Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Webcomic Ultrasylvania is a Frighteningly Good Read

by Ash F.

If you’ve ever thought 1800s European history needed more monsters, then look no further. Ultrasylvania launched earlier this summer as a tri-weekly web comic and has picking up speed with a recently launched Kickstarter that looks to be a success. A product of San Francisco’s Academy of Art University, instructors Brian Schirmer and Jeremy Saliba brought the script into the classroom and allowed a group of hand picked students to bring the comic to life in the school’s state of the art Cintiq Lab.

I was given a special preview copy to read all of Ultrasylvania (it’s about halfway through its online run at the moment) and I was really blown away by the work. Brian Schirmer’s story is set in this sprawling alternate universe where European countries are ruled by some iconic fixtures in horror. Dracula naturally rules Transylvania, however Frankenstein himself commands Bavaria. The two have a strained truce as the storyline alternates between their two countries. A certain Bram Stoker and April LeMat arrive at castle Dracula with orders for the assassination of the king of vampires, and a woman named Ileana being taken in by Frankenstein. As Stoker peels back the layers to the mythos of the blood thirsty ruler and Frankenstein embarks on a mysterious attack, the stories begin to merge and produce an electric conclusion which left me wanting more.

The strong storytelling is backed by some outstanding artwork. With so many students on the projects, so many styles give the comic a lush feeling. The work spans from watercolor to digital, to a truly stunning oil painting that is the cover for the comic once it does to print. And this benefits the students who worked on the project as well. The comic has been taking off, and it’s giving these guys a great bit of promotion during their budding careers.

As much as I would love to elaborate on how much I enjoyed the female characters, why and all of these truly amazing moments they had, I kinda can’t! There’s a lot of pay off and twists that haven’t happened yet in Ultrasylvania’s web comic run that revolves around the ladies. I can say that there were some excellent scenes for the female characters, including a few jaw dropping reveals as the volume came into it’s third act. It’s also nice to be able to say Dracula’s brides go beyond the jealous, vicious, blood sucking harpies they tend to be portrayed as. More than just sirens, they play a strong role in Stoker’s search for the truth about their husband as powerful gatekeepers of history.

I was able to interview the writer, Brain Schirmer, about the project, its inception and some of the female players within the series.

1) So, first of all, the scope of Ultrasylvania is amazing. It feels like Game of Thrones with all your favorite monsters running around instead of the houses. But it’s also very historical. Can you shed some light onto how your came up with the idea?

Like many writers, I tend to have a notebook for the jotting of ideas.  Sometimes it's a cool-sounding name, other times a line or two of dialogue.  Well, in the summer of 2011 I was traveling in Europe and just wound up writing down something like, "What if Dracula was a world-leader?"  That was the seed.  Other bits popped up on that trip as well, and the whole thing just snowballed over the course of a few months.  For the longest time, I didn't even know what I'd do with the story - if anything.  It wasn't until sometime last September that a former student of mine suggested that the Academy's School of Illustration should build a class around turning it into a comic.  A few weeks later, we cemented the deal.

2) Kind of a refreshing idea to have this be a collaborative project amongst art students. What's been the reception at the Academy and by the students who worked on Ultrasylvania?

Crazy enthusiasm.  My good friend Jeremy Saliba teaches the class.  At the end of of the first semester, we had a couple of the artists come to us and say it's their favorite class they've ever taken.  That alone was really a special moment.  Chuck Pyle, the undergraduate director of AAU's School of Illustration, has been one of our biggest supporters from day one.  He loves the fact that this is helping put their comic and graphic novel initiative on the map, and he even oversaw adding the comic to the Academy's Spring Show.

3) I know you've shown your end product around the industry including during SDCC. What's the response been?

Most people have the reaction, "I can't believe no one's done this before!"  And that's just from me giving them the basic pitch.  When they see the artwork and the way we're handling the storytelling with different artists for different time periods and locations - then, they're blown away.  Sounds like hyperbole, but that's truly the responses I've seen.

4) So Bram Stoker, Dracula and Frankenstein are all key players here, but there are some ladies running around Ultrasylvania as well. Can we get a little info on them?

I always wanted the women to be key players in Ultrasylvania.  I didn't want to write a story with scream queens and victims.  Such characters tend to be trite, one-dimensional, and boring.  There are four female characters in this first volume, and each has an impact on how the tale progresses.  There's April de Mat, a British agent sent undercover to aid in an assassination.  Then, there's Ileana, a trader who manages to warm the heart of our Frankenstein Monster - but who might not be what she seems.  Last but not least, Dracula's three brides.  Traditionally, these characters have been silent, nameless, and alluring.  Well, we keep the allure, but each of these women comes with her own story, each holds some sway with her husband - and each has a carefully chosen name.

5) I can’t spoil it, but I really do love what you did with Ileana’s storyline and her relationship with Frankenstein. I can’t help but sense she has a big role in Vol 2?

Yeah, I'll try not to give too much away myself.  Ileana, like all the best characters, wants something.  When reading Ultrasylvania, you might think you know what it is, but it's not until you reach the end that you find out she was after something else all along.  Vague enough?  HA!  On a certain level, we take the "beauty and the beast" trope, nurture it for a bit - and then fling it out the window in the third act.  Suffice to say that her role is substantial. Yes, she'll be back in volume two in an equally significant role - and on a much grander scale.

6) Speaking of Vol 2, is it still going to be a student collaborative for the school? And if you do you have any girly shaped artists on your roster?

Yes and Yes.  The class is set to run this fall, and while we have some of the illustrators returning from volume one, I'm very pleased that we'll also see some new faces and styles - including our first two women artists.   I've seen both of their portfolios and the work they've done thus far is outstanding.  I seriously cannot wait to see what they bring to Ultrasylvania.
 

7) You laid the groundwork for what looks to be an expansive universe. Will we be seeing more well known horror fixtures as the series continues?

I'd like to do at least three volumes.  If it's popular enough on all fronts, we'll look beyond that.  We certainly have plans for more classic creatures to turn up, and most of the favorites will make an appearance in one form or another.  I can say that you can expect to see yet another famous bridein the next installment and that she'll be a bit different than any other interpretation that's come before.

Asher Powell’s oldest memories are reruns of the Adam West Batman show. By day she is a mild mannered chick wielding an art degree and a heavy caffeine addiction, but by night she is known as a writer whos work has been featured on Autostraddle. Her familiar is a 16lb Maine Coon who follows her around the house and enjoys string cheese. You can follow her on Twitter.
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