Writer, illustrator and designer Martin Stiff is the creator of the critically acclaimed and award-nominated graphic novel The Absence, which is currently in development as a TV series, and the recently-released graphic novel Tiny Acts of Violence. and we caught up with him to chat about the book and his recent work…
Also the co-director of design company Amazing15, his illustration work has been seen on countless book covers and he has written several theatre plays with subjects as diverse as Dracula, Jack the Ripper, Sherlock Holmesand Laurel and Hardy, all performed to critical acclaim.
Tiny Acts of Violence is set in East Berlin in 1968, a city recovering from the horrors of World War Two and where the state police, the Stasi, cultivate a climate of paranoia and fear. In a place where your closest friend or family member could be a state informer, the threat of violence is ever present and no one knows this more than damaged school teacher Sebastian Metzger.
But something evil and ancient is stalking Metzger from the shadows of war–torn buildings – something which threatens the city and perhaps even the future of humanity itself…
Martin, it’s great to see Tiny Acts of Violence “out in the wild” and on sale from GetMyComics and available from comic shops. What was the inspiration for the story?
Martin Stiff: Thanks! It’s been a labour of love – I started work on the book about four years ago, in 2016. Obviously, with Trump’s victory in the United States and Brexit here in the UK, that period saw the biggest shift in the western political landscape for decades and I think, like many, I found the swirling accusations of ‘Fake News’, ‘Project Fear’ and the general manipulation of the public by sinister forces incredibly troubling.
It reminded me of an article I’d once read about how, at the end of World War Two, the occupying allied forces in Germany banned the Brothers Grimm stories from schools. Their blood-thirsty nature was thought to have contributed to the rise of Nazism, particularly one called “How Some Children Played at Slaughtering” (which is almost forgotten now) and I began to wonder about the control of information and how stories can infect and ultimately control us.
The idea of fiction as a virus is hardly original but I wanted to look at what happened in East Berlin during the Cold War as a microcosm of what was happening in the world today.
You originally considered self publishing this through crowdfunding – were there particular reasons you changed your mind?
Martin: I got quite far with a Kickstarter project and was about to push the big green GO button when I bailed. I love making comics, I love writing them and I love drawing them, but the one thing I’ve never enjoyed is the sales and marketing side of things and it occurred to me that’s all Kickstarter is. I’m no good at selling things, least of all myself, and I had visions of it not hitting its target and all those years of work on the book wasted.
At around the same time, in my day job as a graphic designer, I was working on Simon Furman and Geoff Senior’s excellent comic To the Death which they were putting it out through GetMyComics. I got to know Adrian Clarke at GMC and he read Tiny Acts of Violence, liked it, and asked if I wanted them to distribute it. They had contacts at comic shops, an online store as well as the enthusiasm and excitement for marketing that I completely lacked. Adrian and his team have been absolutely brilliant throughout.
It’s a huge undertaking, a graphic novel of this size. Did it take over you life in the telling?
Martin: Oh yes. As I say, it’s a project that has taken years. My last book, The Absence, was 276 pages long and, took five years and this one took four at 224 pages.
Although it’s slightly shorter than The Absence, it’s in full colour so it was as labour intensive (if not more so)! But it’s what I do as a hobby. Thankfully I have a very understanding family who don’t mind me disappearing for a few hours every evening to work on these things!
How do you plan out such a project, for those considering a similar venture?
Martin: Like any monumental project, I find breaking it all down into small chunks a much easier way of dealing with it rather than trying to see the entire picture.
It would overwhelm me I think, if I was to treat it as a 224 page book from the off. I mean: I knew it was going to be long but I approached it as a five issue mini series to begin with, as it made everything feel a bit more doable and with regular goals.
Keeping momentum and enthusiasm is by far the hardest part of it – I nearly gave up on many occasions but then, once you reach the half way point you realise if you give up all that time you’ve spent would be wasted so by then you’re committed to finishing the bloody thing.
What are you working on now?
Martin: As a graphic designer running a small studio, I’m lucky enough to have a day job that is creatively fulfilling so I’ve been throwing myself into that recently. After two long-form graphic novels that have taken up almost a quarter of my life, I was going to take a break from comics for a while but an offer came up that I couldn’t refuse so I’ve been back at the comic-making coal-face again.
I’m very excited about the new thing and it’s a bit of a departure for me as I’m not writing it but it’s all a bit secret at the moment so I can’t say too much…
How have you been holding up during the current crisis?
Martin: I’m not going to lie: things were a bit wobbly there at the beginning. I have two kids and our easy-going, comfortable lives were completely upended by it all. My wife and I both work so, like many others, we found ourselves having to juggle jobs and home schooling and it was all a bit hectic.
But like most situations, you eventually find your groove and we got through it relatively unscathed. We even picked up a puppy at some point, as though our lives aren’t complicated enough!
There have been a lot of downsides to the pandemic. Has there been some positives for you, too, both personally and professionally?
Martin: Honestly – and I know they won’t believe me – but getting to spend more time with my family has been great. Our normal lives are usually a whirlwind of clubs and school and work and whatnot, so to be locked up in a house together has really tested our relationships (and patience!) but it’s been rewarding and we’ve come out the other end stronger, I think. And with crippling addictions to our iDevices, obviously…
Professionally, I’ve been able to keep busy with Amazing15, the design company I co-own, thankfully and I have some stuff coming out later this year from that which I’m really proud of.
Martin, thanks very much for your time and good luck with all your upcoming projects!
• Grimm’s “How Some Children Played at Slaughtering” – on the Internet Archive here in German – is a set of two short and rather gruesome anecdotes from Grimm’s Fairy Tales. It was removed from the book in the second edition, and is missing from most modern editions as well