week” aspect (although there will certainly be loads of monsters) and more on the relationship between the two main characters and the relationships they form with other characters. The adventure stories are the excuse to force the characters to face and overcome the issues in their relationship. And because we are working in longer arcs, we can let the characters breathe and feel their emotions… in between punching beasties of course.
CBY: I had the good fortune to interview Paul, Gary, and Gareth in an extended journey through the origins of Limit Break Comics - can you speak a bit towards how you’ve partnered with them as a publisher, how you got to know them, and any reflections on the social dimensions of collaborating on creative work?
HM: I’ve known Paul, Gary and Gareth individually and as a group for years. The Irish comic scene is small and we all know each other to some degree. The small size of the community makes it quite dynamic, with everyone being very supportive and eager to read and react to everyone else’s work. Paul, Aaron, Clare Foley and I all got together over the Pandemic to check in with each other over Zoom to encourage each other to make work and meet self-imposed deadlines. Over time, those weekly calls morphed into Irishcomics.ie, which is our attempt to showcase Irish comics and to give a platform to comic creators in Ireland who might not have a chance to show their work to a wider audience.
AF: Also, this is all a secret plot for us to eventually take over Limit Break... Kidding! (Not kidding).
CBY: In making room here for an opportunity to broaden awareness of other media or creative work that is having an impact on you at the moment, what are you reading or tuning into at the moment that’s influencing or entertaining you?
HM: I recently read The Golden Boy by Mikael Ross which really blew my mind in how it melded history, biography and comedy with an incredibly expressive artstyle. How he depicts music in a silent medium like comics is just awe inspiring.
AF: I just read some old Robin Hood stories which may or may not have been research for something. I’m a bit of a TV addict so three shows I’m currently obsessed with are What We Do In The Shadows, Ted Lasso, and Our Flag Means Death. All stories that very much are my brand of story.
CBY: It’s a pleasure to have both of you join us on short notice as you come into the final stretch of your campaign. We look forward to seeing the book in print from our friends at Limit Break, and please feel free to include any links you’d like our readers to explore. Thanks!