Animator Stephan Franck Cons Dracula in Pulp-inspired "Silver"

Nothing's quite as soulless as the undead, and none of the undead match the fearsomeness of Dracula himself. So imagine the nerve and hubris it would require to consider robbing the most powerful vampire to ever terrorize humanity.

That's the elevator pitch for "Silver," a gothic heist/adventure comic book self-published by animator Stephan Franck under his Dark Planet imprint. Set fifty years after Bram Stoker's novel, the series projects Stoker's universe into the era of pulp adventure where Conman and jewel thief Jimmy Finnigan, with the aid of Rosalynd "Sledge" Van Helsing, granddaughter of the famed vampire hunter, and a motley crew of talented but unlikely conspirators, hope to separate the king of vampires from his vast cache of silver.

The first three issues (of twelve) are collected in "Silver: Vol. 1," currently available on comiXology and arriving in print this November. In addition to three issues of mysteries, humor, chills and impaling, the first collection offers an expansive look into Franck's creative process, comparing differing page compositions, making it a valuable tool for both students of both comics and animation.

Although "Silver" is his first comic book, Franck is a veteran of visual storytelling. Among his many animation credits, he worked as an animator on "Space Jam" and "The Iron Giant" and storyboarded for "9" and "Despicable Me." He co-created Nicktoons' cult hit "Corneil and Bernie" and is nominated for the 2014 Annie Award for Best Director in a TV Broadcast for the special "The Smurfs: The Legend of Smurfy Hollow," and for the 2014 Russ Manning Promising Newcomer Award for his comics debut.

CBR News: Stephan, what sort of day-job animation/film work do you have on your plate now?

Stephan Franck: I am currently a writer/director for Sony Pictures Animation. I am developing two projects -- neither of which I am free to get more specific about at the moment.

Creators have been revisiting Bram Stoker's "Dracula" almost since it was first published. What drew you to the story and prompted you to connect "Silver" to Stoker's world?

I could rationalize it, but the truth is that the Dracula story, in most of its forms, has always been one of my earliest and deepest fascinations, so when I started writing "Silver," it felt like an incredible opportunity to combine homage and reinvention. I decided to keep the Stoker novel as the cornerstone of the story, and extend it into its future, into its past, broadening the window it opens on the world of vampires. It was really fun to use the lore we all love -- the doomed yet redemptive romance with Mina, Harker's imprisonment, the Demeter, Van Helsing, etc. -- and then add extra dimensions to the events and mythology. What if the version you know from the Stoker novel didn't tell you the whole truth, and what if someone found Harker's ledger -- the unabridged version -- and their world changed forever?

What inspired the character Jimmy Finnigan, and why is he the right protagonist to follow into this rich, fictional setting?

Finn was in part inspired by the American tradition of con movies -- "The Sting," "The Grifters," etc. -- and in part by the more European tradition of the gentleman thief. I thought con men and vampires would be a great match for each other, as they have a lot in common -- both types are somewhat soulless and predatory in nature, living in secrecy and isolation, lurking in the margins of society. I though it would be great to start with a character who is not really living his life in any real productive or meaningful sense, and have him crash into the actual living dead. I though this would lead to some interesting re-examination on his part.

On a lighter level, it's fun to take a character who prides himself on operating "behind the curtain," or always being "in on the joke," and having him find out that the world is not at all what he thinks.

Jimmy's not the most morally upstanding protagonist, but he displays a sense of responsibility to his collaborators and conspirators, no matter how unlikely they are. Is there maybe a soft spot in him for oddballs and losers?

I think there are basically two kinds of people who become conmen: You have the real sociopaths, who are just wired that way, and then you have the people who somehow got broken and can only relate to the world that way. As we learn more about Finn, we'll find that he belongs to the second category. Under that brokenness is a real person; the challenge will be finding it. You could say he's a good guy at heart, trying hard to be bad, but his natural empathy gets in the way.

What I find most interesting about Sledge is that, often, the quiet, dangerous anti-social member of a group winds up being front and center in the narrative, but she's maintaining her secrecy and distance. It makes a reader feel she's keeping some secrets close to the vest, things that will have an impact on their quest later on. What's driving her and why is she working with Finn's crew?

You are right on the money with that. We will start to discover more about her real agenda in Volume 2, and all will be illuminated in the third one -- but I can't spoil any of that.

This is your first comics project. Is the form something you've hoped for an excuse to try your hand at?

I grew up with an equal passion for animation and comics, and I drew a lot of comic pages until I went to school for animation. Animation is such a life project that it took over everything, and I never got to do comics professionally -- until my friend Olivier Jalabert asked me if I wanted to do a book with the publisher he was working for at the time. I had just finished the "Silver" script and that sounded like the perfect fit. I got insanely excited. We ended up not doing it together for timing reasons, but the seed was planted and there was no turning back.

"Silver" started as a screenplay before you began adapting it to comics. Do you still hope to see a film version in the future?

People have started circling it, and I think it would make a great movie or TV show, but I'm looking at that as a separate project altogether. For now, as far as "Silver" is concerned, my focus is on telling the rest of the story in comics, which I think is an incredibly exciting way to present it.

Did any aspects of the story play out differently, and are they for better or worse, in comics form when compared to your initial screenplay?

What I love about the comic form is that it leaves more room for -- and even necessitates more of -- Finn's voiceover. The more of it I write, the more the character reveals himself to me. Interestingly, the "there's two kinds of objects in this world" bit was not in the original script. Even after writing it in issue #1, I didn't originally intend to call the line back at the end, but by then, it had become obvious that it was a great presentation of Finn's central theme, and of how he sees himself and his relationship with the world.

Do you find your background in animation helps you approach laying out a comic book page?

As far as the storytelling, I approach my comics layouts the same way I approach my film storyboards, using the same type of cinematic language. That includes having shots that always represent someone's point of view and never being gratuitous with the "camera angles." I also try to have my panels flow well from one to the next by using the same rules that help the shots cut in a movie -- screen direction/180º rule, horizon control, avoiding visual repetition, making sure one shot is different enough from the next so that it reads as a clear change, not a floaty mistake, etc.

Animation also influenced my drawing in terms of graphic economy. As a hand-drawn animator, every extra line becomes 10,000 extra lines, because it will have to be drawn on every single frame. You get trained to create drawings without a single unnecessary line. Look at a great animation drawing, and you can't remove a single line without losing necessary information, just like you can't remove a single word from a great writer's page. It's second nature to me. I seldom draw a line that I don't need to describe the expression or the shape represented, or make a prop or location recognizable.

Conversely, do you have to cast out any animation-learned storytelling techniques that don't seem to translate to the static page?

In animation, a drawing is only on screen for 1/12, and sometimes 1/24, of a second, so the drawings themselves are actually invisible. It's the change from drawing to drawing that your eye is tracking. That is why animation drawings are made of clean lines and simple shapes, so your eye can follow the changes in them over time. Meanwhile, people can stare at a comics page for as long as they want, so there has to be an illustrative quality to the drawings that makes them compelling.

You're three issues into a planned twelve-part series. As you're quite busy with your day job, when is the next installment and what can we look forward to when it arrives?

As of this writing, I have finished pencilling issues 4 and 5. We will be soliciting the compiled Vol. 2 in spring 2015. In there, you will see the team embark on their adventure. As they board the Orient Express, which is filled with the vampire upper crust, we will get to know a few of the vampires. They are quite unpleasant, and this will involve cool suspense, action, and a few horrible deaths. We will also learn that they may have their own agenda, which may interfere with our guys' already difficult job. Meanwhile, the relationships will deepen between the team members, whom I don't call broken misfits for nothing. Finally, we will meet the big D himself. Dracula. Drah-Khann. The Dragon. He Who Goes By Many Names.

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