Maelstrom: Influences and Inspirations

I mentioned in Part 1 one of the first things I saw to give me the spark of inspiration was the work of Italian cartoonist and illustrator Sergio Toppi. Toppi’s work is some of the most wholly unique I have ever seen in comics. The way he arranges his pages, taking into account not only what’s inside the panels, but the overall look of the page itself as a complete piece was probably the biggest influence on how I approached the pages in Maelstrom. Toppi’s signature mark making and varied approach to rendering shadow and texture also inspired me to get more creative with my own techniques.
A page from “Brocelan Wood” by Sergio Toppi first published in Alter Alter magazine in 1979

Maelstrom‘s European feel was intentional, but Toppi being Italian and setting the story in the Mediterranean may have been a coincidence. Whatever the case, that got me thinking about Renaissance art which eventually lead me to look at Classical, Baroque and Rococo sculpture. That all ended up contributing to the overall look of Maelstrom. The most overt example being on page 6, where the waves pushing the ship take the form of a woman.

Modesty (1752) by Italian Rococo artist Antonio Corradini next to a detail from Page 6 of Maelstrom

European art and comics influence on Maelstrom may be a no brainer, but what may not be so obvious is influence of manga. While everyone loves to compare my work to Kentaro Miura’s brutal epic Berserk, the works of shoujo manga, specifically that of the Year 24 Group from the 1970s, left a greater impact on me than you might think. I had read Moto Hagio’s The Poe Clan in 2019 and was completely blown away. Even going beyond the visuals, some thematic elements of the story seeped into Maelstrom. I won’t get into specifics, but I found The Poe Clan to be one of the few works in vampire fiction that I think really drives home the immortality of vampires. The way Hagio portrayed the passage of time at the start of the story left a huge impression on me.

Examples from Moto Hagio’s Heart of Thomas (1973-75), The Poe Clan (1972-76), Evelyn De Morgan’s Helen of Troy (1898), and Page 16 of Maelstrom

In addition to classic Shoujo, Pre-Raphaelite artist Evelyn De Morgan’s figure paintings, specifically her approach to drapery, was something that helped shape certain visual elements of the story. Like Toppi, De Morgan was a discovery that was relatively new to me, leading me to look more deeply into her work. There’s much more to her paintings than what is on the surface and I am sure she will continue to be an influence going forward.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, I love the beautiful and the grotesque– and it doesn’t get much more grotesque than the Swamp Thing! The “much-encrusted, shambling mockery of life” definitely contributed to my very own “shambling” old man, the main character of Maelstrom. I was reading through the original Bernie Wrightson run of Swamp Thing while working on the early pages. So it’s no surprise a bit of that ended up creeping into what I was doing. Issue 2, with the Un-Men was probably the biggest stand out for me, and likely contributed the most to making me think differently about how to push a figure drawing in new directions.

Excerpts from “The Man Who Wanted Forever” from Swamp Thing #2 (1972) by Bernie Wrightson and “The Hungry Grave” from The Crypt of Terror #19 by Graham Ingels (1950) next to my own shambling Old Man from pages 4 and 19 of Maelstrom

Bernie Wrightson’s work on Swamp Thing was clearly inspired by the EC comics that he read as a kid. While the work of EC artists had been an inspiration to me for a long time, I was only peripherally aware of “Ghastly” Graham Ingels until more recently. I started reading a collection of his earliest work for EC while working on Maelstrom and I was struck by his liberal use of dry brush. I was already experimenting with dry brush a lot on the comic and seeing Ghastly’s ink slinging made me want to push it further. I was also impressed with his panel arrangements, which is an area where EC comics don’t usually stand out due to the sheer multitude of Al Feldstein’s verbiage. That being said, I think Ingels and I might be kindred spirits because I don’t think either one of us could draw a “normal” looking character if we tried. And after seeing more of his work, I’m not sure I want to!

Even on EC’s pre-lettered boards, Ghastly still found ways to get creative with panel divisions. “Reunion” from Vault of Horror #19 (1951)
Johnny Craig’s patented floating heads in “The Wall: a Psychological Study” from Haunt of Fear #15 [1] (1950) and Page 18 of Maelstrom

Johnny Craig, on the other hand, is an EC artist whose work I have admired for a long time. Having a reputation for the “cleanest horror stories,” Craig’s work featured less of the visceral horrors of the likes of Graham Ingels or Jack Davis and rather left things more to the reader’s imagination. Craig also wrote a majority of his stories himself which gave him more freedom over pacing. He employed a variety of striking visual devices to get us in the heads of his constantly perspiring characters. One his most notorious and unforgettable is the “floating head montage.” I’ve always loved Craig’s floating heads and have been wanting to do something like that in my own work. Well, I finally got a chance on Page 18 of Maelstrom! I also made reference to the iconography of 17th century Vanitas paintings, which also showed up later on in the comic, as well.

Vanitas by Adriaen van Utrecht (circa 1642) and Page 37 of Maelstrom

Shifting away from reanimated corpses and psychological terror, another old favorite left its mark on Maelstrom. Not long before starting work, I reread Will Eisner’s A Life Force. I’m always in awe of Eisner’s ability to make the world his characters inhabit form the divisions for the panels. His staging, lighting, and gesture drawing are all second to none, too. I can’t say for sure if I specifically looked back to A Life Force while working on Maelstrom, but it definitely occupied my headspace. Eisner’s non-traditional way of laying out pages in his graphic novels does seem to mirror the approach I took with Maelstrom‘s pages at times.

An incredible page (one of many!) from Will Eisner’s A Life Force (1988)

Sometimes I just can help coming across an effect or technique and wanting to try it for myself. Obviously there are a few sequences in Maelstrom where I adopted the classic cosmic Kirby Krackle. That’s an effect I’ve been messing with here and there for a while now, but Maelstrom was my first time actually applying it to a story. Another neat effect I wanted to try out was inverted silhouettes. And few artists make such effective use of white silhouettes as Go Nagai. The original Devilman manga was yet another book I had read before working on Maelstrom. It had quite a few effective sequences with white silhouettes and I thought they were so cool that I just had to give it a shot. I used them on page 14 to show the character sinking into the sea and the represent the passage of time. The effect was also used similarly on a later page, only with a ship instead of a figure.

Go Nagai’s Devilman (1972-73) and Page 14 of Maelstrom

Now, I know what you’re thinking… “But what about the monster!?” Well, a lot goes into making a monster. I could probably devote another one of these blogs to just the creation of the the Kraken like fiend in Maelstrom. I can assure you, it wouldn’t be nearly as much fun to look at how I arrived at that design. It’s essentially an evolution of what I had been doing in my MerMay illustrations (see previous part). Basically it amounts to taking parts of different sea creatures and arranging them in the most frightening or silly way. Lots of Harryhausen influence, lots of Kaiju influence, Junji Ito, my own weirdness, etc. That ground is covered. I also won’t go into the design of the ship. Unless you want to read about me looking at model ship building videos on Youtube and reading articles about different types of 14th century cargo vessels. I can already hear you nodding off!

A couple of messy sketchbook pages with some thumbnails and exploratory monster sketches. Nothing terribly exciting.

I will leave you with one last tidbit before signing off on this part. The final page of Maelstrom was a double page spread, something I had never tried before. It was something I had debated, but I didn’t think I’d be able to finish one in a week. In early December, I heard of the passing of Shoujo manga pioneer Eiko Hanamura, an artist whose work I had seen and marveled at on tumblr many moons ago. This naturally prompted me to go back and take another look at her work. It didn’t take long before coming across the spread you see below. To say I was inspired to give it a go is a gross understatement.

A gorgeous double page spread by Eiko Hanamura from the 1970s

Seeing that great Hanamura spread also made me remember another double page spread I really liked by Sumika Yamamoto. It even features waves! How about that? I guess you could say I was destined to finish my book with a double page spread. After all, it was the last page, the year wasn’t over yet, I had some extra time… What did I have to lose?

An exciting spread by Sumika Yamamoto from Aim for the Ace! (1973-1980)

I’m sure you were expecting to see the likes of EC comics and Devilman, but the Pre-Raphaelite painting, Rococo sculpture, and ’70s Shoujo manga probably came as a surprise, no? You never know where your going to find inspiration, or where the research rabbit hole will end up taking you. Or, in my case, what sort of random things I will end up pulling from the dark recesses of my mind. There are, of course many more artists and works that influence me, but I wanted to focus more on ones that were newer to me or I think had the most impact on the creation of Maelstrom. Next time, I will get more into the process side of the making of Maelstrom. Maybe I’ll share some deep dark secrets regarding how I was able to finish a page a week!

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