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Interview with Comic Artist and Illustrator Martin Trafford

In Germany we got to know the British illustrator Martin Trafford as the artist of the superhero comic “Captain Berlin”. That gave us the urge to learn more about the guy and how he got started in the world of comics. From his Facebook page we already learned: “Doodling keeps the voices away!”. Let’s find out more.

Where does your love for comics and illustrations come from?

As a child I knew I either wanted to be an archeologist or an artist. I used to spend hours drawing dinosaurs! I wasn’t much good academically at school but soon discovered I was “alright” at art. As I got a little older I started reading a British horror comic called “scream”, I absolutely loved that, fell in love with the horror genre and the lurid artwork. It was very much in the old EC comics vein.
Whilst this was happening home video was just becoming a thing and I could spend Martin 1hours in video shops soaking up the artwork. Especially the horror section, it was the golden times just before the “video nasties” scare in the UK. I think the first time I got serious about drawing comic books was later at school, a friend of mine started a “ghostbusters” comic book with me and that pretty much became my life for a few years, scribbling away any spare time I got, we must have have about ten volumes of comics drawn before we lost interest. I remember my mother getting a bit concerned about the unhealthy amount of time I was spending drawing horrible things. Off in my own little world!

And how did you learn how to draw? “Do it yourself” or in an art school?

I would say I learned to draw back then largely on my own, a big influence on me was Graham Humphreys, I would spend hours and hours with video magazines copying his style, drawing and redrawing his nightmare on elm street posters in particular. If I spotted a poster in the video store that was obviously his style I would bother the owners until they gave me them.
I left school at 16 and then went to art college, I had always planned that this would happen, Art college were the best years of my life, finally surrounded with like minded people, I absolutely loved it. I studied illustration later under Dudley Edwards of the sixties psychedelic art collective Edwards, Binder and Vaughan (they painted John Lennons rolls Royce and Paul Mccartneys piano amongst other things). It was during these years I became aware of Pop art, Art neaveau and psychedelia which I’d say have all had an influence on my later work. So I did learn a lot more about technique at college for sure, my illustration course was at that time, the only one in Britain to teach cartooning and comic book art as part of the course. Though not enough for my liking!
I’m not a big believer in Art as something that has to be “taught”. It creates a certain elitism. I used to run a great community art project with Steve Try in the UK called The Doodlemanifesto. The main idea was to break down that notion of “I haven’t been taught how to do this, I’m no good” by making it more about the experience of creating. We would meet up regularly and have events in clubs/pubs and Art Galleries (to really put the cat amongst the pigeons). The whole deal was we would have regular contributors and a real cross section of people, young and old, come along and be involved in either one large piece or several small pieces of art that would be created by passing paper and pens around everyone. More a flow of conciseness than actually trying to create art. By the end of the night you would have several pieces of fantastically weird and intriguing artwork, created en masse! Not by one person, there was no right or wrong way to take the doodles. More like art therapy I suppose?!

What was your first approach in the world of comics?

My first approach to the world of “professional”-(stuff I actually got paid for?) comics would have been at art college, I was hired with a couple of mates to work on a local “youth awareness” comic book called “sorted” (it was the early nineties!). Basically trying to teach “the kids” about the dangers of drugs and unsafe sex but in a cool none preachy way? It involved a lot of writing as well which I always enjoyed. That got us some early TV interview work also. It’s really not very cool when you look at them now though. Take lots of water with your ecstasy kids!

How do you start realizing a page? Tell me about your creative process! Do you have any artists who inspire you in your work?

My process I don’t believe is too unusual, I always start with the writing (unless a script is given) from there I basically sketch rough thumbs of the entire storyline. It’s always useful doing this as you can plan ahead for proper page filling and how the “action” is played out against the quieter plot driven parts. Having that I then sketch out the panels, fill the art and add speech bubbles/ effects where needed and if required. Then onto inks. Often once I’ve erased construction lines I’ll go back in and redraw parts to make them bolder.
I always feel a bit of a fraud as I don’t often read comics much anymore, I know this is partly so I’m NOT too influenced by other styles. I used to love Bill Sienkiewicz’ comic style. You just can’t compete with that. I’ve always considered myself “competent” as an artist but certainly not “great”! There are so many artists out there like me who’ve been banging away at it without much recognition, it’s hard, creative fields are so competitive. There’s a great comic artist called Lee Davis, he’s so prolific. A great storyteller, all round creative talent.

Tell us how you met the German director Jörg Buttgereit. What was the first project you did with him? The first collaboration I noticed was the art work for his movie “Schramm”.

My first encounter with Jörg was after a long period of trying to track down “original” copies of his movies. I had a bootleg of Nekromantik as we ALL did back then (early nineties!). I put an add in the back of a British magazine called “Darkside”. That’s pretty much where like minded horror fans traded tapes, through that magazine and car boot sales. Anyway from that I eventually found his home address and began bothering him as a fan (I’m still a fan!). I sent him a cartoon I had done loosely based on his Nekro characters. He seemed to really like that and asked me to do a series of “pin up’s” that he could use based on various scenes in both movies.
The making of SchrammJörg was and still is one of the most encouraging people I know of my artwork. I believe we sort of became fans of each other’s work. Jörg was working on Schramm during the period that followed and asked me to create a video sleeve for the “making of” VHS. And later the official t shirt design. You can imagine how cool that was for me being a teenage fan and being able to get involved and help in some way. Over the years we have kept in touch and I’ve continued to help out here and there. It lead to a bit of work with his biographer David Kerekes too which was cool, I did an illustration for Headpress and one of his other books.

Who came up with the idea to make a comic out of the short film “Captain Berlin”?

A fantastic German artist Reiner Engel had already done a short comic book to accompany the DVD release of the stage play (this was duplicated in Captain Berlin issue #1). I had approached Jörg with an idea to create a comic book based on Nekromantik 2 called “Son of Nekromantik”. Kind of as it was the twenty year anniversary and as fans I know people want to see more Nekro! We started fleshing out an idea but in the meantime Jörg asked if I could also do a Cap one to be serialized online. This is where the idea started. So that kind of took over and then was eventually printed. I’m very happy with how popular the comic book is! It’s been great to be a part of.

In the “Captain Berlin” comics you don’t only appear as an artist but also as a writer. Which area do you prefer?

If I had to choose between writer and artist, I’d have to say artist! I do get a kick out of writing too though, it’s always a very collaborative thing writing with Jörg though which makes it easier, I’ll write a bare bones script idea and pass it over to Jörg or vice versa and then we sort of flesh out ideas as we go along. He will say “how about we do this”, “add this here”, “change this to this”. That kind of thing, usually more “what the hell does this mean? This English humour won’t translate well to German!”.

Where did you take the inspiration for your stories like “Captain Berlin gegen Fukuda”? How did you like the theme of the first German superhero?

The inspiration for Fukuda was all Jörg! Jörg has to be one of the biggest monster movie fanboys out there and he really knows his stuff. The Fukushima disaster was still very fresh and Jörg being a bit of an agitator wanted to use this latest disaster to firstly do as the Japanese did with Godzilla and use a man made horror to create an environmental horror- or monster, and secondly to keep attention on what was going on there, there was a lot of secrecy and covering up going on in the wake of that. The parts in the comic about mutated sea creatures were true (maybe not to Fukuda levels). The radiation sickness. A lot of people lost their lives. The Japanese are very good at giving their fears a face so that they can fight it. Jörg was carrying this tradition forward. He’s a very sharp guy! The storyline beyond that was again very collaborative. I liked the idea of impaling fukuda on the Berlin tower as it makes a great visual.
I think Germany deserves a superhero. Jörg saw a gap in the market there as a teenager, I think Germany has had its villains and that seems to be its legacy in many peoples eyes, it’s a completely myopic and out dated view though. The Cap fights these villains and that should send a message out to the world that the cap comics are very self aware, Jörg is saying “come on guys, we aren’t cool with this either!”. Don’t forget, Jörg is a punk at heart. Totally anti establishment. Germany isn’t the only country to have suffered under a dictatorship! What better way than to poke fun, as a human it’s only natural to take the power away from something or someone by doing that… that’s all they were trying to do in Paris?! Poor guys… and really, if you’re going to have a villain (Hitler!) what better a villain? I only discovered recently you cannot depict the swastika in Germany. I’m really interested to hear how Germany feels about there being a German superhero. As the “outsider” my view is probably very different. I hear comic books aren’t that popular there though so maybe this is why there hasn’t been a superhero up to now? I’m clutching at straws?!

How many issues of the comics are still planned? Do you have other projects with Jörg Buttgereit in the works?

There are definitely more issues in the pipeline, Levin Kurio is working on a good story at the moment. I’m taking a few issues off but I’ll hopefully get another weird storyline soon. It’s great to see how successful Captain Berlin is becoming! I see no reason why it shouldn’t run and run? I’m sure in the future there will be more collaborations with Jörg for me. I hope so.

Can you tell me about other comics or graphic novels that you have worked on? What do you consider your most important contribution?

I feel I’m just really getting started in graphic novels. I’ve worked on various projects over the last few years, a couple of really cool anthologies with the ACT comic meet, here in Canberra, Australia, I’ve done a strip for Darren Close’s Killeroo Gangwars which should hopefully be out soon. I’ve just finished a couple of pages for Ben Byrnes NSEW sci fi comic project.CAPTAIN BERLIN meets The Elephant Man!!!!
The comic I’m most proud of would have to be my latest storyline in Captain Berlin though, Captain Berlin meets The Elephant Man! For years I’ve wanted to do a heroic version of Joseph Merrick and after Jörg did his stage play about the elephant man, the stars just aligned, he has known for a while it was something I wanted to do so he gave me free reign. And I’m very happy with it! Hopefully soon there will (possibly) be an English translation.
Lately I’ve been contributing a lot of horror movie based illustration work for some great Indie movie directors. I’ve done a few pieces for Scott Schirmer’s movies Found and Headless, Ron Decaro’s new movie Halibut Point, a piece for Guy Pearce’s movie The Rope Maiden. Adrian Jiminez’s new short Devotion to the looking glass. An EP cover for Acidbrain’s new record. I’m very lucky. I’m loving doing the horror stuff again. Maybe my mother was right to be concerned? 
Ha! (PS my mother is very supportive!).

For more information visit: Martin Trafford – Traffart

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